Tips, tricks and photographic techniques from Liquid Lense’s underwater digital imaging specialists, to help you improve your underwater Macro images.
Macro photography works particularly well underwater, not only because the ocean is filled with fascinating small marine creatures, but also because it is less dependent than other types of underwater photography on the conditions. However good the visibility may appear, the ocean is full of particles that potentially create noise, haze, fuzz or backscatter in your shot, so positioning your lens as close as you can to your subject will help to produce the very best images. Bad visibility rarely affects close-up photographs, as there is significantly less water in the frame. One of the fundamental rules of underwater photography is to get as close as possible to your subject, or, more importantly, to have as little water as possible between your camera lens and your subject.
Underwater Macro Photography is easier than Wide-Angle Photography, so it is a great place to start your journey into the world of underwater photography, whether you have a DSLR or Digital Compact camera.
To get a good Macro shot the following should be taken into consideration:
- Fill the frame with the main subject
- Carefully compose the image, the photograph should be sharply in focus
- If only one thing is in focus, it must be the eyes. Make the eye or eyes the focal point of the photograph, by doing this, people will be drawn to the image
- It is usually best to avoid zooming in underwater photography, however, when you are taking a close-up shot, the amount of water between you and your subject is minimal, so in this case, a little zooming is allowed. For framing tiny creatures, a small amount of zooming helps to fill your frame with the subject
- Look for interesting backgrounds: Some of the loveliest Macro images are to be found where the subject is on something that provides an interesting patterned or textured background, like coral polyps and anemones
- Be creative with Macro photography, by shooting the subject from an unexpected angle. Experiment with different angles
- Macro photography works well when the image has a central point of interest and where that point or subject is composed well within the frame. Choose a simple background, so it doesn’t compete with the main subject
- When taking Macro photographs, especially of moving subjects, be prepared; make sure all your camera settings are correct, because you may only get one chance to get a shot
- Auto focus doesn’t always work well when shooting extreme close-up photographs. If you are having problems focusing, switch to manual focus (if your camera has it) and you’ll get more consistently sharp Macro pictures. Manual focus allows you to manually adjust the focus, until you get your subject sharp
- When shooting Macro photography, using a narrow depth of field is unavoidable. This actually causes a pleasing result, as the background will appear totally out of focus and your main image will be in sharp contrast. Don’t forget to check for anything distracting in the background
- Dive with a local: A good dive guide knows the habits of local marine life and where they are located
- Get close: Think you’re close enough to your subject? As many pros like to say, get even closer
- Watch your buoyancy: When getting close to your subject, you need to have excellent buoyancy skills. Additionally, there needs to be ample room for your port. Breaking corals or disturbing the environment is not an option! Be aware of your surroundings at all times. Keep your body away from the reef
- The more skillful you become as a photographer, you will spend more time with subjects you feel are special, waiting for the right moment and experimenting with your composition
Choosing your Subject
One of the great things about Macro Photography is that you will have no shortage of subjects to capture. Everything from; tiny nudibranchs, small fish, patterns of a coral polyp, textures of soft corals and rare crustaceans, making great subjects. Of course, it is very exciting to locate rare and interesting Macro subjects. It is invaluable to have some knowledge of where to find these creatures. Study the subject you want to photograph and the overall marine life of the particular location, before getting into the water. It is not surprising that the photographers who seem to know the most about the area where they are diving, create the best images. Do not ever harass or threaten a subject, and it goes without saying you must never touch or move anything to get a better photograph. This is completely unprofessional and forbidden.
Type of Camera
You can shoot Macro with a digital compact camera or a DSLR camera (digital single-lens reflex camera). Most digital compact cameras have a Macro mode (designated by the flower symbol), which reconfigures the zoom mechanism in the camera, to allow closer focus. No additional items are needed to shoot Macro with a digital compact camera, these cameras can have remarkable Macro capabilities, but for best results you want a single-lens reflex camera. These allow you to attach special purpose Macro lenses. You will then see in the bright optical viewfinder, what is on the sensor.
Strobes & Lighting
Ideally, you will need to use an external strobe or strobes to light your Macro subject. Strobes increase the amount of light available for taking a photograph. Strobes are balanced for sunlight and so contain a full range of colours, making them ideal to bring back colours lost underwater. A source of light is essential in Macro Photography, because of the small apertures used to produce a good depth of field, when shooting high magnification.
It is possible to light some small Macro subjects with a Digital compact camera’s internal flash, but due to the location of the flash (right above the lens,) backscatter can be an issue. When using an internal flash for close-ups, you may get a shadow from your camera’s lens. An external strobe or zooming in a little, will help get around this problem. Also, an internal flash is not powerful enough for underwater photography. The average compact camera may have a built in flash that can be used on land, up to 10m from the subject, but underwater it can only be used up to 3m from the subject. Remember, water absorbs light much quicker than air, so try to get as close as possible to your subject.
The addition of external strobes will greatly increase the image quality. It is possible to light many small Macro subjects with just one external strobe, this will easily cover the full frame. If you are shooting from the side, a single strobe throws black shadows on the opposite side to the light. You can produce beautiful Macro photographs with one strobe. When shooting Macro, always use a diffuser on the strobe, this will cause the light source to be larger, and the illumination will be even, with far less contrast and softer shadows. A diffuser will soften the light. You can eliminate these shadows by using two strobes.
Dual Strobe Use: Two strobes are always a better option, because they will give you more lighting options and more ways to reduce backscatter. Using two strobes gives more control and increased power, which allows you to use the smallest aperture for the best depth of field. It can be fun experimenting with your strobes to see how they affect the image. A good strobe position to start with is your left strobe at ‘ten to’ the hour and the right strobe at ‘ten past’ the hour. This will generally result in a pleasing image. Using a second strobe can create a more balanced image. Some underwater photographers shoot Macro with two strobes on different power settings. This allows for shadows, to show depth in the photograph, but not the extreme shadows that just one strobe would produce. The second strobe is referred to as a “fill strobe”. There are different ways to get your two strobes to fire at different power settings:
- Use two different strobes
- Position one strobe closer to the subject
- Use a diffuser on one strobe
- Use your strobes on manual power (instead of TTL) and put them on different power settings
There are many ways you can make your Macro image more compelling. Experiment with your strobe positioning and with the strobe’s power.
- Front light your subject: Use front lighting to emphasize colour and vibrancy. Shadows will be less pronounced as they fall behind the subject. Details of the subject are emphasized less. This is the easiest type of light to shoot and expose. The internal flash of a compact camera, and a ring flash both produce front lighting. You can also pull in your strobes right against your camera housing, or even better, your port
- Side light your subject: Lighting from the side creates texture and dimension to an image, it emphasizes certain features and enhances the shape of the subject. Deep shadows and high contrast can be produced
- Top light your subject: Creates the effect of lighting in one direction, preventing the illumination of parts of the foreground, that you may wish to leave unlit. Many photographers like to mimic the sun, by lighting from the top and for single strobe users, this is an acceptable way to light the subject
- Backlight your subject: Lighting from behind the subject creates a dramatic and unique effect of glowing edges around a silhouetted subject, or it can make translucent subjects appear to glow from within. It emphasizes shape and form, and produces bright highlights. This can be a very creative way to photograph marine life, especially those with interesting shapes. It may require removing a strobe from the mount to position it directly behind the subject. It is also a good idea to have some help from your dive buddy! The sun also works as an effective backlight, combined with a strobe, you can capture stunning Sunburst images. Without a strobe, you can achieve striking Silhouette images
With a DSLR camera, a Macro lens and appropriate flat port will be needed. Most brands have Macro lenses that range from 50mm to 200mm. When choosing which lens is right for you, you will have to consider what focal length you require for your working distance and angle of view, i.e. how far you can be from the subject and still have it life size. The longer the focal length of the lens, the greater the working distance. Therefore, a lens with a greater focal length will allow you to shoot subjects life-size, from greater distances.
A 60mm lens is the most popular choice for people who are beginning underwater photography.
- You can focus very close to the subject, but you have to be very close to achieve maximum magnification
- The 60mm has a wider angle of view, so you can capture larger subjects at closer distances.
- It is a versatile lens
- Suitable for all Macro subjects
- It is good in lower visibility and on night dives, because of the better auto-focus
- Best for shots where you want to get a little of the background in the photo
- It is good for getting nudibranchs in their environment
- It can take photos of larger fish
- The 60 mm is considerably easier to focus and can be much less frustrating for beginners
Experienced divers tend to use a 100/105mm lens for Macro. It comes down to your shooting style. Everyone has subjects and composition styles they prefer. They are usually shooting the same subjects, but getting different compositions.
- These lenses are for more dramatic compositions, such as close-ups, isolating the subject, or getting low
- Better for fast moving subjects that you may not be able to get close to such as; small fish, gobies, mantis shrimp
- Increased working distance makes it much easier to shoot subjects that are in rocky terrains
- Longer focal length which making it easier to get a quality blurred background. Photographers often try to get a blurred background in order to isolate the subject
- Better for artistic shots, where the view will be more compressed, giving the photo a 2 dimensional look
- Best in clearer water. In very dark or low-vis water, it can be difficult to focus
- Allows you keep your distance
- You may not be able to fit a larger subject in the frame, without getting so far away that your strobes can’t light the subject properly
- If you are not an experienced photographer, the 100mm/105mm lens can be difficult to focus
- Consider these lenses, if you know that shooting small subject is for you. You can learn to focus with it
Subject, Position & Composition
Try to get low, and evaluate different compositions, such as; head on, fill the frame, diagonal, shoot from underneath. Filling the frame with your subject; it should be obvious to the viewer what the subject of focus is. Give the subject more room at the front of the photograph, than at the back. Sometimes, the best composition can take a lot of work. Experiment with different compositions. If using Macro Lenses, take advantage of the close focusing ability of your lenses and get as close as possible to your subject. Even in the worst conditions, Macro lenses will enable you to get close enough so that particles will not be a problem. You will need to make sure the strobes are positioned correctly, away from your lens.
Create Contrast Between Foreground and Background
Pay attention to your choice of background. Most subjects work better against a contrasting backdrop, which will allow them to stand out. Think about what colour you want your background to be. Do you want it in focus or blurred? Often the background can become an issue in Macro Photography. Distracting pieces of reef, rubble, or soft coral can get in the frame. This creates unsightly clutter in the image that detracts from its impact. When shooting Macro, the depth of field is very small, so as long as whatever is in the background is beyond the depth of field, it will be blurry. If, for instance, the background is a coloured sponge or coral that fills the frame, it can make a nice blurred coloured background. Many Macro photographers try to eliminate a noisy background by positioning themselves at a specific angle, where the subject only has open water behind it in the frame. By positioning yourself below the subject and shooting up, you give yourself a better chance of only having open water in the background. Chances are you have seen many Macro shots with solid black or blue backgrounds. This is a great technique for creating contrast between the subject and the background. You can also solve the cluttered background issue with some of the creative lighting techniques described earlier; side lighting, or top lighting, which can help isolate the subject from the background.
Camera Settings: Aperture/F-stops and Shutter Speeds.
Aperture – the size of the opening made by the shutter. The larger the opening, the more light that passes through. Aperture is measured in f-stops, the larger the aperture the smaller the f-stop and the larger the opening in the lens. The higher the f-stop the greater the range of focus in the photograph.
Shutter speed – the length of time the shutter is open, allowing light to pass onto the sensor. The longer it is open, the more light passes through. Shutter speed is measured in fractions of a second. The larger the fraction, the longer the shutter will be open for. Quicker Shutter speeds allow you to capture fast moving subjects sharply. Slower Shutter speeds allow you to photograph in lower light conditions, but if the subject is moving the result of the image will be blurred.
For a darkened or black background, it is not difficult, as long as there is open water behind the subject. To create the effect, use a small aperture to minimize the amount of light reaching the sensor (high F-stop, F 8 plus) and fast shutter speeds (1/320th plus) and light the subject with a strobe. You will notice that if you don’t use strobes at these settings, the entire image will be black. This method is used with great success for highlighting a subject because, combined with a fast shutter speed and small aperture, cluttered, distracting backgrounds can be minimized. Note that your histogram will indicate you have an underexposed image, but that is desirable in this case. If you require a set aperture, use the shutter speed and ISO to control the ambient light.
For a blue background (assuming the water is coloured blue and is clear,) use a larger to medium aperture (low to medium F-stop, F 4 – F 5.6) and slower shutter speeds (1/100th). You may want to use your strobe as a fill light, or to illuminate your subject.
Depth of field
Depth of field (DOF) is the distance between the nearest and farthest objects in a scene, that appear acceptably sharp in an image. In some cases, it may be desirable to have the entire image sharp, and a large DOF is appropriate. In other cases, a small DOF may be more effective, emphasising the subject while de-emphasising the foreground and background.
How much DOF do I need, or want, for the composition that I have chosen? Do I want to blur the background? Is the ambient light so strong that I need a small aperture to help block it out? (This is common in clear, shallow water at mid-day.) All these factors will help determine the proper aperture/f-stop to use for the shot. Remember, there is no best f-stop for Macro photography. A large aperture (small f-stop) will blur the background, and a small aperture (large f-stop) will bring more of the background into focus. Beginner photographers often start out trying to get the entire subject and background in focus. Compact cameras, which have a large depth of field because of their smaller sensors, are very good at this.
This is an exciting style of photography and at Liquid Lense it is one of our favourites. There is a beautiful ‘Macro’ world out there, be adventurous, go for it! Good luck.