Chances are that as a diver, you have seen some amazing pictures of beautiful nudibranchs, seahorses and such. Unlike other amazing pictures of sharks and manta rays, taking pictures of tiny critters does take some unique equipment and practice; but once you have the hang of it, the world of macro photography offers limitless possibilities.
Macro photography is simply the art of taking pictures of small subjects, whereby the camera is very close to the subject and the resulting image is larger than the actual subject in real life. Simply put, it is producing images that are greater in scale than 1:1.
Once you delve into the world of macro photography, you will discover many possibilities – but before discussing the finer points of shooting images with a macro lens, let’s look at what can be done without a lens.
Before you begin to buy lenses, dioptres and other specialized macro photography equipment, you can get a head start by just using your camera in its housing. Most modern cameras have a macro mode which you can use to get some great results. The key components of macro photography without a lens is to get as close as possible to your subject, choose the macro mode, zoom and stay as still as possible to capture your shot. Whilst a camera only setup is a great place to start and you will be able to start developing your skills, eventually you will need to move up to a lens setup. This is because the inbuilt lens in the camera will have its limitations.
We highly recommend the Olympus TG series to start underwater photography, the macro and super macro mode without lens is great.
As discussed previously, macro photography is the art of taking pictures of small subjects from very close ranges. However, when the subject becomes small than a couple of centimeters, you have to move from macro photography into the realms of super macro. Try to think of this in terms of microscopes; to look at a normal cell, you can use a standard laboratory microscope; however, once you want to look into the cell itself you need an electron microscope that offers significant magnification.
Generally, macro photography covers subjects from 1-10 cm for whole subjects but can also be a detail macro shot of much bigger subjects. Think of the ubiquitous chromodorid nudibranchs ( as the most common macro subject encountered by divers in tropical seas. On the other hand, you can take a great macro shot of the eye detail of a sleepy parrot fish or a friendly wrasse, or even capture the stunning details of a lobster’s eye.
Once the subject is less than 1 cm, you are truly ensconced in the realms of super macro photography. To fully understand this, just consider the magnificent “Shaun the sheep” Costasiella kuro nudibranch. This tiny critter maxes out at a miniscule 5 mm and when seen with the naked eye on a dive, is no more than a tiny whitish speck. However, view it through a super macro lens, and your view finder explodes with green colours and the finest of details, and you are presented with a stunning beautiful animal.
Ultimately, using artificial lighting in macro photography is a must. Due to the depth and more frequently the fact that most tiny critters tend to be slightly tucked away under outcroppings or other slightly sheltered positions, they are not very well lit up. Using strobes and snoots will become a must. The key to using strobes for macro is getting the correct angle and setup, since pointing the strobes directly at the subject will result in horribly over-lit and bleached out pictures. Care must be taken to point the strobe(s) sufficiently away from the subject so that it lights it up sufficiently without over-exposing it.
Composition rules for large scale photos still apply to macro photography. In the same vein that a picture of a fish tail first is not really a great composition and won’t win any awards, a picture of a colourful nudibranch rear, with the rhinophores and gills barely visible is also not great. Photos should be either head on to the subject or slightly off to one side, always focusing on the eyes to get them sharp, even if you use a narrow depth of field.
You can also find plenty of tips on Dive Photo Guide