Close-up photography under water does not pose any great technical difficulties. Thanks to TTL (through the lens), measuring exposure is as easy as pie, and all those techniques learned, tried and proven on dry land apply under water.
The macro range as defined here extends from a reproduction ratio of 1:3 to 1:1. At 1:3 the exposure on the film is three times smaller than the original subject, while at 1:1 it exactly matches the originals.
To take pictures in the macro range we use specialised lenses, housed behind a flat port of matching length. Usually macro lenses can focus continually from infinity down to their maximum reproduction ratio.
Alternatively, a standard (approx 50mm) lens can be used in conjunction with distance rings. These cannot be removed during a dive, however, so they restrict the lens to a certain focus range close-up.
Your classic macro lens offering maximum focal range would be 50-60mm in focal length. Focal lengths of 100/105mm or 180/200mm dont result in a larger reproduction ratio but in a greater distance to the subject. This can be a distinct advantage, even prerequisite, when stalking flighty fish.
Distinctions between extreme close-up photography and other techniques include the fact that the long extension seen in macro lenses increases the distance to the film, which in turn reduces light transmission drastically.
Owners of TTL strobes have an advantage here, in that they dont have to calculate a compensation factor. The sensor, located directly in front of the film plate, registers the loss of light and compensates for it automatically.
A manual approach to macro photography makes far less sense. Anyone keen enough to try it will have to allow for loss of light and work out how to compensate for it.
Focus can also be a problem in close-up photography, with the depth of the focal plane dropping away exponentially as the photographer enters the macro range. Focusing manually to place the few millimetres of focus at the right distance can be challenging and results in many close misses, especially when light conditions are low.
Again, experience shows that the budding underwater macro-photographer will do well to rely on auto-focus, which is much faster and more precise than any eye.
Put your camera on servo-autofocus (position S) in this mode and you can make sure that the selected point stays sharp while you compose the frame, wait for the right moment and release the shutter.
If necessary, small adjustments can be made by moving the camera forward or back.
Compensation for short focal depth is also why we stop down the aperture of our macro lenses as far as possible. Macro lenses from all the big suppliers allow stopping-down to f32. Combine this with the loss of light caused by increased distance between lens elements and film plate, and it becomes obvious that we need a lot of light to expose the film accurately.
Short object distance compensates for this to some extent, and using a 100ASA film with a 50/60mm lens is feasible with a flash of guide factor 11.
At 100mm/105mm, light output needs to be doubled, and this is best done using two macro-strobes, while longer focal lengths require a third flash unit.
The same applies for the use of those converters that double the focal length of a standard lens for reproduction ratios up to 2:1.
In the field, it is far better to use two or three smaller macro-strobes than an industrial-strength single unit. Dedicated macro-strobes come with the appropriate colour temperature of 5600K for accurate colour reproduction and are much easier to handle and position. Wide-angle flashes are built for greater distances and come with lower Kelvin values, which leads to orange/red hues.
The classic approach to macro lighting is full frontal. The flash is mounted right above the camera, a position that assures perfect lighting for most situations.
In some cases a combination of frontal and side-lighting can be used to emphasise certain features. Side-lighting, for instance, can accentuate the gills of a nudibranch, or frontal and top-lighting can serve to bring out the spines of a stonefish. To make positioning easy, the flash units need to be small and mounted on short, double-jointed arms.
As important as lighting is the isolation of the main subject. Macro photos that make the onlooker search for the main feature are usually boring, so it is important to emphasise the main feature by setting it apart from foreground and background.
A keen eye can help when locating the single anemone in a reef that is perfectly framed by blue water (to keep it blue, shoot up toward the surfaces and use long exposures, 1/15 to 1/8).
Even when shooting close-ups, environmentally conscious underwater photographers avoid any contact with reef or rock. Two fingertips placed on a dead bit of coral should be all it takes to brace for camera positioning while the diver rests suspended in the water. Good diving skills and fitness are therefore a prerequisite.
Good behaviour on the reef not only benefits the environment but makes you popular with the dive guides. Remember, they all have their special places away from the beaten track through the reef - places to which they only take divers they trust...
Very important is the isolation of the main subject, which should be recognised in a second! It can be achieved easily by shooting the subject against the water or a faraway background. Firing the flash from the top can also help to keep the background in the dark.
In no other underwater photography technique is playing with light as important as it is with macro. One flash above the camera fits most situations but two will change the picture dramatically. Using a Sea&Sea YS-30 strobe which works in TTL mode without a cable, the strobe can be fired from any direction the photographer wants or the subject needs.
Due to the very small depth of field, which decreases dramatically the closer you go, you should always set the lens on aperture 22, or if possible 32. Remember that macro lenses swallow light! Make sure that your flash is strong enough, or choose 100ASA film rather 50ASA.
Macro photographers may never cover more than 50m during a dive. Their subjects have to be observed by searching a small area centimetre by centimetre. A small torch helps for all those who require reading-glasses and its not a bad idea to have a mask prepared with torch attached.
Your camera set-up has to be handy. Complete with one or two flashes, it should lie in your hands balanced and weightless. This will allow you to hover comfortably for as long you need in the same spot, waiting for that little goby to open its mouth.
Patience is the requirement when waiting for that snail to arrive in the perfect spot - and if youre a serious photographer, you wont cheat and place slow-moving animals where you want them by hand!
Proper buoyancy, well-fitting dive gear and exact weights are prerequisites for successful macro photos, allowing you to hover comfortably. Good diving skills and fitness bring benefits in any situation.
Owners of amphibious cameras such as those from Nikonos or Motormarine must use macroframes, because it is not possible to estimate distances to the centimetre to gain the required sharpness. If you can unscrew one or, after gaining enough experience, even both of the frames sidebars, this will help you to approach subjects more easily.
In contrast to super-wide-angle photography, where manual exposure brings better results, with macro its TTL that is the key to success. Everything fits perfectly with this electronic device, with short distances and small picture angles. It doesnt matter how many flashes you use, all the shots will be properly exposed.
Using a modern SLR camera, auto-focus can be used in 95% of all underwater photo situations - especially macro, Set the camera on servo autofocus; let it focus on the subject; hold the focus by keeping the shutter halfway down or using the AFL key; compose the picture and take it.
To achieve a blue background - rare to see in macro - look for subjects such as this wire-coral, which can be photographed against the surface. Don't change the recommended smallest aperture of 22 or 32, but bracket with long shutter speeds from 1/15sec to 1sec. Diagonal placing of subjects is usually the key to composition.
Macro photography is the tool that lets you be creative. Lines, patterns and structures are perfect for composing pictures in the way you want. Due to the small depth of field in macro you have to set the focus point properly and, of course, always use aperture 22, even better 32. Working on a flat level subject, hold the camera parallel. On slightly curved or arched subjects, set the focus on the first third.
Long focal lengths of 100-200mm result in a greater distance to the subjects, a prerequisite for catching special animal behaviour, like this Maldives coral grouper using the services of a cleaner shrimp. Long focal lenses are great tools but they do swallow a lot of light! To work with the recommended aperture of 22 or 32, two strobes with guide numbers 16 are necessary for 100ASA!
Reef-art can be achieved by using long focal lengths from 100-200mm and cutting out sections of fishes. This image shows the gill-split and the side-fin of a tropical parrotfish. Note the way in which the subject is composed in the frame. It is based on a diagonal base which splits the picture in three parts and gives it graphic expression.
This rare red fire-coral is found only in the northern Maldives. In the top shot only one strobe was used. The colours are good and against the black background the subject appears nice and contrasty.
In the second picture a small slave strobe was used halfway between back and top. The subject is less flat and the second light source sharpens edges and shows detail.
A macro photography subject can be spectacular and hard to find but it can also be a simple creature which the photographer doesnt have to swim miles to find, such as this Polynesian sea urchin. Adapt your eyesight to short distance and be thorough in investigating a single rock or coral head. Most of the time you will find more subjects than your film can capture.
Isolating subject from background is a must. If you can, shoot against the water or a monochrome background. This picture of a Mediterranean nudibranch was taken with a Nikonos V and an extension ring at 1:1, aperture 22, 1/30 sec. Waiting for a subject to move, or creeping into place with the camera slightly below it, requires patience.
No other technique in underwater photography gives more possibility for playing with light than macro. This picture show the embryo of a Mediterranean cat shark.
The female of this species is among the few sharks to place her eggs on gorgonian corals. Here they remain unattended until the baby shark hatches out. To make the baby shark visible, the slave strobe was placed behind the egg