Be the champ! Macro
IT IS OFTEN SAID that photography differs from other visual arts because it is a process of subtraction, rather than addition.
A painter starts with a blank canvas and introduces only what is wanted; what is needed to complete the vision.
An underwater photographer, particularly on a coral reef, has the opposite problem. Wherever we point our camera, we are faced with a jumbled canvas of shapes, colours and characters. To create graphically powerful pictures, our job is to simplify.
When it comes to underwater macro photography, a winning picture is determined as much by what we exclude from the frame, as what is in it.
Just about every underwater photography competition has a macro category, and it is usually the most fiercely fought.
MACRO IS PROBABLY the easiest branch of underwater photography from a technical standpoint. Autofocus and TTL flash exposures give it a point and shoot simplicity, and new photographers are typically advised to start here.
So with everyone getting good shots, it is much harder to stand out.
In a macro contest, we can take it as read that everyone will have entered a great subject. Where we can differentiate our pictures is with the rest of the frame.
Photographers often refer to everything else in the picture that is not the subject as “negative space”.
I prefer the term “positive space”, as this communicates its importance in enhancing the subject, telling more of the story and completing the image.
When we start photography, particularly under water where all pressures are intensified, we tend
to think only of subjects. We have enough to think about, and it is understandable that we leave our backgrounds entirely to chance.
We’ll get some good shots, but our macro hit rate will sky-rocket when we start to consider properly the rest of the frame. Many of the most successful macro photographers put so much emphasis on this that they typically search for backgrounds first, and then hunt for a subject!
While backgrounds are essential for success, they must know their place: they are there to play the supporting-actor role. When they clamour for too much attention, they pull our eye from the main subject and lessen the overall impact of the shot.
THE SAFE OPTION is the classic black background. Finding this background all comes down to angles.
We need to spot a subject posing in a prominent position so that we can frame it against open water. This is easy if the subject is free swimming, but more of a challenge with many prized critters that live on the seabed.
Ironically, many of these species attract photographers because their sedentary lifestyle makes them easy to frame and focus! But unless we can get a good background, they won’t make a great photo.
Our background search means looking for a critter perched on a rock or sticking out from the reef wall, so that we can frame it against open water.
A black background is easily achieved with a fast shutter speed and small aperture, as long as we’re not in very bright, shallow water or framing directly at the bright surface.
This is probably easier with SLRs than with compacts, because the aperture can be stopped down more – although compact cameras can be used with flash at higher shutter speeds to ensure that the back is black.
Black backgrounds are powerful, but can be overused and lead your friends to ask if all your photos are from night dives. We can produce blue or green backgrounds with the same framing against open water, by simply allowing the ambient light into our picture with a longer exposure and/or a more open aperture.
Blues give images a more realistic atmosphere, and look particularly good with red, yellow or orange subjects.
In murky green water, allowing a green background to come into the photo will also help to hide backscatter, which is shown up mercilessly on black, like dandruff on a dinner jacket!
Framing against open water wins on simplicity. It is the easiest approach for making macro order from reef chaos, and should be our default close-up philosophy. But as our standard setting, it is not the most exciting option.
An attractive background will trump black or blue, as long as it complements and doesn’t compete with the subject.
Quality macro backgrounds come in the form of attractive patterns (giant clam mantle, starfish and sea cucumber skin), geometrically repeating patterns (crinoid arms, anemone tentacles) and strongly coloured subjects (sponges, anemone skirts).
WHEN WE CAN FRAME a subject on a pleasing pattern, it is usually best to keep both subject and background reasonably in focus, by using a small aperture and keeping the camera relatively parallel to the scene. Try placing the subject off-centre to emphasise the scene and not just the subject.
Geometric patterns are less critical and work just as well out of focus, as long as their shapes are still clearly discernible.
Strongly coloured backgrounds can often be the most effective, but they work much better when they are completely out of focus. Sponges are the classic example. Whenever we find an attractively coloured sponge, we should start to search for a subject to frame against it.
Then, we should open up our aperture much more than normal to throw the background out of focus, to frame the beastie against a blurred, and therefore non-distracting, colourful backdrop.
Very high magnification shots, commonly called super-macro, have minimal depth of field, and this makes it even easier to blur the background, although the effect works only when we nail the focus on the eyes of our critter.
At high magnifications, we can even frame the subject against itself and the natural blur.
This will transform the out-of-focus parts of the creature into a ready-made colourful background.
Eye contact is critical in any portrait. Even when the subject doesn’t have eyes, like a nudibranch, we still need to get down to “eye” level so that the viewer can connect with it.
Even moving the camera by 5cm can make a huge difference. If you have to ask if a photo has eye contact, it hasn’t got it. Eye contact jumps straight out from the photo and makes it impossible to ignore.
In underwater photography we’re always told to get closer and then get closer. But in macro, we can get too close. Rather than completely filling the frame with the subject, instead focus on composing the frame with a pleasing shape and position of the subject. Give it space to breathe in your compositions. Allow the positive space of the picture to complement the subject.
Legendary French photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson was the master of capturing the decisive moment – a single image that tells an entire story and leaves the viewer in no doubt as to why that moment has been preserved in a photo. Even simple gestures can transform a photo from ordinary to extraordinary and we should always try to capture the peak of the action.
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