Be the champ! - Super-Macro
WHAT ARE YOU SHOOTING on this dive Macro or wide-angle” It’s a common pre-dive discussion between photographers.
And there is no better way to trump your buddies than by telling everyone you are doing super macro.
Just as supercars trounce family hatchbacks, and Superman is rather more impressive than you and I (but probably not Monty), surely super macro is always best
We define macro as close-up photos taken of subjects from about the size of a page of DIVER down to the size of a frame of 35mm film.
Super-macro takes over beyond this limit, where the real size of your subject matter is smaller than the hole in the middle of an old slide mount!
This month I want to focus mainly on the gear needed to achieve super macro images, and next month we’ll discuss the shooting techniques for lighting, framing and focusing.
PLENTY OF POSITIVES come from the extra magnification of super-macro. The technique opens up a whole host of new underwater subjects. Even your local, most regularly visited dive-site is transformed into a menagerie of weird and wonderful subjects.
Super-macro also has the power to transform mundane subjects into unrecognisable, exotic, abstract art.
Furthermore, much of the diversity of the underwater world is at this microscopic scale, with many of the ocean’s most fascinating species, from pygmy seahorses to skeleton shrimps, ideally suited to these techniques.
Going super also gives us permission to buy new gear to achieve these super-close-up views of our subjects.
And all underwater photographers love an excuse to invest in the latest toys! Actually, make that all divers!
But, and yes, there is a but, many photographers get so caught up chasing greater and greater subject magnification that this becomes their sole focus.
And this is often at the expense of producing an aesthetically pleasing image. It is a photographic case of not being able to see the wood for the trees.
The take-home message is that super macro has its place in underwater photography, but good old standard macro remains just as important in the quest for great images.
To join the super-macro club we need to add an accessory or two to our standard macro lens.
The most popular option is a wet close-up lens, also know as an external dioptre, which can be thought of as a waterproof magnifying glass that we can screw or clip on and off the front of our camera’s port.
External dioptres simply allow our lens to focus closer, enabling us to get nearer to the subject and therefore record it larger in the frame.
For this reason they are best suited to subjects that are not going to run away and will let you get very close.
They are also best suited to longer focal-length macro lenses (for example 105mm), as wider macro lenses (60mm) often already allow us to focus very close, and therefore there is not a big advantage in adding a wet dioptre.
A big positive of external dioptres is that they can be taken on and off during a dive, so you can alternate between normal and super macro. There are lots of brands of “wet lenses” on the market and they do vary in optical quality.
In most cases you do get what you pay for, and the brands I use most regularly are Subsee and FIT. Lenses with curved surfaces will lose some of their power under water, though this is not necessarily a bad thing.
Most people tend to start by buying the strongest dioptre they can, but actually the weaker lenses (+2 to +5) are much more versatile. I strongly recommend starting with the weaker lenses and building up to the powerful ones, which can be tricky to master.
The downside of dioptres is that they will no longer allow our lenses to focus on more distant subjects.
Often this isn’t important under water, as we should always try to be as close as possible when we shoot, and with weaker dioptres the distant subjects we can’t focus on we shouldn’t be taking anyway.
OTHER OPTIONS start with much less expensive non-waterproof dioptres, which we attach to our lens inside the housing for the entire dive.
The downside is that we’re committed, but in reality this is rarely a drawback as more distant subjects don’t often make for great photos.
Although more expensive than simple close-up lenses, I suggest buying a dual-element, achromatic-type dioptre, which will give much better results right to the corners of your frame. And they remain significantly cheaper than wet lenses.
Cheaper still are extension tubes, which fit between your camera and lens and, like dioptres, allow the lens to focus closer, making the subject bigger in the frame.
They do however have the same restrictions as internal dioptres, stopping the lens from focusing on distant subjects.
Since the demise of the Nikonos V, extension tubes have not been popular for underwater photography, but they work very well.
It is best to buy ones that allow your lenses to communicate electronically with the camera and therefore still autofocus and so on.
With my 105mm lens, I find that a 20mm extension tube gives me the same magnification as a FIT +5 dioptre and a 36mm tube is somewhere between the Subsee +5 and +10 wet lenses. They cost a fraction of the price.
An extreme technique is to use a reversed lens, coupled to the front of your macro lens. In many ways you can think of a reversed lens as an extra-strong and high-quality dioptre.
The wider the angle of the lens you reverse, the more magnification you will get. The downside of this technique is that the focus ends up very close to the port, making it very restrictive.
Our final option is a teleconverter, which can be very useful, particularly because it works in a different way, giving our lens more power and showing a tighter view of the subject without the need to move closer.
The downsides in this case are that focus and framing are a bit harder than with dioptres.
Teleconverters are useful for shy subjects and, in conjunction with the other techniques mentioned above, allow very high magnifications without ending up with the subject right on the port, which can scare it and make it hard to light.
Next month we’ll talk about getting the shots.
Most people find their first super-macro dives frustrating because focusing and framing subjects is far more challenging than normal. With an SLR even finding the subject is tough. If you have a guide, ask him to point at the critter, and follow his metal pointer to the subject.
Dioptres and teleconverters definitely make it harder for our lenses to focus. A good focus light that produces a wide soft beam of illumination can really help.
Also, a good external viewfinder can make a big difference for SLR shooters working at high magnification.
As subject magnification increases, so depth of field shrinks. In super-macro it is often paper thin, so we need to think about our composition, often keeping the subject parallel to the lens to get more of it in focus.