Be the champ! - Super-macro 2
I AM ALWAYS PLEASED when an experienced diver, like an instructor, tells me that he or she wants to take up underwater photography. Any diver with top-drawer diving skills has such a headstart when it comes to producing good-quality underwater images.
Perhaps the biggest benefit is to the marine environment. A diver who is both fully in control and spatially aware of his or her extremities is not going to risk damaging delicate creatures, such as corals, when absorbed in photography.
But being good in the water also has big positives for our images.
Unlike land photography, where tripods are a mainstay in landscape and wildlife disciplines, underwater photographers must rely on their own stability.
Fortunately, good buoyancy control makes it relatively easy to dampen camera movement.
The ability to stay stock-still becomes particularly crucial when shooting tiny subjects. It helps in just about every area of super macro, allowing us to frame our images precisely and, perhaps even more importantly, as magnification goes up, to find them in the viewfinder and accurately focus on them.
When we shoot super macro we’re working with a depth of field that’s little thicker than the cover of DIVER, and if we move the housing handles side to side by just a couple of millimetres the subject matter will race across our viewfinder or LCD screen as if it’s on fast-forward.
As soon as you try super macro, it is obvious why being good in the water is so fundamental to success.
LAST MONTH WE COVERED the equipment side of super macro photography, and I apologise for leaving you for 30 days with all the gear and no idea.
I hope this month’s column redresses the balance, as it’s filled with real-world advice on how to become “champion” of this challenging genre.
I have already stressed the importance of stability, but this should not be achieved at all costs.
Sadly, I still see the occasional photographer who cares more for photos than for the marine environment, and will happily lie all over marine life to remain stationary to get them. This is both unacceptable and unnecessary.
With the correct technique, we can get the shots without risking the reef. From a photographic point of view, we should remember that what matters is holding the camera still. Achieve this and we can let our body float up, away from damaging delicate life.
As a result, when going super I like my camera to be a little negatively buoyant, so that it holds my head down and allows my legs to pivot up.
Four times out of five we want to steady ourselves by holding onto something when shooting super macro. We should look for a small dead area of the reef on the right-hand side of the subject, and hold this with a finger and thumb of our left hand.
Our forearm will now be across our body and will provide a perfect support for the port of the housing.
We can now make very controlled, small movements of the rig to get that perfect composition and focus. It also shows why it is so important to have a housing where all the important settings can be easily controlled with just the right hand.
There won’t always be a perfect hand-hold near every subject, and super macro photographers must be prepared to turn down subjects if we can’t shoot them without risking the reef.
We can also make our lives much easier by looking for subjects at the edge of the reef, where we’re able to settle down on the sand and shoot.
IT SOUNDS SILLY until you try it, but one of the biggest challenges in super macro can be finding the subject with the camera.
I find that the best solution is to hold the camera securely, as above, and then aim it by looking over the lens, to make sure it is lined up pointing at the subject before putting our eye to the viewfinder.
Another option is to start at a lower magnification, find the subject, and then move in gradually, refocusing as we get closer and closer.
Sometimes we’ll lose the subject completely. In this instance, I’ll focus on something bright that I can see through the viewfinder, look up over the camera to see where it is relative to the subject, and then track in the correct direction to find the subject.
In all cases, being able to hold the housing still is a huge benefit.
And if all else fails, ask the dive guide to point at the subject, find the pointer and follow it back to the subject!
AT HIGH MAGNIFICATIONS, focus becomes critical for success, and whichever focus method you choose for super macro, definitely take a handful of photos of each subject to ensure that at least one is pin-sharp.
When I am floating, unable to hold onto anything, I will use continuous autofocus, because it will compensate both for movements in the subject and also for my own movements.
However, as magnifications increase
I prefer more manual control. My preferred method is often called “back button focus”, where through the camera’s menus we stop the shutter release activating autofocus and set it to another button on the camera.
This means we can take pictures and the camera focuses only when we tell it.
I use the autofocus to quickly focus approximately on the subject at the size I want it in the frame, and then do my focus fine-tuning not with the autofocus, but by rocking the camera in and out, a minute amount.
When the housing is securely braced on my forearm, I can control this movement over fractions of millimetres, even when my legs are billowing up in the current, safely away from the reef.
Super macro puts depth of field at a premium, so select as small an aperture (high f-stop) as possible to maximise what is in focus.
As soon as we drop back to standard macro magnifications, think about opening up the aperture for more subject separation.
Benign diving conditions are usually the best for super macro, because they make it that much easier to keep the camera still.
When you know that you are likely to get strong currents, and particularly surge, going super can be counter-productive.
At very high magnifications, it can be hard for our camera to focus as it looks through multiple accessory lenses.
Make sure that focus priority release is turned off – that’s where the camera will take a shot only when it knows it is in focus. Sometimes we can see that the subject is in focus, but the camera isn’t sure, so won’t fire.