BE THE CHAMP! - Wide Angle Macro
GETTING CLOSE is as much a part of underwater photography as greasing O-rings. The reason it makes such a difference is that shooting through water saps our images of colour, contrast and clarity.
It is why underwater photography is dominated by wide angle and macro. This month I want to discuss a technique that combines the two.
Wide Angle Macro, frequently shortened to WAM, is currently a trendy technique in wildlife photography. However, don’t make the mistake of dismissing it as simply a passing fad with the in-crowd.
This is a powerful tool for underwater photographers, allowing them to bestow A-list celebrity status on smaller species.
WAM is an extreme form of CFWA (Close Focus Wide Angle). The goal is to try to position our wide-angle lens very close (less than 5cm) to a small subject, capturing it at macro-like magnifications while simultaneously setting it against a wide-angle background.
These images place critters in their environment, and the forced perspective makes them jump out of the frame.
Getting close is everything with WAM. The smaller our camera-to-subject distance, the bigger the subject will be recorded and the more dramatic the photo.
This need to work close makes the right subject a crucial ingredient.
Ideally, we want a creature that is in the correct size range (clementine to grapefruit) and completely unconcerned by our presence.
Muck-diving sites usually provide the best opportunities. The ideal subjects are often ambush predators with the confidence that comes of having camouflage or defences.
Few photographic challenges are as frustrating as diving with a WAM set-up when there are no suitable subjects.
I will only dive with a WAM rig when I know that there is a suitable subject at the dive-site!
This is one reason why photographers like to dive the same sites repeatedly, so that we can take the optimum set-up for the critters on offer.
TAKING WAM images is actually very easy. After all, if you can take a snap of a stone, then you should be able to photograph a stonefish.
The challenge is not in framing or focusing, but in lighting. The most common failing in WAM pictures is poor light, where the face of the subject is in shadow and the sides our overlit, preventing the viewer from enjoying our photo to the full.
We should remind ourselves that getting the camera into position is only half the job. We still need to produce a good quality of light once it is there.
Lighting is so challenging in WAM photography that it dictates which camera set-ups are best.
The ideal place for our strobes in WAM photography is directly either side of the lens, as they would be for normal macro photography.
Well, that’s the theory. In practice there is a housing, a dome-port and even the bulky strobes themselves, which all put a limit on how close our lighting can be positioned.
The closer in we can get our lighting, the better the quality of light will be on the subject. So it follows that the smaller our camera, housing, dome port and strobes, the better the illumination.
One of the key messages in WAM photography is that when it comes to cameras, the smaller the better.
This is one realm of underwater photography in which compact and mirrorless get images that full frame SLRs simply can’t.
WHEN I’M SHOOTING WAM, I usually mount my strobes directly to the housing, without strobe arms at all. This makes for a compact rig ideal for getting into tight spaces.
Even in UK conditions, backscatter is not a problem because with such a miniscule camera-to-subject distance there is hardly any water between the camera and the subject.
Most WAM subjects are non-moving animals living on the seabed, so I tend
to set up my strobes either side of the port, but above the horizontal to give even lighting.
The strobes will be pushed in until they touch the housing – the closer the better. I will even remove the housing’s handles (as they are often exactly where the strobe should be) and will barely leave space for my finger to reach the shutter release!
Our strobes should be fitted with diffusers, kept back behind the front of the port and set to low power (two are much better than one for WAM).
The relative powers of the strobes will be the same for shooting horizontals, but you will have to reduce the power of the lower strobe considerably for verticals.
FISHEYES ARE the lens of choice for WAM images. They are by far the best performers behind the small domes needed for this type of photography. Close-focusing models are essential.
The further the lens protrudes from our camera, the more space there is to position the strobes, and the better our lighting.
Compact cameras with accessory fisheye lenses (which stick out from the camera) are excellent options.
A few years ago Inon made a relay fisheye lens, commonly called the bugeye, to provide an even more extreme option for SLR shooters.
This is best thought of as a small fisheye lens at the end of long tube. The small size of the front element (about an inch across), amazing close focus and ease of lighting opens up amazing perspectives.
It is easy to use with fixed focus, moving it backwards and forwards on your left hand like a snooker cue!
The downside of all relay fisheye lenses is that they lack definition. The images cannot be reproduced that large.
However, they do offer very exciting perspectives and I strongly recommend having a go with one yourself, if you’re ever offered the chance. They give WAM images the ultimate impact.
The smaller your camera system, the better the quality of light on your WAM images.
Pare down your rig before a WAM dive, taking off torches, strobe-arm sections and even the handles, so that the lighting can be pulled in close to the lens.
When shooting WAM you will spend more time searching for the right subjects than shooting them. So when you find that precious commodity, make the most of it.
Think about the subject and the background.
Consider adding a teleconverter to your fisheye lens when shooting WAM. This will reduce the angle of coverage, making it easier to fill the frame.
It also pushes the lens out a little further from the camera, making lighting easier.