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Underwater Super Macro Photography
by Iyad Suleyman
March 18, 2015
Most photographers would agree that super macro photography means the production of photos with reproduction ratios greater than 1:1. Therefore super macro photography leads us to the mysterious world of hidden beauty. Without special equipment our eyes can’t see it.
Generally, in order to achieve these levels of magnification we need to use a ‘normal’ macro lens with one or more additional specialized tools like dry diopter, wet diopter, teleconverter or extension tube.
60mm for Canon or Nikon and 100mm for Canon (105 mm for Nikon) – these are basic macro lenses, they used often and they work well for macro photography. But for super macro photography 100 mm Canon (105 mm Nikon) macro lens works better. It allows us to keep the distance and provides more space for stacking diopters.
60 mm macro lens combined with wet diopters is also used, but the focus distance will be extremely short. The 60mm lens has a small working distance, which means we will be fairly close to the glass of wet diopter when shooting small subjects. We can use it with static, slow or not shy subjects (f.e.: tiny nudibranch, skeleton shrimp etc.), but for shy or moving subjects (like tiny fish, pygmy seahorse) is better to use 100mm with wet diopters.
Let’s move on to the additional specialized tools. As I mentioned earlier, these tools are: dry diopters, wet diopters, teleconverters and extension tubes. I tried all of them and my choice is using wet diopters for super macro photography. There are some disadvantages while using other tools, which I prefer to avoid, namely:
The disadvantage of "dry" diopters is that the diopter must be used for the entire dive. It’s not possible to add or to change the diopter underwater. The lens will no longer focus at longer distances.
Con of teleconverter is loss of light, therefore slightly dimmer viewfinder. The camera can’t focus quickly.
The extension tubes will make our port needs much longer, and we have to deal with loss of light again, so I don’t recommend it.
I recommend a wet diopter (or combination of two) for super macro photography. Wet diopters that can be placed over a port, will allow for increased magnification by reducing the minimum working distance. A big advantage of a wet diopter is that it can be added and removed during the dive. It gives us more flexibility. Please note, when using a wet diopter, the camera lens should be as close as possible to the port, to reduce the distance between the camera lens and the wet diopter.
There are several ways to attach a wet lens to the camera, include a bayonet mount, which simply rotates and locks on, a "quick adapt" mount that snaps on in one motion. But I prefer screw mount, which must be screwed on the port. The distance between the port and wet lens is short in this case. That gives more sharpness and details on the picture. 1 cm (0,4 inches) or even 0.5 cm (0,2 inches) can make a big difference by focusing and can affect the sharpness. That’s why I don’t recommend a bayonet mount. The best choice is a screw mount.
But we should be careful with air bubbles, which can appear by screwing on the wet lens above water. These small bubbles can be invisible for our eyes, but they can disturb by focusing. To avoid it, each time screw on a wet lens underwater.
Nowadays there is a big choice of wet diopters. I use different brands: SubSee +5, +10, Epoque DML 2, Inon UCL-165, SAGA Pro +5, +10.
For bigger magnification we can stack two wet lenses using adapter or thread. We can achieve truly large magnifications. By stacking wet diopters, attached on the 100mm macro lens, we can even take subjects as small as 8mm and fill the frame.
My favorite combination of wet diopters is SubSee +10 stacked with Inon UCL-165 used with 100 mm macro lens.
How to photograph super macro
While shooting super macro you should be extremely accurate and precise. It’s very important to get sharp focus on eyes, or rhinophores, or mouth (depends on your subject), when the subject itself can be only 1 cm only. So super macro photography call for specific skills and knowledge.
Using Manual exposure mode will give us complete control. The aperture is more important than the shutter speed. Start by setting this to F/13. For greater depth of field, use a smaller aperture such as F/16 or F/22.
If I go underwater I prepare my camera on air, and make the basic camera settings: ISO 100, F/13, 1/160s. Depending on underwater conditions and subject, I adjust the settings underwater. But my favorite aperture figures for super macro are in the range from F/6 till F/16. By this aperture the pictures are with the best details.
Stacking diopters on a DSLR means focusing distances so close that it may be hard to illuminate a subject with our strobes. We should be very careful in placing the strobes to light up the scene. I always use manual mood for lightening. I put the strobes with diffuser on ¼ power and place them just close to the port.
Shallow depth of fields makes autofocus perform very slowly. It is more effective to use manual focus instead, rocking the camera slightly back and forth and pressing the shutter when we see with our eyes that the subject is in focus. This can take many attempts and some time, but the result can be fantastic.
Make sure to find a stable and relaxed position that doesn’t damage to the surroundings when attempting the shot. It can take some time to achieve the shot desired, so we better get comfortable.
Use a focus light whenever possible to help achieve focus.
Always ensure the well-being of the subject during the photo taking process, as it can be easy to touch them with the front of the diopter.
Spend enough time on the subject! Don’t harry and you will be paid off!
Yawning fish, nice behavior shot and many more interesting things can happen in front of your lens, if you will be patient! And show the details! In fact, the secret for success in super macro photography in my view is in showing the finest details!
Don’t leave your subject, if you have enough time, air and the subject is “in good mood” to be photographed! Get the shot you planned or you like enough!
And last but not least, with its emphasis on detail, pattern, and texture, super macro photography can give unique results.
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!