Guides & Tutorials

The Ultimate Guide to Underwater Macro Photography

 

Frog FIsh
Aperture: f18, Shutter Speed: 1-200s

Do you love the little stuff? Want to get photos of those beautiful nudibranchs, tiny fish or even the intricate detail of coral? Macro photography might be for you.

If you want to expand your photo portfolio to cover all aspects of the underwater environment, eventually you will find yourself wanting to shoot very small subjects to create images that are life size or larger than life size.

Here are some tips on what you need and how to do it.

Tools

What do you need to take a macro photograph? Part of that depends on the camera you are using. For DSLRs, mirrorless and other cameras with interchangeable lenses, you will need macro lenses. Generally, underwater, these are 40mm-105mm and have the ability to focus quite close to the subject.

This is relatively speaking as the longer the focal length of the lens, the longer the working space between the lens and the subject will be. Which, in some instances, we like because we can stay a few inches away and not disturb the subject but still fill the frame with the subject. But either way, you can still get quite close to your subject.

Compact cameras often have optional wet lenses that are easily added onto the outside of the housing to magnify the subject. These are great because it gives the option to put them on or take them off underwater, giving the ability to shoot more than just macro on a dive.

Some compact cameras also have macro settings on the camera which are useful, so it’s always important to know your camera’s capabilities.

Composition

A lot of the same “rules” of underwater photography apply to macro shooting as well. Get close, shoot upwards, hold the camera still, know your camera, etc. Here are some tips:

Shooting Up

Getting as low on your subject as you can, as shooting upwards is key. It is easier to just swim around and take photos pointing directly down below you, but this often leads to the subject being lost in the background. Sand or coral is often textured and multicolored and which for a distracting background.

By getting low you can shoot up onto your subject and often the background will be water which is far less distracting than the many colors and textures of sand. This angle also tends to give your subject a more regal, portrait-like look.

Shooting down into sand - subject is lost
Shooting down into the sand – Subject is lost

Shooting up - easier to make out subject
Shooting up – Easier to make out the subject

Before getting too low be sure to check around you (and below you) so that you do not lie on or kick delicate marine life. It is always important to be a good diver and do no damage to the reef while we are taking photos. Many housing companies make 45-degree viewfinder attachments that allow you to see through the viewfinder while having your camera lower than you.

Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds consists of making imaginary lines on an image dividing it into thirds both horizontally and vertically so that you have nine boxes and four places where the lines cross. (In many cameras there is a setting where you can display the lines on the viewfinder.)

The idea is that putting your subject or points of interest on these four crossed points will make your photos more interesting than having a subject directly in the center of the image. For example, you would want an eye on one of the cross points, or if you were photographing a whip coral goby on its whip coral home, place the goby in one of the cross points.

This is something that can also be accomplished in post-processing by cropping the photo differently, but if you plan to do that, be sure you leave enough negative space around the subject to allow for cropping back on land.

Rule of Thirds
Aperture: f18, Shutter Speed: 1-200s – Subject is in the Middle

Depth of Field

The depth of field refers to the distance behind and in front of an in-focus subject. By changing the aperture we can control, to some extent, how sharp the background or foreground will be. In some photos you will see both the subject and the background in focus; this is having a large depth of field.

In other images, the subject will be in focus, but the space in front of and behind will be out of focus, this is having a small or shallow depth of filed. Other factors that also contribute to this include the distance the camera is from the subject and the focal length of the lens.

For example, having an open or wide aperture (small F number) will lead to a smaller depth of field, so lots of blurs directly behind and front of the point of focus. Having a small aperture (large F number) will have a larger depth of field, with focus throughout the image.

In some cases, a smaller depth of field (lots of blur around the subject) is used to try and make the subject stand out. By using a larger depth of field we can have more sharp focus throughout an image, such as to show the details of the background maybe to give the viewer information on where the subject lives.

Or, in the case of a fish that is filling up the whole frame, part of the fish may be slightly forward or back, to try to get sharpness throughout the fish, a smaller aperture may give more focus throughout the distance.

Depth of Field
Aperture: f9, Shutter Speed: 1-200s

Bokeh

A popular underwater imaging technique is Bokeh, which is an extreme use of small depth of field. The idea is to have your subject in sharp focus and the background out of focus or blurry so your subject gets all the attention and the background is very soft. This is achieved by having a very open aperture and a lot of distance between the subject and the background to also increase blur or being out of focus.

A tip when trying this is to remember your lightening. This becomes tricky underwater because we have a tendency to overexpose bokeh photos by using too much light. Often you will need to turn strobes or lights down to a very low power setting (or, if you are using more than one light source, consider turning one off).

Bokeh
Depth of Field and Bokeh Effect. Aperture: f6.3, Shutter Speed 1-200s

Black Backgrounds

A popular effect for underwater macro photos is to have a black background.  This is best achieved in water, not just in post-processing (in fact, many would consider it a bit of cheating to make the background black in post.) Essentially you are taking a completely underexposed shot, but using your lights to light up just the subject.

It is helpful when a subject is, for example, swimming in the water column, so that you can shoot up on the subject and there is no place behind the subject for the light to fall (it is just water.)

By turning down the lights so that they only illuminate the fish, the background will be black. This can be achieved by having a small aperture (large F number), a fast shutter speed, and controlling your light power so it only reaches the subject and not the background.

Things like snoots, which isolate lighting to a smaller area, can help eliminate light from falling where you do not want it.

black background
Aperture: f11, Shutter Speed: 1-200s

Where to Focus – Eyes

Generally, we want the subject’s eye or eyes in focus. Even though our underwater subjects usually aren’t humans, it is one of the first ways to make an image better because we connect with eyes.

Eye contact is important to draw people into your photos, especially non-divers who may not know what the subject in your image is. By being able to recognize in-focus eyes, they can often at least see what the subject is or what they are supposed to be looking at.

In order to get a marine critters eye’s, it also usually means we need to be looking at it from the same level or below it, so this also adds back to make sure you are shooting upwards.

Eye contact
Eye contact with the clownfish. Aperture: f13, Shutter Speed: 1-250s

Abstract

One of my favorite things to do is take abstract images underwater. They can basically be of anything. The colorful scales of a fish, individual polyps of coral, or specific parts of a marine creature like rhinophores on a nudibranch, the opportunities are endless.

If ever you find yourself underwater thinking, “There’s nothing to shoot,” remember you can make artistic photos underwater with just about anything. Even sand can be beautiful with the right amount of creativity.

Abstract Shot
Aperture: f18, Shutter Speed: 1-250s

Diopters

Using diopters underwater can be challenging and rewarding. Many are wet lenses (and can work on many types of camera housings, with or without port adapters). Diopters are essentially magnifying glasses for your camera and come in different magnifications.

To get the best images with diopters one needs to realize they usually have very close working distances, so you need to be very close to your subject for the camera to be able to focus.

There is also a considerable loss of depth of field, which can be useful in the creativity of your image. Using smaller apertures (larger F numbers) and fast shutter speeds will make them a little more forgiving in making sure what you want is in focus and help eliminate blur from diver movement.

Diopter
Aperture: f24, Shutter Speed: 1-200s

However, both of those things reduce light getting to the image, so strobe or light placement is very important and using a focus light can also help. The small working distance means you have to make sure your lighting can get into that small space between the lens and the subject.

I often have my strobes almost touching the diopter. Then it is a balance of not having too much or too little light. It can take a lot of practice (or a lot of shots) to make sure what you want in focus is what the camera is actually focusing on, for example, the rhinophores of a nudibranch.

Diopters are fun to use and can be great for showing the small details in marine life from corals to specific parts of fish or ocean animals. They are also great for abstract photos that show colors, patterns, and textures unique to the underwater world.

Motion

One challenge in still photography is to try and show movement and motion. We can imply motion in different ways, such as when compositing an image, leaving negative space to the front of the subject to suggest it is moving into that space. Playing with slow shutter speeds can also show motion.

For example, juvenile sweetlips are known to “dance” and by locking focus on the eye, but having a shutter speed as slow as 1 second, the blur caused by the fish’s movement is captured and hopefully, viewers see that the fish was not still when the image was made.

I also have fun doing this technique with corals that pulse open and closed while eating.  The way we frame or crop an image can also add flow just by having curves and circles in an image, or shooting or cropping an image with diagonal lines.

Slow Shutter Shot
Slow Shutter Shot. Aperture: f20, Shutter Speed: 1-6s

Lighting

Tips on lighting macro images probably deserve a separate article, but here are some quick suggestions. First, I encourage the use of a focus light. Often our macro critters may be hiding in a crevasse or in an area without much light (or our lenses are so close, they do not allow a lot of ambient light in).

Cameras will focus faster and it will be easier to see that the camera is focused on the correct spot when you can actually see it. Focus lights can bring in enough additional light to help.

My second tip is to constantly move your strobes or lights around. Don’t be afraid to play with the lighting and try new and different things. It is so common to see underwater photographers put their lights in one position and don’t move them the entire dive. Get out of that habit. Angle your strobes, move them to strange places, and try new things.

In macro photography, we can easily overexpose images because of too much light reflecting on a close background, but just as easily we can underexpose an image because the light is not getting to the subject or it is far away/in a dark spot that it needs more light.

Get Creative

The creative opportunities for underwater macro photography are endless. Sometimes techniques from land photography can be tried underwater with very interesting results. Don’t forget that all photography “rules” are meant to be broken, that’s part of the creative processes.

In the end, art is subjective, it is most important that you like your images, it does not matter what anyone else thinks. Take the above as tips and things to try, but in the end, take the things you like and add your own twist to them.

Brandi Mueller

Brandi Mueller is an award winning underwater photographer, photojournalist, scuba diving instructor, and boat captain.
She is an Ikelite Ambassador and a member of the Ocean Artists Society.
Brandi Mueller

1 comment

  1. Phil January 19, 2019

    Thanks for the tips. You have a nice, concise article with a lot of great tips on a range of techniques. Very well written.

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