16. Oct, 2016

The small and beautiful

Macro photography is a branch of underwater photography that often produces  fascinating images of the ‘very small’. In the dark and murky waters of Northern Europe the macro lens is often the only  available option.  Sometimes supported by a ‘snoot’ to get a tighter bundle of light of the strobe on your subject. But  macro also enjoys a great popularity  in the  clear waters of the Indo-Pacific like the  Lembeh straits, an area   infested with small creatures 

 'Two gobies', picture taken by Scott Gietler

called critters. Lembeh is often described as the ‘Mecca’  for the dedicated macroshooter*. Even a 'non-macro' man  like me can still  understand the fascination of  the critterheads.   A  classic taxonomy of  around 1300 marine invertebrates  was published in 1979 by two zoologists  David & Jennifer George  in their  illustrated encyclopedia.** But their book  did not yet  cover all the exotic subvarieties discovered in later years by underwater photographers in the open sea. Together they give an impression of  the enormous  variety of colorful, often  strange  looking small creatures. It is biodiversity at its best, approaching that of   a tropical rain forest with its  myriads of insects, birds, snakes, and other little creatures living in the trees.

Easy or hard? Shooting macro is often seen as the easier side of underwater photography. This may be partly true for lighting: once you have set your aperture and strobes in the right position  the only thing you have to worry about is the critical focus. Since you depth of field is razor thin, one centimeter nearer or further away  can already mean the difference between blur or pin sharp.  But  even the lighting part can become pretty complicated for those that want to use the space of  the background more creatively.

Exotic  critters such as a Nembrotha kubaryana (a rare nudibranch),  the hairy frogfish, harlequin shrimp, mandarin fish, the peackock mantis shrimp,  boxer crab, blue-ringed octopus or pygmy sea horse (to name just a few****) are not easy  to track down. More common species can be found in the ’muck’, a  name of the sediment or even trash  that covers the bottom of many dive sites. This is often the best place to search for  a ribbon eel, goby or blenny,  for example when its hiding  in an empty beer can or bottle. An example is the yellow pygmy goby, often seen in pairs. Other species like the pygmy seahorse prefer a higher position on a branch of coral or a sea fan, where they may be difficult to spot with their perfect camouflage.  Luckily,  critter havens  such as  Lembeh  have experienced guides  that  help divers to locate the beasties. It’s very much  like  guides on African safaris  that bring their clients to the ‘big five’, or dive masters in the  Bahamas  using bait to bring  in the sharks.

Once you have selected your critter, you still have to  find a stable position.  You certainly  don’t want to mess around  with the environment and crush sea urchins or fragile coral while seeking the ideal position. Which may easily happen in the excitement triggered by a  rare species you have always dreamt of!  Finding the right balance and  a steady position of your  camera with your body floating is not always easy to achieve. Taking all these factors together, we must conclude that shooting macro is not so easy at all!  At least not when your ambition is to make perfectly lit, pin sharp and well framed pictures of these small  and amazing creatures.

Bridging the gap between macro and wide angle If macro shooting with a 60 mm lens or even a 105 mm lens is not your ‘cup of tea’ there is a way out. Paradoxically  it’s the fish-eye, a lens that is designed to shoot the biggest not the smallest animals. Its  potential  lies not only in its wide angle of view, but that it allows you to come very close to your subject. With a mini dome on your housing this means 10-20 cm. Focusing will be less of a problem than in macro because of the greater depth of field of the fish eye. That means that you will loose that  typical blur of more distant  parts of a pygmy or nudi, and  the nice bokeh of its background that has become the trademark of a  macroshot.  In addition, the extreme  wide field of view and forced perspective  will produce  a smaller image of the foreground subject  than  in a typical macro shot, where a critter often fills the  larger part  of the frame. But what you get in return is an image  of the small creature freed from its narrow frame, in a wider context of blue water, sunlight and other objects on the background. And if a fish portrait is what you want, you can crop that small creature  to fill your frame and still get an acceptable sharp image of it. 

Further  reading:

Underwater photography master class. Alex Mustard.2016. Ammonite Press.