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