10 underwater macro photography tips

What you need to know about photographing them teeny-tiny marine animals

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Black backgrounds aren't necessarily the way to go when it comes to underwater macro photography (Photo: Jonathan Lin)

Ready to be intrigued by the ocean’s tiny residents? From finding the minuscule, well-camouflaged creatures to getting your subject in focus, underwater macro photography is challenging in many different ways. If you’re new to the scene, keep these 10 tips in mind as you snap away.

#1 Shoot bottom-up. It’s not always possible (and ideal), but the general rule of thumb is to get low and angle your camera in a way that removes any and all distractions behind the subject. In other words, what you want is to make sure there’s nothing but open water in the background. This is the first step in achieving a clean, black background in your photos. And, speaking of backgrounds…

#2 Background is key. Many underwater macro images feature a black background behind the subject, but if you take a look at more of them, you’ll notice that that’s not always the case. Some shots actually have gorgeous coloured backgrounds that work, and it’s entirely dependent on where you find the subject (a pretty anemone, or a vibrant seafan) and the situation (remember the golden rule: do not pick anything up and move things around). So, before shooting, study the subject’s surroundings and decide what’s best.

#3 It’s all about strobe placement. This isn’t easy to master, but how your strobes are positioned is crucial. Poorly lit photos have colours that are off (often you get strong blue and/or green hues) and, more often than not, plenty of backscatter. Generally, for underwater macro photography, you want to point your strobes towards the subject and bring them in tight to avoid lighting up the area between the subject and the lens (which is how backscatter is created).

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Learning to properly light a subject isn’t something you can do overnight; the same goes for dealing with backscatter (Photo: Jonathan Lin)

#4 Get close. You’d be surprised just how close you need to get in order to get a clear photo. This is especially true for DSLR users. However, for some compact camera models, getting too close is not an option. Instead, you may need to rely on the optical zoom feature. The plus side to this is you can get shots of a critter without scaring it away.

#5 Zoom in on the eyes. Not sure where the focal point should be? Go for the eyes. Unless there’s something else worth focusing on, they should always be sharp in your photos.

#6 Diopters are your best friends. For greater magnification and better results, invest in a diopter. The close-up attachment is perfect for subjects that are extremely small (aka super macro). A wet diopter is a much better option because you can remove it underwater whenever you need to, and for starters, a +5 or a +8 lens is good enough.

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This shot of an Idiomysis species, which is smaller than a millimetre, was taken using a total of three +10 diopters (Photo: Jonathan Lin)

#7 Relax, but watch your buoyancy. This one’s more for muck diving: Lots of beginners tend to have the case of the “floaty fins” – meaning their upper body’s parallel to the seabed and their legs are hovering in mid-water. This happens because they’re tensed up, and in times like these, one usually finds it hard to capture a solid image because of the instability and lack of balance. Breathe and relax until you’re comfortable, then, straighten your body and get your buoyancy right before you shoot away. Be sure to check what’s below you before lowering yourself – the last thing you want is to be punctured by a sea urchin, attacked by a startled stonefish, or worse, kill coral that’s a hundred years old.

#8 Know your subject. Sure, even seasoned shooters sometimes don’t know what the heck they’re looking at when it comes to underwater macro photography, but it does help to keep track of what you’ve seen and learn more about the subject afterwards. In doing so, you familiarise yourself with the animal’s behaviour – whether it’s feeding, mating, breeding, or fighting – and that can help get you better, and sometimes a lot more interesting, images. You can also speak to experienced photographers to learn more about the species you’re interested in shooting.

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A pair of black saddled tobies mating during what was supposed to be a mandarinfish dive (Photo: Jonathan Lin)

#9 Be patient. If you get the chance to dive in the company of pro underwater photographers, you’ll notice they usually don’t have a shoot-and-go approach like many casual hobbyists do. Many of them spend several minutes, sometimes even an entire dive (or two dives, or three days), concentrating on that one subject in the exact same spot. They’ll tell you it’s all about patience, and getting the perfect shot takes time.

#10 Make small movements. When you finally find something cool to shoot, chances are your heart will race and your mind will go 100 miles per hour. Don’t. Do your best to calm down and take it slow, especially when the subject is shy (like cuttlefish and octopus) and you’re trying to approach it. Then, if you do manage to get close, take your time to settle down and adjust everything, from your strobes to the lighting and camera settings. Don’t forget: there’s no point in rushing it and if the shot is yours to take, it will be.

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An avid diver for over 15 years now, Jonathan took up underwater photography in 2011. His works have been published in several dive publications, including Scuba Diver AustralAsia and Asian Diver. Today, he teaches the art in his free time and continues to shoot in the waters of Asia Pacific.