On the Road Again – Destination Lembeh

Manta Rays

It’s been a bit of whirl-wind over the past few months!  I returned yesterday from my third trip to Komodo in May and June and will be here in Bali for an entire 3 days before shipping out to Lembeh!  I will of course be heading to NAD Lembeh Resort for almost 3 weeks of fun in the critter capital of the world.  The main reason I am heading to Lembeh is of course to conduct our annual Underwater Tribe/NAD Lembeh photo workshop which starts on the 18th and ends on the 25th.  However, I am going early in order to take some of my own photographs in the wonderful world of muck as I won’t be taking any photos during the workshop itself.  I am certainly looking forward to it as I haven’t done any serious shooting in Lembeh for quite some time.  It will be quite a transition from the wide angle photo and videos I have been shooting in Komodo lately to the behaviour and macro photo and video I hope to be shooting in Lembeh!  I will be the special guest blogger on the NAD Blog so please have a look over the coming weeks.

And here is what I will be shooting next week, it will be a challenge on my eyes I think!

Crinoid Cuttlefish


Testing Mirrorless Cameras in Lembeh Strait (Part 2)


Can see some issues in the corners

This is the second part of a two part post, part 1 can be found here: Testing Mirrorless Cameras in Lembeh Strait Part 1

The second camera I used was the Olympus EM-1 in a Nauticam housing, which I coupled with two different lenses:  the 8mm fisheye wide angle and the 12-50 zoom lens along with the Nauticam SMC-1 diopter.  The first thing that I noticed about the Olympus system, compared to the Sony/Nikonos system, was that it was much smaller and lighter; it had more of the feel of a compact camera than the Sony system, which was a plus in my books.  Once again I used two Inon S-2000 strobes for the set up and I spent one day shooting wide angle with the 8mm Panasonic lens and two days with the 12-50 mm lens.


8mm, very wide!

On the first day, I used the 8mm lens with the first dive at a true muck dive, Jahir, a black sand slope with good critter potential for shooting CFWA.  The first thing I did was take a few test shots of some still subjects in order to see how wide the fisheye was and how I would need to position my strobes to avoid backscatter.  It didn’t take me long to figure out that this lens is just as wide as the 10.5mm on a Nikon and that scatter and flash flare were going to be an issue just as they are with a 10.5mm.  (I note here that I was not a big fan of these small strobes for wide angle use, as a wider angle strobe like my usual Sea and Seas YS 120s would have been preferable, however, for the 12-50mm lens these strobes were great, lots of power in a small size)  The very small size of the camera and mini dome port allowed me to get as close as I wanted to my subjects (much closer than the 15mm) which gave me better creative control over composition for CFWA.  It was easy to get in close and position the strobes correctly as well, however, I would have preferred wider strobes as mentioned earlier.   Looking at the photos on my computer screen afterwards did reveal that there is certainly some corner distortion with the CFWA shots on a wider aperature such as f6.3 (look at the white eyed moray shot to see this).  It wasn’t as obvious on higher apertures and to be honest, didn’t really bug me too much on the shots that I did take, however, I would need to shoot more to see where I really stand on this.  (This is common with SLR and fisheye as well)


Corners were better at distance with 8mm

On the next dive I found a massive coral head that was covered in baitfish that were being preyed upon by several large lionfish, the perfect opportunity for a more classic wide angle photo.  I was much happier with these shots, taken from further away, but still shot between f5.6 – f8, as the distortion was not nearly as obvious in the corners.  This is not to say that this camera creates more or less distortion than my D7000 and 10.5mm, both have corner problems at less than f11 for close up work, but I would say the D7000 is marginally better in that aspect than the Olympus, but, not by much!  Overall, I was happy with the wide angle from this combination and would most definitely use it again, although with wider angled strobes.


Focus was quick and accurate with 12-50mm

Next up was the 12-50mm lens and flat port for some “normal” shots of Lembeh critter diving.  I coupled this flat port with the Nauticam flip arm for the SMC-1 diopter in order to have an added punch of macro goodness for the small subjects that I was hoping to find.  What was really interesting about this lens and port combination was the ability to “turn on” macro mode with a simple twist of a dial.  The 12-50mm lens has a “macro” mode that allows the lens to focus very closely with it set at 43mm and the port has been designed to be able to access this function quickly and seamlessly by twisting a dial on the left side without having to manually tune the lens to that length or having to push a button to turn on the “macro” mode.  I found this to be a very cool feature of both the camera and housing, if I then wanted even more macro, I just had to swing the SMC-1 into place and I was good to go; this was a very simple and effective solution. Typically, I am not a big fan of composing through the screen on the back of a camera, especially for macro, as I find it very hard to see if what I want in focus is actually in focus; this is much easier with the viewfinder on an SLR where you are looking at the actual animal through the lens, as opposed to a screen.  On the Olympus, I was expecting to hate the focusing for macro due to this issue, however, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I was expecting.  The camera was able to lock focus very quickly and for the most part I was able to tell if the areas I wanted in focus were the ones that ended up in focus.

Macro mode worked well

Macro mode worked well

As an SLR user, I have always been a bit jealous of compact camera users who were able to zoom in and out at will as well as attach close up diopters or wide angle adaptors during a dive.  Using the EM-1 and 12-50mm with it’s native macro capability was a real eye opener for me, I found it to be a very versatile setup with the ability to shoot the eyeball of a wonderpus and then shoot a wide angle shot of it with the mere twist of a dial.  By adding on the SMC-1 with the handy flip port, this set up quickly became my favourite choice of the lenses I had tried and I didn’t even bother with different lenses after that.  For Lembeh, the 12-50mm was the perfect choice as there are so many different subjects to shoot from big to small!  With an SLR I always concentrated on one lens, but with this set up I could take great photos of every subject that I came upon.  In short, I really liked it!

SMC-1 was easy to use with swing arm

SMC-1 was easy to use with swing arm

Overall, I had a better experience with the Olympus setup than I did with the Sony, however, I am really comparing apples to oranges here as I didn’t actually try any other lenses with the Sony other than the Nikonos 15mm.  I am quite sure if I spent more time with the Sony and used comparable lenses I would have had similar results.  However, of the two cameras I was more favourable to the Olympus and I am quite inclined to buy one for myself in the not too distant future.  Looking at the images on a 27 inch screen shows that they are just as sharp and clear as an SLR and I could sell images from both the Sony and Olympus with no problem as the quality is very good.  The only downside I see of the Olympus is the strange (to me) ratio of the resulting images as I find the 4/3rds size to be squarish looking when compared to the ratio of an SLR camera and it leaves me with the sense that the photos have been cropped without locking in the ratios, but, that could just be me!

The Art of Super Macro Photography

This originally appeared in Scuba Diver Australasia Magazine as a part of the “In Focus” photography column.


Pregnant Pygmy SeahorseThere comes a time in every photographers career for a new challenge, you will know when you are ready for this when taking the same style of shots over and over again becomes static and uninteresting.  Fortunately for underwater photographers, there are many challenges available without having to break the bank.  One of the biggest, and certainly most rewarding, is the world of “super macro” photography.  Super macro is when we shoot something at greater than a 1:1 ratio.  However, it’s not easy to shoot such small subjects; special equipment, a steady hand, and a great deal of patience are all required when shooting the smallest of the small.


There are several ways of creating a system that can take super macro photographs, and it’s not only DSLR shooters who can shoot these photographs, compact camera users can as well.

Dioptres- dioptres are a small lens element that screws onto the front of your existing lens and allows you to focus much closer than your regular lens, enabling you to fill more of the frame with your subject.   These are available in two basic formats.  The most popular is the wet-mount dioptre that fits onto both compact cameras and DSLRs.  One advantage of the compact camera in this regard is the ability to stack two or even three of these lenses together in order to focus on the tiniest of underwater inhabitants.  The second dioptre option is an internal one that fits onto the lens itself before putting the camera into the housing.  Obviously this will limit your shot selection on a given dive as you will not be able to take it off underwater.  The second negative of this system is that your “long focus” is limited to a short distance, often not much longer than two feet; this is bad when you want to shoot subjects a little further away.  Also, be aware of which brand of dioptre you buy; cheap, single element lenses will create distortion around the edges and ruin an otherwise beautiful photo.  It’s better to spend a little more in order to purchase a double element lens, this will produce sharper images..

The dioptre system works well on a variety of subjects that are easily approachable.  Many inhabitants of the reef will allow photographers to approach within centimetres.  It’s these creatures that you should be seeking when shooting with a dioptre.  Frogfish, lionfish, scorpionfish, nudibranches, and coral patterns are just a few of the subjects that come to the top of my mind.  Imagine the intricate details of a crocodilefish eyeball filling the frame without having to crop!

Dioptres are a relatively inexpensive and simple method to achieve greater magnification in your photography, as no other pieces of equipment are needed.  For those who don’t want to be stuck shooting one style of photo per dive, the external dioptre option is the system for you


Lembeh09MV-3789Somewhat more complicated than using a dioptre is the use of a teleconverter (TC for short).  Used only by DSLR photographers, these are special add-ons that fit between the regular lens and the camera.  A TC usually comes in three strengths, 1.4x, 1.7x, and 2x, meaning the TC makes the lens 1.4 times up to 2 times stronger than the lens itself.  The teleconverter is great for shooting shy critters that normally can’t be approached closely with a regular setup.  Fish that are notoriously camera shy will never allow a diver with a dioptre to get close enough to get a good photo.  However, using a TC will allow the photographer to take the photo from further away than normal, meaning shy creatures can fill the frame with a pleasing composition.  Think of a field of garden eels and how unapproachable they are; when you finally sneak within shooting range they quickly disappear into their holes.  By adding a teleconverter on a 100mm lens, the working distance becomes twice as long, enabling you to stay outside of their comfort zone and still fill the frame.  Some teleconverters can be used in conjunction with the cameras autofocus system, which is a great benefit, other ones cannot.  It’s best to check that a TC will work with your camera’s autofocus before you buy it.  TC’s do have several drawbacks however.  The autofocus system slows down very noticeably and is certainly not conducive to photographing fast moving subjects.  The other drawback is that specialized ports will be required. As the TC will make your macro lens extra long, you will need long extension tubes to encompass them.

Light Light and More Light

Lembeh10MV-653One thing that super macro craves is lots and lots of light.  In order to start shooting the small stuff, one of the first things you will need is a good quality focusing light.  Typically this will be an underwater flashlight, not the spotting light from your strobe.  Spotting lights are important as they will aid your eye, as well as your camera’s autofocus, in finding points of contrast to focus on.  Having strong strobes is also a definite must.  Due to the extreme magnification of using teleconverters, the amount of light reaching the camera’s sensor is limited; the equivalent apertures are in the f64 range and higher.  Therefore a strong strobe, placed close to the subject, is required in order to “blast” enough light at the subject to expose it properly.

Trials and Tribulations

The first step to shooting a successful super macro photo is to find the proper subject.  Due to the extremely shallow depth of field found at these magnifications, only certain subjects will work.  Concentrate on looking for tiny subjects that are not very common: nudibranch rhinophores, fish eggs, eyeballs, and fish scales.  It’s these eye-popping subjects that are so out of the ordinary that they can’t help but catch the eye of the viewer and leave them wondering “how did he/she do that?”  However, you must be careful when shooting subjects at great magnification.  The key is to keep the main parts of the subject on the same plane of focus.  Even the slightest offset will cause a portion of the photo to blur.

Lembeh09MV-2209There is nothing more important in super macro than keeping a steady hand and having endless patience.  The rewards from achieving a full frame photo of a pygmy seahorse are wonderful, but don’t get discouraged when it takes 60 minutes to achieve.  Even the slightest movement from these tiny fish will throw your focus out of whack.  It’s best not to be trigger happy in these circumstances but to be patient and use small movements.  The best strategy is actually to use the camera on manual or locked focus.  By locking focus, the camera will not go into “hunting” mode; you can control what parts of the frame are in or out of focus by moving back and forth from the subject itself.

Shooting “super macro” is not for everyone.  It’s not for the photographer who wants to see as many different things on one dive as possible, nor is it a great idea to bring with you on group dive trips.  In order to fully explore this niche you will need to choose a subject and stay with it for a very long time; this is no time for the guide to be harassing you to stay with the group.  Therefore, you will need a patient dive buddy with a great eye for small things.  Another thing to keep in mind is the topography of your dive site.  Locations such as Lembeh Strait are perfect for super macro photography as it offers a sandy or mucky slope without a lot of live coral on the bottom.  A sandy bottom composition is preferred as shooting at this magnification requires a steady base, such as lying on the bottom or the use of a small tripod.  Diving in a beautiful coral garden is not recommended when trying to shoot something at 4 times its natural size!

What are you waiting for?  Head on down to your local camera or dive shop and investigate the possibilities available for your camera.  You never know, the moment you add one of these elements to your repertoire might be the time you see those tiny anemone fish babies popping out of their eggs!