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!