Feb 072013

Juvenile sweep

When I take large, wide angle shots of reef there are several ways to overcome the confusion of a densely packed ecosystem swirling through the scene. By getting up close to a foreground feature, using strobes to highlight reds and oranges, or choosing an angle where the reef stands out against a blue background, there are techniques for drawing the viewer’s attention to the subject.

With the above water photography I’d done before taking a camera into the depths, these techniques came naturally. I hadn’t done all that much macro photography above or below water, and I had to sit down and think about what I was trying to achieve with my various subjects. As in wide angle underwater photography, one pathway to stunning images is about isolating your subject and making it the focus of attention.

One of the most commonly photographed fish in the history of the universe, ever, is the clownfish. In all of its diverse and wonderful variations and colourations, clownfish peer out of their anemones from magazine pages and dentist’s walls. There’s a reason for that beyond their cute and personable faces – clownfish don’t run away, and they come with their own background. For your average clownfish shot the orange fish is captured against a white/grey/brown background with a regular pattern. Most other critters aren’t so well designed for macro photographers, so I started looking for new ways to highlight my subjects against their environment.

The first and most obvious trick is about finding a critter in a good position, like the pair of sweep above. By shooting up against water or a distant brown rock you have a single colour background. Given the sheer amount of life underwater, this can be very hard to achieve. It harks back to my thoughts from last week – pick subjects in good positions, rather than trying to take average photos of great critters in terrible locations.

The second way to isolate a macro subject is with the depth of focus. This was completely new to me – my 14mm lens puts everything in focus. With a hyperfocal distance of about 1m I could easily have the fish at half a metre and the reef at 10m away all sharp in the picture. Trying to throw things out of focus never occurred to me because it wasn’t possible to get more than a slight fuzz across the background with my setup. That all changed with the macro lens. By opening the aperture up to f2.8 I could use a razor thin plane of focus to emphasise just the bit of the fish I wanted to show off (or alternatively, the bit of fish right next to the bit of fish I wanted to show off – no one said this would be easy!)

Featherstar on black

And third up, one I haven’t done much experimenting with yet, is with light. By selectively lighting only certain parts of the picture you can hide the irrelevant details. Underwater photographers are experimenting with snoots to reduce the width of light coming out of their strobes and turn them into little spot lights. Certainly by cranking up the shutter speed to cut out the ambient daylight, and shooting critters with a far away background I can avoid getting strobe light on the surroundings and create a black backdrop like in the featherstar photo on the right. This can be a great look for an animal portrait, but by completely blanking out the background the animals can look somewhat studio posed.

So the main issue for me now is engaging my brain, and considering what photo I’m trying to take. I can use f2.8 through to f32 for a critter up close and personal, and get a photo of some kind. The question is, how much light do I want in the picture, and which sections are meant to be in focus? I hope to spend some time under piers in the next few months with co-operative (or at least stationary) critters, working out my favourite answers.

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