Macro lenses

  • Ethics in Super-Macro Photography

    The on-line-by-subscription newsletter Undercurrent.org recently reported a conflict between winners of the super-macro photography category of the World ShootOut. One contestant alleged that the winner had cheated by herding two commensal shrimp into position on the back of a nudibranch. As a senior journalist on the newsletter, I was tasked with finding a qualified expert to give an opinion on the winning picture but could find none who would be prepared to be drawn on the matter. The judges of the World ShootOut insisted that it was impossible to tell by looking at a single photograph one way or another, yet suspicions remained. However this subject has spawned a bigger issue that may have become important with the massive growth in the popularity of macro photography underwater. There was a time when an underwater photographer may have been an unusual character on a dive boat. In the days of film, it was a difficult and often frustrating activity but nowadays, thanks to digital technology, anyone can go into the water equipped with a camera fitted with a high-powered macro lens and powerful light and record stunning images of the minutia of animal life we have only recently been made aware of.

    A typical high powered macro lens (AOI) that is proving very popular. A typical high powered supplementary macro wet lens (AOI) that is proving very popular.

    This in turn has led to a growth within the diving industry of resorts that specialise in muck-diving. Large numbers of local people who, in the past might have made a living fishing, now work as dive guides and invertebrate-spotters. Every guest diver seems to be armed with a camera of some sort. The problem arises when in their enthusiasm to secure great images, people interfere with nature, moving animals from where they would naturally hide and exposing them to their lenses. Not only that, but they then tend to stay with those subjects for long periods in an attempt to catch the best moment, subjecting these animals to loss of cover in bright light and even damaged habitat.

     

    Halemeda ghost pipefish photographed away from its disguising halemeda algae. Halimeda ghost pipefish photographed away from its disguising halimeda algae.

    Dr. Alex Tattersall, a leading exponent of super-macro photography, is campaigning for better ethics in underwater photography and asking divers to sign a petition, which, I assume, will be presented to those operating muck-diving resorts, magazine publishers and underwater photography competition organisers in the hope of changing behaviour among those using super-macro equipment. His petition (illustrated with one of his own pictures)  reads: “We are seeing more and more manipulation of wildlife to attain award winning images in competitions. Such images are winning competitions and becoming role model for future UW photographers. The UW photography community needs to act responsibly and promote conservation effort. A cultural shift is necessary at all levels and those with influence such as competition organisers and dive magazines should promote more responsible UW photo behaviour.” (If you wish to sign this petition, go to www.change.org and search for “More Ethics in UW photography.”) Some people on social media have even responded to this by suggesting that these animals should be given the choice as to whether they are photographed or not. I suggest that were they capable of making such a choice, they would prefer to remain undisturbed and well-camouflaged where they live, going about their business un-noticed. Seeing a hairy frogfish surrounded by half-a-dozen photographers crowding it and firing their strobes (flashguns) repeatedly can give cause for concern but it is now a daily occurrence where these animals are to be found.

     

    _DSC5057 A dive guide rummages in a gorgonia fan, searching for pygmy seahorses.

    Pygmy seahorses, dug out by willing dive guides with pointer sticks from where they have been hiding unobserved for centuries within the fronds of a gorgonian fan, would probably prefer to maintain their anonymity and certainly prefer not to turn to face a perceived predator such as a big camera lens staring at them. The list goes on. Maybe there should be a rule that no photographer makes more than a few exposures of one subject in order to record its image. Maybe there should be a rule that no underwater photographer stays with one subject for more than a couple of minutes. Some dive centres once tried to ban the use of bright lights by underwater photographers but their loss of business to rival operations soon put an end to that. You may think that concern for the well-being of animals as small as hair lice (animals you would be happy to kill if you found them on the heads of your children) may be trivial in a world where so many bad things are happening. Divers are also concerned about the finning of thousands of sharks, the intentional destruction of reefs in the South China Sea for political reasons, the mass harvesting of sea cucumbers, the unintentional yet effective nevertheless destruction of coral reefs both directly by industry and indirectly by global warming, for example. However, sixty years ago it was thought OK for divers to ride turtles and manta rays and people even thought it was OK to slaughter sharks -  as featured in films by Jacques Cousteau. The maestro of diving even said himself, “Sometimes, for reasons of conservation, it is necessary to use dynamite” which he frequently did. Attitudes change. The mass popularity of extreme macro equipment with today’s underwater photographers may give cause for concern. This is not so much about preserving the life of shrimps but the morality of mankind. I’d like to think that underwater photographers go into the water to record things as they are rather than as they would like them to be. The mass destruction of larger pelagic species by industrialised fishing has left the oceans palpably bereft of fish and those of us who have been divers over a period of thirty years or more can testify to that. Soon there may only be the tiny animals left for us to enjoy. Let’s not spoil it by over-zealous behaviour with our cameras.

     

    Tiger shark lured to the camera with a box of bait. Tiger shark lured to the camera with a box of suitable bait.

    I normally illustrate these blogs with examples of my own photographs but my long career as an underwater photo-journalist has left me with few examples of my own manipulation of small subjects, since I was always briefed to report of what actually happened rather than construct pictures to win competitions, although one could say that seducing a large shark to come close to one’s camera by offering a tidbit to eat is simply manipulation on a larger scale, but sharks can fight back! You may have a view on that.

  • Small is Beautiful

    Nudibranch, a seaslug that carries its gills on its back. Nudibranch, a seaslug that carries its gills on its back.

    More and more people have become fascinated with the minutia of marine life found underwater and besides looking for what may be hiding in plain sight right under their noses in local waters are trekking off to distant lands for the unique and some would say very strange animals living in the mucky seabed around the islands of the Far East.

    Flamboyant cuttlefish Flamboyant cuttlefish

    I hasten to add that fauna on a macro scale can be found in all seas and neither should we overlook the Caribbean or Med.

    Miniature frogfish Miniature frogfish

    Although most compact cameras have a 'macro' mode, this can put the camera far too close to the subject to enable the photographer to shine a light on it. However, most underwater housings for compact cameras can, with or without the aid of an adapter,  be supplied with an ancillary macro lens that is fitted whilst underwater.

    Compact camera with AOI +12-dioptre macro lens fitted. Compact camera with AOI +12-dioptre macro lens fitted.

    There's a vast range of such lenses available, whether it be the well-known Subsea brand, from Inon or even more expensive Nauticam. One manufacturer that actually makes lenses for other brands is now supplying to the retail market through Ocean Leisure Cameras, with consequent and significant savings on the final price, and that is AOI. There are macro lenses for GoPro cameras too.

    Once you've fitted the lens underwater and made sure to dislodge any air bubbles that might have got trapped between lens and the front glass of the housing, start looking for a likely subject. The dive guides have sharp eyes and know what to look for so don't be afraid to accept help. Some of these critters are minute.

    Halimeda ghost pipefish Halimeda ghost pipefish

    The great thing about macro photography is that you can enter the water with your lights previously set up. Whether you use off-board flash or a continuous light source such as a powerful video light, you can perfect you lighting set-up before you find your subject.

    Don't forget, you can shoot video too.

    Once you've lined up on a likely looking beast, don't let the camera's auto focus try to get it sharp. Move the camera back and forth slowly until you see the subject come sharp on your LCD display. The halimeda ghost pipe fish normally hangs around on halimeda weed which it looks exactly like.

    The seahorse might be more easily recognised but they have the annoying habit of turning their faces away from danger so you will just have to keep still and wait until it's forgotten that you are there.

    Seahorse Seahorse. You'll have to be patient until it's forgotten that you're there.

    Stealth and patience are the name of the game. Your air will  last though, because you don't waste much energy in finning. You end up hovering around waiting to get the shot. If you lie on the seabed you must be doubly sure to avoid resting on any small creature. Some things might look like rubbish but they might be an animal cleverly disguised.

    Ribbon eel Colourful Ribbon eel

    It might be a bit of rubbish - but if it is it will certainly have an animal living in it! once you get into macro photography, it becomes something of an obsession. It's as if you can only see this other tiny world by means of photography.

    Nudibranch come in an assortment of colours. Nudibranch come in an assortment of colours and styles.

    A white light in the form of a flash or a video light will reveal things in their natural colours and, let's face it, it's a mystery as to why they are so colourful since the animals can't see it.

    It's remarkable that divers always seem to fall in love with nudibranchs. These are colourful slugs that wear their gills on their backs.

    I have photographed more than one hundred and fifty animals at one site alone. Take plenty of memory cards with you unless you can download your pictures between dives.

    The face of a frogfish. The face of a frogfish sitting on a sponge.
  • Photographing Seahorses and Pygmy Seahorses

     

    DSCF0562 Full-size seahorse photographed in Manado, North Suluwesi, Indonesia.
      Everybody loves a seahorse. Maybe it's because of their equine faces. They can be found in both temperate and tropical waters. Studland Bay, off the coast of Dorset, is known to have a population clinging to its weedy seabed. They are jealously protected from intrusion by underwater photographers but a voluntary body calling itself the Seahorse Trust. Elsewhere, I've photographed seahorses as far apart as St.Vincent in the Caribbean and South Leyte in the Philippines.
    Caribbean seahorse. Caribbean seahorse. (St.Vincent)
    Although sedentary by nature and seeming only to use prevailing currents to drift from location to location, they are quite difficult to photograph because they tend to shy away from cameras. It's as if, childlike, they think that if they cannot see a perceived threat it won't be able to see them. At around 10cm tall, you can get good pictures of them with your compact camera set in macro mode, but you need to be patient. Sometimes it means concentrating on your subject for many minutes, constantly allowing the camera to refocus, until the charming little animal has forgotten that you are there and turns back to face you. Then you grab the moment! Even when diving at night and discovering a seahorse clinging to some coral or maybe a sponge, it can be just as challenging because your light will disturb it. A good trick is to use a red filter over your focussing light or one that has a red light mode and they surprise the animal with the sudden pulse of white light from your flash, capturing its image while it is unaware. Most marine animals cannot see red light so that they are undisturbed in this way.
    Seahorse photographed under a pier or jetty in South Leyte  at night. Seahorse photographed under a pier or jetty in South Leyte, Philippines, at night.
    The Latin name for seahorse is Hippocampus which means ’Horse Caterpillar’. They without doubt a type of fish, they breathe through gills and control their buoyancy by means of a swim bladder like other typical fish. There are many sub-species but they all tend to live their lives in the same way, clinging to fixed points near the seabed with their long prehensile snake-like tails. They hunt for food by sight and their long thin snouts allow them to poke into nooks and crannies, sucking up tiny crustacea. Seahorse have excellent eyesight and can work their eyes independently so that they can look forwards and backwards at the same time, but they are poor swimmers, relying on their dorsal fins to propel them forwards while their pectoral fins, positioned either side of their head, are use for stability. They move into deep water to avoid rough seas. There are up to forty different species. Sea horses have exo-skeletons and are unusual in that it is the male of the species that carries and broods the eggs. The female passes the eggs to the male and he fertilises them within his pouch so its a sort of reverse pregnancy
    Searching for pigmy seahorses on a seafan. Searching for pygmy seahorses on a seafan.
    If you visit and dive in Eastern Indonesia, the Philippines and area to the East, you will notice dive guides searching among the gorgonia or seafans. They are looking for pygmy seahorses. This species has been discovered only in recent times but has proved to be a popular subject with underwater photographers. However, you need sharp eyes to see them. They are often only a few millimetres tall but look like perfectly formed animals - only in miniature! You need a powerful macro lens and good contrast lighting to record good images of these charming little beasts. Usually you will need to add a macro wet lens to any camera other than an expensive DSLR that might be equipped with suitably close focussing prime macro lens.
    Pigmy seahorse photographed in Lembeh Strait in North Suluwesi, Indonesia. Pygmy seahorse on a red gorgonia. (photographed in Lembeh Strait in North Suluwesi, Indonesia)
    Even then you might think of adding a suitable wet dioptre lens too, but you don’t need a top-of-the-range camera to get good seahorse pictures, even it they are so tiny. You can fit a powerful plus-10 dioptre macro wet lens to almost any camera housing that has a 67mm thread to its front port. Even if you have a proprietary plexiglass underwater housing with a rectangular front port you can usually obtain an adapter that will allow you to fit bayonet-type wet lenses. You can even stack these macro lenses to enable you to photograph the smallest subjects. You can even get something similar for your GoPro. Not only can you fit a wet lens but, because the camera is so close to the subject when you take a picture, it’s one time that the in-built camera flash might give you a satisfactory result. This will rely on fitting the light diffuser that originally came with the housing. However an off-board ancillary flashgun or strobe will be more controllable. You could use a video light but remember that although it will be close enough to your subject to give a good exposure, it might also fry it! It will certainly disturb it. Come in to Ocean Leisure and discuss what you might need to photograph seahorses.
    Pigmy Seahorse photographed in the Philippines. A tiny pygmy seahorse photographed in the Philippines. It is clinging to the gorgonia (sea fan) and has adopted the same colour as a method of disguise. (Photographed in the Philippines)
      THE EFFECT ON SEAHORSES In 2009, marine scientist Dave Harasti completed a study in Australia that looked at the direct impact of flash photography on seahorses. “One of the reasons why I did the study was that I was tired of hearing or reading that flashes kill seahorses, when there was no scientific proof,” says Dave, who is using the study as part of a PhD thesis on seahorse conservation. Dave has been studying threatened marine species for the past 10 years. A keen underwater photographer, he has also won several major competitions in Australia. “Part of my research is the use of photo IDs,” he explains. “I photograph a seahorse, look for any distinctive marks and use them for future individual identification. I have taken a lot of photographs of individuals and, given that they are still currently alive and in the same spot where I first found them, I consider it very unlikely that flash photography is having an impact on them. “A good example is my ‘Grandpa’ seahorse, which I have been photographing for three and half years. He’s still alive, currently mating with a real hot (in seahorse eyes) gold female, and is still found in the same spot. This says to me that flash photography does not cause seahorses to die or migrate from their location. “The work I have been doing is on the White’s seahorse (Hippocampus whitei) and to a lesser extent the pot-belly seahorse (Hippocampus abdominalis), so I can’t say that flash photography doesn’t impact on all seahorse species. However, some work we did in PNG involved photo ID of the pygmy seahorse (Hippocampus bargibanti), and there was no impact on this species either. “I found that flash photography had no significant impact on seahorses’ behaviour, movements and longevity. In my humble opinion, photography poses no harm to seahorses. However, photographers touching and moving seahorses and their habitats is a completely different story!”      

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