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Macro Photography in Utila Part II:  How to Get the Shot

There is no substitute for practice and experience, but in the second of two articles on macro photography in Utila we’ll offer you some tips and tricks to get started.

In our last article on macro photography in Utila, we introduced you to Brad Ryon, a realtor and underwater photographer on Utila, one of the Bay Islands in Honduras. The island is a paradise for macro photographers, and you needn’t be a professional photographer to take advantage of the opportunities in the island’s waters. Here, we’ll focus on tips and tricks that Ryon has picked up along the way, and also offer some relatively affordable equipment suggestions.

Buying the right equipment

Many divers want to take better pictures underwater, but macro often seems out of reach, especially to amateurs who may eye the giant camera rigs they see on the boat with unease. Although big DSLR rigs are undoubtedly spectacular at the job, you can capture good macro images as well with a far smaller, more affordable set up.

Ryon used DSLRs above-water, but he found an underwater rig — with multiple lenses and strobes — too bulky and costly for not much difference in result with macro shots When looking for your first underwater camera for macro photography, Ryon recommends something with a built-in flash, a microscope mode and an underwater housing. Both the Olympus TG-5and the Canon G series are good options. Some of the G-series cameras have a focus range of 1 cm/half inch and, by adding diopters or magnification lenses to the underwater housing, you can capture extremely small creatures or amazing close-up details. There are several strobes that work well for macro photography, but you can also get good results with a video light or even a torch if you don’t have the budget for a separate strobe.

Before your first shot

Once you’ve chosen your rig, Ryon has a few tips before you even begin shooting.

Practice good buoyancy

Avoiding contact with the reef and reef creatures demands good diving skills and good buoyancy. Both are a must before you attempt to take macro photos. You must be able to take your time and visit small, controlled areas. Whenever you enter the water, marine life disperses, so you must hover quietly and let the reef creatures return to more normal behavior. Additionally, you must go very slow unless you’re looking for something specific. The key is to stay as still as possible, control your breathing and move very slowly.

When it comes to your camera, start small

Ryon’s first camera was a high-end point-and-shoot with an underwater housing and no lights or strobes. It had a built-in +3 macro setting, but that was it. He learned that he did not need a big rig to photograph the reef if he got closer and used natural light.   Your first camera doesn’t need to be complicated, and you can even start with the standard macro setting on most cameras (the flower button). Once you have improved your skills, purchase a camera with either a microscope mode or a housing that allows you to add a diopter or magnification lens. There will be a lot to learn once you upgrade, and the time to learn how to work your rig is not on the dive with living creatures.

Practice in a pool or topside

Practice in a pool with sinkable toys or other objects before trying to photograph on the reef. When diving, look for stuff in sand or gravel, as it is much safer for beginners to photograph there first. Macro opportunities depend on what you’re looking for related to reef or sand, but you must be deep enough to be out of surge. Stay aware of everything around you on a reef. Gain experience and master buoyancy before you photograph close to the reef.

You can also practice lighting techniques in the pool with sinkable toys. You want to get as close as possible to a subject underwater to eliminate sedimentation, but lighting can become a problem when you’re so close. If you’re using the built-in flash, it will cast a shadow from the housing. You won’t know at what distance this happens without practicing.

Know the habitat and what you’ll find there

Ryon says it is less about the equipment and more about doing your research and taking time to get the shot. He recommends that new photographers invest in a book called “The Underwater Photographer,” by Martin Edge. It’s also helpful to study the reef books written by Ned DeLoach or others to help narrow down what you are looking for and where to look.

Doing your homework will help prepare you for what you will find, and help you learn where to look for something specific. You can also practice setting up your camera to get the shot. Time of day and conditions are usually not as much of an issue with macro photography as they are with other types of underwater photography, unless you’re looking for nighttime creatures. You can shoot macro in almost any environment, other than strong surge or rough seas, because there is very little water between you and the subject to affect clarity if the water is murky.

Take your time

Once you’ve done your research, slow down. Take your time on the dive. Ryon says he used to swim right over critters, but now he knows where to look and what to look for. Fin slowly (if at all), and examine the areas you’re diving over. Look closely at soft corals for stuff crawling around. Over time you will learn where to look — if you know what you’re looking for and where it should be, you can often find it.

Final tips for macro photography

Once you’ve dialed in your buoyancy and know what you’re looking for, it’s time to start honing your photography skills. Here are a few of Ryon’s top tips.

  • Start with affordable set-up because the more expensive ones won’t necessarily make you successful. Allow your skills to outgrow the camera before you move up.
  • Always shoot on the manual setting and at the fastest shutter speed possible, unless you’re trying to achieve a specific effect. A camera flash typically will typically sync around 1/250th of a second, but Ryon uses a camera with a flash sync at 1/4000th of a second. This helps capture quick action and produces sharp images, because the action will blur if the shutter speed is too slow.
  • Camera angle is important. Try not to photograph from above your subject. Either get straight on or underneath to make a shot more interesting and to achieve better characteristics and color. This is where good buoyancy comes in.
  • You may not be able to make out a creature until you look at the picture later. Ryon has taken pictures of what looks like a speck of dirt, but often finds out it was a creature.

Focus on dive skills before photography. Once you’re a seasoned diver, adding macro photography can liven up your dives considerably. Find a set-up that is within your skill level and budget and get to know it well, and practice with it before you go diving.  Finally, slow down and take the time to look for stuff. Macro photography will be within your reach in no time.