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Close-up and macro photography

by Mia Buehr

Reproduced from in focus 12 (Oct. 1985)

A resumé of the Basic Course Talk in August

One of the most annoying of the frustrations lying in wait for the novice underwater photographer is the fact that, in spite of spending a small fortune on a good camera and flash, one all too often finds it impossible to take good pictures. The Nikonos, excellent camera though it is, does require some experience to use it to its full potential. There are a lot of decisions to be made underwater, and the beginner is bound to get some of them wrong. The consequence will be a poor picture and a very frustrated photographer. But there is a way for even the most inexperienced of photographers to produce first rate pictures from the first roll of film, and to continue to get good pictures while becoming experienced in the complex techniques of underwater photography. The secret- Use a close-up system with the Nikonos and spend your first photographic season in mastering its use. At the end of the year you should have a nice portfolio of photos to show for your efforts, as well as a lot of valuable experience.

The Nikonos 35 mm lens is unable to focus closer than 0.8 metre, or 2.75 feet. Though that may sound very near it is a considerable distance to the underwater caneraq and that mere metre of water between subject ana camera can cause a lot of photographic problems. To focus closer than this, however, you need a separate close up attachment. There are basically two types: supplementary lenses and extension tubes.


Supplementary lenses are clamped on the front of the Nikonos lens. Their strength is measured in diopters (for example - 1, 2 or 3 diopters as the lenses increase in strength). Depending on their strength, they will enable your Nikonos to focus from round about 15 inches to roughly 6 inches in front of the lens. Perhaps the most popular supplementary lenses on the market are either the Nikonos close-up lens (which can be used with the 35 mm, 28 mm or 8Omm lens) or the Ocean Optics 001 lens (which can be used with the 35 mm or 28 mm lens).


Another way to make the Nikonos focus closer than the standard 0.8 metre is to move the 35 mm lens away from the film by fitting an extension tube between the lens and the camera body. Photography with extension tubes is often called 'macro photography', and usually involves taking pictures of subjects extremely close to the lens: subject-caiiera distance is usually of the order of 3 to 6 inches. Extension tubes are often defined in terms of their 'reproduction ratio'. This is the relation between the size of the subject, and the size that the subject appears on the transparency. The 35 mm lens has a reproduction ratio of approximately 20 : 1 that is 20 units of the field seen by the camera are reduced to 1 unit on the slide.

Extension tubes can reduce this to 1 : 1 or 2 : 1 (in which objects are reduced to and 1/2 life size on the slide), 1 1 (where objects are life size on the slide), or even 1 : 2 (in which the object is magnified two times).


So both supplementary lenses and extension tubes will turn the Nikonos into a close-up camera. Which is the better system for the novice photographer- The short answer is that it all depends on what sort of pictures the photographer wants to take, because the two systems don't quite do the same thing. Sup-plementary lenses are fitted to the outside of the Nikonos lens. They can be removed and replaced underwater$ and so give the photographer the choice between a normal lens and a close-up system on the same dive. A supplementary lens will let the camera focus roughly a foot in front of the lens, and so take pictures of subjects about 6 to 10 inches across, such as a ,;ea urchin, a crab, or a large sponge. The addition of a supplementary lens in front of the Nikonos lens may cause some small degree of distortion, but usually this is scarcely noticeable. Extension tubes, on the other hand, are fitted between the camera body_and the camera lens and so are not removable underwater: you're stuck with the system you start the dive with. Tubes let you focus very close to the lens and are ideal for taking pictures of tiny subjects such as individual jewel anemones, hydroids or nudibranchs. As there is no optical interference with the Nikonos lens, the photographic quality of pictures taken with extension tubes is usually excellent.

So in practice, supplementary lenses and extension tubes are suited to different purposes. Use a supplementary lens for larger subjects or when you want an adaptable system, and fit extension tubes when you're hunting the smaller subjects. Whether you use a lens or a 'macro system'# the practical problems of close-up photography are similar. In the first place, all close,up systems have a limited depth of field. In an extreme close-up (such as a 1 : 1 or 1 : 2 extension tube) you'll have to take great care to select subjects that lie roughly in one plane: otherwise only a small part of your subject will be in focus. Another potential problem is viewfinding. The standard Nikonos viewfinder is useless for close-up work, as it will 'look' far beyond the field covered by your system (the problem of parallax).


But the differences, both of focus ing and viewfinding, are solved by the provision of the frame or pointers, with which all close-up systems are fitted. These devices define the field of view that will appear on your picture, and so let you compose your photo with great accuracy. Also, any close-up frame or pointer will show you precisely the plane of focus of the system. Briefly, if a subject is in the plane of the frame, or right at the tip of the pointer, it will be in focus.

So a close-up system can solve two of your technical problems (focus ing and viewfinding) straightaway. But you'll still have to determine what exposure to use (that is, what or f-stop). There are no hard and fast rules about this; you'll just have to find out by trial and error what is right for your particular system. The beet way to go about this is to shoot off a test film, taking pictures of several different subject6 using all the apertures that your lens will give you. Then have a look at the film and decide on the two (or possibly three) best exposures, and use these two (or three) apertures for all your future work. Taking two or three exposures of each subject ('bracketing') will ensure that you get at least one that is properly exposed.


When setting up a close-up system, give some thought to the flash that you'll use (you will need a flash; close up photography can't really be done with ambient light). But you needn't buy a very powerful and expensive flash: a small one will do just as well and probably even better. Because the subject is so close to the camera you need less light to illuminate it properly than you'd have to use to take pictures of things further off, and indeed a very powerful flash may well prove to be too strong for close-up work. An autoflash isn't necessary (exposures are pretty predictable in close-up work) but if you have oneg it should work perfectly well on the auto mode.

When it comes to mounting the flash on the camera you may find that you can break one of the basic rules of underwater photography. 'With most systems it is important to keep the flash as far away from the camera as possible in order to reduce the reflection of light into the lens from particles suspended in the water (the problem of backscatter). In close-up photography you can keep the camera quite close to the flash and still have no backscatter problems. This is partly because there is very little water (and so very little suspended matter) between subject and camera, and partly because the flash - subject - lens angle is very wide, so any backscatter tends to be reflected back into the flash rather than the lens. The fact that there is little water between subject and camera also means that the problem caused by the effects of water on light (such as absorption and diffusion) are minimised, and close-up photographs usually have brilliant colours, crisp contrasts and generally good picture quality.


So the close-up system is easy to use because ao many technical problems don't exist (is backscatter and light diffusion), or are catered for by the sytem (ie focussing and framing) or can easily be predicted (exposure). But easy as it is to use, a few basic rules must be followed if you want to get the best results. First, because depth of field can be very limited, you should try and find fairly flattish subjects. The more extreme your degree of close-up, the more important it is that your subject should lie in the same plane as the end of your framing device. Also, the frame that makes your viewfinding so easy can cause problems by casting shadows on your subject, so be sure that your flash is allowed an unobstructed view of the subject. But perhaps the biggest challenge to the novice photographer is learning to choose appropriate and original subjects for the close-up system. There are count less small animals in the sea: anemones, little crabs, snails, small fish, and of course the endlessly fascinating nudibranchs. But small parts of large animals can also make very attractive pictures: masses of anemone tentacles, the tube feet of an urchin, a section of an encrusting sponge or colonial sea squirt.

Though the close-up camera is an excellent introduction to underwater photography for the novice, it can still offer many challenges to the more experienced photographer. There are opportunities to experiment with unusual flash angles and backlighting, and tomanipulate background effects. The colours, textures and shapes of close-up subjects provide endless possibilities of picture construction and composition that can be difficult to obtain with other formats. So if you are a novice photographer, a close-up system can't be bettered as an introduction to underwater photography, and when you've moved out of the novice class you'll still need close-up to get those pictures and effects that no other system can give you.

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