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Doug Allan - Freeze Frame

Taking close-up and macro photographs

by Linda Pitkin

Reproduced from in focus 17 (Aug. 1986)

Close-up and macro photography are ideal methods for beginners because they are so easy to do but they offer plenty of opportunities for all underwater photographers because of the interesting and varied results you can achieve, British waters are full of excellent small subjects and one advantage is that good pictures can be taken even in conditions of poor visibility because the lens is so close to the subject.

Sedentary subjects such as anemones and corals are the simplest to tackle because you can take your time to line them up in the frame exactly as you want then without having to worry that they are going to swim away. The close-up framer sizes allow you to pick quite large close-up subjects or groups of small creatures. With extension tubes you can concentrate on looking for very small subjects or small details of larger subjects. Small anemones and corals are often brightly coloured and with delicately detailed structures which show up very well in a macro photograph. The swollen tips of the tentacles of Jewel anemones, for example, are always a different colour to the rest of the anemone and light up effectively if you get the exposure right.

When you approach a close-up or macro subject there is a natural tendency to plonk the framer over the top of it, because that's the easiest place to put It. rather than at the side of the subject where the substrate - rock or whatever - often gets in the way. Top views can look rather flat and boring. Most subjects don't stand out from the back ground which is all too often grey/ brown crud - not very photogenic! A side view on the other hand gives you the opportunity to isolate the subject from such a background giving a more interesting, dramatic result. For side views look for subjects that are prominent; sometimes weeding around the subject slightly helps to get rid of matter obscuring it. Some people chop bits of their extension tube framers to make it easier to get at low-growing subjects from awkward angles.

With 1:1 extension tubes, subjects are exactly the same size in the unmagnified 35 mm transparency as they are in real life. The depth of field is very small so you must be particularly careful to position the subject accurately in the framer and not allow it to project through the frame towards the lens.

Although anemones and corals are easy subjects to start with for macro and close-up, you can't afford to be too clumsy as many will withdraw their tentacles or polyps if you knock them about with the framer leaving an unexciting Jelly-like lump. Another problem with a framer is that its shadow can appear in the picture - a common fault with close-ups against a light background such as sand. Adjusting the position of the flash can sometimes counteract the fault and positioning the subject against a dark background eliminates the problem.

If you're getting fed up with anemones don't imagine that that's what you'll be limited to with close-up and macro photography. There is a wide range of suitable subjects, Bottom-dwelling creatures such as sea urchins and starfish are easy to tackle and if these seem unexciting try their graceful and attractive relatives the feather stars. Slow-noving creatures such as sea-slugs that crawl around on the ground and on seaweeds or sponges are fairly easy to photograph with extension tubes.

Currents and swell can be a problem when a small subject is drifting too and fro on a frond and you want to catch it just at the right moment. You need to be patient and take your time. Some sea-slugs naturally swim freely in the water for a while, like the Spanish Dancer seen in the Red Sea. This is a much larger animal than our British sea-slugs and is Just the right size for the 28 mm close-up lens. Jellyfish and other creatures that drift in mid-water make good close-up subjects too, while back on the sea bed, crabs will often stay still long enough for you to take a photo before they scuttle off.

You might not think of fish at first as approachable enough to be ideal subjects for close-up and macro but there are many small fish that sit on the sea-bed. Sea-scorpions and their relatives, for instance, rely on their camouflage to hide them, so they don't bother to swim off when you approach because they think you can't see then. You may need to persevere before you get a really co-operative fish that doesn't mind you resting the framer against him though. Tompot blennies are also found on the sea bed but they are usually in holes in the rock or on a wreck. You can often catch them when they have retreated into a hole if you place your framer at the entrance and wait for then to pop out again. Pipe fish are slow moving and fairly tolerant of the framer. They will often stay put long enough for you to take a couple of shots. Clown fish are very common in anemones in tropical waters. There is rarely a problem in getting close enough to them - often quite the reverse, as they swim right up to your mask to shoo you away from their territory.

One interesting approach to macro photography is to take pictures of bits of larger subjects. This gives you the opportunity to see familiar things in a new way - like the expression on the face of an edible crab. I used to think that flatfish all look alike until I started taking photos of their faces with extension tubes. Details of some animals can make interesting patterns. You can use extension tubes to show up the tube feet amongst the spines of a Sea urchin and the spiralling whorl of tentacles of a Fan worm. Filling the frame with a repetative pattern can be effective and of course you don't have to worry so much about lining the subject up accurately in the framer.

Another way to liven up close-up and macro photography, when you've mastered the basics and want to try something new, Is to experiment with different lighting techniques. You won't be able to rely on getting the same result every time as you have been doing with a fixed flash position and power but the unexpected can be a nice surprise. When taking close-up and macro photos it is standard practice to have the flashgun close to the subject - a similar distance from the subject as the lens is. With most flashguns this enables you to use a small aperture - say f16 or f22 with 64 or 100 ASA film. A small gives you the benefit of the maximum depth of field so that as much of the subject as possible will be sharp. But if the background is sea It will be dark when you use a small aperture.

If you are prepared to sacrifice some depth of field though, you can use a wider aperture such as f8 and take balanced light close-ups and macro, which will give you blue sea in the background. This works particularly well with the close-up lens as this has a much greater depth of field than extension tubes, so you can afford to lose some depth. To achieve a balanced light close-up, the flashgun is held further away from the subject or you can switch to a lower power if your flash gives you that option or stick a diffuser on the front of the flash. If you can get underneath a subject and paint your lens up towards the surface and the sun, you can use a small aperture again and have the best of both worlds.

The standard position for the flash in close-up photography is a little to the left and above the lens but side-lit or back-lit subjects can look excitingly different. There are all sorts of possibilities here for creative photography. Transparent objects such jellyfish and salps won't show up well with the flash in standard position but if you hold the flash well round to the side they will be much more effectively lit.

Don't be afraid to try subjects which are normally fast-moving, such wrasse and many other smallish fish - Cuttlefish too. Although difficult to photograph with close-up and macro these often give rewarding results when you can catch them. You can take the framer off to make it easier to approach this kind of subject although you may then find it difficult to judge the position. Feeding fish can sometimes work to encourage fish which are normally too shy to pose in the frame for close-ups. Not only is it possible to use a close-up lens to photograph a fish like this but close-up gives the advantage of bright crisp colours because there is only 10 inches of water between the lens and the subject instead of 2 or 3 feet as in a standard fish photograph.


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