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Study in super-macro photography
Trip report through the eyes of Wakatobi guest Tom Reynolds, June 2011.

A macro lens is generally defined as a lens capable of 1:1 capture. 1:1 capture means the image on the camera's sensor is the same size as the actual subject photographed. Since the sensor in a typical digital camera is smaller than a postage stamp, it is obvious that small is the watchword. But what about very, very small - the tiny? As we magnify a macro image in our camera, it invariably loses detail. Even with the best camera and lens there is a limit to macro photography. Enter the world of super-macro, the art of capture of greater magnification than 1:1. There are various ways to accomplish super-macro. I chose a +10 SubSee magnifier. My normal lens is a 105mm Nikon lens that captures 1:1 at a working distance (the distance between the end of the lens and the subject) of about 5. Adding the Subsee reduces the working distance by half but doubles the magnification. I now can capture in 2:1-super macro. This is what I saw.

Study in Red

This was the most shocking capture. I focused on the eye of this Pigmy Seahorse and achieved focus lock. Later I discovered that I had not captured the entire critter. Imagine that, a Pigmy Seahorse that was actually too big for the lens! A little help from Guy and Anita, far more artsy than I, produced this 16:9 shot for the slideshow.

Study in Blue

These 'Blue Bells' are apparently Tunicates. I had never even considered this as a subject. It was just another stalk of something! My dive guide, Ana, suggested photographing Sea Squirts and tunicates. I took a few shots. This is full frame and I'd like to try to print it in a matt finish.

Study in Parts

I have photographed Soft Coral many times in macro, usually with a resident Soft Coral Crab. Magnified, it is another experience altogether. This entire "subjects never photographed" gave me a new appreciation of the underwater beauty.

Study in Discovery

I actually found this white Pygmy Seahorse myself. Prior to this, white pygmy Seahorses always looked like just another white fleck on the Halimeda weed. It was much tinier than the red variety. This is the shot that guests most want. Getting one to look at the camera is very difficult. Getting the entire body viewable, even more so. Of course this was ho-hum to artsy types. Between the three, Anita, Guy and Ana, they continued to convince me to take more 'unusual' "subjects never photographed" underwater.

Study in White

This Cowrie on a Sea Fan was tiny. The detail on the shell is amazing. Our guide, Wayan, suggested this capture. Notice that the milky white of the shell was captured and the underlying ridges on the shell are present.

Study in Technique

Generally I shoot macro in focus priority mode meaning that the subject must be in focus for the camera to take a shot. With super-macro I get closer that minimum focus distance, then withdraw until the subject becomes in-focus and the camera takes a shot. Problem is that if anything is moving, either the camera or the subject the camera can't get a focus lock that it finds acceptable. The good news is that most of the shots the camera decides to take are tack sharp. The bad news is the frustration when the camera won't take a shot that looks perfectly focused to me.

The camera is set between f/29-f/32 and the shutter is 1/200-1/250. The INON z-240 strobes are even with and touching the port. My long 9" dual Stix arms really got in the way preventing many shots where an overhang was present.

I did not use my FIX focus light because it too extended well above the housing body limiting flexibility.

Next time I plan single short arms. A ring flash would be good if it was compatible with the subsee.

This is the full frame shot (cropped on only 1 axis for 3:2 to 8.5 x 11) of the first picture.

Study on Technique

Super macro photography is the world of razor-thin depth of field, even at f/32. That means that only a small portion of the subject is in perfect focus (if any). On the other hand, if something in-focus is interesting, the shot may be great. 'Boobs' is a serious crop of a Sea Squirt. Just weird. This file is only 1288 x765 pixels. It could still probably be printed successfully, but people love it on the screen.

Barrel Sponge Lice

They look like part of the Barrel Sponge. Like little specs of dust all over it. But blow it up, zoom in.. they are alive! Even with a 2:1 this is a serious crop and zoom, but some detail remains.

Bubble Coral Shrimp

Details never before seen, this photo was followed by a long discussion on what the Shrimp is actually manipulating. Eggs? No, not eggs. Neither is the back of the critter covered in eggs. It's part of the shrimp! The decision was "stuff"e;. Stuff scraped off the bubble coral. Ms. Shrimp is eating it. Stuff.


This is a close crop of tiny Flower Pot Coral polyps. I need to try this again. Unfortunately any movement, either the camera or the subject, ruins the focus. My 105mm lens, new style, is ultra-fast in autofocus, but still not fast enough to handle any movement.


Another Sea Squirt shot showing the delicately beautiful arrangement on the stalk.

Blue Pygmy Seahorse

Finally, a simple, super-macro shot of a red Pygmy Seahorse, with a blue tint - from eating the fan?


About the Author

Tom Reynolds

Tom Reynolds
Consultant to USCLab www.usclab.usc.edu
Program Manager for the Rainbow Sensor Program
Co-inventor of the rainbow sensor.
Diving since 2001 with 600+ dives
Special Interest: Underwater Photography

Coral Reefs need top quality water quality management. Poor water quality ultimately leads to dead reefs. Unfortunately, the budgets for water quality in large urban areas such as Los Angeles are out of the question for most parts of the world. Together with Dr. Burt Jones http://usclab.usc.edu/people.html, USC Biology Dept, Tom developed the "rainbow sensor" that inexpensively measures organic components of seawater. With this technology, it is now possible for small organizations to fund and manage local water quality measurements.

Read Tom's Endorsement of Wakatobi

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