Editor's Note - This is the third installment of an ongoing mini series about how to get started with SLR video. Like many others, Steve De Neef, a professional underwater photographer, was curious about starting to shoot video given the low cost barrier of getting started with the advent of HDSLRs. So Steve took his Canon 7D, did some research and started shooting. He has chronicled his experiences in this series and invited you to learn from his trials. In the first part he covered the basic terminology and equipment of SLR videography, in the second part he looked closely at shooting wide angle, and now, in this third installment, will dive into macro.
In the previous installments of my series, “Shooting Video With Basic dSLR Equipment,” we mainly focused on how to get good results shooting wide angle video. It would be a shame to leave out the smallest critters in our oceans, so in this installment we take a closer look at how to shoot macro, and make those tiny creatures big stars.
Equipment needed for underwater SLR macro video
You will find that you don’t need to invest a lot in new equipment when starting out shooting macro video. I used mainly all the equipment I already owned for shooting stills
Here’s a list of what you need to get started:
- A DSLR camera – be sure you know how to use and understand the manual settings.
- A macro lens in the 50 to 100mm range. The shorter focal length macro lenses are easier to use and start out with.
- A wet diopter, like the +10 Subsee or Macromate, will come in handy for the really small stuff.
- Although I didn’t use any of these for the footage shown here, a teleconverter or extension tube would work well for super macro footage.
- Any kind of tripod will improve stabilizing your camera.
- Some sort of artificial light source - Dedicated video lights work best, but powerful focus lights can get you started.
- A white slate to use for custom white balance
Which lens to pick depends a lot on your subject. Just like with macro photography, lenses with larger focal lengths will fill the frame with smaller subjects, but are trickier to use.
The 60mm lens
My favorite lens so far is the 60mm macro lens. Macro lenses in this range allow you to get really close to your subject, but still gives you a tight enough angle of view to frame smaller subjects.
Getting close is important, as your lights will need to bring color back into the scene, and you can shoot at lower ISO’s and higher aperture settings. Auto-focusing is much easier with lenses 50 to 60mm range than with lenses at longer focal lengths, and focus must be tack sharp with video.
The 100/105mm lens
A 100/105mm lens is my, and many other photographers, favorite lens for shooting stills, but for video this lens has been challenging. The minimum focus distance of a 100mm lens is longer then a 50 or 60mm lens, so you have to shoot from further away. Since you are depending on artificial light to illuminate the scene, your video lights will have to work harder to create the correct exposure. However, the advantage of the longer focal lengths is that you can get the same framing as a 60mm lens from farther away, so when shooting skittish critters you’re less likely to scare them off.
Wet lens diopters
Shooting super macro with a 100mm lens in combination with a close up lens like the +10 Subsee or Macromate can produce unique and exciting footage.
The difficulty with supermacro video is focusing, as these high magnifications will mean you are working with small depth of fields. Manual focus is definitely the way to go, but expect to get frustrated, squint a lot and get a few more grey hairs.
For wide angle slr video, a tripod is not a necessity, but you will find that for macro video you will need to use something to stabilize your camera or you will get unsatisfactory, shaky footage. Sometimes you might be able to support the whole housing on the substrate, but this is not always possible, and certainly not ideal.
To get started you can purchase a cheap, flexible tripod that are designed for topside use, but can be taken underwater as well. For all the footage used in this article, I shot with a Gorillapod, which is an excellent tool for introductory macro SLR video. Gorillapods are inexpensive, yet rugged tripods with flexible legs that are designed to provide stability in tricky scenarios. While underwater use was certainly not their intended purpose, they serve the underwater videographer well!
I definitely had a lot of frustrating moments trying to stabilize my camera. Most of the time, I had to put both hands on the legs of the Gorillapod to stop it from falling. Using a small tripod to frame your subject can take a lot of trial and error, and adjusting the legs over and over again is part of the process. Once you do get the composition you want and push down the legs a bit, you can achieve perfectly stable footage.
As you underwater macro SLR video skills grow, you may want to consider investing in a dedicated underwater tripod. A number of underwater photography accessory gear manufacturers are now producing tripods that are designed specifically for the underwater environment, including the adverse effects salt water. While I have yet to try a dedicated underwater tripod, they are likely a step up from the smaller Gorillapod, but come with a significantly higher price tag.
When a Tripod Won’t Do
Some subjects won’t stay still long enough for you to put your camera down on a tripod and frame your shot, so shooting handheld will be the only option. Having a tripod installed will still help you getting smoother footage. You can rest one of the tripod legs on your upper body or arm to stabilize the camera. Holding on to the tripod legs while following your subject can work well too. For some shots, I put down just one or two legs in the sand, and then pivoted the camera on the legs while following the subject.
When you’re shooting in the shallows while there is surge, it is almost impossible to stabilize your camera, so try to avoid these conditions. A steep slope it can be difficult as well, as it’s hard to situate a tripod without leaning over, and on reefs there often isn’t any room to put down you rig without causing damage. The easiest spots to shoot macro are on flatter sandy slopes and in coral rubble.
Getting good color
When shooting wide angle custom white balance will give you great results, for macro, however, artificial lights will give you far superior footage. The problem with using custom white balance and macro lenses is that the higher focal length lenses don’t let in as much light as wide angle lenses, and you will often have to use very high ISO settings that will degrade the quality of the footage.
Another downside to using custom white balance is that the colors don’t come out as saturated and vivid as when using a video light. Additionally, I found when trying to custom white balance that focusing was harder, as there is less light available to help your cameras auto focus. However, if you don’t want to invest in video lights at the moment, custom white balance will still improve your footage.
Video lights are necessary tools for getting top-notch macro video. Just like with stills, artificial lights will bring back the color that is lost to the depths of the ocean. In other words, strobes and video lights are essentially performing the same function, but video lights provide a continuous light source.
For most of the footage in this article, I used an i-Torch video pro 3 in combination with a Fisheye FIX LED 1000 DX. I mounted both lights on my arms, just like I would with my strobes. Try to get the lights as close as possible to your subject without scaring it away. Getting the lights close will allow you to shoot at a lower ISO’s and use higher aperture settings for more depth of field.
Settings and exposure
Getting the correct exposure when shooting underwater macro video is significantly different than shooting macro stills with an SLR. The biggest difference is that you can’t use strobes. Continuous lights, in general, are not nearly as powerful as strobes, so you will have to make adjustments to the settings you’re used to using for still photography.
If you’ve read the previous installment, then you know that shutter speed isn’t a flexible setting when shooting SLR video. In general, you want to shoot with a shutter speed of double your frame rate to get cinema like footage, anything else produces footage that doesn’t look right. This means that if you’re shooting at 30 fps (frames per second) you will need to use a shutter speed of 1/60th of a second. When you’re shooting at 24 fps, you should use 1/50th of a second.
Aperture, ISO and the power of your lights will be the main settings you can change to get a good exposure and to get creative.
Just like when shooting stills, aperture will dictate you depth of field as well as your exposure. I found that when shooting at less the f11, it was very hard to get anything in focus, as the depth of field is so minimal. Aperture settings between f11 and f20 where ideal and still let me use reasonable ISO settings.
While higher ISOs might not be used often in macro photography, you may need them for video. I always started at ISO 320, and often went up to ISO 640 and even ISO 1200. I find that on my Canon EOS 7D, 1200 is the highest usable ISO, but each model is different.
Finding the perfect balance between an ISO and aperture is important and that’s why powerful video lights are helpful. The more power your lights have, the lower ISO and higher the apertures you can use. One downside of powerful lights, however, is that it tends to scare away critters and you’ll have a harder time capturing natural behavior.
The Best Settings are the Right Settings
Getting your exposure right is critical -- video doesn’t allow you to do a lot of post processing like shooting stills in RAW does. You want to be as close as possible to perfect exposure in camera as you can. I used the light meter at the bottom of the LCD screen a lot. I found I got the best results when I was slightly underexposing the footage, with a reading of -0.3 to 0.7.
Another way you can check if your exposure is good is by taking a picture first and reviewing the histogram. Be aware of blown highlights, you want to avoid this at all times.
If you aren’t shooting with very strong lights, then the ambient light may come into play. When shooting in the shallows on a sunny day, the ripples on the surface can make the light flicker a lot. This doesn’t ruin the footage but can be a distracting. The only way to avoid this is by going a bit deeper or shooting at another time of the day.
Focusing might be the hardest part of shooting macro video with an SLR. The main issue is that the depth of field you get with macro lenses is so minimal that your subject can leave the focus plane if it, or your camera, move even slightly.
Tips for keeping sharp focus:
- Use a tripod. As mentioned before, a tripod is essential to get stable images, which aside from looking better than shaky footage, will also go a long way in keeping your subject in focus.
- Auto focus works well with the 60mm lens, but you may need to use manual focus when using the 100/105mm lens.
- Use f11 as your minimum aperture. I found anything less didn’t give a sufficient depth of field. Smaller apertures are preferable, especially with the longer focal length lenses.
- If your camera allows you to zoom in your focus point on your LCD screen, utilize this feature to help ensure your subject is in focus. Otherwise, it can be hard to determine sharp focus on the small LCD screen
- Shoot stationary subjects. It goes without saying that keeping a still or slow moving subject in focus is much easier to do than with a moving one. With moving subjects, I have tried turned the focus knob on my housing while filming, which can work, but I’ve had mixed results. This kind of ‘follow focus’ takes practice.
The newer SLR’s have continuous autofocus, a feature that seems promising for shooting macro video and would alleviate many of the focusing issues. I have not had a chance to use this feature, but it’s a developing technology to keep a close eye on as it could have profound impacts on the effectiveness and ease of using an SLR to shoot underwater macro video.
As mentioned, when shooting macro the best subjects to start with are critters that don’t move a lot or move slowly. Footage for this series was shot in the Philippines where sea slugs made ideal subjects, and shrimps and crabs are nice to start with too. Frogfish are very easy as they don’t tend to move much at all but are not so exciting on video because of this same reason. Seahorses don’t move much so focusing is easy, but they are shy and don’t like very bright lights. Fish are the hardest subjects as they rarely sit still long enough to get stable footage that is in focus.
Here’s a list of some of the better subjects to start with:
- Shrimps (commensal, harlequin, coleman, etc.)
- Crabs (porcelain crabs, Halimeda crabs, crabs on a seapen, etc.)
- Shrimp gobys
- Cuttlefish and octopus
- Ghost pipefish
Editor’s note – Since the author lives in the Philippines this is a Indo Pacific oriented subject list. If you are Caribbean shooter, similar, semi stationary, subjects like Christmas tree worms and secretary blennies are good options.
Try to approach any subject slowly and watch the behavior before you start filming. Your footage will be a lot more interesting if you can catch some kind of behavior like a mating nudibranch, yawning frogfish or eating shrimp.
Shooting macro with an SLR is more challenging then wide angle. Focusing is the hardest part of shooting macro, but with the help of lights and a tripod you can get quality results that are well worth the effort.
My go to lens was a 60mm macro lens, which allowed me to get really close and utilize my lights to get the best color and sharpness. For getting supermacro footage, a 100mm lens in combination with a +10 diopter worked really well, but manual focus was a must. Start with stationary subjects so you can practice achieving proper focus and exposure. Lastly, the only real mistake you can make is to not try at all, as you will be amazed at the detail, color and behavior you can catch on video with your SLR.
The equipment Steve used or mentioned in this article is available from our retail partner, Backscatter. Please support DPG and articles like this one by supporting our retail partner. Steve’s Gear:
- Canon EOS 7D
- Nauticam NA-7D housing
- Canon 60mm macro lens
- Canon 100mm macro lens
- MacroMate Flip Lens for Nauticam
- Joby Gorillapod SLR
- Xit 404 DSLR Housing Tripod
- Fisheye FIX LED 1000 DX
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