Giant spider or alien? Super-macro offers amazing possibilities to blow away your viewer
For underwater photographers, finding a format-filling way to shoot super-macro has been a challenge for many years. There were many technical issues to overcome, and shooting these subjects was a challenge. But recently, many new products have been coming to market, so is it still such a challenge to shoot these images? Here, we navigate the basics of super-macro photography, especially the gear you need, for those looking to venture into the bizarre world of tiny critters.
Camera systems, whether DSLR, mirrorless or compact, are essentially all able to shoot subjects at a magnification factor of 1:1—it’s really just a question of cropping the image. In broad terms, the more megapixels you have, the better the resulting image. This is how many photographers begin to shoot macro subjects. Get as close as you can to the subject, take the photo, and then crop as much as you can.
This approach works but has obvious limitations. For most shooters with an interchangeable-lens camera, the next step is to add a macro lens directly to the camera body. These lenses allow you to get closer to the subject, and filling more of the frame. On the whole, these lenses work well, especially when combined with the above “digital zoom” technique. However, they leave something to be desired for super-macro photography, as we are still not able to fill the frame with the tiniest subjects.
Traditional macro lenses and cropping can get you great images like this one of a seahorse
Going Beyond 1:1 Magnification
In the past, if you wanted to get high levels of magnification, then unique solutions had to be used. One of the options still in use for cameras with interchangeable lenses is a teleconverter or intermediate ring in the port/housing of the camera. The teleconverter increases the focal length while maintaining the same level of magnification. At the same time, the corresponding loss of light through the intermediate ring shortens the working distance. The whole setup is analogous to a conversion lens, with the result being the enlargement of your subject.
Aside from the physics at work, there are several other photographic issues to overcome. For starters, autofocus is problematic, and sometimes it does not function at all. Fixing this requires manual focusing with custom-made gears. The nature of the components also lock you into a particular shot as they are not flexible or removable underwater—what is in the port stays in the port.
To make this technique of capturing images beyond 2:1 even more difficult is the fact that particular components or port extensions are necessary if you want to use the best lenses. In the past, for example, the Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 macro could be used up to 5:1. The optics were operated manually, and the entire system worked through an elaborate system of gears. Shooting with this setup produces impressive magnification and bokeh, so it does have its uses. On the other hand, it requires a lot of specialized equipment, and it is not flexible at all. So what should shooters today do to get those 2:1 (or higher) images on to their memory cards?
A teleconverter can produce amazing results, but you will be locked into it during a dive
Wet Lenses and Super-Macro Photography
To get smaller, most photographers use a wet, or conversion, lens. These are diopters that go on the end of your port outside of the housing. To attach them, you can use a flip adapter, bayonet adapter or screw it directly onto the port. Every macro photographer has a different preference, but they all work.
The objective of these lenses is to increase the magnification beyond 1:1. The additional magnification is a huge advantage, as it shortens the working distance of the optics and thus leads to an enlargement of the subject. With these lenses attached, you can get very close to a subject and fill much more of your frame.
A wet lens on a flip mount is an elegant and flexible solution for super-macro
There are some problems with the decresed focal distance. The first is that is can be very hard to keep the subject in the frame, or even to find them in the first place. Secondly, by being so close to what you are shooting, you risk touching your subject.
To boost the magnification, some shooters will stack several of wet lenses on top of each other. Stacking lenses can be tricky as the working distance for different combinations can be negative, and while looking at the screen or through the viewfinder, you may not notice that the end of your lens stack is bumping into your subject. It is therefore essential that the combination of lenses makes sense, and works well with the environment. Even when done correctly, the results are usually only partially satisfactory.
Stacked lenses can get you great results, but make sure not to get too close
What Today’s Shooters Should Know
In recent years, the market for macro lenses has increased significantly, and this is excellent news for those who want to shoot the smallest subjects. Today, there is a multitude of lenses that can be used flexibly and that cover the super-macro range of magnification up to 4:1. Even new compact systems have fantastic in-camera options that push magnification beyond 1:1, especially the legendary Olympus TG-5, and the new TG-6 (which promises even greater magnification possibilities).
Remember that a conversion lens with a 4x magnification is going to be a challenge to handle. Finding your subject at 4x magnification is not easy, and once found, getting the focus right is tough as the depth of field becomes smaller with higher magnification. Keep this in mind as you decide what lens to buy—bigger is not always better.
By focusing on tiny details, you can make common subjects new and interesting
Also, keep in mind what exactly you are looking to buy. You will see a range of magnifications from +5 to +20, but these are only approximate values. The actual enlargement will vary since the lens always behaves differently with the optics of specific cameras. Knowing the result you want is just as important as knowing the lens. To make matters more confusing, many lenses on the market today will (perhaps unsurprisingly) exaggerate the potential magnification.
Several manufacturers are producing super-macro wet lenses. Nauticam, ReefNet, Inon, Saga, Noodilab, and a few others, all offer different lenses in different classes that vary in quality and price. Two of the higher-end options are Nauticam’s SMC and CMC lines. These lenses offer outstanding quality and substantial magnification, but at a higher price point. Ultimately, everyone has to decide for themselves what best fits their needs and budget.
The popular SMC-1 wet lens by Nauticam
Nauticam offers two different lens lines depending on the type of camera being used: the CMC-1 or CMC-2 for compact cameras (and mirrorless systems), and the SMC-1 and SMC-2 for DSLRs. These lenses are very popular and offer excellent quality, plus since they are made for specific systems, you are less likely to encounter problems.
There are many options for shooting super-macro subjects. The variety of cameras, lenses, and conversion lenses create plenty of opportunities to shoot unique images. If you have a flexible system that you can change in the water, you can shoot these special shots without limiting yourself. There are still some very intriguing possibilities with teleconverters, and they shouldn’t be dismissed. However, most of us will find having a super-macro wet lens on a flip mount will be much more useful on our dives.
New technology has made what was once a pretty stagnant market suddenly full of innovation and rapid change. Specialty lenses are now entering the market, and photographers should stay up-to-date on these developments. Add in the possibilities created by the widespread use of 3D printers, and it has become much easier to produce extraordinary optics for use underwater. Many a stunning image is waiting to be shot!
Getting images like this hairy shrimp is within the reach of any photographer if they work at it
Mounting wet lenses on a flip mount will allow you the flexiblity to shoot small—and really small!
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