A Macro Shooter’s Guide to Critter Spotting
Tiny critters are incredibly hard to spot, so learn all you can from your spotter
You enter the water and head down to a new dive site. The visibility is bad, and all you see when you reach the bottom is a broad sandy expense of broken rocks and bits of trash. Worst dive ever? Total waste of time? Not for macro shooters!
Macro photography has exploded in popularity over the past decade, and now images of tiny critters dominate the popular online sharing platforms. Divers will fly halfway around the world to dive in bad viz and muck—and be very happy doing it! However, the experience can be incredibly frustrating, as these tiny animals are masters of camouflage and are very hard to find. What can you do to prepare, locate, and shoot these amazing critters?
Packing Your Bags
You can help ensure a successful macro shoot before you walk out your door to board a plane or drive to your local dive site. The most obvious step is to make sure you have the proper gear. This is especially true for new macro photographers, so let’s do a quick rundown of the essentials. After all, you can’t shoot the little guys if you can’t even see them.
Let’s start with your camera. There is no specific camera you need for macro, but unless you are shooting with an Olympus TG-5 or TG-6, you are going to need a dedicated 60mm or 100mm macro lens. Don’t expect to be able to use your medium-range fish photo lens for these shots; these critters are tiny. You may have some luck with a midrange lens for some of the bigger animals that hide in the muck, but don’t bank on it.
You need to have the right gear to shoot tiny little critters like this frogfish
Next, let’s move on to lights. You need at least one strobe or a very powerful video light. The only special light you will want is a focus light that has a red setting. The red light is not visible to most underwater creatures, so by using this light you can set everything up without alerting them. Don’t just blast away with your strobes; that could ultimately harm the critters. Use the red light to get everything set, and then take a few quick shots using full lights. Plus, you will get much more satisfying compositions when the animals are not trying to hide from your glaring lights.
The last bit of gear you will need to consider is a different mask. This does not make sense right away, but think about it. If you want to read very small print, then many of us will reach for a magnifying glass. Why not do the same thing underwater? You can get masks with bifocals or external magnifying attachments, and if you are going to be making a macro-heavy trip, you may want to pick up a pair. Whether it is a dedicated mask, stick-on bifocals, or a mini magnifying glass attachment, using some form of magnification on your mask will make for a better experience.
When you find your target, take the time to get a good angle. Face-on always looks great
Getting a Plan Together
This is a step that most people do without thinking, but it makes up a key part of finding what you are looking for. Do some geographic research upfront and make sure you are putting yourself in a location where you can hit those bucket list items. Want to see a pygmy seahorse? Well, where do they live? Don’t just assume that because a location is tropical that all the warm water creatures will be there.
If you want a visual way to find out where your targets are located, look through the underwater photography groups online. See what others are shooting and where. It might give you some creative inspiration, too. When you get to the point of booking your trip, use what you saw online and put it into action. Go somewhere with a high concentration of what you are looking for.
What is even more important is finding an operator that has the best local guides. You want to find guides that are very experienced working their local waters. You aren’t looking for an instructor; you need someone who knows how to find what you want to see. The importance of a good, local guide cannot be overstated.
If you are looking to learn from others, then check into any workshops that may be going on. These can be a great way to work on your photographic skills, marine biology knowledge, and critter spotting, all while meeting new people.
Once you know where to look for critters, they become much easier to spot
Do Your Homework
Everybody loves homework, so this step in the process is always very popular! Now that you know where you are going and what lives there, you can begin the process of figuring out how to find that tiny hairy shrimp in all that algae.
The first step a pro spotter will usually take is to identify the habitat that a creature lives in. This is a high-level view of where to look, but it will narrow down the potential dive sites tremendously. A good habitat list would look like this:
- Muck: That wonderful muddy, silty, sloppy bottom we find near shore where creatures can burrow down into the bottom to avoid detection.
- Seaweed: Locations that have a lot of plant life. These will be shallow areas where good light is available. The plants provide shelter and food sources for the local inhabitants.
- Coral: Good old-fashioned coral reef. The major distinctions here will be between soft and hard corals. They are very different environments, so don’t assume anything when you hear the term “coral reef.”
Frogfish make easy subjects, if you can find them!
- Rubble: A broken rocky bottom with plenty of shelter. A lot can fall into this category, but generally, you are talking about a bottom that has a lot of hiding places. The rubble may be created by rocks or broken coral.
- Under a pier or structure: These will either be piers in shallow water or wrecks. The common ingredient is shadows. Critters in these environments will hide in the darkness so bring a light.
- Cave: Self-explanatory, but make sure you are qualified to dive in these environments and always maintain a high level of situational awareness. Don’t lose focus here.
- Rocks: These will tend to be big rocks and not broken up rubble. In these environments, you are looking for the animals that live in the cracks.
Rhinopias live at a very specific depth in rubble environments
- Artificial reefs: No animal has specifically evolved just for an artificial reef, but they do attract critters that may not normally be found in that area. These structures are often placed in open, barren areas that have little in the way of marine life. Once there is a structure, then these become thriving islands in an underwater desert. Keep your eye out for these as they are a real wild card in what you can find in a given location.
- Near rivers: We are not talking about diving in a river—although this can be fun! We are looking for areas where rivers and streams empty into the ocean. This brings poor viz, but it also brings a lot of nutrients that run off the land and feed the tiniest of creatures. Look closely, and you’ll see that a lot of very famous macro/muck diving sites are located off the mouth of a river.
If you are shooting nudibranchs, it is essential to get the rhinophores in focus
Once you know what you want to see, where it lives in the world, and what type of habitat it prefers, you are almost done with your homework. If you get in the water at this point, you still won’t know exactly where to look, and when your target is the size of a grain of sand, you are still a long way off. How do you know where precisely where to look?
Napoleon famously said that an army marches on its stomach: Turns out, this is good advice for critter spotting, too. If you know what your creature eats, you have a very good chance of finding it. Macro critters tend to make their homes in very close proximity to their food sources, sometimes even on them.
You need to pay attention to the food source and also when they feed—no point in looking for a nocturnal feeder during the day. When critters aren’t feeding, they tend to be hiding, so get to know their dietary schedule, as well. With knowledge of habitat, food source, and activity cycle, you can massively enhance your chances of finding what you are after. Even if you have a great guide, you can help out if you know what you are doing. The more eyes the better!
In certain locations, you can find great subjects on almost every strand of whip coral
What to Do in the Water
Eventually, you will get in the water and look for your little treasure. At this point you should have a great guide, know the habitat, what it eats and when. There are still some things you need to think about in your quest for the Holy Grail.
First, be patient. It seems simple, but so many divers expect to check off their whole bucket list on the first day. It turns out the critters have a say in whether they get found or not! You will have times when you completely strike out, so be ready for disappointment.
There is also an element of luck at play. Sometimes you get lucky. You can help your luck by going nice and slow while staying off the bottom. Experience will also help you out, but this is why you have a guide. After seeing your guide find a pygmy seahorse a few times, you will start to pick up that skill on your own.
Every macro photographer has a bucket list: To get all your shots, you need to put in the work beforehand
Moving slowly will also increase your dive time. The longer you are searching, the better chance you have of success. It also helps to bring more eyes with you, so make some friends on your boat and help each other out. If they spot something, wait for them to finish shooting and then ask them to point out their subject to you. By trading subjects during a dive, you can spend a lot more time shooting and a lot less time searching.
Finally, if you can’t find your subject but you know it is there, you may need to look harder! There have been countless times that I couldn’t find anything, only to find out a few minutes later that I was staring right at it but didn’t see it!
Hopefully, this guide will put you on the right track to checking those critters off your bucket lists. Macro photography and spotting are completely dependent on each other, so it will benefit you to become skilled in both if you want to get those amazing shots. Happy diving and spotting!
Dial in your aperture as low as possible to get these soft focus shots
Take note of the environment in the background—Rhinopias like rubble
Some macro shooters will travel halfway around the world to find a critter like this
About Andre “Snoopy” Montenegro: Better known as “Snoopy,” Andre Montenegro is a legend in the Dauin area of the Philippines. Snoopy learned the ropes of critter spotting very early on and he quickly developed an eye for shooting them. You can find him around Dauin and Dumaguete running his dive shop Scuba Ventures Dumaguete. If you are planning on being in the area, make sure to look him up. Snoopy is also the coauthor of the upcoming book “Let’s Go Dive: Guide to Dauin.” You can follow him and his work on Facebook.
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