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Dive Photo Guide


Thinking Small: Macro and Supermacro Spotting and Shooting
By Stephen Wolborsky, August 4, 2023 @ 06:00 AM (EST)

Costasiella kuroshimae, Guam

Have you ever wondered how dive guides find creatures you never could have found? While much of their expertise relates to the fact they dive the same sites repeatedly, they’ve also developed refined skills in knowing where and how to look. In this article, I’ll explain how simple techniques and a little knowledge can increase your success with macro and supermacro photography.

First, some techno-nerd stuff. While divers may apply the “macro” label to any dive where the emphasis is on smaller creatures, in photography it means using specialized equipment to capture a subject and its image on the camera’s sensor at the same size, e.g., a 1cm subject is 1cm on the sensor. For dedicated macro lenses, this 1:1 ratio coincides with the closest the lens can achieve focus on the subject. The majority of (non-macro) lenses cannot achieve this ratio at any distance when used alone. In such cases, you’d need additional magnification to get there.

Sea spider (pycnogonid) on hydroid

Similarly, “supermacro” means any magnification ratio greater than 1:1. In this case, further specialized equipment or modes let you focus closer to the subject than macro (minimum focus) distance, thereby rendering the subject’s sensor image bigger than the subject. For interchangeable lens cameras, while there are some dedicated supermacro lenses on the market, underwater photographers achieve supermacro either with internal gear like teleconverters/extension tubes or external gear like wet diopters. For compact cameras, supermacro requires either a powerful wet diopter or special photo modes. Since you cannot remove internal gear underwater, you’re committed to its magnification for the whole dive. Conversely, you can generally attach or remove external gear underwater, so this option provides flexibility.

I find fulfillment from three aspects of macro and supermacro photography. First is the thrill of the hunt, i.e., finding creatures that I can consistently image. Second is the art and science of image-making. Am I shooting for identification purposes, what I call “field guide” photos, or am I after something artistic? Third, there is image processing, where modern tools let us maximize the impact of our photos. One caveat: Beware the perils of over processing. Slow your roll on those saturation and texture sliders, pal!

Emperor shrimp (Zenopontonia rex) on Thelenota anax sea cucumber


Photography Tips and Techniques

Most photographers find macro/supermacro challenging at first. Here are some of my tips and techniques:

  1. Start each dive with test shots on larger subjects, like bigger nudis, eels, cephalopods (though not the giant Pacific octopus), cooperative fish, etc. If you’re new, these may be all you can do for the whole dive, and that’s fine—not everyone is ready for Shaun the Sheep on their first macro sortie.
  2. Standard guidance for all underwater photography holds for macro, with some additions:
    1. Get close to your subject. If you think you’re close enough, get closer, though not so close that you ruin your composition, e.g., the occasional photo of one rhinophore can be nice, but generally not that close is better.
    2. Shoot up. If you can’t shoot up, shoot level. Keep in mind, however, that some macro subjects can be most interesting from the top down, e.g., mating sea slugs.
    3. Compact shooters, compose with your fins first, zoom lever second. Keep the camera zoomed in until you cannot compose adequately in the frame. Only then should you zoom out some.
    4. Face shots are generally most dramatic. If you can’t get the face, take a side shot. If you can’t get a side shot, take a top-down shot. Only rarely are rear shots viable. If you find a creature you cannot identify, get as many angles as possible to allow for expert review.
    5. Obey compositional guidelines in camera. However, some subjects are so small, in so tight a space or so uncooperative that you are best off putting them in the middle and composing in post.

Glossodoris sp. nudibranch with eggs on sponge

  1. For supermacro, practice getting closer on inanimate or inert subjects first, e.g., rocks, corals, larger tunicates, etc. It takes some adjustment to get as close as you need to be to obtain focus with +10 or greater wet lenses. Some people struggle even with less powerful ones. Until you’re comfortable with the equipment, you risk injuring or damaging your subjects.
  2. Heads up. In the same vein, alternate your view between camera and setting. When you switch your gaze from the camera, pay attention to things around your subject that stand out, because you will quickly find small subjects disappear once you look in the viewfinder or at the LCD. For example, if you are imaging a small, semi-transparent shrimp that is left of a yellow tunicate, find the tunicate first and then move the camera left to find the shrimp. If you are supermacro and shooting a subject on or near the sand, avoid “snowplowing” with your diopter or port and drowning the whole subject.
  3. Lastly, keep it good for all. Agree with other shooters on a protocol before the dive. I recommend “three and out” to start, i.e., take three images and then go to the back of the line. Approach the subject slowly and from its level; don’t swoop down on it. If you are in a mucky or silty area, use your “muck stick” (see below).

Harlequin shrimp (Hymenocera picta) on sea star

Eventually, the main limit to discovery will be the ability to explore close enough to discern what you’re seeing. That’s because the smaller you get or the more you magnify, the more skill it requires. The strongest wet diopters, like the Nauticam SMC-2 or AOI UCL-900PRO (both +23.5 strength or 4x magnification), are a hard limit for most of us. These diopters focus very close to the subject, but their depth of field is extremely narrow, so they require precision to see the subject and focus. Unlike macro lenses, which theoretically focus to infinity, these lenses have only narrow separation between their minimum and maximum focusing distances. Lighting, for focusing or exposing, is also tough when the end of the lens is so close to the subject.

Except where indicated, this article contains images from Guam, my home. You’ll find an excellent article on Guam by Tim Rock on DPG: “Shooting Across Guam: 10 Top Underwater Photography Sites.” While Tim highlighted some of our best sites, Guam is not normally known for macro photography. However, by exploring sites Tim mentioned, as well as finding new ones, my wife MJ and I have achieved macro/supermacro success. Because Guam is not (yet) a macro mecca, we don’t have a robust cadre of professional guides as you’d find in the Philippines, Indonesia, and similar locales. That means, if you want to shoot it on Guam, you need to find it yourself!

Baeolidia moebii nudibranch on wooden detritus


General Guidelines for Critter Spotting

So, how do you maximize your chances of finding critters? Here are my golden rules:

  • Pattern and flow: Investigate anything that breaks up the background. Something that’s a different color, different shape, etc.
  • Movement with purpose: Look for something swimming against or across the water. How about a shadow on the background, e.g., sand? Does the target periodically stop and then move on?
  • Get low: I sense an inverse relationship between distance from the bottom and probability of finding something. Even if you’re just one or two feet above the bottom, you’ll find more things if you cut that in half. And so on. Of course, you might miss a manta mating with a mermaid above, but life’s all about choices, right?
  • Go slow: Almost all divers, and especially newbies, go too fast to find the really small stuff. Slow down; you’ll breathe less and see more.
  • Use a muck stick: I use mine to move slowly across the bottom, so as not to fin in silty or sandy areas (hint: muck diving). When I’m done shooting, I also use it to push myself up and away from the bottom, again to minimize silt.
  • Study: Learn where, what, or how various creatures live, eat, or mate. Are they nocturnal or diurnal? Are males and females different? How about juveniles and adults? Buy field guides and read them, plus explore scholarly articles on potential subjects. Talk with other divers, dive pros, and marine biologists; our diving community is very friendly and forthcoming.
  • Magnify: Many underwater camera systems offer magnifying viewfinders, and they are a boon to spotting. Some cameras offer in-camera magnification as well. My process is to scan with my naked eye before I go to the magnifier and diopter. Alternatively, MJ searches with a less powerful diopter and then flips to the +23.5 as the situation mandates.
  • Master shooting in current: For macro/supermacro, it’s easier to shoot into a current than with it. That means facing into the current and finning to hold yourself steady, but check your 6 o’clock often. Strong current? Maybe not the day for supermacro. Really strong current? Enjoy the ride and wish you had your wide angle.


Specific Guidelines for Critter Spotting

After learning about potential subjects, here are some investigative starters. As always, be mindful of the environment—“killer” images are not worth it.

  • Sea cucumbers: Holothurians are the ocean’s rideshare service. Investigate them carefully and you may find nudibranchs, shrimp, crabs, or small fish aboard. And, yes, take a peek inside the anus if the cucumber is the type to dilate it—fish and crabs can hang out there. Good luck shooting that, or explaining it to your mom!

Sea hare (Bursatella ocelligera) on Thelenota anax sea cucumber

  • Hydroids: These fern-like, stinging animals harbor skeleton shrimp, nudibranchs, and small crustaceans. I’ve found the cleaner hydroids to be more target rich than those that are covered in schmutz.

Skeleton shrimp (Caprella species complex) on hydroid

  • Sponges: These are a primary food source for many nudibranch species. We’ve found whip coral gobies, crabs, shrimp, and frogfish in and around sponges.

Baeolidia moebii nudibranch on sponge

  • Leaves/algae: Two common algae on Guam are Halimeda and Avrainvillea. Both host pipefish, slugs, crustaceans, and more. The latter is notable for one of the most prized of all underwater critters, the sacoglossans in the Costasiella genus, aka “Shaun the Sheep” or the misnamed “sheep nudis.”

Halimeda ghost pipefish (Solenostomus halimeda) in area of Halimeda algae

  • Eggs: We find eggs on many surfaces, including the bottom itself. Look closely and you’ll see creatures traversing or eating, like snails or Favorinus nudibranchs, who eat the eggs of other nudis. One of our most interesting discoveries was when we found Favorinus nudis inside egg masses of other invertebrates, eating them from the inside out and sometimes laying their own eggs there—adding insult to injury.

Favorinus sp. nudibranch inside mollusk egg mass

  • Sea stars: Many sea stars host Zenopontonia shrimp, who assume the color of their host. If you’re lucky, you may also find a hostile harlequin shrimp feasting on one. Sometimes, the latter will rip off an arm and take it elsewhere to eat it.

Zenopontonia soror shrimp on Linckia laevigata sea star

  • Bottles: One person’s trash is another’s treasure? Maybe. While the proliferation of garbage at dive sites is troubling, some items provide attractive shelters for sea life. We have many images of small octopus and fish hanging out inside bottles. The outside can also provide a good surface for nudibranchs and other mollusks.

Juvenile Octopus cyanea in bottle

  • Wood: Small pieces of wood or pine needles that stick up from the bottom provide landing spots for small cephalopods, shrimp, whip coral gobies, and tiny clams. We’ve found nudibranchs, crabs, shrimp, eggs, and snails on leaves and pieces of wood. Where we live, we find coconut husks in the ocean and they feature surprises like Foa fo cardinalfish, where the small males mouth-brood their eggs. Sadly, we have yet to see a coconut octopus on Guam but, hey, there’s always tomorrow.

Pygmy squid (Idiosepius sp.) on wooden detritus

  • Tunicates: These ubiquitous creatures provide haven and food for many creatures, including commensal copepods, skeleton shrimp, nudis, and even pygmy squid.

Pygmy squid (Idiosepius sp.) on lip of tunicate

  • Under or backside of corals: Check where the sun don’t shine! Look under corals when you approach them and after you pass them. Here, you may be treated to a baby yellow boxfish, whom we affectionately call “cheeseballs,” or a male cardinalfish opening its mouth to reveal an egg mass.

Juvenile yellow boxfish (Ostracion cubicum) with red eyes

Finally, be ethical when thinking and shooting small. Avoid touching or moving creatures to get that “killer” shot. Wait for another opportunity. Mind the bottom and be conscious of other divers, particularly when shooting at a true muck site. Use a muck stick and watch those fin tips, too.

Final Thoughts

In this article, I’ve shared some starter macro tips, as well as a sample of what the patient diver can find, using simple guidelines. The suggestions are especially helpful if you don’t have a guide. If you do have a guide, you are now a force multiplier, putting more trained and diligent eyes on a dive site. Good luck and happy hunting!

Mouth-brooding male yellow cardinalfish (Ostorhinchus luteus) with eggs


About the Author: Steve Wolborsky has lived in the US territory of Guam since 2004. A retired member of both the US military and civil service, Steve learned to dive shortly after arriving on the island. Thousands of dives and 30-plus dive trips later, he is passionate about the ocean, diving, and all things underwater photography. Steve and his wife MJ both shoot with Nikon D850s and they specialize in macro/supermacro. Their favorite locations for the small stuff are Lembeh in Indonesia as well as Anilao, Dauin, and Puerto Galera in the Philippines—and, of course, Guam.


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