Macrophotography: Up close and personal with the coral reef

My fingers are still tingling. I stretch and bend them several times making sure they aren’t stuck permanently in a clutching position around my underwater housing.

Endorphins are coursing through my body.

“Mind-blowing,” I am thinking surfacing from my dive in Anemone Fields in the Alor Archipelago, Indonesia.

For some of my dive buddies? Yawn. Some of them are even photographers. My trip leader’s response to them, “Try taking some photographs like Janice’s.”

Me, impressing other underwater photographers? I had no idea that anyone else was even paying attention.

While one of the other guests thought she was done taking photographs, I ran out of time. After 10 days of diving, I was just getting started.

A different strategy

I almost exclusively take macro shots. I guess I developed a fondness for macrophotography because my cameras have never been great for wide angle, and as a scientist, macro shots are like looking through a microscope for me.

The classic approach to underwater macro shots is to find a rare creature/behavior (or your guide finds this creature/points out the behavior), and photograph it. As divers, we look feverishly for the rarer moving critters, but as the clock runs down underwater, we forget we could relax and consider the reef itself as a great abstract macro subject. Photograph sessile creatures but do it beautifully.

No one is in line behind you waiting for their chance to photograph some rare find made by the guide. You let nature do the work.

What to photograph?

When divers say they didn’t see anything, I don’t understand. The reef is filled with animals that deserve a closer look: tunicates, hydroids, sponges. Photograph the humblest, least vibrant of creatures, and you may get a surprise.

Stony corals, even if you don’t see their potential as a photographic subject, you have to be impressed by what they do. It’s really a colony of small creatures which produce a skeleton on the grandest of scales. It’s all driven by gene expression. You can catch the polyps at night when they feed. But the pattern they have created in the stony skeleton is something you can photograph any time of the day.

A full frame of open soft coral polyps disguised as a bed of flowers is easy to visualize, but not always easy to catch. The animals are not rare, but these creatures are still sensitive to light or movement. They don’t run away; they close. You might only have a couple of chances before your subject begins to react. A feather worm or christmas tree worm, for example, will disappear instantly if disturbed.

I used to think I was an oddball. Maybe wasting time and effort underwater. Then I heard of a woman who only photographed tunicates.

What equipment?

The good news is even simple equipment produces desirable results.

Up until recently, I used a compact camera with manual functions. Most of my underwater photographs were captured with a Canon G10 and G15. You can set aperture, shutter speed and ISO, but the range of these functions is limited. But I recently purchased a mirrorless camera with a greater range of these functions allowing for more artistic techniques.

Strobes are the best way to make photographs work underwater overall. One strobe lights up your subject, but two strobes will make it easier to get even lighting if the photograph is being taken absolutely parallel to the surface of the creature(s).

Use a macro lens. With a compact camera, you can attach wet lenses to the outside of the housing. The mirrorless camera has a dedicated macro lens. A dedicated lens gives you quicker and more focusing power as well as more space to light the area evenly.

Your best attribute as an underwater photographer?

Just be curious. It’s a lot about seeing the potential in the subject. Most of the job for underwater photos is finding the subject to photograph. That’s why I love underwater photography. The underwater environment is full of photographic subjects foreign to us air breathing animals. The forms, the colors, even the texture of the animals are worth photographing.

You don’t have to think too hard to take an interesting photograph. You just have to be there.

Not all of these shots are good experiments. Many of these photographs will be a bust underwater. The thing that looks beautiful through your mask doesn’t always look that great in a photograph. The colors the strobes reveal in macro shots might not be that pleasing to look at. Or it’s a blow-out. And tough to get right.

Even if they work, these aren’t the kind of photographs that will often win photo contests, which require some greater level of technical difficulty. They look great hanging on your wall though.

Maybe it’s the easy way out to photograph underwater. But try it! Challenge yourself in a square meter of the reef and see what you come up with.


©Janice Marie Nigro/

Looking for a scientific editor or writer? Contact Janice Nigro at Janice Nigro Ink. I have published in Cell, Science, and Nature, and articles I have edited have appeared in Cancer Research, PLoSONE, the Journal of Surgical Oncology, and Oncotarget.


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