Super Macro: Supersizing Your Macro

Supersize your macro images by going beyond 1:1. In the past, going beyond the limits of shooting true 1:1 macro seemed nearly impossible. Homemade magnifiers increased the subject size for sure but lacked in quality, while other “wet lenses” did not offer much in the way of magnification. However, with the surge of wet lenses on the market over the past few years, diopters in varying strengths have managed to achieve both magnification and increased quality, making super macro readily available to anyone wanting to go beyond 1:1.

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Mike Bartick is a widely published underwater photographer and dive writer based in Anilao, Philppines.

A small animal expert, he leads groups of photographers into Asia’s underwater realm to seek out that special critter.

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Diopters or wet lenses are attached on the outside of the housing, giving the name “wet lens” to the diopter. A wet lens increases your magnification while decreasing the working distance of your camera lens. This makes longer camera lenses such as the 100mm or 105mm the best choice for several reasons. Getting greater than 1:1 can also be achieved using a 60mm lens, and both combinations of lens/diopters have their place in this area for different reasons.


The most popular setup for serious super macro shooters is the 105/100mm lens with an external wet lens attached with a flip adapter. This combination allows a shooter to shoot long for nervous critters or to flip their diopter down and zero in on the really small subjects. Options are good underwater, and this combination will give any shooter a lot of room and space for creativity.

Challenges and skills

Super macro will relentlessly challenge you in every aspect of shooting from the technical aspects of the camera settings to your dive skills. To paraphrase a quote by David Doublet, “If you can’t shoot exotic subjects, then shoot the common subjects in an exotic way.” Shooting super macro will certainly deliver in that arena and create an exotic flavor for anyone looking to add some punch to a plain vanilla portfolio.

Your main objective or goal for shooting supersized, super macro images should be set at “capturing the image in the camera using true magnification”—this achieved by using said diopters or wet lenses, not through post processing. This lofty goal allows you the greatest freedom of dissemination of your images and results in high-quality, high-resolution image files in the finished product. Cropping should be kept to a minimum for purity, but depending on what your final output will be, the choice is ultimately yours.

Shooting super macro and making small subjects appear to be larger (pardon the pun) is the smallest aspect of this style of shooting. Framing, composition and lighting are all key factors to consider, as they will greatly affect all areas of your final product and become the natural jumping-off point to expand on this secretive world of shooting super macro and going beyond 1:1. Magnifying your subject and shooting super macro images comes at a high price, affecting the following:

• Depth of field

• Composition

• Lighting

• Stabilization

Let’s break it down and consider each of these key factors to gain a better understanding of how each of them dovetails into the next. Addressing them in a simple systematic manner will also allow us to strategize and assert better control over vital elements.

Depth of field

Our first inclination to increase depth of field is always the f-stop. Stopping down to the maximum of your lens’ ability will certainly give you a better depth of field, but it will also leave your images dark and eventually soften the details due to diffraction. Opening the f-stop will give you plenty of light but kill your depth of field and blow out the highlights. You will find that the best f-stop for super macro is in the upper ranges of your lens and usually hovers between f/29 and f/36. Your f-stop really needs to be pushed to fight the extremely narrow depth of field created by greater magnification. Use your ISO to amplify the light if needed and push your f-stop.


Composition, on the other hand, can be limited depending on your diopter, and this is really where a higher quality diopter leaves the rest behind. Consider the fact that all lenses have a sweet spot, generally dead center of the lens. There are a couple of ways to get around a bullseye shot so that we can focus, recompose and shoot in a more creative way. Critical focus is paramount, so to achieve the desired composition, you must again assert control over your system by restricting the lens from hunting.


When shooting macro and super macro images, your lighting technique might also need an overhaul. Like in other forms of photography, lighting is critical in super macro. Due to the tight working distances, backscatter is often not an issue, but correct exposure is.

I like to keep things simple, so in most cases, I use the fastest shutter speed possible to eliminate any ambient light, e.g., 1/250. This allows me to concentrate on f-stop, strobe angle and composition. My strobes are angled in, so that I am not directly flashing the subject—using a modeling light is extremely important for this. In many cases, I use a single strobe over the top and aimed back at my housing (not into the lens) so that most of the light is actually blocked by my camera housing. Just a small curtain of light illuminates my subject. This strobe angle helps to eliminate background light even on a tight reef.

In some cases, I might also use a light-shaping device to help eliminate the distracting background altogether. For dual strobes, I use a similar method of reversing the strobe angle so that just a slight curtain of light flashes my subject.

In other situations, I want big, bright macro images. In this case, I designate a primary strobe in the foreground, and the second is used as a fill light for shadows. Even backlighting with a third light can give your photo an additional layer of interest that will set your photos apart from the pack.

Prior to your next dive, get to know your system a little bit. Find your camera’s weak points and learn how to work with them, not against them. Every camera has a weak point, so buying the latest and greatest is not always the solution. Learning how to squeeze a little more horsepower out your existing system could be as simple as experimenting. Here are a few of the ways that I have revved up the power of my camera system through logic and experimentation.


Stabilizing your camera and yourself when shooting super macro might be one of the toughest, multifaceted elements for shooting super macro that is frequently overlooked. Consider using a quality float arm to give your heavy system enough lift, allowing you to use a lighter shutter finger. Once you have locked the focus, the system should be light enough to adjust with just your fingertips. Super macro is delicate work and having a lighter system will allow you to finesse your bulky housing.

The way you hold your housing is also critical. Try using your left hand to hold the housing under the lens port. The system should feel natural and light in your hands underwater, not heavy.

Technique revealed

Amplifying the incoming light is the first order of business when pushing your f-stops into the higher ranges, achieved by using your native ISO settings. This will also enable you to have some flexibility over your exposure for fine tuning and to retain control over the highlights and to bring back some of the color in an otherwise dark exposure.

Check your camera functions for focus locking or back button focus. This becomes a powerful tool for split-second shooting. Once correct focus is achieved, you can restrict the lens from hunting and adjust the critical focus with subtle in and out camera movements or allow the subject to move to you. In addition, you can fire your camera at any time, when the focus is locked. This handy tool is perfect for any environment that has any surge whatsoever, by allowing the subject to move in and out of your focal plane. Resist hunting and minimize your movement.

Focus, lock, adjust and fire while paying close attention to critical focus. Remember what we see through the lens and diopter is equivalent to a 2.8 or less due to the extreme magnification. We only see the depth of field returned after the photo is made, no matter what f-stop we use while shooting the photo.

Visualize your sensor plane as a three-dimensional, rectangular space, in which your subject will be photographed. The plane of field is linear, but the depth of the image should not be neglected and will help create stronger compositions if the subject is working into the image.

After locking your focus, you can recompose in a linear method. As long as you do not move your plane of field forwards or backwards, the image will remain sharp—which is easier said than done. Getting low is also important to expose the little critters’ habitats and getting a closer look into their world. Shooting anything from front to back or head to tail will always create a greater fall-off of acceptable sharpness, while a slightly horizontal approach will allow for more of the subject to be sharp.

Going beyond 1:1 is not as difficult as one would think. All it takes is a little practice and determination. Remember to be patient with yourself, have a little fun and try to apply a few of the techniques discussed to help you along. Now get out there and have an adventure! ■