Post details: Macro Photography Class with Cathy Church


Macro Photography Class with Cathy Church

The day after the Nekton cruise I had another photo class at Cathy Church's Centre. This time it was with Cathy herself. I had arranged that before coming to the Caymans.

Since I didn't know anything about macro photography, I decided this to be the subject that I would like to cover. First we had a classroom session to review the theory, then a dive to practice the skills and finally a photo critique.

The Classroom Session

During the classroom session we reviewed some of the theory behind macro photography. The settings for macro photography is very similar to a studio situation where you have a fixed distance between the camera and the subject and fixed strobe position (very close to the lens). Therefore, unlike wide-angle photography, the variables are fewer.

I went over the table that I had reviewed with Eddy (one of Cathy's staff) and we reviewed it with macro photography in mind. In this table, the areas with light blue background are the ideal settings for macro photography.

Aperture (F stops)Shutter Speed (secs)Film Speed (ISO)
2.8 (+ more light)1/15 (+ more light)1600 (+ more sensitivity)
41/30 (blur)800 (noise and grain)
11 (SLR)1/500100 (preferred)
221/800 (max sync)50
(- less light)1/1000(- less light)25(- less sensitivity)
Master Control:
  • Strobe
  • Ambient
  • Depth of Field
  • Movement
  • Ambient Light
Controls: Overall Sensitivity

For macro photography, depth of field is an important factor. Since the camera lens will be inches from the subject, we want to maximize depth of field, so that the (small) subject is completely in focus. Therefore the smallest Aperture is ideal. An F/5.6 or smaller is required. Most point-and-shoot cameras don't even have F/11 and only SLR lenses can reach F/22.

Since all the light that we care in a macro picture comes from the strobe, the Shutter Speed needs to be specifically set to only capture the strobe light and no ambient light whatsoever. In macro photography, there is no need for metering the environment. A very fast shutter speed will give the best results, usually around 1/500 of a sec. A factor called "strobe sync-time" comes into play. Strobe sync-time is slowest time difference between the opening of the shutter and the strobe firing. For example, if a camera/strobe setup has a sync-time of 1/500 sec, the strobe will fire at worst 1/500 secs after the shutter. That means that with this setup you cannot use a shutter speed faster than 1/500 sec, since you might miss the strobe light altogether. Cathy explained to me, how a strobe gives power over time. This graph illustrates how a strobe gives light:

Strobe Graph
Strobe power over time after it fires

Most of the power in a strobe is given off after 1/1000 of a sec. The difference in light power (from the strobe) among 1/500, 1/250 and 1/125 secs (after the shutter) are really minimal. However, the slower the shutter speed the more ambient light (the ugly blueish light) we will get. So the shutter speed that we pick needs to capture most of the strobe's light, not get ambient light and account for the sync time. According to the graph the shutter speed of around 1/500 is that ideal number.

In terms of Film Speed we want to minimize noise and grain since we want to probably "blow up" macro pictures. Also, since in macro photography we are setting up for a controlled environment, ie. fixed distance from the subject and position/power of the strobe, there is no point in using higher film speed. A film speed of ISO 100 or slower works best.

After going thru the lighting theory. We took the camera, an Olympus SP-350 and made a couple of "test" pictures on land. This was to become familiar with the controls and how the camera feels. The SP-350 has a "super macro" mode that allows you get really close to the subject. I took a couple of test pictures of a written page being about 1 inch away from it. Almost touching the subject! Since being close to the subject and remaining close to it for some time is critical to macro photography, Cathy emphasized good buoyancy control, which we would practice in our practice dive. Since it is almost impossible to remain suspended in the same position in the water column above the subject, Cathy told me about the "underwater photographer's finger" technique (which I alredy knew). It consist of finding a dead spot in the coral and use one finger to remain fixed above the subject.

Guided Dive with Cathy

About 30 minutes after the classroom session, we met by the water at Sunset House's dive dock. Getting into the water was a bit challenging, since we didn't want to jump with the equipment. We used the stairs instead. Cathy was wearing a writing pad (looked like a edge-a-sketch) so that she could give me instructions under water.

The camera setup that we used was the Olympus SP-350 --capable of taking 8 MP pictures-- an Olympus PT-030 housing, Sea&Sea YS-90 strobe, Sea&Sea TTL sync-cord, Heinrich-Weikamp TTL bulkhead and Ultralight buoyant arms.

The first exercise was to check my buoyancy. Right after we got into the water, Cathy grabbed a hermit crab on the sandy area and told me to get a really close picture of it. She laid the hermit crab on the sand with the opening facing up. While I was trying to get a shot whe would "correct my posture", sometimes pushing my feet down. My feet tended to float up while I was taking the picture. Then I understood why she was wearing ankle weights. The hermit crab would sometimes hide inside or turn over and walk away. It took several trials to take this shot.

Hermit Crab
Hermit Crab Closeup. F/8.0 at 1/640, 8mm

Before this picture, I didn't realize that hermit crabs had so much "hair" around their legs! I guess that's how they cling to rocks and such.

After about 8 minutes and about 8 pictures, we moved on to another subject: Squirrel fish. Squirrel fish usually stay stationary outside their "home", a crevice or a hole in a coral formation. They are not spooked easily, so if you approach them slowly, you can get really close to them. This picture was taken less than one foot away. You can even see the curvature of the cornea of the fish.

Squirrel Fish
Squirrel fish Closeup. F/8.0 at 1/640, 24mm

The next subject was christmas tree worms and feather dusters. These guys could be challenging to shoot, since they would hide away if they sense movement close to them. So the trick was to have all the settings ready and approach slowly for a shot. I later was impressed at the the detail and color that I was getting with this camera. You could even see the feather details.

Xmas Tree Worm
Xmas Tree Worm Closeup. F/8.0 at 1/640, 8mm

This next picture was a bit challenging to take. There was a slight current that was moving the feather dusters back and forth. And also it was hard to stay stationary in one position. One thing that is very gratifying, is to see (in the picture) the real color of what you see down there, thanks to the strobe light.

Feather Dusters
Feather Dusters Closeup. F/8.0 at 1/640, 8mm

On the next exercise, Cathy instructed me to take a picture to something on a coral head. It took me a couple of minutes to even notice this tiny guy. It's a "spinnyhead blenny" that has carved out a hole inside a coral head. This image is a magnified image (at least 200%). The guy looks like a green martian. I was so close to the coral head that my camera lense was touching the coral head slightly.

Spinnyhead Blenny
Spinnyhead Blenny inside a hole in a coral head. F/8.0 at 1/640, 8mm

On the next set of pictures, we focused on taking close pictures on the resident gray angelfish. I've seen this guy before on my previous lesson about a week ago. The staff at Cathy Church's use a can of Cheese-whip to lure him and pose for the picture. Here's a picture of Cathy's hand luring the gray angel.

Cathy feeding Gray Angelfish
Cathy luring Gray Angel Fish. F/8.0 at 1/400, 8mm

On this picture, Cathy put the can of cheese-whip inside the barrel sponge. And you thought those "perfect" underwater pictures happens by chance? Sometimes they are staged, like this one:

Gray Angelfish by Barrel Sponge
Gray Angelfish by Barrel Sponge. F/8 at 1/400, 8 mm

Finally I took a picture of the gray angel while it was swimming round. Digital point-and-shoot cameras have the disadvantage that they have a lag time between the time you press the shutter and the actual picture is taken. So the trick is to put your subject in the frame for a long time (like shooting viedo) because the picture might take a while to be taken. While I was putting this guy in my camera sights, Cathy was positioning me in the "right place", that is helping me turn around.

Gray Angel Closeup
Gray Angel Closeup. F/8 at 1/500, 8 mm

It was about the end of the dive, the batteries on the strobe were starting to run out. We headed back to shore and I was shooting at whatever we saw on our path. Like this "saddled blenny" which is tiny, about 1.5 inch long.

Saddled Blenny
Saddled Blenny. F/5.6 at 1/320, 8 mm

Cathy Church's Photo Centre: the Shop

Cathy Church's Shop is located in the basement of the main building of Sunset House. It is a well stocked underwater photography store, camera rental, repair shop and poster/print store of Cathy's underwater pictures.

Cathy Church's Centre: Photo Rental Corner
Cathy Church's Centre: Photo Rental Corner
Cathy Church's Centre: Olympus Galore
Cathy Church's Centre: Olympus Galore, with a big inventory of Olympus SP-350 and PT-030

The Shop is a big fan of the Olympus SP-350. They use it for rentals, professionally for photo shoots and obviously resell them. They offer a "photo buddy" service in which one of their staff will join Sunset House's boat dive, take pictures of you and sell them to you later.

There is an area in the shop where you can review your photos with the assistance of one of their staff. They are a Macintosh shop with two iMacs in the back of the store and use iView Pro software to review the photos.

Cathy Church's Centre: Photo Review Stations
Cathy Church's Centre: Photo Review Stations
Cathy Church's Centre: Poster Corner
Cathy Church's Centre: Poster Corner

In general, the whole experience with Cathy and Cathy's staff was great. They are very knowledgeable and I learned a lot from them. However, their services, as anything in the Caymans, is pricey for the priceless experience.

Eddy with Cathy Church
Eddy with Cathy Church

Eddy's Scuba Blog

Blog about Eddy's Scuba Trips, Scuba Conferences and Underwater Photography

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