skeleton shrimp
Skeleton shrimp on eel grass. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 100mm f/2.8L at 1:1, SubSee +10, Ikelite DS160 strobes – 1/200, ƒ/25, ISO 100.

What is super macro? Most macro lenses like the Canon 100mm or Nikon 105mm have the ability to magnify a subject to life size or 1:1. In other words, those lenses will allow you to fill the frame with a subject that is the same size as the sensor in your camera. The most popular definition of super macro photography is the in-camera capture of an image that is larger than life size or 1:1 magnification.

Tools of the Super Macro Trade

There are several ways to achieve super macro magnification including the use of extension tubes, teleconverters, or supplemental positive lenses (aka diopters). I think it would be safe to say that the most popular tool for super macro photography is the latter. Popular supplemental positive lenses include ReefNet SubSee, Aquatica, MacroMate, and the Nauticam Super Macro Converter (SMC).

These close-up lenses, or diopters, can usually be screwed directly into the end of some macro ports or attached to the port via a flip adapter. The use of a flip adapter allows the photographer to shoot traditional macro or super macro with a simple flip of the diopter. In addition, these diopters are available in a variety of strengths; the most popular of which are +5 and +10.

Catriona columbiana nudibranch
A tiny Catriona columbiana nudibranch in the detritus patch at Veterans Park.

Side by Side

The comparison composite below by Todd Winner shows the same subject photographed at 1:1 magnification with the addition of different diopters.

Super Macro

As you can see, the magnification increases based on the strength of the diopter, with the Nauticam SMC providing the most magnification. 

The Approach

Gulf Signal Blenny
Gulf signal blenny. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 100mm f/2.8L, SubSee +5, Ikelite DS160 strobes – 1/200, ƒ/20, ISO 160.

The high magnification and close proximity to the subjects when shooting super macro presents the photographer with several challenges. First and foremost, finding and then re-finding tiny subjects through the viewfinder can be mind-numbing. Combine that with extremely shallow depths of field, challenges focusing, and effective lighting takes a dedicated mindset and a healthy dose of patience.

Throw in a bit of current or surge and you’ll quickly find yourself considering a more sane type of photography – perhaps something involving solid ground and a tripod. However, when the elements come together the results can be stunning and very rewarding. Techniques like noting the features surrounding the subject will make finding the tiny subject through the viewfinder easier, and utilizing manual focus will help reduce the sometimes infuriating efforts of locking focus.

I’ve found that using manual focus with my DSLR is made even easier with the use of the Xit 404 focus/zoom knob. Super macro demands a high level of patience and dedication and it’s definitely not for everyone.

Super Macro
Flabellina trilineata nudibranch ~4mm long. Nikon D7000, 105mm macro @ 1:1, Nauticam SMC, Ikelite DS160 strobes – 1/200, ƒ/22, ISO 250.

However, if you have an affinity toward the beauty of the smaller subjects of the sea, and enjoy a challenging underwater discipline, then the tools for super macro will be a worthwhile investment.

super macro
Tiny Felimare californiensis nudibranch. Nikon D7000, 105mm macro @ 1:1, Nauticam SMC, Ikelite DS160 strobes – 1/160, ƒ/25, ISO 200.

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