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Africa Geographic Travel

Fiona Ayerst has been a professional underwater photographer for seven years and her company, Fiona Ayerst Underwater Photography, is a multi-award winning photography agency.

For these photo tips, Fiona shares 5 easy steps to take outstanding underwater macro shots. 

(This article is divided into ten steps – five steps for compact camera users and five for DSLR users.)

coral reef fish

Tips for compact camera users 

1. Most compact cameras have a macro mode (designated by the flower symbol), which reconfigures the zoom mechanism in the camera to allow closer focus. No additional items are needed to shoot macro with these cameras. In fact, these cameras are wonderful for macro work because you can squeeze them (carefully) into small spaces that massive DSLR’s cannot venture.

2. If your housing allows it, it is a good idea to investigate and buy clip-on lenses or extension tubes to enable you to either get closer or get a larger reproduction of the critter you are shooting.

sea urchin

3. If you can’t afford strobes then use custom white balancing to add some colour back into your photos and try to shoot in clean and shallow locations. A red filter can really help if you are deeper than 8 metres but shallower than 20 metres.

4. If you can afford strobes then make sure you invest in good oscillating arms to give you full control over where you want the light to be coming from.

5. Use manual settings on your camera. For a worst-case scenario (if you can’t access manual settings) use aperture or shutter priority. Program and Auto modes do not work underwater.

clown fish

Tips for DSLR users 

1. With a DSLR I recommend you start with a 60mm macro lens and a suitable port. The short focal length of this lens will afford you great depth of field. The 100 or 105mm is a great lens but harder to use due to its narrower angle so move onto that when you are more advanced.

2. If you have a cropped sensor camera and the old-style FX 60 mm lens then you get a crop factor and your focal length is around 85mm – which is brilliant for even very tiny subjects.


3. Invest in a good focus light that is not part of your strobes. I like to have one mounted to the hot-shoe on the top of my housing.

4. Unless you are trying to achieve shallow depth of field, work at f-stops around 18 to 22. Remember that most strobes synch only up to 1/250th of a second.

5. Try to learn the behaviour of your subject and then depict this in your composition. i.e. the long nose hawk-fish is a hungry dart-like critter so portrait aspect shots using strong diagonal lines and opposing colours work well to describe its character.

sea creature


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The Africa Geographic Photographer of the Year Competition is brought to you by Land Rover and Canon, in association with At Close Quarters, Airlink, Klaserie Sands River Camp, Hideaways, iSimangaliso Wetland Park, Thule and Rhino Tears. The competition will run from December 2016 to May 2017 and entrants can submit images via the online entry form or via Africa Geographic's Instagram channel. This profile will be used to showcase photographic tips from experts as well as blogs from our sponsors to set you on your way to becoming our Photographer of the Year!

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