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Super Macro: Beyond Small
Super Macro: Beyond Small
Posted by: Michael Zeigler on 04/14/2014
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Taking Macro to a New Level

Text by Michael Zeigler Photos by Todd Winner & Michael Zeigler

Amphipod Family

Family of tiny amphipods on the tip of a small piece of encrusted algae. The use of a close-up lens in addition to the 1:1 magnification of my macro lens allowed to me create this image without cropping into the frame. Nikon D7000, 105mm macro lens at 1:1, SubSee +10 lens, Ikelite DS160 strobes - 1/250, ƒ/45, ISO 320.[/caption]

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.
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.

Tools of the 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.

A tiny Catriona columbiana nudibranch in the detritus patch at Veterans Park - Redondo Beach, CA.

A tiny Catriona columbiana nudibranch in the detritus patch at Veterans Park - Redondo Beach, CA. Nikon D7000, 105mm macro @ 1:1, SubSee +5, Ikelite DS160 strobes - 1/250, ƒ/36, ISO 320.

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.

SMC chart

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

The Approach

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. 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.

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.

Flabellina trilineata

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


Janolus nudibranch, Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 100mm f/2.8L, Nauticam SMC, Ikelite DS160 strobes - 1/100, ƒ/14, ISO 160.

Felimare californiensis

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

About the Authors

  Michael Zeigler
Michael Zeigler is a contributor, instructor, and trip leader for Samy's Underwater Photo & Video, as well as an AAUS Scientific Diver. More of Michael's underwater photography can be seen at      

Todd Winner

Todd Winner is a contributor, instructor, and trip leader for Samy’s Underwater Photo & Video and has over 20 years of experience in underwater still and broadcast video. To see more of Todd’s work please go to        

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