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How To Get Better Macro Images: Getting The Basics Right


Photographs by Martyn Guess
Photographs by Martyn Guess

Martyn Guess provides some ideas on how we can all get better underwater macro images based on his approach to this close-up type of photography

I see so many macro photographs that with a bit of thought could be so much better. Normally these are either subjects against a very distracting background caused by shooting into the reef, or quick what I call ID shots with no real thought of the best way to try and capture an image of the subject.

Good macro photography requires us to follow a few basic rules and then to apply these to our images. The image needs to be well composed, striking and colourful with maybe some interesting behaviour or good eye contact and importantly, it has to be well lit.

Subject Selection

It’s easy to follow the guide and shoot what he finds for you. However, not every subject is worth the effort and the time. Consider how accessible the critter is – is it in a cleft in the rock that it is impossible to get a camera close to it or is it facing the wrong way, or is the critter against a really complicated background? In these situations, a good photograph is going to be very difficult if not impossible, so my advice is to acknowledge the spotting, thank the dive guide and move on! Spend more time on a good subject in a good position.

Photographs by Martyn Guess
Eggs inside the mouth of a cardinalfish


Look carefully for any type of behaviour as an image with a critter doing something interesting or unexpected will draw the viewer’s attention. Take the honeycomb moray in the picture, for example. Ordinarily I would have been satisfied just trying to get a well-lit shot but as I settled down I noticed that deeper under the rocks were loads of shrimps.

I decided to wait a while to see whether they would come close to the moray. The shrimps and the eel live in a symbiotic mutualistic relationship whereby the shrimps are protected from predators, and in return the shrimps clean their protector’s teeth and skin. If you are aware of this you will understand that waiting might give rise to some interesting behaviour. When it does, make the most of it.

Photographs by Martyn Guess

The cardinalfish in the picture is a classic example of interesting behaviour with the male fish mouth-brooding the eggs and periodically aerating them by opening his mouth. If you know about this behavior, you watch out for it and get a much more interesting shot. The best people to teach you about behaviour and to point it out is the dive guide, so make a point of chatting with him or her and encouraging them to point behaviour out.

Peak of The Action

get better macro images 1
Harlequin shrimp

Following on from watching for behaviour, once spotted the trick is to take the shot at the optimum time – such as when the critter opens its mouth, or maybe turns to look at you. You just have to be observant and press the shutter at the right moment, or keep shooting throughout and pick the image that displays the action at its absolute peak. The latest cameras with fast processing and frame rates will allow you to cover the action! The image of the mandarin fish mating typifies peak of the action.

Eye Contact And Angle Of View

If the critter you are photographing has eyes or rhinophores (in the case of nudibranchs), then it is important that these are sharp and that you get the sense in the image that the critter is looking at you. I place my focus point over these areas to make sure they are the sharpest part of the image.

Photographs by Martyn Guess
Honeycomb moray being cleaned by a shrimp

Most cameras will let you take control of the focus and do this, so check out the camera focus menus if you are not sure how. However, what will definitely help with the impact of the image and composition (and this applies to all camera formats) is if you get low to the subject and look up towards the eyes and rhinophores.


Getting low and shooting up into the water column will dramatically improve the image as you will more easily be able to get darker or black backgrounds, or indeed take control and get a blue background if desired. The water background is a simple plain background against which to set the subject, adding impact to the overall image.

Photographs by Martyn Guess

The trick is the location of the subject and being able to shoot at a suitable angle, which avoids a distracting background, such as the reef. I see many images where the photographer has shot downwards or into the reef and all you then get is a subject, which visually is fighting with either the colours or substance of the background.

The colour of the water column background is primarily controlled by the camera speed. So if you want a black background, increase your speed and if you want a blue or lighter background, bring the speed down to a level that will freeze the action but slow enough to give you the colour you are after.

There are many ways that the background can be controlled and give something more pleasing – different lighting techniques and careful use of the aperture and shooting into the water column are the most important. Opening the aperture up to say F5.6 can help to blur the background, as the aperture will limit the depth of field. In this way the subject will be sharp depending where you focus and the background nicely blurred.

The image of the octopus shows the effect of an open aperture and slow speed. Similarly, a small aperture, say F22, will give you a good depth of field but in combination with a relatively high speed will help darken the background if shot into the water column (See the image of the harlequin shrimp). Look out for colourful simple backgrounds such as sponges and then try and spot a critter or wait for something to appear to photograph against it.

Camera Settings

I recommend switching off auto and taking control in Manual, Aperture and speed set to take control of depth of field and background. If your camera has it, single point auto focus with 3D tracking to follow a moving subject or assist as you move slightly. If your camera allows, set up for back button focus.

The latter allows you to focus and recompose easily and helps the image to be slightly sharper with no focus lag. ISO set ideally low to minimise digital noise but used carefully to facilitate use of other settings – for example, where the speed would be too low to avoid camera shake.

A lot of information to take on board, but concentrate on these basics and I am confident your images will start to take a quantum leap forward. Next time – macro lighting techniques…


Want to learn how to take or improve your underwater images? Why not come on a photo-specific trip? These trips are meticulously planned to the best destinations at the best time of year where the conditions should be perfect for building a portfolio of great images.

The workshops, which are for all levels of experience but mainly aimed at people with a few trips under their belts, include classroom sessions and presentations as well as in-water help and guidance, all done in a relaxed and non-competitive friendly environment.

I am leading a trip for Scuba Travel to Lembeh Resort in Indonesia in Oct/Nov 2022.

Photographs by Martyn Guess

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