With the advent of more accessible gear and powerful postprocessing tools, underwater photography has a new lease on life. Here are eight shooters who prove that shooting in the deep isn’t only about fish and turtles.
Exploring the murky depths and illuminating the life below—that’s the real purpose of underwater photography, right? Not anymore. Sure, you still find plenty of Jacques Cousteau wannabes, but there is a treasure chest of new photography, from fine art to portrait, sports, commercial, fashion, and even family and pet photographers. Everyone is taking the plunge.
We interviewed several new-age Aquarians to find out what draws them to H20, which gear enhances their work, and their strategies for meeting the challenges of working when wet. And of course, we got tips for those eager to test the waters.
The boom in underwater shooting is a result of camera advances and the expanding range of accessories that enable great images down below. The range reaches across the budget spectrum from affordable submersibles like the Canon PowerShot D20, Nikon Coolpix AW110, Olympus TG-2, and Sony Cyber-shot TX30, to custom-made DSLR housings from numerous makers that allow you to take virtually all the flagship DSLRs down hundreds of feet.
For David Hofmann, advances in camera tech make his work possible. “Live view represented a major leap forward in underwater shooting,” he says. “Before live view, it was really hard to compose and focus underwater through a conventional viewfinder. You’re wearing goggles, after all. Live view made underwater infinitely easier.”
A few of our shooters remember film—without nostalgia. “With film, you jumped into the water with only 36 frames,” recalls Justin Lewis. “That was all you had, so every picture had to count.”
Other technological boons? Virtually noise-free shooting at high ISOs means better pictures without the encumbrance of bringing lights down. Postproduction advances, too, have had a significant impact. “In my work, I use [Adobe]Photoshop to composite and expand my water environments and create new spaces. It lets me approach a project more like a painter than a photographer,” says Mallory Morrison, an L.A.-based corporate and fine-art photographer who specializes in underwater work. She highlights reflections, changes the orientation of a figure, and adds or removes bubbles, often in an effort to make her subjects appear to defy gravity.
The Underwater Look
The floating figure with billowing hair and flowing wardrobe is one of the dominant visual tropes of the new underwater fashion and portrait photography. “One of the reasons that I shoot portraits underwater is because of the zero G thing down there,” says Hofmann. “The hair has an ethereal floating quality to it. Clothing can flow. It can look awesome.”
But Hofmann warns that the floating look isn’t easy to achieve. “Long flowing skirts are hard to control. Your subject has to know how to move so that the clothing is flattering to her. Typically a girl in a skirt jumps into the pool, and as she goes down, the skirt shoots up over her face and head. As she struggles to right the skirt, it can be almost comical.”
For Hofmann, the floating photographer is also part of underwater’s attraction. “You’re almost weightless down there. For portraits and figure work, you can approach your subject from any angle. It’s much easier to get unusual perspectives than it is in the studio.”
Another attraction for underwater shooting? Two of our photographers found it a great means for shattering creative blocks. Morrison does almost exclusively underwater work, but she started out as a dance photographer. “I don’t get tired of the environment, like I did when I was working in a studio,” she says. “I’d had it with lugging trampolines into the studio for my dancers. One day, I shot a dancer underwater and I’ve shot underwater ever since,” she says.
Similarly, Justin Lewis was inspired by what he encountered below. He was shooting an underwater assignment on Grand Cayman when, “I reached a point where I had run out of ideas. I had spent a week concentrating on marine life and coral reefs. Then I hit a wall,” he recalls. “I'd run out of subjects to photograph.”
The water came to his rescue. “I was mid-dive in gorgeous water, as clear as I’ve ever seen it, when divers below me provided large curtains of bubble that rose from the depths like millions of tiny ice cubes. I had avoided bubbles, not wanting them ruining my next shot. This time, I kept myself positioned within the bubbles, and I was enthralled with their formations,” he says. He went on to spent the next 20 minutes shooting bubbles, and you can see one of the resulting shots on the opposite page. The encounter reinvigorated his interest in his project.