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.
New technologies have catalyzed underwater shooting, but there are still plenty of challenges below. Conventional photographic tasks like getting good lighting, accurate color rendition, and sharp images are still part of the process.
Take sharpness. “Water is roughly 800 times denser than air, so no matter how clear your water is, once you’re ten feet away from your subject, you’re not going to get a sharp image,” says Hofmann. For sharpness, he gets as close as possible and uses a wide angle lens. While this introduces linear distortion, it works because most of his portrait subjects are kids. “For them, the distortion makes the image fun,” he says.
Scott Galvin, a sports and portrait shooter from eastern Ohio, nails sharpness by adding light. “I light my images so I can shoot at the smallest aperture possible, for lots of depth of field,” he says. He lights poolside at maximum strobe output. (The challenge is keeping the strobes dry; don’t bring them poolside without the help of an electrician.) Since he often works with athletes in pools, the backgrounds are usually the pools’ walls, free of detail or clutter. This means he can reap the sharpness, and not worry about introducing distracting background clutter.
At the opposite end of the sharpness spectrum is Morrison. She minimizes softness due to debris and particle haze by shooting in filtered indoor pools. For her, however, sharpness isn’t that important. She likes a softer image for its ethereal, painterly quality.
Underwater lighting takes different forms. Shooters who work in indoor pools, like Galvin, often light by ringing the pool with studio strobes. Photographers working in outdoor pools can sidestep electricity by shooting in bright sunlight, and soften its harsh shadows with silken scrims suspended above the pools. Another lighting option: a waterproof strobe rig that attaches to the base of the camera housing, offering a direct source of daylight-balanced light.
Hofmann has a clever lighting solution. He painted opposing walls of his backyard swimming pool black and white. The black wall makes a nice background, while the white serves as a reflector, especially in direct sunlight.
Rendering color accurately is another subsea challenge. For maximum control, our contributors shoot in RAW. Reds are most challenging because the red is filtered out by the blue or cyan water. “The further down you go, the less information in the red channel,” explains Hofmann. “It’s not something you can fix in postprocessing, and when I lose too much red, I often convert to black-and-white,” he says with a laugh. Alternately, Galvin will gel his strobes red to add warmth to the light when loss of red is an issue.
Hofmann has one other post-production trick: “It doesn’t always work, but sometimes I copy information from the green channel and paste it into the red.” The effect isn’t natural color, but for underwater work, 100-percent color accuracy isn’t expected.
Try it Yourself
Despite (or maybe because of) these challenges, you may be itching to take the plunge. Most important, you must feel comfortable working in water. Unheated water can draw down your body temperature quickly, so wetsuits are a must.
Similarly, if you’re working without scuba gear, you’ll need to learn how to control your breathing to to stay down for extended periods. Ironically, you do this by relaxing. “The more you struggle underwater, the quicker you will run out of breath,” warns Hofmann. “Keep your pulse down by relaxing. That’s what whales and dolphins do. If you’re flapping your arms and kicking your legs, you will run out of breath almost instantly.”
Preplanning your shoot is also important. Poby, a New York sports photographer, preps for a shoot by doing minute-by-minute workflow tests prior to each shoot. He and his assistants essentially walk through and rehearse their roles.
For her work, Morrison hires assistants who know cameras and lights, but who are also strong swimmers and, often, scuba-certified. Her preplanning stages include sourcing oil-based makeup, and water-testing wardrobe and props. They should be water-friendly and not too heavy or buoyant. “If a prop is glued together, it will fall apart in the water,” Morrison warns. Water temperature is important, too. Her pool is heated to 90 degrees, which can also cause a prop to disintegrate or warp.
One of the most time-consuming pre-shoot aspects of underwater work is getting the gear ready. If you’re using a sophisticated DSLR dome-port type housing, make sure its o-rings are clean and free from tears, hair, grit, or other particles that may cause the housing to leak and destroy your expensive camera—and possibly deep-six your images, too.
While these tasks may seem daunting, our shooters find them a small price to pay for the possibly incredible images and for the exhilarating experience of taking them.
Come on in, as the saying goes, the water really is fine. And your pictures will be, too.
The Right View
Poby, the New-York-based sports, advertising, and corporate photographer who made the image here says: “Because there’s no such thing as underwater Polaroids,” pick a camera that offers easily viewed previews. This means a large LCD screen with quick scrolling and zoom features.
“Even though the camera and underwater housing can be heavy on dry land, once you submerge the rig it can almost become a flotation device,” says photographer Scott Galvin. “I usually put about six to eight pounds of weights on a waist belt to help offset the bouyancy and keep me submerged.”
David Hofmann recommends that your first underwater camera should be something small and maneuverable. “Bigger housings are actually huge, producing a good deal of unwieldy drag in the water,” he says. Start with a submersible compact or a larger camera for which there’s a compact housing.
The options for underwater gear are multiplying at a breath-taking pace. Check out three of our faves for newbies.