8 Tips for Underwater Model Photography

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to shoot underwater in L.A. recently. It was a very wonderful learning experience and so I wanted to share what I learnt! Keep in mind that these tips may only apply to first-timers like I was, but I hope it makes a good read either way. :D

I love water, if you follow my work you know I love putting models near and into water all the time rather frequently. Imagine how excited I was to finally get to shoot underwater for real~ 



Motherland Chronicles #7 - Self Portrait in Water

Having sort-of worked with water in some ways before, I went in to the shoot with some ideas of the type of pictures I wanted to make and planned my shoot based on those. 

If you're not sure about what you want to do, the first thing to do naturally is look up lots of underwater photos and check out the possibilities. Try to pin down a shot or two that you'd like to attempt, then plan your shoot from there.

I'll break the tips down by some of the things I did, difficulties I faced while underwater as well as the stuff Brenda (my wonderful guide/teacher/assistant) advised me on. A list of the equipment I used can be found at the end of this post. 

Tips for Underwater Model Photography

1.  Research & Plan

Before going in to the details, I want emphasize how important research and planning is. It should be a given, but maybe you're like me and sometimes enjoy just winging a shoot, but in this case, keep in mind that when the environment is completely different, it's not quite like simply testing a new light setup.

There will be discomforts, logistics complications, and unexpected difficulties just because it's not everyday that most of us spend a few hours underwater. So make sure to read up as much as you can. It will help you prepare both mentally and logistically, and make your underwater shooting experience a smooth-sailing and fun one.

2.  Rehearse

This is similar to when I do movement shots -- take a few tests and rehearse the movements with the model in the beginning. This will save time and energy as you're looking at the general picture and feel of the pose and framing. The model won't have to school her expressions or make sure her hair and clothes are perfectly in place, those things take 10 times longer to adjust in water than on land, and it gets cold and uncomfortable in water very quickly. You want to conserve her energy as much as possible.

3. Communication

After every couple of dives, give feedback and show the model pictures of what you like and don't. Point out what are great and what can be improved, so she will know to make note on how to better the pose for you. 

4. On Sinking & Floating

Most of the time you'll want to sink for flexibility in angles, but it's difficult and often you'll end up floating more.

Let go of all your breath before you hold it so there's less air in your lungs. Tying some weights to your waist will help staying down easier. And depending on the model's pose, sometimes a weight for her helps as well.

I had weights behind my back initially, but found that moving them to the front helps my dive so I shifted them later.

5. Staying Still/Moving for Shots Will Be Tricky

Some photographers like shooting with a tripod, I like moving around to change my angles and framing organically. This unfortunately doesn't translate well underwater.

It's both difficult to stay still and move in water because, well, it's hard to be still when you're floating, and hard to move/paddle when your hands are occupied with the camera.

The best way I've found for myself is to simply decide a course of movement, go for it, then press the shutter many many times. :D

6. Camera Focusing Issues and Loss of Colors on Model's Skin

This usually happens due to loss of light underwater and being far from the model. Brenda overcomes this by using a 10-17mm on a crop sensor camera so I could move in closer (very close!). 

The problem that arises from this is that every little movement distorts and changes the composition drastically. I use the 70-200mm 95% of the time for my work, so it definitely took some getting used to to shoot with a lens so much wider for a complete shoot. I still want to explore using a long lens underwater in the future, hope it's possible. :(

7. Have Extra Hands

Logistics of shooting underwater is painful. Every little adjustment takes a lot longer than it would on the ground. Depending on your light setup, just for clothes/fabrics alone I think you'll need at least 2 assistants underwater.

I only had Brenda so we had one side of the model covered. I ended up using my feet to adjust the fabrics while trying to stay in place for shots sometimes, it's definitely not ideal and more assistants would've helped the shoot move faster. 

I also attempted directing+paddling with my left hand, but all I managed was hurt my right pinkie finger for trying to balance the entire weight of the camera and a strobe on it. :( 

From our behind-the-scenes video.

8. Shoot Fast or Get Cold

It isn't too bad if the weather is warm and there's lots of sun. But if it's overcast or your pool's in the shade, the water's going to feel pretty cold for your model for long-session shooting.

Get some large towels and bathrobes and keep them by the pool. If you're going to take some time reviewing photos, let your model get out of the water to warm up a little. It's easier for the photographer here because we can keep some body heat in with a wet suit. But don't push yourself if you start getting cold too! Remember to take a break as well.

Most importantly remember to have fun! Shooting underwater can be a little frustrating at times, but it's definitely quite magical, not to mention addictive.

Last but not least, a mini-guide made with thanks to the awesome people on Facebook! -  
- Find water.
- Do not breathe the water. 
- Do not put camera into water unless it's waterproof or has a housing.
- Learn how to swim.

And that's it! I hope this gives a bit of insight to the shoot along with my behind-the-scenes. If you think of any other points or questions please feel free to ask! :D

Once again, special thanks to Jessica, Brenda and Brian for making this shoot happen. ♥

Equipment List:
Housing: Sea and Sea MDX300
Camera: Nikon D300
Lights: Sea and Sea YS-250 Underwater Strobe Flashes
Lens: Tokina 10-17mm
Cables: Custom made by Reef Photo in Florida


Want to learn more? Check out my online course Artistic Portrait Photography.

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