Motherland Chronicles #43 - Dreaming

Motherland Chronicles #43 - Dreaming

Photography: Zhang Jingna zemotion
Makeup: Lindsey Rivera
Model: Jessica Dru Johnson
Photo Assistants: Tobias Kwan, Alex Stoddard, Diana Chao, Sophia Chang
Dress: Michelle Hebert
Choker: Harlequin Romantique
Housing and strobe rental: AB Sea Photo, LA

More underwater. Read behind-the-scenes and things I learned from from this shoot here.

Motherland Chronicles #39 - Underwater

Motherland Chronicles #39 - Underwater

Photography: Zhang Jingna
Makeup: Lindsey Rivera
Model: Jessica Dru Johnson
Photo Assistants: Tobias Kwan, Alex Stoddard, Diana Chao, Sophia Chang
Dress: Michelle Hebert
Choker: Harlequin Romantique
Housing and strobe rental: AB Sea Photo, LA

My second underwater attempt! I had to deal with equipment all on my own this time and holy cow it was so freaking stressful. ._.

I use a 1Ds Mark III which may be old now, but cost me an arm and a leg when I bought it in 2008, so I was epically nervous each time I had to open up the housing then go back down into the water again. Thank god it didn't flood.  >_<

Camera in the housing!

I had to practice opening/closing the housing and changing the ports/domes for like 2 hours at home to make sure I'd remember everything haha.

Someone also randomly asked me on Instagram how much this weighed so I did a quick google and added the weights together, it totals up to roughly 5.3kg/12lbs! A lot lighter once underwater of course, but still pretty hefty!

Anyway I really liked this picture. ^^ I haven't been doing as much person-in-motion photos compared to my early work, so I thought it's a nice change and addition to the series. 

Also definitely a little influenced by Toby's work since we bounce ideas and sketches back and forth a lot in the project. Check out his triptych that pairs up with mine for this week - 

Motherland Chronicles #39 - Triptych II: Waterwalker by Tobias Kwan

On the technical side -- I think I'll have to update my underwater tips post now -- I've definitely learned a couple new things doing everything on my own this time. 

Here are some things I've done differently from the first shoot:


The first time I shot underwater I used a Tokina 10-17mm on a Nikon D300. But even with the sensor's crop factor, it's equivalent to about 15-25mm on a full frame, still a really wide focal length considering my usual lens is 70-200mm. This time, as I rented my own housing, I got to use my own camera so I tried shooting with the 16-35mm and 50mm. Both worked out great, but the 16-35 probably worked the best for full body. I can definitely see 50mm being perfect for something like beauty though. 


I felt that one assistant wasn't enough the last time, so this time round I got four! :D It may sound a little excessive (it totally did to me) but it turned out just right. I had 2 assistants help with everything that needed adjustment underwater: fabrics, dress, strobe cords, etc. And the other 2 for the strobes (one in water and one above). 

Staying in Position/Sinking

Remember how I mentioned it was difficult to sink on my own? Having weights last time was cool but it still required quite a bit of swimming as I tried to chase my angles. Apparently I found out this time, that it's actually pretty nice to have an assistant press me down into the water so I didn't have to think about pedaling while trying to work against floating at the same time. It allowed me to get ready better in the first couple seconds instead of having to make sure I was just focused on sinking properly, and when I found a spot I liked, it was a lot easier to stay in the same place for a short while with the help. 

So overall cool experience once again and it was a lot of fun! Thank you my awesome team for the hard work! And a super mega kudos to my model Jessica who was still on crutches and wearing ankle brace after breaking her foot, you're such a trooper woman! ♥

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.

More: photography articlesgear list

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Motherland Chronicles #33 - Ascend

Motherland Chronicles #33 - Ascend

Photography: Zhang Jingna
Video: Underwater Assistance: Brenda Stumpf
Model: Jessica Dru Johnson
Makeup: Jenn Nelson
Photo Assistant: Matt Cadwallader
Special thanks to Brian Sousa for the pool

Check out behind-the-scenes post here and video here! Gonna do a little post on underwater photography later! :D

Motherland Chronicles #23 - Dive + Behind the Scenes

Motherland Chronicles #23 - Dive
Photography: Zhang Jingna
Video: Underwater Assistance: Brenda Stumpf
Model: Jessica Dru Johnson
Makeup: Jenn Nelson
Photo Assistant: Matt Cadwallader
Special thanks to Brian Sousa for the pool

My first underwater photoshoot!!! It was so fun, but so hard too. T_T

I was fortunate to have my lovely model Jessica help pull this together, and her friend Brenda Stumpf (wonderful underwater photographer) give me all the underwater guidance, assistance and equipment I needed for the shoot. So thank you Jessica, Brenda, Jenn, Matt, and Brian who helped make this shoot possible. I can't say it enough!

Brenda managed put a little video together. It doesn't have very much footage unfortunately because the camera's housing got flooded :( But I figure it's still cool to see how things looked behind the scenes:

(Hello my first YouTube video. I'm not sure if I'll have anything again, but why not subscribe just in case? :D :D)

The shoot --

I know a number of people who've attempted underwater model photography. I've heard about the difficulties, I've imagined it, I've even experienced it as a model once.

But knowing the difficulties didn't quite make the shoot easier.

Sure, I didn't go in blind, but knowing it won't be easy just made me afraid that I wouldn't be able to get a single shot at all. (A trend in my Motherland Chronicles photoshoots, me being terrified of taking bad pictures, and after every one I'm drenched in enough self-loathing to bathe an army. It's very sad.)

Nevertheless, exploration is the point of the exercise.

Thank you Brenda for getting a picture for me

We had one light fixed to the camera housing (on an arm which I can adjust and twist around), and another above water, for when the sun started to go down.

I think the thing I'm most unused to is the wide angle lens and impeded movement in water.

Lens because I shoot with a 70-200mm most of the time when I'm photographing people, and movement because I like moving around when I shoot. It made me very sad when I can't shift as freely as on land. Or stay still when I'm floating.
Actually, you know I need to review photos every few shots, and it's not quite ideal while threading water, so my preferred position is to stand with my feet on the pool's floor.

But because I need depth for the model's dive and clothes to move around, I can't shoot in the shallow end. The compromise is to stand where I can just about raise my head for air if I tiptoe, so when my hands are occupied with the camera I can still surface for breaths. 

But like, I have these weights tied around my waist to help me sink when I dive, and so I keep sliding towards the deep end when I'm tiptoeing, and sometimes it means going under before I've taken a breath... It's very inconvenient.

Ohai, don't mind me, I'm just floating.

In other news, because I was inexperienced and it took some time to get the hang of things, I ended up staying in the water for 6 hours. I don't think I'd ever been in the water for so long in my life.

My hands were so pruney by the end of the shoot I felt that my fingernails would come off if I tried to peel them with a little bit of force.


I'm really thankful that Jessica's such a great model because I know it's hard to model underwater, and harder when it's so many freaking hours (and freezing, after sundown). She was positively shivering by hour 4, and I know I tend to not rest till I've gotten my shots so... thank you Jes for putting up with me. ♥

I can't wait to do this again.

And here, have some screenshots because I think the video is cool. It also makes me want to try filming next time.

Motherland Chronicles #8 - Underwater

Motherland Chronicles #8 - Underwater

Photography/Model: Jingna Zhang
Assistant: Abby Lim

I had a shot all planned out last week, and then for some reason I dug this up instead.

I'm not sure I can explain my obsession with water lately, it's like a terrible craving I can't control and I just keep being drawn to all my old pictures with water in them. It's crazy.

This was taken the first time I went to Lijiang. Abby and I stayed at Banyan Tree, there was an open-air jacuzzi in the yard of our villa, and because I can't resist doing shoots wherever I go, even on a true holiday, I did this.

In other news, you will soon see the result of my Fujiwara Kaoru-inspired shoot from late last year. Both the pic and the influences it has on my fashion work so far this year. I'm quite pleased with myself for it haha.

And last but not least, packages incoming for Motherland Chronicles! Here's a hint.