Guides & Tutorials

How to photograph people underwater?

Danchy UW RX100_0026

For most of us, sharks, whales and other marine life aren’t that accessible. Many divers, even underwater photographers, get to actually go diving only several times a year, if they’re lucky.

The rest of the time our beloved highly priced housings sit in the closet and dry up. Luckily, pools are quite accessible around the world, so we can stretch our gills and gear between dives and practice in artificial waters!

I’m not saying we all need to produce Haute Couture fashion sets with top models, make-up artists and stylists, but we can definitely grab our kids, friends, spouses or grandparents and coax them into posing for us underwater. Even if many people don’t like to have their photos taken, underwater everything changes and many people actually love posing underwater! Just because it’s plenty of fun 🙂

To save you some of the many mistakes I have made over the last couple of years, I will share with you a few important aspects of underwater photography along with some tips and tricks which I hope would be helpful!

First Mistake Ever

So I planned my first underwater shoot, everything was ready and I brought along a big hose, naturally thinking I will sit on the bottom of the pool and breath normally through my long hose. WRONG! Apparently many years of diving haven’t taught me that breathing underwater requires pressurized air in order for our lungs to be able to inhale. Anything longer than your average snorkel just won’t work. Trust me 🙂

Choosing a Location

Pools, lakes, oceans and rivers. These are all possible locations to shoot people underwater. Your first decision should be based on accessibility and visibility. If you have an ocean nearby with good visibility, that would be a prime location! If not, you’re probably going to end up in a pool.

Creating this underwater set for a video production was hard work, but well worth it!
Creating this underwater set for a video production was hard work, but well worth it!

Pools come in various sizes, shapes, temperatures, chemical types and more. An average, well kept pool should suffice. There is a huge advantage to salt water pools, since they are much easier on the eyes and do not sting or burn as chlorine pools. A pool that is taken care of and cleaned regularly should be fine, but there’s an important factor that has a vast influence on visibility – people.

After a few hours of swimming / hanging out in the pool, the water becomes cloudy and murky. The more people in the pool, the worse it gets. I have had a photo shoot set up in the evening, only to discover that kids have been playing in the pool all day and the water was as cloudy as a pond. So if possible, make sure that no-one will be swimming in the pool before your shoot!

This is how the water looks like after kids have been swimming in it all day. Use it to your advantage and create a dreamy effect.
This is how the water looks like after kids have been swimming in it all day. Use it to your advantage and create a dreamy effect.

Another factor that might change your plans, are strange chemicals used to clean the pool. I was unfortunate enough to experience a pool which contained some sort of cleaning acid that prevented opening eyes all together! We had to shoot the whole set with eyes closed. (I just named the set “Sleeping Beauty” and went with the flow… 🙂 )

You want your pool deep enough to allow cool full body shots, so depth is an important factor to consider. It’s possible to shoot in shallow pools, but it will limit your possible poses.

Dramatic poses work great!
Dramatic poses work great!

Temperature is also a very important issue. Most pools aren’t heated. If you are not shooting in summer, on a hot day, your model is going to freeze pretty fast. Even if the water feels nice at first, after about half an hour of shooting you and your model will get cold. You as a photographer could use a wetsuit or just a neoprene shirt of some sort to keep you warm, but the model is exposed. You need to make regular breaks with food for energy and a cozy bath robe to keep them warm.

Choosing and Guiding a Model

You don’t necessarily need Heidi Klum or Bar Rafaeli as a model for a pool shoot (it could help though!). Any friend / family member would do. You just need to make sure they love water and feel comfortable in it. Most people aren’t used to opening their eyes underwater, or even opening their mouth. Some even fear putting their nose underwater so they won’t accidentally inhale water.

Your goal is to have them feel relaxed as possible and assure them that nothing bad can happen. I find it useful to give them my mask and show them how I dive down, while making sure to open my mouth and eyes and make some funny faces so that they see it’s not that bad.

It will probably take them 15-30 minutes to get the hang of it. Be patient and relaxed as possible, while showing them the images and guiding them step by step.

Use sport accessories to create action
Use sport accessories to create action

Accessories

Almost everything looks cool underwater! Starting out with a bizarre outfit is recommended . Shooting in a swimsuit is boring. Get as wild as you can with long colorful dresses, Halloween costumes, hats, shoes, bright red shirts, silver leather pants etc.

Fun accessories might be long colorful fabrics (Tulle works great), toys of all sorts, balloons filled with water, masks, umbrellas (very hard to maneuver underwater! Treat them gently), old electronics, broken music instruments, fruit, kitchen appliances, bicycles, cars, space shuttles and basically anything you can get your hands on and don’t mind getting wet.

Accessorize!
Accessorize!

Taking Photos

This is the important part. Whether you are using a GoPro or a fancy DSLR with strobes, you need to know your camera. Adjust your settings to maximum quality, RAW if possible. Use the setting you control best, whether it’s A (Av) or M.

Using a wide angle is recommended. If you are using a dSLR – the Tokina 10-17 is an excellent lens for this purpose. If you are using a compact, you can get a wet lens such as the Inon UWL-H100 to improve your FOV.

If you are using a strobe, remember that you are limited by your recycle time. You can probably shoot 1-5 images every descent depending on the quality of your strobe and the breath-holding abilities of your subject. You need to make those count. I recommend descending before your subject, to ready yourself and prep your focus and angle. Instruct your subject to dive in a few seconds after you.

Instruct your subject to avoid moving back and forth too much while down under, since it would mess up your focus and slow down your frame count for every dive. Make sure they try just one pose every time and hold it.

As an instinct, a person would hold his breath while making a weird face upon diving. Make sure they remember to relax their face after diving in and hopefully smile and keep their eyes wide open.

Danchy UW RX100_0219

Probably one of the biggest problems people have is that they float up. The easiest way to solve that is to take a deep breath above water, exhale most of the air out, and only then dive underwater. Posing becomes much easier and your body is saturated with enough oxygen to keep you under for more than enough time.

* If they are uncomfortable with this method, bring a weight belt with 2-4 pounds and have them wear it under their clothes, or later remove it in photoshop.

Processing

I hope you shot RAW, because this would make your life a whole lot easier. Adjusting your white balance is necessary, because even though you are shooting at a shallow depth and hopefully using a strobe, most likely you would still get a bluish hue to the images and you want to maintain quality when adjusting that (shoot RAW!).

Use this guide for starting out in RAW

Depending on your housing or lens, you might experience some vignetting or black corners. Some gentle vignetting might be nice and focus the viewer on the center, but black corners are usually cropped out.

Adding some clarity and contrast will help bring out the colors. A cool advanced adjustment would be slightly lowering the luminance on the blue channel, which would make your background a deeper blue. Don’t overdo it or you will get a bad effect on the edges of your subject.

If you used an extreme wide / fisheye lens, I recommend using the lens correction tool in Camera Raw and fixing to some extent, the distortion created. This would make the end result more flattering for your subject and restore natural proportions.

Get creative!
Get creative!

To Summarize:

  • Find a decent location.
  • Bring fun accessories, fabrics and colorful clothing.
  • Help your subject get used to the water and relaxing their face.
  • Use wide angle and shoot RAW.
  • Use a strobe if available.
  • Exhale the air before going down to prevent floating up or use weights.
  • Take breaks to warm up the body.
  • Try as many angles and poses as possible until you learn what works best.
  • Safety first! Shoot in the shallows if the subject is young or insecure. Don’t push their or your limits.
  • Have fun!

Have a look at some more fun photos of people underwater:

Tal and Lee 058-141

If you shoot in the ocean, you can choose a cool background
If you shoot in the ocean, you can choose a cool background

Danchy UW RX100_0243 Addy 261

Shooting at night creates dark background which is very nice, but using strobe is a must here.
Shooting at night creates dark background which is very nice, but using strobe is a must here.

Iyar 2 S110_0286 Korin Pool_0018 Korin Pool_0113

Danchy UW RX100_0231
Korin Pool_0132
Iyar 2 S110_0009 Iyar 2 S110_0101
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Ran Mor
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Ran Mor

Sales and Marketing at Mozaik Underwater Cameras
Ran is a professional photographer for over 14 years. His passion for scuba diving and photography has pushed him to combine his profession and hobby and become a professional underwater photographer. Teaching is one of his greatest passions and over the years he has shared his experience with many divers and aspiring photographers. Along with his wife Danielle, an experienced Scuba Instructor, they have founded Dive and More, leading dive trips and UW photo workshops all over the world. Ran is also an electrical engineer and an avid internet marketing specialist.
Visit his personal portfolio at www.ranmorphoto.com.
Ran Mor
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