If you’re anything like me, the first time you saw an underwater portrait, you gasped out loud. There’s something about the ethereal beauty and movement captured in a well-done underwater image is something pretty magical. As an underwater photographer myself, I remember vividly the first time I nervously entertained the idea of taking my professional camera equipment under the surface. There was this lovely couple I’d worked with a few times before (both engagement and wedding by that point) and they were going to Kauai for their 1st anniversary for a sort of combination “real” honeymoon and anniversary celebration. And they wanted some epic photos. Lucky for me, they not only called me to create these images with them (which meant flying me and my assistant-hubby out to Kauai…. #hardworkbutsomeonehastodoit….#amiright?), they wanted to cliff-dive and get IN the water. Which meant me and my camera were going to be IN the water. Which meant I better do some work.
I reached out to a few underwater photographers and paid for lessons. I bought a water bag to house my camera and I set to work scouring the internet for input on exactly how to do what I needed to do. I had no idea the can of worms I’d be opening or just how much I’d fall in love with this particular medium of photography! The images in Kauai were so much fun that I spend the next year paying for more lessons, tracking down more articles, and practicing whenever I could. I also spent a lot of time with scuba instructors and other personnel who could give me advice and training on water safety and tips that I could pass on to clients. Over a year after that first experience, I finally opened up my underwater “studio” to clients. This past weekend marked the opening of my 3rd underwater season available to clients and I can’t tell you how good it felt to be back in the water!
All of that backstory to say there are a few details you should know to get YOU started before you *ahem* dive in.
Step 1: Take a water safety course. I know that sounds sorta lame, but I’m totally serious. Before you or a a friend/client/excited-mermaid-tail-owner get in the water with electronic equipment, please do your due diligence to keep all of you safe. Things like can you all swim and don’t get in the water with a heavy dress ever because you’ll drown are all key things to know before you risk your life or anyone else’s. This is ESPECIALLY true of pregnant women! Mini-rant: do NOT risk a pregnant woman’s life or the life of her baby because you didn’t research if or how long they can safely hold their breath. Remember, this type of shooting requires one or all of you to be without oxygen (you know, a basic element required for being alive…) while shooting. Don’t take any of that lightly. Be safe. Make good choices.
Step 2: Try your first few sessions in a nice warm pool (preferably one with saline instead of chlorine). This is partly due to Step 1 above (safety first, kids!) but also because it will give you a chance to focus (literally) on all the other elements that come in to play while shooting before adding things like “I’m so cold I can’t feel my fingers” or “Where is the current taking us” to the mix. Keep everyone, especially yourself, as comfortable as possible to get used to how this crazy thing works so you can troubleshoot without the pressure of, oh you know, hypothermia because you’re in a freshwater glacier-fed lake.
Step 3: Try out water bag housing on your camera. If you’re serious about giving underwater photography a go, you’re going to want to use your “real” camera and that means putting it in a housing. Hard case housings have some advantages (and disadvantages) but they biggest issue there is that you’re likely to spend anywhere between $1500-5000 for a housing that fits exactly one very specific camera and one very specific lens. That’s a LOT to invest in if you’re not sure you’re going to really pursue this and you’re just wanting to get your feet wet (hahaha). My personal recommendation is to go with EWA Marine bags. A single water bag can fit multiple setups and they’re pretty fool-proof to put on your camera correctly (as opposed to some other water bag companies). They’re fantastic quality and they’re not going to break the bank. Extra bonus? If for some reason the bag did leak, water bags are a very slooow leak which gives you time to catch it and fix it. With a hard case housing, if there’s a leak, your housing floods and your equipment is toast.
Step 4: Use a wide angle lens. This lets you stay as close to your subject as possible and that’s pretty key for clarity under the water. You’ll find that the water itself behaves like another lens and the further you are from your client, the harder it is to get a sharp image and the more scatter in the water will show up for you. It can create an almost painted look (which can be great if that’s what you are going for!) but for clear shots, stay close and shoot wide.
Step 5: Find a community of other photographers who you can troubleshoot with. There’s a lot of troubleshooting to do with underwater photography, trust me. The water itself has it’s own personality every time you get in and there is so much to take into account when getting under the surface (lighting, what aperture to use, getting clients to look relaxed under the water, how long to stay under, etc). Also, spoiler alert, there’s a ton of back-end post production work that is absolutely necessary with underwater imagery. It simply is a part of the equation because of what happens with light and color when it hits water. Plus, again, safety concerns mean that sometime compositing images is the only way to keep everyone safe while creating a specific type of image. The post-production is over half of the work with underwater images so get comfy with photoshop and lightroom. And join a group where you can ask questions. To have a moment of self-promotion, I run a group just like this on Facebook called Mermaid Sessions — Photographer Group. We’re friendly, we’re happy to share tips, and we like supporting this community.
Ready to take the plunge? (hahaha, I’m full of them today!) Sebastian had it right; it IS better down where it’s wetter. Join the community, post questions, contact me directly, and dive in! You can also find me on Periscope broadcasting my underwater sessions LIVE (including the underwater part!) by going to http://periscope.tv/briennemichelle or follow along on Instagram with the hashtag #MermaidSessions.