This one meant a lot to me. I’ve spent the better part of my career researching and looking into shooting underwater fashion and I’ve finally done it. Granted it was on a completely small scale. Last year I set a goal for myself, I would produce an underwater shoot on a large editorial scale sometime in 2013. Well, my goals have yet to be achieved, but it will happen. Steve Squall and I have set upon a journey, by the end of August we will be displaying some of our proudest work and we haven’t even shot it yet. But I’m confident the results will be something all will enamor.

To get to those results, we knew we had to “test the waters” and “get our feet wet”. Personal friend of mine, Hilary Vonderheide starting working with Gunnar Deatherage and I back in February as a styling assistant. Since then, she had tossed around the idea of modeling herself. Forming a full collaborative team for a fashion photo shoot isn’t easy and a simple test shoot, underwater, required none of that. So we figured this would be the perfect opportunity for Hilary and it just so happened she had access to a nice pool. We set a date and I began diving into research. I immediately found some information that perplexed me, radio triggers, designed to fire off camera flash do not work underwater. At all… “How the hell am I going to pull this off?" 

We knew we had to use flash. I’ve seen many photographers botch a beautiful fashion set because they didn’t do enough research or didn’t have the equipment to pull off a dramatic underwater session. I consulted with Hasselblad master and friend Joao Carlos about his amazing underwater fashion and gained some good advice from his behind the scenes videos. Although his underwater shoots are on a far bigger scale with the use of SCUBA, I gained a lot of practical influence. 

We had to fire our flashes optically. Using the master mode on a Canon 600EX-RT (on camera) and slaving the Canon 580EXII boomed above the water, I was hopeful we could use that combination to fire my Profoto D1’s which were to be set around and above the pool.

The day was hot and the sun was low, and I was stoked beyond belief to jump in and get wet. With the help of my intern Jenna, we cautiously placed the strobes around the pool in a coordinatedarrangement which I had conjured up the day before on paper. Everything on full power. I quickly came to the realization that if a strobe feel into the pool, we would all be electrocuted, so I made sure all the stands were weighted down with stones and sandbags. After all the setup, I was still a nervous wreck, not only for safety reasons, but I would’ve hated to see some really really expensive gear trashed because of water. I pushed those thoughts aside and muscled toward the task at hand.

I carefully placed my camera in the housing bag and locked everything tight. I double checked my gear and coolly walked into the water and submerged the camera. It was air tight. But, the camera floated, it wasn’t easy to sink and the housing breached the top of the water like a balloon every time I plunged it under. Fortunately, I had researched this and had bought 30 pounds of kettle bells which I strapped to the bottom of the housing. It sunk like a rock, so I compensated and found a good balance. I fired off a few test shots under the boomed speedlight and everything was working properly and all the strobes were firing. I felt like I had just won the lottery.

Hilary was ready to rock and I gave her a quick 5 minute run down of what we would be doing and how I’d like her to pose under the water. This was her first time EVER "posing” in front of the camera, I felt bad and knew she was nervous, but it couldn’t of been a better situation for us. Steve, Hilary and I were all new to this, at the same playing level. I tightened and positioned my cheap set goggles and I submerged with Hilary. 

I blew out all my air and sunk to the bottom, I placed my face to the housing and what I saw was a blurred figured and no focus points. I guessed composition and pressed the shutter repeatedly. When I rose above the surface and took a glance at the LCD, what I found was very interesting, but very disappointing. I felt as if all the research had been in vein. It looked like a pool without strobes, mid-day, out of focus and horridly composed. How do you get all that drama?

“Throw out everything you’ve learned about photography, because this is an entirely different ball game." 

I tweaked my settings and submerged once again, over and over. The strobes were inconsistent, for every 5 shots I snapped the strobes had fired twice. It was frustrating. I handed the camera off to Steve, who I could tell was itching to get in front of the rig and give it a shot. During his set, I concentrated on the erratic flash and what we were doing wrong. I came to the realization of two eye opening issues; despite shooting at f/16 - f/22 the sun was still too high and increased the ambient blue hue of the pool. Water acts as a natural diffuser, when powerful light hits the pool from afar, it doesn’t penetrate, it spreads and lightens the ambiance underneath the surface.

We took a break and I re-organized. This time around we popped the on camera flash forward to give the "good ole’ straight on speedlight” a run through. This was a lot easier, our light consistently fired and we had a better grasp on underwater composition. However, we still couldn’t see anything through the viewfinder and we certainly couldn’t depend on auto-focus. After I completed a set, Steve took the reigns and really got creative, working under Hilary and above her. The results we’re pretty cool, it was fairly dramatic and had a hint of high-fashion, but we really wanted to get the ethereal backlight look to these shots.

Taking in what I had learned earlier, we waited until the sun moved behind the house and covered the pool in complete shade. I asked Steve to hold ONE Profoto directly above the surface, 5 inches from water. I snapped a few shots and rose to find immediate progress. The one dramatic backlight poured through the pool providing the shadows and contrast we needed.

Using this knowledge, we setup one boom and one light directly over Hilary’s head, 10 inches above the water. Steve and I traded off sets and really started to find ways to make things work. Hilary was a real trooper and performed beautifully. It amazed me having never modeled in her life; some of the lines she formed and what she did under water. That is no easy feat. We threw her into the wolves and she conquered, prevailing when many would completely crumble under the pressure.

From a photography standpoint, I felt overwhelmed as we wrapped the shoot. I didn’t know what I would find when I imported the images and was unsure if we had nailed anything good. But, the one thing I do know, we learned what NOT to do and we walked away confident to take on the real deal.

If your going to take on an independent low budget underwater shoot this summer, please heed this advice…

  • Shoot wide. Our model looked like a blob the entire time through the viewfinder, it’s not easy to compose properly. Most of our shots were taken at 18mm - 30mm. We cropped in from there.
  • Shoot a lot. Steve and I are professionals. We know how to compose and focus. But, we took over 400 frames and only came out with a small handful of usable images.
  • Safety first.You could die. Have an assistant above water, holding stands as well as use sand bags, weight everything down. You’ll save a lot of personal anxiety and will have a relaxed crew for a better, more fun experience.
  • Prepare your time. You’ll need it, everything moves slower underwater and it sucks the energy right out of you. Around the time you’d normally be hitting your stride, your model will be exhausted and out of breath, ready to call it a day. Get your model in the water only when your ready to go.
  • Proper equipment.Invest in your shoot and purchase the right underwater gear, including kettle bells, flippers, snorkel and most importantly goggles. I think our biggest fault was not having a professional pair of SCUBA goggles. Unfortunately, we had a cheap set from Wal-Mart that simply didn’t do the trick.
  • Tweak your camera diopter. Because the your eye sight may distort when shooting underwater through goggles, a housing, then your viewfinder; tweak your diopter under the water before you start shooting. I think this may of been a large issue with not seeing anything but a waving blob.   
  • Flash close. Because the pool water acts as one giant diffuser, the closer your flash is to the subject the more dramatically it will penetrate the water. Unless you want the flat look, boom that strobe.
  • Shoot indoors or at dusk. Use an environment where you can completely control your ambient light. The less sun you have to deal with the more dramatic an image you’ll be able to capture. Use high wattage hot lights for added drama and additional light for focus. 
  • Focus first. While you and your model are treading water right before you dive under grab focus and maintain position and focal length to guarantee decent focus.