Underwater Fashion Photography
Underwater photography is a popular diving specialty. Many divers enjoy making photographs of marine life, shipwrecks, or underwater geological features such as cave systems. Various categories of underwater photography have developed, such as wide angle, macro or super-macro. One of the more interesting specialties is fashion photography, a practice that requires a lot of preparation.
It’s easy to see why many photographers are drawn to underwater fashion photography. The water surface can easily been used as a mirror and the light games are endless. The movements of an underwater model are free. Artistic realizations are infinite, as the water moves the model’s hairs and clothing freely, creating a dreamy scene. Surrealistic images are easily created. Some accessories or props in the water, even bubbles, contribute to an otherworldly feel.
Some issues to consider in underwater fashion photography:
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Good communication is essential between the photographer and model. As the most important element in the image, the model, man or woman, adult or child, must be comfortable in the water. Aside from having good breath control, the model has quite a complex job: a complete awareness of clothing, coiffure and position of legs, bottom, hands, and head. The model will need to maintain a good facial expression as well, with open eyes. To be elegant, model’s feet should be “on pointe” like a dancer’s.
You can create beautiful scenes with several models. Naturally this adds complexity, as it requires perfect control and synchronization.
Pro tip: Make sure you explain clearly to the model what your expectations are before the shooting session.
Underwater fashion images can be created in a swimming pool or in a natural environment, like the sea or in a lake.
A pool offers an easier and safer environment.
We usually prepare the pool with fabric on the pool’s walls and ground so ceramic tiles and other recognizable marks won’t appear in the image. If you can’t cover the tiles, try either to avoid them in your images or to use them as part of the image construction.
Most models will prefer the pool environment, as it is easier to get up to breathe before returning to “work.” It may even be possible to request a reduction in water chlorine levels, which will be more comfortable for the model’s eyes after some time underwater.
If you choose a natural environment, you need to pay attention to important parameters like atmospheric conditions, waves, currents, depth, visibility, water temperature, ways to get into the water and more. More assistance is necessary here to keep the model safe and have access to air to breathe. It’s best to use models who have some diving experience due to the more complicated conditions.
Remember that in the sea, the models will suffer more trying to keep their eyes open. Because the model has no mask, you need to communicate with her/him very clearly with large signs.
Pro Tip: Whatever the environment; water surface may always be used as a mirror. Use it to your advantage, to mirror the model or as an interesting light reflection tool.
The use of light is an artistic decision according to the image you want to produce. In most cases, you will need several flashes to fill in every details. Camera settings need to be adjusted according to the light you have and the result you want to obtain.
In order to have balanced light, two or more flashes should be used in the front of the model.
However, if you only want to show the model’s silhouette, you can use the sun or an artificial light in the back. During the day, the sun may be used as a backlight, whether you shoot in the sea or in a pool. You will need to plan well, choosing the right time and the right position to use the sun properly.
Artificial light can also be used as a backlight. A flash in slave mode, attached to a pod can easily be hung by an assistant, who must keep up with a constantly moving model to make sure the flash is always behind her.
When shooting in swimming pools, external artificial light may be used as well.
To add complementary underwater artificial light in the sea, you will need some assistants or weighted tripods to hold the lights or flashes. Your remote flashes can be set in slave mode or they can be connected to the camera’s housing with long sync cables.
Pro tip: In underwater fashion photography, a light source coming from the back of the model is always a powerful option. It adds a lot to the image, making it seem out of this world!
When shooting a model underwater you will want to catch all the details of the face, body, clothes and other accessories. You will need to be as close as possible. A wide-angle lens will be necessary to shoot the entire body. If you use cropped DSLR, 10-20 or 12-24 will be fine. In full frame DSLR, approx. 15mm or 20mm are fine. If you use a zoom lens like, for example, a 10-20mm, set it to 12-13mm, in order to minimize distortions in the corners.
For portraits only, a 60mm lens is a great choice.
For compact and mirrorless cameras, you can choose equivalent focal lengths.
Pro Tip: Fisheye lens is less adapted for fashion photography but can help to create special effects.
It is easiest to work in shallow water, where the model can freely go up and down for air. If the model can’t stand-up independently, a fix bar or any construction to hang on to will help keep your model comfortable.
If the shooting session is done at a depth, the model will need to dive with scuba gear to the spot. You will need a dedicated air assistant to provide air from a separate tank. The model will signal a request with a hand sign. The air assistant will need to be very attentive, dedicated only to that task.
Pro Tip: Make sure you have access to a long hose regulator. It is the best tool to provide air to the model.
Clothing, Fabric, Accessories
Clothing and any fabric you use should be soft and light so it moves nicely in the water.
Jewelry or other accessories can add great effect. For example a bracelet on the wrist or upper arm can add drama and photograph well.
Shoes can be used as a function of the desired image.
Sometimes a table, chair, or other props can be added to the image scenario.
Pro tip: The longer the better when using dresses and fabrics. Your image can look more magical as the underwater environment swirls it to and fro.
Because the human body will naturally float in the water, a small weight (1kg/2lbs) can be helpful to the model, to stay balanced below the water level.
It’s also possible to bind the model’s feet discreetly to tethered weights on the ground. It is imperative to have an assistant dedicated to bringing air to the model regularly upon request. Make sure your model is professional diver if you choose this method. Be very careful with this technique. It’s best is to have enough assistants for any issue which might arise.
Pro tip: Weights can be camouflaged inside clothing or bound to the model underneath clothing.
There are always many questions about make-up for underwater. There are no specific brands or solution we know of for this very purpose. Most brands offer waterproof formulas. Naturally you would want to choose that.
Some photographers use a spray which helps set make-up on the face. In my experience this is an unnecessary step, as I’ve found the make-up remains visible for the length of the shoot, but you may be interested in experimenting with this option.
The make-up colors should complement the style and feeling as well as the colors and textures of the composition.
Pro Tip: Use the services of a professional make-up artist if possible.
The photographer must be as free as possible with a light equipment. Depending on the location, depth, conditions and free diving capabilities, the photographer may shoot with or without scuba gear.
Pro Tip: Make sure your equipment, including camera, is ready before going to the photo shoot session, in order to avoid any time loss.
A photo session can take several hours when you include the pool preparation, clothing, make-up, assistant prep and other details to consider.
Pro Tip: Make sure to organize some light food and drinks (hot and cold) to keep your team comfortable and happy to do the work.
Model Photo Session in a Pool
Below, the video of the photo session I conducted with the singer, Noa. The images have been used for the cover of her last album, “Love Medicine.”
Some Underwater Fashion Photographers for Your Inspiration
Todd Essick brings beautiful women into the deep to pose surrounded by sharks or other sea life. He has created unique art images in unusual places like Palau’s Jellyfish Lake. Todd Essick’s website
Johannes Felten mixes fashion with nude models in the most natural way. He works with a big team of designers, make-up artist, models, assistant photographers, a light assistant and others. The results of his photo shoots are always beautiful. Johannes Felten’s website
Shawn Heinrichs has made some remarkable works which should be seen. He has photographed the model, Hannah Fraser, with whale sharks, manta rays and tiger sharks to create awareness of these endangered species. Shawn Heinrichs’s website
Marc Hillesheim also uses the aquatic environment to create fantastic scenes with models. He has, for example, created a memorable scene of a woman dancing in a discotheque, complete with mirror ball and disco clothing. Mark Hillesheim website
Zena Holloway has her very own style. She has created breathtaking advertising campaigns. She designs very artistic and poetic images in swimming pools and the sea, sometimes using big fish or sharks. Zena Holloway’s website
Sarah Lee has made her name shooting commercial women’s swimwear. Her images are always very active. She typically shoots in Hawaii, and favors images of her models swimming below the strong waves. Sarah Lee’s website
Viktor Lyagushkin is a super-extreme photographer having photographed models either in frozen waters or in deep caves. His techniques of lighting and backlighting are well developed and he produces amazing shots. Viktor Liyagushkin’s website
Plamena Mileva shoots her models primarily in the marine environment. She successfully combines in harmony the diverse and the beauty of underwater flora and fauna along with stunning models. She likes to shoot in the deep and her deepest photos were done in the risky 32 and 70 m. Plamena Mileva’s website
David Pilosof is one of the pioneers of this specialty. He used to build entire studios underwater; bringing office tables, chairs and many more unusual pieces to create his fabulous scenes. He is also a precursor in the world of underwater nudity photography, with his historical art book, “Samantha.”
Sharon Rainis creates incredible undersea productions with bridal dresses various models. She is also well-known for creating fantastic optical illusions featuring the effects of the no gravitation underwater environment. Sharon Rainis’s website
Aaron Wong has a different approach. He designs images. His models are static. The model is a part of the construction, required to stand exactly the way he has precisely imagined. See his WaterColors images. Aaron Wong’s website
Benjamin Von Wong works at a depth of 25 meters, shooting his models dressed in haute couture. He finds breathtaking environments and creates amazing work. Benjamin Von Wong’s website
Anatoly Beloshchin is an amazing photographer whom’s works deserve a lot of attention. When he shoots fashion underwater, his favorite model is his beautiful wife. Anatoly Beloshchin’s website
Konstantin Killer has created an incredible collection of models posing in a pool. A must to see. Konstantin Killer’s website
Cheryl Walsh has her very own style of fine art underwater models photography. She is like painting her photos, at least that’s the result and it’s truly amazing Cheryl Walsh’s website
To Conclude….Keep in Mind
If you intend to shoot fashion underwater, remember that it is not enough to have all the elements: a beautiful model, an underwater setting, gorgeous fabric. It is not enough to make a good photograph. The purpose of a good image is to create something interesting which will catch the eye. It’s not enough to rely on the model or the below the surface location. The photographer needs to create the complete environment as well as mood, to obtain a great image.
The challenge is even more difficult with a nude model, as the images can become a bit boring. You will need even more imagination to create an interesting image containing nudity. The key, as every good photographer knows, is planning ahead.
Pro tip: During a photo session, shoot as many (good) pictures as you can then keep ONLY the 4-5 most amazing ones! The keepers are the ones of which you can say WOW!
See more underwater fashion images here