Amazing Underwater Imagery Breakdown: Magic Moments

Amazing Underwater Imagery Breakdown: Magic Moments

Guest writer Felix Hernandez R. is a commercial photographer based in Cancún, Mexico. He is a very active member of our Fstoppers Facebook group and is well known for his stunning composite work and food photography. In this article he explains how accomplished his amazing series, 'Magic Moments' with the use of compositing and underwater photography.



Magic Moments is a series of 5 final photographs that were commissioned by a client (a Dolphinarium based on Cancun, Mexico). They wanted a series of images that captured the thrills of their dolphins swim programs. The challenge was to represent in a single image one of this dolphin's swim programs called "footpush" for the viewers to understand it.

The "footpush" is an activity where one or two dolphins push by the feet and through the water to the guest. Normally photos of this activity only had shown the water surface action (guest been pushed). But the dolphins (the main issue) didn't appear in the images.

A first idea and attempt was to do the photo in one shot. I thought that with an underwater housing kit and in a proper hour of the day I could capture the best of two worlds (underwater and water surface with the sky). But the reality was that I had to shoot early in the morning where the sun doesn't light enough of the underwater scene. And of course if I tried to expose the underwater scene, then the surface water, the sky and the model were blown out!

Also, the real background of the scene was too distracting. It had bushes, palm trees and part of the facility construction whereas I wanted the viewers to focus only on the main subjects - the dolphins and the guest.
So, to create this image I had to approach from a different angle.




Technique used:
I'm a photographer, but I'm also a graphic designer, so why not do a composite? This wasn't a photo for a contest or a submission for an editorial article. It is a photo intended for a commercial use to show and sell a product. No matter how you do it, what matters is that it can be understood by anyone and of course, invoke a WOW!

For the composite I needed 4 main imagines or photographs:

One for the underwater scene with the dolphins pushing the guest. One for the horizontal line that divides what is underwater from the surface. You get that line when you use a housing (it also lends more realism to the photograph). One for the guest being pushed on the water surface, and the last one for the background, in this case, the sky and clouds.

The photo for the background ended up being part of a original photo I shot that day and a image bank photo. Sure, I would have loved to use my own cloudy background, but the reality was that my background didn't have the "dreamy" look that I wanted. So, as in this case, I think it is okay to use some stock images that adds to your concept idea.




So here are the gear and technical specs I used for each photo:
• Underwater photo: 7D with a Sigma 10 - 20 lens (with a Ikelite housing)
• Horizontal lines photo: 7D with a Sigma 10 - 20 lens (with a Ikelite housing)
• Surface and guest being pushed photo: 5D MII with a Canon 24 - 105 lens. (No housing)
• Background sky photo: 5D MII with a 24 - 105 lens. (No housing) and part of it with a stock photo for the clouds.

Have to say that it was my first time using a housing unit. I had to rent it and with it had to rent the 7D camera, since they didn't have a housing for my 5D. So it was kind of tricky to familiarize myself with this new gear in underwater conditions and inside 5 hours!




I had to shoot close to 100 photos for the underwater image, of course those 100 photos where taken on burst mode. I only had a chance to do the dolphin footpush for 10 times after which the dolphins must rest, at least for one day. Of all those 100 underwater photos only two where worthwhile for my composite!

At the end I think that what really matters, at least for me, is bringing alive your ideas and dreams. For me, this experience was a true "Magic Moment".


See more work by Felix at

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chris bartkowski's picture

Gorgeous work but all of the clouds are the same... Is this laziness or on purpose? (no offense)

Zach Sutton's picture

I think the idea was that they were all shot on the same day at around the same the clouds wouldn't change.

Jaron Schneider's picture

Maybe he thought they just looked really good.

Patrick Hall's picture

Or that no one would really see all these images side by side. Chances are only one would be used in any one given spot

Arno's picture

He already stated in the Facebook group that the sky was chosen by the client and needed to be in all the photos.

Felix Hernandez's picture

Yes... but the real purpose of it its to create "brand"- Identity... for this campaign... the final viewers are not going to see them all at once!

Felix Hernandez's picture

Hi Chris... Remember this is a commissioned work.. The Idea with this series of images is to create "Brand"... We are looking at all the photos together... but the final viewers are not going to see them this way.. so the sky is part of the identity of this campaign.... This way we ensure that no matter which photo you are looking at will be identify with the brand... But.. at the end you are right, if you see them all together.., you star wondering... there is some thing wrong!... is he lazy?.... its the same day???... It's a composite???.. etc.

Jens Marklund's picture

Another composite... Well made though.

Felix Hernandez's picture

Jens... this is commercial photography... nothing wrong to do composites if this way you ensure to communicate what your client needs.... For doing a good composite you must work very hard... you must do first good photos... a lot of them... You need to know about photography, you need to be good in it... and also in pos!

Dan Lizama's picture

This is actually a very well done job, it looks fantastic and it's a great idea. I always thought the weak side of this series is that the sky looks very fake, from the over saturation to the different balance of color between it and the rest of the image, now I know why. making the sky more subtle would add importance to the subjects and make the image blend more. nicely done.

Felix Hernandez's picture

Thanks Dan.... Need contrast in the sky... all the campaign copy goes there... In white!.. so I need the contrast to make it legible.. also we choose that sky because the clouds are soft and clean... and make the copy also legible!... I had original great sky but the clouds where "bulky" and messy.

O-Nev's picture

The underwater clarity is awesome. How did you deal with refraction when shooting partially submerged?

Felix Hernandez's picture

Hi O-New.... the trick is explained in the article!.. Two cameras were used to deal with the refraction... One camera was shot for the underwater scene, and the second for the surface triggering also 3 off-camera flashes... Then in pos... composite together!

Philippe Dame's picture

Did you trigger the cameras at the same time or are the photos taken a different times with a similar pose by dolphin and model? If it was at the same time, how did you manage it?

Felix Hernandez's picture

Hi Philippe... they were taken with some seconds of difference... first shoot the surface photo ( hands not wet)... then had my assitant ready by my side with the housing ready.... dive in and take the undrwater shot!

Philippe Dame's picture

That's some quick work. Well done. Great end result!

Felix Hernandez's picture

a lot of pre-production.... you had to have your gear ready... make some shots first... 9 hours to produce 5 photos.... 4 of those 9 hours were for testing.... I did 2 shooting sesions... In the first day I could only acomplish materrial for two final images of 10

Philippe Dame's picture

It was worth it! These images truly stand out.

Felix Hernandez's picture

Thanks Philippe!

jan_twoscoopz's picture

I'm just going to sit here in awe and stare at the beauty :)

Felix Hernandez's picture

Wow Jan, Thanks!

Carl's picture

Super, fantastic images, thanks for sharing the process.

This isn't a negative point, just an observation. I do find in the image where the model and dolphin are both upright in the water that the model's above water and below water images together look slightly awkward? Her body and legs are facing away from the camera but her head and shoulders are facing every so slightly towards camera—an awkward twist even taking into account some refraction. I just mention it to see if I'm the only one seeing this?

Oliver Oettli's picture

I'm a commercial photographer myself and I am aware that composits are indeed THE commercial style of this time and I'm all yours when you talk about customer needs etc.
Nevertheless I'm really done with composits and would really really appreciate it, if the world would come back to reality - especially for commercials.
I couldn't be more fed up with it. I think its a pity that our clients all are asking for pictures, that are only possible to be done on the computer.
Don't get me wrong. I love commercial work. But I think if we get money, locations, time, models and everything we need and even then need to composite it all on the computer to make a picture that we actually want to sell as a "real situation" - then our whole industry really needs a reality check.
Besides this - stunning work Felix. it is indeed very well done.

Lena Wang's picture

I think that creating composite photographs also requires a huge amount of creativity and imagination in order to bring several elements together. I think art is created in so many different forms and ways. Felix has a graphics background and that's his personal interest and he has skills in that area, his client would have known that and chosen him on that basis. Other people have more interest in capturing images in their one true form. I think given the client brief and constraints, Felix did a truly fantastic job. I can't imagine being able to capture the dolphin and person both underwater and above water in one image. If you can come up with a better idea to do it all in one shot, please share your ideas, I would be very interested to hear them. Everyone has different skills and experiences and it's great to be able to learn them from each other, especially through educational mediums like F stoppers.

Felix Hernandez's picture

Thanks Lena... you are sow right.. I mean Like i said... Our first attempt was doing the split photo in just one shot... and i Have some good photos of those intents... But, we had to go a step further... We needed a more powerful and WOW final image... I needed those image where exactly like they were in mi dreams... so if I also a graphic designer and have skills for pos[production... why not use them... And at the end we had to do great photos for above and under... Here is one "real " photo we did for above water.... Yes the sky it's not, but everything else it is... and I think they are ok... Thanks.

Lena Wang's picture

Last weekend I went to see the work of Monet, one of the greatest artists who ever lived. His work was just stunning to see. As an impressionist, his goal was to capture the feeling of the first impression of a landscape that he saw. He would paint as quickly as he could to keep the same image and feeling in his head and his heart. I believe that great images will evoke a kind of a wonderful feeling, it should inspire others. What I love about Felix's work is that I feel inspired and want to go and swim with the dolphins. It looks like a dream. Will the actual dolphin swimming experience LOOK the same? Well no, but I should think that it will FEEL the same. The feeling of freedom and happiness in being out in the realm of nature, swimming along with dolphins in the big blue ocean. I think he brought that feeling to life quite creatively. Let me know where I can sign up for the dolphin swims!

Felix Hernandez's picture

Thanks.... butI don't share your point of view...
First of all... Consumers today wants from the brands to deliver emotions, and concepts, not just reality... In this case we are not showing something thats not true... we are showing something you normally wouldn't see (under and above) and of course to embellish the scene we had to do some things like use flashes and replace sky... But this are thing you would do in a studio portrait.... You will use a back canvas and strobes!

You are seeing this form the point of view as a photographer... But I see it as a artist director.... and the work and abilities you need to pos-process something like this are as valid as the ones you need as a photographer... In this case you need booth, because remember that for doing the photos for 5 final images we spend more than 9 hours in the field... doing just photographic work... in pos we spend maybe 1 hours per final image. So it wasn't an easy photo shot.

Like I said before... For me it's not about the technic you use... It's about bringing your ideas and dreams, and mental images to life!!!... If for that you need to do photo, painting, magic, or digital art... its ok.

Feroz Khan's picture

2 of the 3 links to his work aren't valid links

Rebecca Britt's picture

I can check later this evening and fix them when I get home. Thanks for pointing that out to me. They worked for me before I published, but sometimes they turn all wonky. :)

Michal Obuchowski's picture

I think the 500px link at the bottom doesn't work :(

great stuff, though!

Brandon Cawood's picture

great work felix! These are awesome!