This year my family and I escaped the cold of NYC and went to South Florida to celebrate the holidays. I was so glad to be heading to some warm weather, and I planned some shoots that wouldn't be typical of the winter weather up North. I had never shot underwater before, so I wanted to challenge myself and try it out. I contacted BorrowLenses to see if they had an Aquatech housing that I could rent for my Nikon D4, but sadly it hadn't been released yet. However, BL did put me in contact with Aquatech reps who were still testing out the new NY-4 housing and lent me one for the month I would be in Florida in return for some feedback, I gladly accepted.
Remember, this was my 1st time shooting underwater, typically I am a dance and portrait photographer that operates far from water. I made mistakes that hopefully you won't have to make after reading this article. However, I did a lot right as well and I want to pass on ALL of that info to you to make your underwater shoots more successful, especially when first starting out.
First off, yes, I was using an expensive housing that costs a lot of money on a camera that costs a lot of money. I chose my D4 because I thought I would need to use high-ISOs that I wouldnt be comfortable pushing my Nikon D800 to, but in fact I never went over ISO 800 during either of my 2 underwater shoots. So a less expensive camera could have totally been used to do these shoots, easily. Also, the cheaper the camera, the smaller and cheaper the housings, so take all of that into account while reading this. I could have shot these same images using a Canon 7D or Nikon D7000 using something like an underwater bag or the new Outex "housings". So don't think that any one of you aren't capable of the same quality images with whatever is in your budget (unless you're working with peanuts, then you should just eat the peanuts). I chose the Aquatech because there is no way I would trust putting my D4 (or D800 really) in anything other than a high quality hardcase housing that is made specifically for that camera. It really just eases your state of mind while going under with your camera.
I did two underwater shoots while I was in Florida, the 1st was all natural light in a very shallow 5ft deep pool (Part 1 will cover this) and the 2nd shoot was lit with a single strobe above the water in a 9ft deep pool (Part 2). Both days were mostly overcast and they still yielded some very cool results.
FIRST SHOOT - Natural Light
I had 2 of my favorite gingers, Hope and Blesi Tchividjian, be my test subjects for the shoot. I knew that their blazing orange hair and light complexions would really bring out some interesting color and vibrance to the washed out vibe that I knew the water would create. The pool was shallow and presented some challenges since the tiles at the top of the pool would infringe on most of the photos. Also, Hope and Blesi's hair would float most of the time, so composing the shot right without getting the tiles made it even more difficult. So I took a high vantage point just barely below the surface to minimize and sometimes eliminate the tiles altogether.
My settings were simple, which allowed me to take my mind off technical things and focus on getting the shot to work. I was at ISO 800, Aperture Priority, Auto WB, F/5.6 with my 24-70 lens zoomed to 50mm and I had my focus set to fully automatic (which would catch anything from bubbles to faces to the back wall of the pool). Definitely something I would change next time, I think I would use single point focus and just move the point where I needed it per the shot. I ended up with LOTS of out of focus face shots with bubbles in focus.
It can be very strange and frustrating for you and your models at first because you're unable to direct while shooting, which right off the bat was probably the most difficult thing I had to adjust to. It took about 15 minutes for 1 of the models to figure out how to relax her face and look more natural while holding her breathe, but once she got it she was like a pro. Another thing that took a while was, when shooting the girls together, one would float higher than the other, or one would take longer getting to the bottom, so by the time they both go where I needed them, the other would have to come up for air. After a few minutes of trying to figure that out I came up with the idea that they should hold onto each other and go under, which (1) made an awesome shot and moving subject matter, and (2) eliminated the uneven sister problem. When you're all oxygen deprived and dealing with other people that have never posed underwater, you need to think of the easiest ways to correct the problems you're encountering, because there is too much that everyone is trying to keep in mind already, so you don't want your subject to be overwhelmed.
Last thing that comes to mind for me with this shoot that I had to overcome was composition. I really didn't wan't the same ol' look for every shot, i.e. people in the middle of the frame at the bottom of the pool. I wanted some shots from underneath, a few split-levels and close-up portrait types of shots.
These types of shots turned out to be my favorites just because of how different they were compared to how I typically shoot. It's always god to go outside of your normal style and try something new, sometimes it becomes part of how you shoot. But you''l never know if you don't try, so do it!
All in all, I felt like this shoot went pretty well and I was happy with the final images that I got from it. But the next shoot was riddled with problems, be sure to check out Part 2 coming out next month.
I learned a ton shooting underwater, but if you're someone that shoots underwater a lot and you want to share some more tips ad info, feel free to in the comments. We would all love to hear what you have to say too!