The Guy Who Builds Whole Sets Underwater: Fstoppers Interviews Underwater Photographer Brett Stanley

His photographic journey developed much the same as most photographers, a slow burn of learning and exploration, but his destination has turned out to be anything but typical.

Underwater portrait and commercial photographer Brett Stanley had no innate ability to draw as a child but was always good at building things. Instead of action figures for his birthday, he received cardboard boxes, glue, and tape so he could make what was in his head. When he picked up his first film camera as a teenager, though, he felt that he finally found a visual medium to express himself fully. Like most of us, Stanley looked for inspiration in his surroundings, which, for him, meant the Australian coast.  He tried to replicate the kind of photos he saw in magazines, but it wasn’t an easy process.

He told me: “It was film so, you know you had to wait days to see if you took any good shots, and generally, I didn’t.” But Stanley kept plugging away at it, bringing his camera on trips, sometimes scuba diving, and trying to capture what was in his head. It wasn’t until his sister-in-law told him she’d pay for photos of her children that he realized he could make a career out of photography.

The beginning of his career was spent as a commercial photographer in New Zealand, but Stanley found himself struggling. In order to be competitive in a small market, he looked to other working photographers for inspiration, but never felt his work measured up to their standard. 

“I was trying to be someone else. I was seeing the work that other people were creating, and I was trying to emulate them and never getting there.” 

Many, if not most, photographers begin by emulating their idols, but it’s a dangerous place to stay, because it can lead to disillusionment and burn out. Stanley pointed out that one can rarely know another photographer’s process or what it took to achieve an image, so photographers can get trapped in their own assumptions and wind up never realizing their potential.

Luckily for Stanley, it was playing underwater that made everything click. Growing up in Australia, he’d always been in the water. Whether it was the pool or the ocean, he spent as much time underwater as possible, even getting his diver’s license around the age of fourteen. Having always been inspired by movies like "The Big Blue" or "The Abyss," taking his camera underwater seemed like the next logical step.“A lot of my dreams and my fantasy worlds are underwater. I wanted to be in those worlds; I wanted to create those worlds if I could.” 

Self portrait of the artist, shared with permission of Brett Stanley

So, he took his little point and shoot camera to the local swimming pool to photograph his friend, and that was the beginning of his career as an underwater portrait photographer. But he had learned his lesson and didn’t want to replicate the work of other underwater photographers that often appeared as if the subjects were in a kind of void. He wanted the water itself to be an integral part of both the process and the final image.

One of the ways he separated himself from other underwater photographers was to light his work as if he were in the studio. Working underwater often requires photographers to carry their studio around as part of their rig, which can result in a flat, well-lit subject but a very dark background. That’s fine for photographing fish, he said, but not ideal for fashion or commercial work. Since Stanley has always been inspired by cinematic lighting, it only made sense to bring that approach underwater, but the underwater gear is really expensive, so he relied on his building experience to create underwater housings for his Canon flashes. For a long time, much of what he used to create was built with his own hands. In fact, he refused to invest in commercial gear until the work began to earn money. As it turned out, the work did pay off, and he was able to purchase gear meant for underwater photography, but Stanley didn’t stop building.

“Today, I still build stuff because I’m trying to do things that the underwater industry isn’t really catering for. In the retail underwater camera industry, they’re mainly focused on wildlife and sports photographers, and what I’m doing is basically being a studio portrait photographer but underwater.”

Image shared with permission of Brett Stanley

This sounds great to the average dry photographer, but the physics of light behavior is different underwater. Warm light wavelengths don’t penetrate water very well, so the color values are altered, which the photographer has to account for when lighting. Distance makes a much bigger difference in light quality underwater than it does on dry ground, because light loses intensity and color much more quickly, which can make troubleshooting lighting issues a bit of a headache, and that’s not even accounting for the effects of refraction. But Stanley says these are all things photographers learn to navigate with experience, and he’s brought that experience to one of the unique aspects of his work: building underwater sets.

What motivated Stanley to build sets in his Los Angeles swimming pool that look as if they should be on dry land? He says it started with a scene in the 1980’s movie "The Big Blue," where the main character is lying on his bed, and the room fills up with water. Stanley said he was inspired by playing with that connection between air and water, and that inspiration shows itself in surreal photographs of characters doing “dryland things” below the surface in spaces you’d never expect to see underwater. Each set is a labor of love because, of course, nothing behaves underwater the same way it behaves on land. “One of the weirdest things I’ve ever had to do was make a bed underwater,” Stanley said, and those unique moments are things he keeps close as part of the story of who he. When I asked him if underwater photographers need to be a special breed of person, he said that anyone could learn the skills, but the best photographers are underwater people first and photographers second. Different photographers will have different reasons for their desire to shoot underwater, but for Stanley, the draw for being underwater is that it’s like inhabiting a dreamscape.

Image shared with permission of Brett Stanley

“It’s the place that I guess we all dream about,” he said, “it’s the place where you can fly. It’s weightless, it’s quiet, you’re down there with your thoughts. You don’t need to talk because you can’t. It’s a place of magic. Things slow down. Everything moves so slowly; you have so much time to think. Everything has to have so much purpose. It’s the one place I feel quiet, I feel calm.” What makes this interesting is that Stanley suffers from panic attacks, which often manifest while he’s underwater.

It’s a double-edged sword, he said, because it’s the place he feels happiest in the world, but also the place that scares him the most. Many might wonder why someone would constantly put themselves in a place that invites something as unpleasant as panic attacks, but Stanley finds catharsis in the act of confronting and conquering his fear. Listening to our conversation again in preparation for writing this article, I was struck by Stanley’s answer to my question of how long he can hold his breath underwater. He told me he doesn’t time himself, because as soon as he goes underwater with the purpose of holding his breath, that’s what he focuses on, and holding his breath for any amount of time becomes impossible. But when he’s shooting and holding his breath, he’s so focused on what’s unfolding in front of him that what’s happening inside of him becomes secondary. I can’t help but think that every act is a kind of therapy, a training that forces the mind to focus outward and is a powerful reminder of what true immersion in the act of creativity can provide artists and creators.

Image shared with permission of Brett Stanley

This has interesting implications for what draws different people to different genres of photography. Stanley says he has a hard time controlling his mind, which he likened to a hummingbird flitting from flower to flower, so being underwater forces him to be in control while presenting him with the kind of dreamscape that can pull him out of himself. He provides this same service to his portrait clients, many of whom have a fear of water, by making them feel safe and drawing them into dream worlds he has built. Stanley is a rescue diver who is CPR and oxygen certified, and he brings safety divers on set for larger groups, so a lot of what he does is prepare in advance. “The difference between what I do and what someone does in the portrait studio is that I can’t really direct them. I have to front-load all that information before they can even get into the set.”

Despite everything he builds and the way he deals with clients, Stanley considers himself more of a craftsman than an artist. He subscribes to what he calls chaos theory, where if something can go wrong, it often will. So, rather than creating a very specific image, he creates scenarios in which good things can happen, then reacts. He tells clients that they can go in with ideas and plans for an image, and they’ll probably get close, but encourages them to come to terms with the fact that they don’t have full control over the final image. He knows they’ll get something great, but it won’t always be what they imagined, which is a beautiful way to approach life in general. 

Image shared with permission of Brett Stanley

We can look back at our pasts and realize that everything we’ve learned and experienced has brought us to where we are. We haven’t had and won’t always have control over what may come into or affect our lives, but we can take lessons from the guy who builds underwater sets and create scenarios in which good things can happen, react according to the skills we’ve cultivated, and then enjoy the results as a gift. We can invest ourselves wholeheartedly in the things that cause us joy and then bring other people along and teach them the lessons we’ve learned. 

While each of the interviews in this series will deal with technical aspects of image creation or business development, I hope they also provide a window into the creative world and the incredible people who inhabit it. I hope we can learn to recognize ourselves in other artists and take the lessons they’ve learned and applied them to our own lives. But most of all, I hope these interviews bring us closer together and remind us that we are all regular people capable of extraordinary things. 

To see more of Brett's work, check out his Instagram feed.

Nicole York's picture

Nicole York is a professional photographer and educator based out of Albuquerque, New Mexico. When she's not shooting extraordinary people or mentoring growing photographers, she's out climbing in the New Mexico back country or writing and reading novels.

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Thank you Nicole! So great chatting with you, and the article is wonderful :)

It was absolutely my pleasure!