Montana water is pretty cold in winter…and spring…and…okay actually it’s pretty cold every single day of the year.
As an underwater photographer I have to admit it’s not the most ideal place for year-round shooting. But the crystal clear glacier water I have access to in the summer (although freezing), makes it all worth it.
Winter, of course, is a different story. Can’t really shoot if the water is frozen.
Which puts me on the search for anyone with an indoor pool willing to lend it to a desperate underwater photographer. Thankfully, one of the nicest couples EVER allowed me to use their pool in Bozeman for a couple shoots, so when Rocky Mountain Entertainment Agency (RMEA) had the idea to do a full model workshop complete with underwater model training…in Montana…in February…we had the perfect place!
I don’t think I’ll ever get sick of shooting with RMEA. Everyone is enthusiastic and nice – and the girls are absolute rockstars. Underwater modeling is tough, and they have to figure it all out within just a couple days. This year, we had an extra little bonus, as one of the modeling spots for my Greece workshop was still available, so one lucky model would walk away with a trip to Greece completely paid for!
The first day of these workshops is usually practice. Hardly anyone, if ever, gets it right on the first day. There’s a lot of choking and sputtering, a lot of “This sucks” and “How do you make the water not go up your nose?”
But the second day – wow! Every time it’s like a whole new group of girls show up. Everyone starts to get the hang of it, and it starts being fun! Then we can play with props, with backdrops, fun poses and outfits.
Plus, with a makeup artist like Olivia, with OMD4 Makeup (who is also the makeup artist that will be on hand for both the Greece and Catalina Island workshops this year), we get to see some really great makeup looks. The girls also had their photos taken on dry land by Katherine, from Katherine Kingston Photography (who was just a blast to work with, btw).
A few shots from day 2 of the workshop:
And the model that won a spot at the Greece workshops is…
I can’t wait for this summer’s RMEA camps!
My brain is officially underwater.
Photographically, that is.
I see everything in terms of underwater. A friend shows me the gorgeous wedding dress she picked out, and I wonder what it would look like in a pool. My mother-in-law shows me a new chair she reupholstered and I wonder how well the color would hold up if it got wet. I’ve even made the mistake of approaching a potential model with an opening line of, “Excuse me, how well do you sink in water?”
I’ll admit though, starting out in underwater photography was pretty intimidating. I couldn’t afford my own housing, so I built my own, and it actually worked fairly well in the beginning.
I was still scrambling in every other aspect though, as I couldn’t find any decent information online that wasn’t primarily geared toward photographing fish or plant life. So starting from scratch, I slowly began exploring the world of underwater portraits…and making every single mistake along the way.
If there’s anything I wish I would’ve known in the beginning (besides the fact to never ask a stranger how well they sink in a pool) this would be it.
1.) Have An Open Mind
Everything is different under the water. Lighting, for example, follows different principles and patterns. Lights need to be about 6 times stronger than on land (roughly, depending on depth and distance to your subject), and since dealing with radio signals can be a huge pain underwater, your lights usually need to be either constant, ambient light or strobes that are connected directly to your camera.
That’s not all though; you and your models need to adapt to shooting in a near zero-gravity environment. Your props and wardrobe will act differently as well – a gorgeous, flowing dress on land could be a tangled, transparent mess underwater, and a prop you thought would be a fantastic idea might be downright dangerous after it gets wet (I learned this the hard way with a fur coat and a pair of roller-skates).
No matter how long you’ve been shooting, you’re about to enter into a field that will make you feel like a novice all over again – which is incredibly exciting! But if you go into it with a rigid idea of how photography works, you’ll quickly find yourself frustrated and discouraged. So keep an open mind and be prepared to see things in a whole new light.
2.) Buy The Right Housing
Sorry to say, but underwater photography housing is no place to be pinching pennies. When you’re putting thousands of dollars’ worth of gear in an environment that could easily destroy it with just the tiniest of leaks, you need to know it’s going to be taken care of.
I only wish I would’ve known this earlier. At the time, I didn’t really know if this was something I was going to be actively pursuing, so I didn’t want to make a huge investment. After using my own housing for a while though, I knew I was hooked. So I started the process of upgrading, all while trying to spend as little money as possible.
I ended up going through three different brands of cheap underwater bags, housing specifically made for underwater video and various hard housings. The bags all leaked at one point or another, the underwater video housing was NOT ideal for photos and the cheap hard housings were large and awkward. It was a mess.
Now, I use underwater housing from Ikelite, and for the life of me wish I would’ve just gone to them sooner. I could’ve saved myself a lot of time, money, stress and one very unfortunate, doomed 5d Mark II.
My advice – if you’re just looking to have some fun, consider renting some gear or buy a GoPro. Take some pics and see how you feel. If you decide underwater isn’t for you, at least you can return the gear or use a GoPro for literally anything else, and if you do decide this is something you want to pursue, sit down and have an honest look at the kind of underwater work you want to produce and the gear you’ll need to produce it.
3.) Know Not All Water Is Equal
Our cameras see light very differently than we do. A heavily chlorinated pool may seem clear to you, but it’s a hazy mess according to your camera. If you’re shooting in a pool that looks clear, but you’re images are turning out cloudy and useless, there might be an abundance of chemicals in the water that you aren’t seeing, but your camera is.
In my experience, I’ve found there’s really nothing better than a clear, freshwater lake, followed by clear saltwater, followed by a saltwater pool. I’ll avoid shooting in a chlorinated hotel pool at all costs.
There are also other factors that come into play as well. Oceans have currents and potentially dangerous animals, like jellyfish. Freshwater lakes here in Montana are insanely clear, but they’re also freezing. There’s always a tradeoff.
4.) Embrace Wide Angle Lenses
To cut down on the amount of water between your subject and your camera, you’ll want to shoot as close to your subject as possible. I mostly shoot at a focal length right around 25mm. Any longer and I have a hard time keeping my subject entirely in the frame, and I started running into additional focusing and clarity issues. Any wider and there is too much image distortion.
Not to say you shouldn’t break the rules a little bit though! If I know I’m shooting in an environment where outer distortion doesn’t matter (say on a completely black background), I’ll shoot with something as wide as an 8mm, and for close-up portrait work, I’ll shoot closer to 40-50mm. I’ve also taken my 85mm underwater to0 because, well, why the hell not?
5.) Learn To Sink
The key to staying underwater is not to hold your breath, but rather to let all your air out. The less air in your lungs, the less buoyant you are, and the easier it is to maneuver down there. It seems quite terrifying at first, but soon you’ll learn to work with the residual air in your lungs, and the more you do it the longer you can stay down. It’s not uncommon now for me to sink down 15 or 20 feet for the angle I need, while the model goes through a couple cycles of posing.
For some people though, the thought of letting all their air out before diving down is just too much to take, and in this case you can use weights or even dive equipment. If you’re having trouble, a great tip is to take a 25lb hand weight, wrap it in bubble wrap and then black felt (if you’re shooting in a pool, this helps to protect the liner), than hook your toe under it and pull yourself down. The model can do the same if she’s having a hard time sinking as well.
6.) Be Patient With Your Models
Underwater modeling is incredibly difficult. They’re modeling in completely new conditions, with water going up their nose almost the entire time. They also can barely see the camera – it’s mostly a blurry black blob to them. Plus, since you can’t talk underwater, they don’t even know if what they’re doing is what you’re looking for.
So give them plenty of time to figure this all out. For most models, first they need to practice letting their air out and sinking. Once they get the hang of this, turn your focus to facial expressions. Most people naturally make a variety of unattractive facial poses underwater, like squinty eyes and nostrils, chipmunk cheeks or “fish lips” (what I call the underwater version of the “duck face”).
After they learn how to keep their face looking natural and relaxed, move onto body poses. Reiterate soft hands, pointed toes and a long neck.
I try to give my models a list of poses before the shoot so they can practice them on land before going underwater, and then during the shoot I slowly walk them through the process, suggesting small movement changes a little at a time.
It’s also important that you are fully aware of the conditions your models are in. Personally, I never, ever wear a wetsuit. I certainly could, considering Montana water is more than cold enough to warrant one, but then I wouldn’t have any idea how my model felt. By being in the exact same conditions my models are in, I’m able to better gauge what is appropriate to ask of them given the current conditions.
7.) Learn to Shoot Fast
Even if the water isn’t even that cold, a long day of shooting will quickly wear on both of you. Your model will have water going up her nose and in her ears as she tries to move into different poses, and you’ll because exhausted from trying to maneuver that camera around underwater. You’ll both be swallowing plenty of water and will both feel sick at some point (I like to keep a few bottles of freshwater nearby, as well as a box of crackers to help combat water sickness).
From a photography standpoint though, shooting fast is important because things change underwater, primarily makeup and skin texture. Fingers become pruney, makeup will run and fade and skin will take on an unattractive dimpled, dead texture, which you definitely don’t want…unless you’re going for a zombie look or something.
So this is where good planning will come in. If everyone knows exactly what you want before you even get into the water, things will naturally move much faster. If you have a huge shoot coming up with a new model, meet her a few days before and do a kind of rehearsal shoot so she can practice. Some models pick it up in a heartbeat; some need 3 or 4 shoots to begin even looking somewhat comfortable in the water.
8.) Have Plenty Of Assistance
Any extra hands on an underwater shoot will not go unused. If you have lighting or other equipment that’s on land just out of reach, for example, it’s much easier to have an assistant adjust it for you while you do a test shot, rather than have to get out of the pool and move it yourself until you finally get the look you’re going for.
Plus, underwater shooting can be a little dangerous at times, especially when the model is not wearing something they would normally wear underwater. Large dresses can become tangled, props can become heavy or the model can become disoriented while trying to hit certain poses. Extra hands on deck help make your job easier while keeping everyone safe.
9.) Embrace Post-Processing
Water is a medium, and anytime you shoot through a medium, you’re going to run into some issues. All of those brilliant underwater photos you see on the internet, even ones by Bruce Mozert, are not entirely straight out of camera.
Shooting through water takes away image clarity and sharpness, adds a lot of background stuff to clean up (bubbles, backscatter, light reflections), not to mention that pesky blue cast that takes some dealing with (you could use filters to try and combat the blue cast, but personally I feel they cause even more of a headache).
If your images look less than stellar straight out of camera, don’t get frustrated. You don’t need to go out and buy a few thousand dollars in lighting equipment; you most likely just haven’t put them through the proper post-processing techniques yet.
10.) Understand This Takes Time
To be blunt – underwater photography is not easy. It’s physically exhausting, time-consuming and potentially very expensive. When I first started I was coming home waterlogged and sick, with red, itchy eyes, ringing ears and about 10,000 images to sort through…and only 2 would make the cut. But even then, I was completely addicted.
Don’t be too hard on yourself in the beginning. There are a lot of components that need to come together to make a successful photograph, and it takes a lot of practice to get to that point. Take it one day at a time, and you’ll be there before you know it!
And of course, if you’re interested in a hands-on underwater portraiture course, don’t forget to check out my workshops next year in Greece and Bali, and make sure and SUBSCRIBE for more posts like this, and follow me on Facebook, Instagram & Twitter :).
Probably shouldn’t have done that…
From time to time I like to browse some of my favorite photographers’ work to see what they’ve been up to. It gives me inspiration, new ideas, and also lights that competitive fire under my ass.
But sometimes it has the opposite effect. Sometimes I see something so unbelievably good that I sink into a deep chasm of self-doubt and frustration.
Today was one of those days.
Now when it comes to underwater photography, I am obsessed. So obsessed in fact, that when I learned the cost of underwater camera housing apparatuses ($2,000?! What?!), I built my own. Hell I’ve been obsessed with water itself for as long as I can remember. I think it’s the weightlessness of it mixed with just a touch of danger. Swimming to me feels like flying – if the air could kill you at any moment.
Even in my above ground portfolio, you really don’t even have to look very hard to see watery influences. In almost every photo, there are people and objects floating around, and water is consistently a central theme. I’m either standing in it, sitting on a car in it, put someone else under it or have it coming out of an umbrella (multiple times). It’s actually pretty funny to look back and see that unintentionally, I’ve always had water somewhere in my photos.
So one of the photographers I casually stalk (read: intensely dream about working with someday) is Zena Holloway. Her work is stunning. Like, crazy good. It’s so gorgeous that it actually pisses me off on a certain level and if I ever meet her I already know she’s going to hate me because I will either completely freeze up and say something creepy and inappropriate (my default mode) or I will ask a million questions and annoy the bajesus out of her.
So two great options, really.
But last month she posted a behind-the-scenes video of one of her underwater photography shoots:
As always it’s amazing, but shortly after watching I found myself frustrated. Seeing her models gracefully pose while I consistently flail about made me think of the countless “Nailed It” moments you find on Pinterest. I should’ve known just from reading the description what I was getting into.
“750,000 litres of water
One 5m high bed
Six hours to set up
Eight hours to shoot
Nine underwater crew
Seven underwater cameras
53 seconds without drawing breath
1,609m of hair extensions
217 Valsalva manoeuvres
…and 62 wet towels!”
I spent all day yesterday setting up and shooting. My list was as follows:
Dresses from Goodwill
Light from Home Depot
Bottle of Jameson
And then comes the self-pity party. “If only I could just borrow some designer clothes. If only I knew a qualified hair and makeup person that could do the look I’m going for. If only I had access to a better lighting system, a different lens, or a better location.”
“If only, if only, if only, blah, blah, blah, blah blah!”
See, this actually happens a lot. The pity party hits, and then I calm down and remind myself of a few solid points: 1.) All of this awesome stuff does not make an amazing photographer, these are tools that amazing photographers have acquired over the years. I’m very doubtful anyone has access to all this amazing equipment and vendors from day one, and 2.) It takes time. Photography is an art that takes for-freaking-ever to learn and there is no rushing the process. Eventually, slowly but surely, I’ll get there.
And you will too :).
Essentially, the video below is all you ever need to keep in mind. Trust me – I watch it anytime I need to pull myself out of a bit of a slump :).
And if I ever do get to meet Zena, maybe we can just hangout. Nothing serious, just, like, drink some tea, talk about photography, get matching tattoos…that sort of thing ;).
Don’t forget to follow me on my Facebook page, Jenna Martin Photography, and don’t forget to subscribe below! 😀
On my first outing with my underwater camera housing, I had no idea where to go. I knew the water had to be semi-clear, but I had no idea just how clear. Could there be a little murkiness? Would I maybe actually like the murkiness? How much was too much to where it would distort the image? I had no idea. So the first place I went was to Lake Elmo, a spot right here in Billings. Granted, it’s known as a giant mud puddle to locals, but I needed to start somewhere. I recruited my boyfriend’s mom, Eddy, to come hold the camera while I attempt to model underwater.
Turns out, Lake Elmo was not the best place to start. The water was so murky I couldn’t see anything more than 6 inches in front of my camera. One hour of work down, no results. Next location.
Spot #2 was the river. I figured with moving water, the fine muck and mud would be washed downstream and the water would be fairly clear. I was even curious to see what the motion would look like. But alas, it was still too murky. I could see a vague blur of color where the subject was, but there still wasn’t anything I could possibly edit. I’m still in search of a deeper part of the river where the dust and mud can settle, but for now I needed another option.
I’d already taken pictures at the pool, but everything had that blue tint. I thought it was just the background of the pool itself, so I brought a variety of backgrounds. As it turns out, the blue tint is because of the chlorine. It can taken out in post, but it’s definitely quite the process. I needed an unchlorinated spot.
Eddy explained that we could try her hottub. It was tiny, but it was unchlorinated. Sure we were going on 3 hours of wasted time and I was unsure of whether or not I could even get a photo in a tiny space, but we had to try. So I put a wide angle lens on my camera, submerged myself in barely 1′ of water and clicked away. And these were a few of the results :).
Feel free to click here if you’d like to learn a little more about how I made my underwater camera housing :).
When I first started really getting into photography, the thought of underwater photos intrigued me. “How amazing it would be to capture images underwater,” I thought to myself. So I started researching exactly how one might go about putting their camera underwater, because lets be honest, this setup surely wasn’t going to do the trick (and yes, that’s one of my many beautiful cats lounging on my countertop).
But upon typing in my search inquiry, my heart sank. It looked as though there were two options: 1.) A camera bag and 2.) A housing facility. The camera bag, priced at the low end of the spectrum (roughly $100-$150), seemed to better fit my budget, but after reading the horrible reviews every bag received (“Hugely susceptible to human error”, “Leaked the first time I tried it in my bathtub”, “Leaks if placed lower than 1′ of water”, “Leaks because it’s Tuesday” ) I decided against it. I needed something substantial that put one of my most valuable possessions in as little of harm’s way as possible.
So next I took a look at housings.
For a 5D Mark II, underwater housing starts at roughly $1500 and goes up from there. $1500? I was nowhere near being able to afford $1500! I slammed my computer shut and thought to myself, “It’s okay. I just need to save up some money before I can start taking underwater photos. I can live with that.”
Except I couldn’t live with that. The thought burrowed into the back of my brain and wouldn’t leave. “Does this mean only people with $1500 lying around should be able to take underwater photos?” The more I was told I couldn’t take the pictures without proper equipment, the more I became obsessed with it. “There just had to be a way…”
And that way, I decided, was to make my own housing. I figured I could devise a structure that would allow me to put my camera inside, and I could use an automatic shutter release to take the photos from the outside. As long as all my settings were adjusted before I put the camera underwater…it was possible. So I recruited the help of my boyfriend’s step-dad, Scott, and we started to build.
The first prototype was part of an insulated cooler. I needed to have a removable lid so I could take my camera in and out. I figured we’d cut the bottom out, replace it with Plexiglas and seal any spots where water could get in. Seemed simple enough, right?
Not even close. As soon as I reached a depth over 3′ deep the Plexiglas popped off the bottom like a dandelion head. Apparently I had completely underestimated the amount of water pressure I’d be dealing with here…
Some adjustments had to be made. Instead of sealing the Plexiglas on the inside of the container, we sealed it on the outside. By pushing the small disc against the contraption to which it was already attached, the water pressure was working with me instead of against me. There were still some issues with the lid leaking (as per the water-soaked dive weights inside), so I thought an extra dose of duct tape might do the trick for now.
How wrong could I be. The bottom seemed solid, but water was still rushing in from the top. Since I couldn’t find an O-ring large enough to fit inside, I tried everything else: thread tape, weather stripping, plenty of silicone and countless other options. Sealing from the inside certainly wasn’t going to do the trick.
So we opted for an outside option instead. We tried a variety of rubber options with a combination of pipe clamps. We even tried an old bike tire, but it turned out that it wasn’t even remotely waterproof (who would’ve thought?).
Plus, water was slowly leaking in through the Plexiglas window. Somehow, it was coming in through the lid, seeping down through the insulation and coming back out through the bottom. I needed to start from scratch.
Instead of starting with something already built, I decided to design something myself. When I met with Scott that night, he showed me some of the designs he had drawn up and they ended up being almost identical to what I was thinking in my head. Since my camera measured a little more than 6″ across, I knew that would be my rough estimate of a sizing option.
The available pipe options I had locally went from 6″ to 8.5″. We took a chunk of 8.5″ pipe, a chunk of coupling and sanded some Plexiglass to barely fit into the rim of the coupling. We sealed it, placed the pipe on top, sealed it with AVS glue and used a rubber pipe cap and pipe clamp as the lid. This had to work. It was just too pretty not to!
Off to the pool I went (thanks to the Comfort Inn for constantly letting me use their pool over the last few months!) hoping this would be the one.
And the result?
It worked! It worked, it worked, IT WORKED! Thanks Scott for all your help, and be sure to click here if you want to see my first round of underwater photos :)!
Now to make a list of all the things I can put underwater…