Underwater Portraits: A Beginner’s Guide

I call this a beginner’s guide because I felt like a total newb while attempting this. Usually I’m comfortable in any situation and can call upon my knowledge and experience to create whatever image is needed. Shooting in and underwater however was a totally different ball game. Through a few sessions I learned some basics that seem so obvious only AFTER you learn them, so I thought I’d share these with you.

 

Underwater Housing

These can get expensive. Each camera usually has a third party housing made specifically for that camera so that you can access all the buttons and dials while you’re down there. For the Fujifilm X-T2 I contacted Nauticam and they said they were developing one for my camera and it would cost over $2000 to buy! Now, at that point in time I didn’t know if I reeeallllyyy wanted to get into underwater photography. I just wanted to try it and wasn’t willing to spend that kind of money just to “see” if I like it. So I went on Souq.com (equivalent of Amazon in Dubai) and shopped around for one of those universal plastic bag type cases. I found two options, a 55 dhs ($15) one and a 115 dhs ($30) one. The only difference is the more expensive one has a hard plastic front element where the lens shoots through where as the cheaper one has a soft plastic front element. GET THE HARD PLASTIC ONE. It makes the WORLD of a difference. Click here to go straight to buy it. Now, before you go and stick your camera in it and take a dive, try it first with some paper towels. You don’t want to find out you have a faulty seal with you camera in there.

 

Round 1: The Beach

For my first time I teamed up with a local handmade swimwear brand called Agnes and model/make up artist Angelika Z and headed to Kite Beach. It was early Feb in Dubai and quite windy. The waves were high and powerful which made visibility underwater almost zero, something I had failed to think about. So we quickly switched the concept to “above the water” sporty looking photos. Here’s what I learned on my first round.

    • Focus: Forget trying to get the autofocus to work. There was too much going on for the camera to decide where to focus. The solution was to use a wide lens and estimate the focus distance manually. Setting my aperture at f8-f11 and focusing at the hyper focal distance usually did the job (if you don’t know what that is then please research hyperlocal distance, it will save your life). On other occasions I wanted to have Angelika closer to fill the frame so I set the focus distance to about half a meter.
    • Exposure: After deciding where my aperture needs to be so I can achieve acceptable focus I knew I wanted to freeze the action so I set my minimum shutter speed at 1/320s and kept the ISO on Auto with my metering mode set to average. This is pretty much aperture priority where the camera chooses the lowest ISO possible while keeping the shutter speed at 1/320s or above.
    • Composition: In a situation like this where the waves are so strong and your camera is in a plastic case there’s no way to look into the view finder or even at the LCD screen. So I resorted to the “Spray and Pray” technique. I set my drive into burst mode (typically 5 fps) and aimed the lens at Angelika and fired a few shots every time I thought the moment was right. And hey, that worked in this particular situation. Obviously I ended up with more photos than I would prefer but that’s a small price to pay.
    • Conclusion: You need to have your science down and really imagine what the photo would like like without looking into the view finder or relying on autofocus. Your camera software is almost no good here, except for the auto exposure.
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Round 2 and 3: The Pool
This time I thought, “Let me find some clear water”. Angelika and I contacted Dubai-based model Nastasiia and hairstylist Dani to pull this one off. I then tried this again with a model called Star from Diva Dubai on a different day to apply some of the learnings from the previous round. Here’s what I learned
    • Anti fog goggles: Super important if you want to look through the view finder. Most of the time my goggles would fog up and I would shoot almost blind. Being a diver I know a little nasty trick. Did you know that your own saliva is a good anti fog? Yes, so…. spit on the inside of your goggles and wipe it well, then wear it without rinsing. Its okay, you’ll get over it after the first time.
    • Autofocus: It only works when you’re supper close to your subject. Otherwise it focuses on random bubbles. However, the magic trick is to use your camera’s face/eye detection on continuous focus mode and set the drive to burst (5 fps normally). That way you can take a deep breath, go under, compose and fire a few shots before going back up for air. Remember, you and the model can usually only hold your breath for 5-10 seconds. Unless you’re pro free divers that is.
    • Light: I realized the best photos were when there was direct sunlight. That way you get the rays hitting the surface of the water and creating patterns on the model’s face. Otherwise its just looks flat.
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Round 4: Strobes
The last time I got to try this out was during a photoshoot I put together with MA Models, Nikki Beach, Itty Bitty Kinis and The Dollhouse. Click Here to view that full set. This time I wanted to add strobes to the mix so I set up 2 speed lights on either side of the model pointing down at 45 degrees. Here’s what I learned
    • Radio Triggers Don’t Work Underwater: I completely missed that radio waves don’t travel well underwater. It took me a while to make that connection when my strobes wouldn’t fire. So the solution was to keep the lens just under the surface so that the trigger is actually still above the surface.
    • Keep the strobes bare: That way you get harsh directional light that will give you the water surface reflections on the models face.
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So there you have it, go grab a cheap underwater case and take a dip with a friend. And hey, if you’ve got any questions at any point feel free to get in touch with me.

Waleed Shah
Official Fuji-X-Photographer
Instagram: @waleedshah
Snapchat: @shahwaleed
2018-03-11T08:53:34+00:00 March 20th, 2017|Images, Personal, Photography, Tech Talk|