20,000 ISO under the sea
Anyone who has ever traded their red Jacques Cousteau beanie for a wetsuit and scuba gear can spout a plentiful stream of wonderment for what the experience of a fish has to offer, and underwater photographers manage to capture what seems to be a completely different world. Chelsea Miller investigates.
Water comprises more than half of the human body, humans need to drink water to survive, it keeps us clean and healthy, it covers a majority of the planet and yet, it feels almost impossible to pin down the exact reason why we find water so enchanting. The increasing popularity of underwater photography has expanded the already strong Australian connection to the ocean. With this popularity brings the demand for more underwater photographers to dive into varied waters from Olympic swimming pools to shark-inhabited parts of the ocean. With ever advancing and accessible gear, photographers are adding refreshing images to their portfolios which are also finding their way to galleries, magazines, and private collections all over the world.
A Fluid Connection
For underwater photographers, the drive to explain the human connections to the ocean has always been a submerged theme, but for underwater photographer and gallery owner, Sean Scott it was an outright goal: “I have always loved the ocean and the surf, and I have always loved sharing things with people, so as my interest in photography grew, so did my desire to share what I saw in the surf with those who didn’t venture in,” he says. In 2003, Scott took his desire to connect people with the ocean to the next level by opening his gallery in Burleigh Heads. This leap into the physical world of bricks, mortar, and prints has greatly advanced Scott’s vision of helping people connect. Not only are more people purchasing prints to hang in their homes, but his gallery has become a community hub, and Scott feels that where social media falls short, being social in the real world has filled the gap.
Sink or Swim
Being able to stay grounded to the floor, not having your props float away, and the ability to breathe are not usually factors in the average studio shoot until you start creating sets underwater. UK-based editorial and fashion photographer, Mark Mawson specialises in underwater photography. As he explains, “Creating a set underwater is a challenge, as many things float and have to be weighted down. A lot more thought has to go into the pre-production so it all goes well on the shoot day,” he says. “It is a much slower process to set a shoot up, just moving underwater to position lights takes much longer than it would in a studio, so time has to be factored in”. Shooting in an underwater studio takes not only time but an amalgamation of rigid planning and the ability to be fluid in execution. The constant movement is a challenge for the photographer to get what they envisioned, but it is this very essence that makes the surreal magic of an underwater shoot. If the talent can overcome the urge to close their eyes or to flee to the surface and manage a natural facial expression, the organic flow of the water can produce the most unexpected and stunning results.
When Mawson organised to photograph stunt-woman Ingrid Kleinig, he planned a series of images of her preforming stunts, including an underwater set where she would be chained to a concrete block on the bottom of the sea. With a safety diver providing Kleinig with air, the extreme tableau turned into a tragic yet softly beautiful set of images that changed Mawson’s career as a photographer. “As she was chained to the block by the ankles, it was quite surreal as she wafted around with the current. The image proved to be so beautiful and emotive that I decided to do more underwater shots, and it became something that I specialise in,” he says.
Now shooting underwater editorial and fashion regularly, as well as photographing water and other fluids as objects to be incorporated with other images for ad campaigns and editorial, Mawson has become a very technically adept aquatic photographer. Mawson’s studio sets can become quite intricate to get the shots he wants. Listing some of the gear he uses sets the stage for how much needs to be accounted for with just the lighting alone. “My lighting kit consists of several Ikelite and Sea & Sea underwater strobes. I have adapted Profoto soft boxes to fit these. I sometimes also use underwater continuous lighting and kinoflos. If I’m in a pool or tank (underwater studio), I sync to studio flash heads above the surface using a custom-made cable from my housing to Pocket Wizards above the surface,” he says.
An underwater assistant helps with lighting, holding the key light in the optimal position to light the model, while a “dry” assistant is available to move studio lights above water and handle the camera to retrieve CF cards without dripping water inside the camera housing.
Breaking the surface of Olympic swimming pools as a photographer is almost as competitive as diving in as an athlete. After starting out photographing some of his friends swimming, with Nikonos underwater film cameras in the 90s, American photographer Donald Miralle has since gone on to capture swimmers at every Olympics since the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Starting off working for Allsports at the Sydney Olympics, he later represented Getty Images, Sports Illustrated, and Newsweek at the Games. “At the Games, you have to be an International Olympic Pool Photographer to get in the most coveted positions, one of which is the underwater cameras,” Miralle explains. “If you are not in this group, you have to petition a year in advance and they may rotate you in if there is an open spot. [That] access is not easy, but it’s not impossible.”
Miralle’s much-sought position as an underwater sports photographer are few and far between, but their numbers seem to be growing. Crediting athletes like Michael Phelps for the increase of media aimed at the sport, some even calling him “The Michael Jordan of swimming”, Miralle has gone from seeing one or two other cameras in the pool to up to ten at major swim meets. Within those ten cameras, Miralle has observed a whole spectrum of set-ups – from AquaTech housings weighted to the bottom of the pool and triggered via 200 foot cables, to 50 – 60 pound robotics rigs with 100% moving parts controlled from a computer. Once you get a chance to be one of the photographers to put a camera in the water, one finds a strict list of parameters to adhere to. Camera’s must be set up before the race as nobody is allowed in the water at the same time as the athletes, and since everything is done ahead of time, a significant amount of planning is required to achieve a great shot. “You have to visualise where the shot it going to happen, and everything from framing, to shutter, aperture, and ISO are usually all pre-set,” advises Miralle.
Whatever the subject, when closing that water-housing and jumping into the water, there is always the hope of making waves with the images one is about to take. When Matty Smith decided to go out before dawn to photograph the often demonised bluebottle (Physalia Physalis) population off the coast of Shellharbour, in NSW, he knew what he was after, but he didn’t know it was the type of photograph that everyone else was seeking. Smith’s almost alien-like images of the sea creatures have gone on to win him the Australian Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year Award as well as a BBC Wildlife Award. “Both were very humbling to receive, but they got my foot in the door to a number of opportunities, which bought my career on in leaps and bounds,” he says. His success allows him to continue to do what he describes as bringing “the mystery of the ocean to the masses”.
As a photographer who interacts with bluebottles, sharks, and crocodiles, Smith explains that the biggest danger to an underwater photographer is themself. “Knowing your limits and knowing when to cancel a shoot if you’re not comfortable with the conditions is crucial. It’s very, very easy to chase a shot and neglect your life support such as air supply and depth, et cetera, and things can change very quickly underwater,” he warns. It is a big ocean out there and ignorance is a luxury that an oxygen-breathing human cannot afford. “Safety and comfort always comes first. I’ve seen people do all kinds of crazy things when they get tunnel vision underwater chasing a shot and forgetting about everything and everyone around them. Get qualified and experienced in the ocean before picking up a camera,” suggests Smith.
Alongside your camera, lighting gear is often a necessary investment. Light and colour appear different underwater. “It’s a lot darker and less contrasty than in air, so you’ll want to invest in some form of underwater flash if you’re shooting any more than a few feet deep,” Smith advises. “Anything red will appear a dirty brown/grey when submerged more than a foot or two without the aid of artificial light. And, as you go deeper, oranges and yellows go too until everything looks blue when no flash is used,” he says. Having artificial light will make all the difference between a murky water image and a stunning photograph of the aquatic world.
The Housing Market
Evidently, the need for underwater photography across multiple genres within the photo industry is far from sinking. With growing demand for submerged fashion shoots, underwater editorial, and a continued push to deeper depths in the extreme sports world, the gear required to keep cameras dry is selling like hot cakes. But for emerging talents across several disciplines, the idea of putting your $4,000 plus DSLR in the ocean for the first time can be a daunting one, and finding the right gear to suit your style can be just as difficult. Even among the group of more established water housing companies, a plethora of products exist to accommodate for various camera models, lenses and speedlites, as well as the varied models adapted to suit everything from free diving to surf photography.
Phil Gallagher, international marketing/product manager at AquaTech Imaging Solutions has been on the team of one of world’s biggest underwater photography accessories companies as a new wave of photographers have entered the aquatic realm. According to Gallagher, this has been strongly influenced by the availability of products on the market such as Go Pro and other action cameras providing those with little to no knowledge of underwater photography the ability to capture some great footage and stills. “Breaking down the stigma of shooting photos in the water as being hard and scary has gone a long way to creating a whole new generation of water capable-photographers,” he says.
Gallagher explains that the difficulty in choosing an underwater setup has been drastically reduced by the improvements to water housing over the last few years. And as underwater shots are being incorporated into more and more portfolios around the world, a greater demand ultimately results in better products for the market. “Adding a water element to your portfolio, client brief, or just to give your work a fresh look is really popular at the moment,” says Gallagher. “The beauty these days is that you can have the one housing kit which can cross over between any [water] conditions, and also not restrict you capturing those once-in-a-lifetime moments.”
When you do finally decide to dip your toe in the water, there’s no shortage of choice when it comes to housings. Something from the Seacam range is likely to set you back somewhere in the vicinity of $8,000, while those with a more modest budge can opt for something from AquaTech’s BASE range, starting at just under $1,000. Plus all the options in between.
For Trent Mitchell, the path to photograph the quintessential nature of the Australian beach culture starts right out his front door and leads only across the road to the beach itself. “Living and working in Australia, it’s inevitable that clients will want images capturing the essence of our beach culture,” Mitchell says. A natural progression in his photography led him from photographing the ocean to photographing in the ocean. “Shooting underwater takes you into the elements that little bit more, and people love to see it,” he says. But there are important considerations. “The biggest danger is all related to getting water in places where it does not need to be – like your lungs, and inside your water housing.”
Buying the right gear and understanding it is crucial, according to Mitchell. “Learn your gear inside and out,” he says. “Test, test, and test, and understand the optical limitations and practicalities of shooting underwater. For example, you can put a $3,000 lens behind the wrong lens port, and it will produce images like a $30 lens. This is an example of why ports and housing systems are more important than your camera. And don’t forget to practise, practise, practise.”
When it comes to gear, Mitchell relies on two very different setups, depending on his specific requirements. His first includes a Nikon D750 in an AquaTech water housing, along with all the domes and lens ports to house 16mm, 20mm, 35mm, 50mm and 85mm lenses. When size and weight are important considerations, especially for overseas travel, Mitchell relies on a Leica X-U.
With greater access to reasonably priced gear, more and more photographers are adding the water element to their portfolios, even if they aren’t relying on scuba gear. Today’s high ISO camera capabilities allow for greater use of natural light while shooting underwater – something that would have been impossible just a few short years ago.
Guests in an Aquatic World
Photographer Christina Saenz de Santamaria’s dedicated training has taken the freedom of moving through the world to a whole new level. A professional and record-breaking free-diver, the Thailand-based photographer, has travelled the world above and below water photographing each moment on only one breath. “Freediving gives you a feeling of complete freedom underwater as you are unencumbered by any equipment, and marine life is far more curious to approach you without the noise of bubbles from scuba” she explains. Immersing herself in the water and the life of aquatic creatures has allowed for Saenz de Santamaria to create graceful and quietly formidable images with sharks, whales, and the expansive depths of the ocean. Taking an organic approach to the ocean and its potentially dangerous inhabitants, Saenz de Santamaria explains that she and her free-diving husband Eusebio “take care to remember that we have entered the sharks’ environment and we watch their behaviour and interaction with care, such as body movements and eye contact, have never felt threatened when freediving with sharks”.
The ethos of underwater photography spans many levels of connectivity. Magazines, prints, and galleries, both physical and online, have connected the underwater world not only with the photographer, but with the rest of the population. Editorial and fashion photographers can take an innovative approach in demonstrating the flow of a particular product or clothing line, sport shooters can open up a whole new world on an event, and nature enthusiasts can expand their knowledge beyond dry land. Whether tethered outside an Olympic swimming pool, weighted down in an underwater studio, or diving to depths of the ocean, the possibilities are bottomless. A natural progression in the global community and the search for an understanding of nature and our human abilities, underwater photography pushes the limits of physical and technological advances into the spheres of art, advertising, fashion, and science.