I’ve always loved the water. As a child, the promise of swimming, splashing, or jumping over salty waves was the one and only thing that could pull me away from my (endless library of) books with a smile on my face. Power over H2O was always my go-to superpower. Maybe because of that, I’ve come to equate water with magic. The Underwater Photographers I recently had the pleasure of speaking with seem to agree — to a certain extent.
As any experienced Underwater Photographer will tell you it’s not always a picnic. Other than that, this should be a fairly simple question to answer: it is photography that takes place underwater. This could be in oceans, swimming pools, bathtubs. It could be of people, animals, or objects. It can be editorial and commercial, video and still. It can overlap with fashion, lifestyle, travel, adventure, portraiture, etc. It can take your breath away or inspire you to break into Part of Your World (Wonderful Machine is not liable if you get this stuck in your head for the next month).
There are countless homes for Underwater Photography — however, there are also countless factors, about half of which are out of anyone’s control, to having a successful underwater shoot. Underwater Photographer George Kamper says:
There are so many elements to prepare for; wind direction, weather, time of day, depth, location, current, water clarity. All of these factors impact the shoot and more importantly you and the model!
So, while I’m humming Disney songs (not sponsored), continue reading to learn what you could do with your underwater photography, how to do it well, and if you’re not a photographer, skip to the end to get the dirt on how to go about hiring and working with the best underwater photographer for your needs.
Try googling “Underwater Publications.” I’ll wait. Unless you have some amazing version of google I’ve never heard of odds are you didn’t find anything. Lucky for you, I’ve done some digging. Anything having to do with nature or scenery is a great option. Go for places that churn out a lot of high-quality material like National Geographic or even the Discovery Channel.
Then you can start getting more niche. There’s a ton of options when it comes to diving publications like Sport Diver or ScubaDiving. Then, if you’re looking to showcase your more artistic side you could do something like Julia Lehman-McTigue and work with a publication like Waterproof Magazine.
There are fewer opportunities for brands that might be searching for an Underwater Photographer. We have, of course, companies that sell swimwear like Speedo or Nike Swim.
Then we have more obviously water-based companies that might need some advertising like travel agencies or the cruise ship industry in which some giants are Disney Cruises or the Royal Caribbean Group. There are also countless scuba companies, and fishing supply companies — if you’ve seen it in the water, there should also be pictures of it in the water.
There are then plenty of less straightforward options, so the key for you is to stay open-minded and proactive. The first one that comes to mind is when George Kamper put his underwater photography to the test shooting the Miami City Ballet Co. with their hair and tule floating majestically as they frolicked through ancient shipwrecks (thanks to some stunning photo editing).
It probably won’t be by reading this article but hopefully, it is a good jumping-off point (a diving board, so to speak). There are a few things every good underwater photographer needs to have. First and foremost, you need to love the water. Someone who is comfortable being and working in water is harder to find than it seems. Working in water is no small feat and typically experience will absolutely be key for this specialty. So practice.
Calm. Its so important to relax out there. Take a deep breath, think about what you are doing and what you want to achieve. The more you can settle into a calm mental and physical space it will allow all the things to happen with more ease.— Josh Letchworth
Underwater Photographer Heather Perry breaks down the necessary soft skills nicely. She says you’ll need patience, stamina, passion for the water, flexibility. With water, and people in water especially, no two images will be the same. You will probably be in that water a bit longer than you expected, but that’s the nature of the work. Heather promotes the idea that you should work with the water instead of against it. You must be open to where the water wants to take you.
George Kamper agrees:
I like to try and keep things spontaneous and go with the flow while still achieving the desired look and results. Shooting in the water is challenging, but if you learn to flow with it, you can use spontaneity and what’s being thrown at you to your advantage.
Then of course, you’ll need some funding.
You need at least three times as much equipment for underwater photography than any other photography, probably more. You need more camera equipment and more personal equipment, some of which your life may depend on.
This specialty is unique, there’s no doubt about it. The challenges you’ll face could definitely be life threatening. George also stresses that especially when starting out, priority number one should be safety. Keep yourself, your models or divers, and the environment around you as protected as possible.
When you’re focusing all your attention through the camera, it’s very easy to lose sight of your physical position and anything that’s coming at you. It’s important to remember that unless you’re heavily weighted down and on the ocean or pool bottom, you’re constantly moving and being pushed around by the current. I try to stay off any corals and inherent vegetation. We don’t want to ruin our underwater habitat.
By the same token, I always wear a wetsuit and booties so if I get pushed into something I have a layer of protection from the elements. Practicing with your camera and water housing so you know where all the controls are, without wasting time trying to figure them out underwater, is super important as well.
The simple challenge of collecting the tools to safely and effectively capture beautiful imagery underwater is the first one you’ll come across. Julia Lehman-McTigue recommends renting certain products first like your camera housing equipment before buying. It may seem a bit like a waste if you plan on buying anyway but testing out the products before you drop all of your cash on them is preferred.
And of course you’ll need a mask/goggles and a weight belt, other wise you’ll be floating all over which would make it really challenging to compose a photo!
Hiring a photographer to shoot underwater starts out a lot like hiring any other photographer to work with you. You want to find someone who showcases a similar style to what you’re going for. If you can look through their portfolio and pull 5 images for your mood board, you’re off to a great start.
Finding a photographer who you can jive with well, right of the bat will make things go a little bit smoother. Most underwater photographers do shoot on land, so you’ll want to make sure you see a decent amount of work that they’ve done under and on the water. Quantity of quality work is an important need to have before even getting on the phone with them.
The next step is to make sure they’re not only comfortable working in water, but that they have the experience to walk you through the preparation process, from safety precautions to crew. Most underwater shoots are going to rely heavily on safety, bodies, and lots and lots of fun logistical planning, so ideally you should set an initial consult with the photographer to a get an idea of their proficiency and resources.
Julia Lehman-McTigue walked me through her biggest shoot so I could get an idea of how heavily the process relied on planning:
The biggest shoot I’ve had to date was a music video for WorldTown, with 15 people being captured in my pool within a 12 hour time frame. Although it was an amazing day, it required 4 people to assist me and help coordinate shots and timing each model or groups in and out of the pool to shoot the entire video in one day.
It was all done in my 9 ft pool. I have a big yard which helped with folks to spread out and the make-up artists had my house to prepare each model. I had a few folks just making sure the lighting and any electricity was guarded to prevent falling in the water. It was really an intense, exhausting day but really amazing at the same time.
This is all to say that underwater work can be very demanding, crowded, and unpredictable. Having a photographer who knows all of the ins and outs of a large, small, controlled, or uncontrolled underwater shoot will be immensely helpful. One thing every underwater photographer can agree on is that you need to look for someone with proven experience.
Clients should always seek someone with a lot of underwater experience (and equipment) and knowledge about an underwater shoot, as opposed to asking a land-based photographer already on their roster to do something underwater. Everything is different underwater, from light to the way a subject behaves. A photographer with only a little underwater experience will likely be in over their head (literally and figuratively). — Heather Perry
Make sure that the photographer is very comfortable working in the water and that their portfolio is fairly extensive in that niche and not just something that they tried once or twice. Shooting in the water is a very unique environment.— Josh Letchworth