One thing that is extremely different from photographing a couple on land is that with underwater sessions I need to communicate everything in advance before we all go under. It’s hard to show them what I want them to do as I’m trying to keep myself afloat, so the mimicking technique I use when on land doesn’t work in the water. My directions need to be more precise than what I normally like, but this is what is needed to help my couple know what to do when they dive in and not waste time wondering about it, or worse, becoming exhausted by repeating the same thing over and over until I finally “have the shot”.
My tone, energy level, and choice of words are always simple, direct, and encouraging. In this case, I waited until we were wrapping up the session when L. was feeling more comfortable and confident, but not too tired or cold yet. I asked them to swim a few meters apart (4/5m is enough), to take a few deep breaths, then dive under, swim towards each other, meeting each other halfway and embracing each other as they were going up. I told L. to wait until she felt completely relaxed before going in and asked C. to wait for her to give the go. I asked them to keep their faces relaxed (we tend to naturally blow our cheeks or frown when diving), enjoy the feeling of the water on their skin and the touch of their loved ones. I asked C. to grab L. by the waist as they were headed back up the surface, to put strength and tension in his torso, arms and hand so as to communicate love and confidence to her, and I asked L. to wrap her hands around his face, to focus on him entirely, on his strength, on trusting him, and on the love she felt for him. And voilà.
“Alright L., you’ve done so great, I just want to have one last go before we wrap up. if you’re game, swim a few meters away from C., take as much time as you need to breathe and feel relaxed, and when you’re ready, go in. Try to keep your face relaxed and “normal”, open your eyes if you can to make sure you are swimming towards C. When you reach him, let yourself go in his arms, place your hands to each side of his face, give him a kiss perhaps, and trust him to lead you up.”
“Okay, C., we’re going to wait for L. to dive, then we’ll go. Swim towards her please, eyes opened and face relaxed, and when you meet half way, please wrap your arms/hands around her waist and give her strength and support as you go up. The best way to do this is if you tighten your muscles just a little bit, and have a gentle but firm grip with your hand. Think “I’ve got you babe”. And pull the both of you up.”
“Ready? Let’s do this? Okay then! :)”
With this photo, I wanted atmosphere, magic, and love of course.
Underwater photos have something intimate, like the ocean and water wrap a couple up in their own visible, physical bubble, isolating them from the rest of the world. When a couple is coming up to the surface together like on this shot, the moment I prefer is always the one when they are just about to hit the surface, that moment just before the bubble burst and reality takes over again. To me, this moment has tension, nostalgia, poetry that belongs to the couple forever. It’s a fraction of eternity that holds great intensity and lasts long in the mind, a little like music sometimes does.
So my intention was to capture just that for C. and L. The thing with underwater photos, as mentioned before, is that all the parameters you need to deal with when shooting leave you little control at the moment, with things like light and composition. I wanted to capture the moment before so as to have their heads still completely in the water, but close enough that I could benefit from additional light and also have that surface texture that would create a sort of “dimensional portal” adding depth and evocative power to the image. I also knew that closer to the surface is where I was most likely to have those little air bubbles that add a little fairy-like touch to my underwater images.
I positioned myself perpendicularly to them, dived in at the same time as them, pointed the camera their way to have them in the middle of my frame, with a little tilt up to capture their reflection in the surface, and shot continuous to make sure I got that exact moment I had envisioned.
Again, being underwater changes everything when it comes to focusing. Because I am moving, and my couple is moving to, in ways that is hard to predict precisely, it’s easy for the camera to loose its focus, so it’s good to play it safe by preferring a multi point focus over a single point focus. I always shoot live view underwater as it is easier than to swim and keep my eyes in the viewer at the same time. I have also found with time that it allows me to better see what my composition is looking like in real time. Finally I always shoot continuous underwater, to secure my image, get as close as possible to the result I was aiming for, and make sure I got the focus right.
Single Focus Point
The couple's face
The way the EXIF is written out follows the common photographic method (with the inclusion of White Balance at the end). Here it is broken down:
Shutter Speed @ Aperture ISO White Balance.
This image was shot on a cloudy day. While this might create ideal light on land, underwater this diffused kind of light is not ideal. As soon as you start diving under, you quickly lose light and need to adjust your settings, either slowing down your shutter speed, lowering your aperture, bumping up your ISO, or all of the above. This is why I also created a vision for an image close to the surface: to make sure I used most of the available light without having to shoot too slow, open too wide or bump my ISO like crazy.
Because I knew what the weather would be like, I had planned to shoot around midday. Again, this may seem counter-intuitive for a photographer on land, but for an underwater session, I have found that it creates great results. Consistent with time of day, light on this image comes from right above my couple, highlighting part of their upper bodies while creating strong shadows in contrast, which to me, is something I desire.
One has to bear in mind because the water is like a thick transparent screen between you and your couple unless you are shooting in exceptionally clear waters (typically clean fresh water gives greater visibility than clean salt water, but I almost always shoot in the ocean so that thick veil applies to most of my underwater images), it will fade out contrast and make it unfortunately easy to create rather flat and dull images; so strong, contrasting light, so long as you embrace it and keep it in check, will help you bring life and add depth to your underwater images and structure them in such way as to reinforce your intention, the story you want to tell and the feel you want to convey.
Many of the commercial preset you can find out there are amazing, but a little unfit to quickly edit underwater shots. Perhaps because blues and greens are colors that tend to disappear a bit from the editing trends we see at the moment, perhaps because these presets were simply not meant for these kinds of images. Either way, I came to build my own underwater presets based on the water conditions I usually shoot in and the result I was after.
Just as with any image, editing is a very personal thing and there are as many ways to edit a photo as there are photographers. One could decide to keep a strong blue cast in their underwater image, which emphasizes the alien nature of the environment, can feel closer to reality, and paradoxically adds a dreamy atmosphere to an image. I personally have a preference for “surface like” skin tones. I like the contrast between the warmth of the skin and the variations of blue, and how it makes my couple pop; so that’s my primary focus when editing underwater sessions and images like this one.
The difficulty with this approach is that I need to push the temperature slider way (I mean WAY) up to obtain the skin tone I am after (i.e. not overly warm to the point where it’s just chokingly overdone, but warm enough to not feel blue anymore), but doing this makes the water look absolutely terrible! SO my to-go is usually to start with editing for skin tones regardless of the rest, and once I get to a result that I find pleasing, then I’ll focus on the blues by playing with the green, aqua, and blue sliders in the HSL Color panel in Lightroom. Depending on the atmosphere I am trying to achieve I will want them dense, thick and cold, or bright, clear, and inviting. In this particular shot I wanted something dreamy and mysterious that could evoke the blue hour/night sky, thus some very dark shades and shadows retained (to make the little white air bubble pop in contrast), but cozy and intimate, not hostile, thus pulling the luminance slider up for aqua, and down for blue.
From there things started to look exciting, the rest was fine-tuning and cleaning up. I used a bit of vignette to reinforce the intimate feel of my image and add more depth to it as the center became the brightest area of the image.
I used a dodging brush to enhance highlights on her face (cheekbones and forehead side), arms, and fingers to make them pop and lead the viewers’ eye to her kiss; I also highlighted his back and shoulders to strengthen light and curve lines that were already there. These brighter parts, in the midst of all the thick blue, are, in my view, was gives sensuality and sensibility to the image, revealing the couples’ love and connection through their body language.
I used a sharpening brush to add texture and crispness to the surface, accentuating the elemental divide in the composition and placing the couple in a sort of “in-between” state that gave the image a strong emotive and evocative feel.
And finally, I did some clean-up here and there, removing the bubbles I found distracting and other such details.
There are challenges that are simply inherent to shooting underwater (loss of light in depth, loss of color, difficulty to focus and compose etc.). The good news is because they are bound to happen on pretty much every underwater session, you can learn how to deal with them and repeat these solutions over and over, fine tuning them, learning hot to adapt and so on. On this particular image, because I wanted to shoot close to the surface, I knew I might face two difficulties: 1) the air bubbles (created by their diving and swimming up), and 2) L.’s hair. I definitely wanted some air bubbles around them, but not so many that it would distract the image’s readability. I also definitely wanted to have her hair lose and floating to add to the dreamy, anti-gravity feel, but I didn’t want them to hide her/their face(s).
1) For the bubbles, I asked them at the beginning of the shoot to try not to make too much splashing when they would dive in, as this typically locks a lot of air in the water, creating an undesirable amount of air bubbles around them that can ruin a fantastic image.
2) I envisioned this image with them swimming up. I knew this directional movement would keep her hair down (as opposed to when a couple is trying to float still or diving down, in which case the hair tend to float up).
Lelepa marine reserve
Lelepa marine reserve, Vanuatu
While the subject of your shoot is your couple, try your best to make the water an active compositional element of your images. As a compositional element, I personally love its symbolic and metaphoric, emotive and evocative power; visually, I love how it’s shifting and unpredictable; how it is quiet and soothing or wild and misbehaving; how it can be crystal clear or deep and mysterious; how it interacts with the light and the wind; how it adapts to terrain and brings it to life, adding movement to an image; how it can wrap up my couples, elevate their free and adventurous spirit, bring out the child in them; be gentle with their body image; make them experience this world in an entirely different way… As far as I’m concerned, there are simply countless ways that water can exalt a love story and nurture your creativity. Use it to create a cocoon around your couple. use it to tell an otherworldly story of love.
Embrace what is difficult about shooting underwater and love the freedom that comes with letting go of some control.
Where are we going?