I have something I call the inspiration folder. It’s a folder on my desktop that I fill with screenshots from my laptop, phone, real world photos… anything I can find that strikes me the moment I see it. And a long time ago I cam across a shot from one of my favourite photographers: Morgan Maassen of a model free diving underwater. I was fascinated by the mood and perspective he created in this shot that I was inspired to create something of my own.
My girlfriend and I were camping at a place that had this long pier across the shallow reef which lead to a much deeper section of the ocean.And as we went snorkeling around Raiatea – an island in French Polynesia – we immediately noticed the water clarity was beyond what we had ever seen before. It was like you could breathe underwater. And quickly it became the obvious spot to have a go at some underwater model photography.
And so I showed her Morgans shot and she was quite inspired to be my model for this shoot and we set out to create.
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We very soon realised that this kind of shoot is much harder than we imagined. First of all we really struggled to find the right distance to one another and I struggled to compose and hit the right moment. You see, free diving isn’t our sport and being so occupied with trying to get the right camera settings, composing and putting myself in the right spot took quite a bit of concentration and energy and the same went for Freya as she was trying to dive down and open her eyes without squinting them, holding a pose/position I had asked her to do and most of all look relaxed while doing it all. Then came the factor of synchronising it all. I would dive down first and she would come down a second later so I could be slightly lower. The window to get the align everything and get the shot was as short as 3-5 seconds. Not much when shooting underwater!
As most of you know, my go to camera is the Olympus E-M1.
As for lens for this project I specifically chose to use the Panasonic 8mm f/3.5 fisheye. The thing about a fisheye lens is that it distorts the scene. And it being so wide create a lot of depth, so I could make the distance between the model and the surface look much bigger than it actually was. Same concept goes for the distance between her and me. We were only about 5-10m apart from one another for most shots, but the fisheye really did a great job at creating more space around here and making it seem like I was a lot further away / she was all alone in this big wide ocean. This is really important, because being able to be close to my subject meant that there was less water / particles in between us and she would be as clear as possible. Having tahitian clear waters helps of course, but getting close is really makes that additional difference.
We tried all kinds of variations, some with her just in bikini, some with fins and bikini and some with the dress only. Personally I thought my black fins looks a little strange and I think the dress or bikini only options turned out the best looking of all.
As set my focus to single focus and tried to keep the shutter above 1/200 sec and since the E-M1 has an underwater white balance setting I used that too of course. As usual everything was shot in RAW which came in really handy for this since there was quite a range of colours and highlights / shadows and the RAW format really helped edit out the details. More on that later on.
- Olympus E-M1
- Panasonic LUMIX 8mm f/3.5 fisheye
- Olympus PT-EP11 underwater housing
- ZEN 100mm dome port
- Dafin swimming fins
- variations of bikinis and the largest and loosest dress we could find in our backpacks
- a pair of goggles
I chose to shoot at late afternoon light as the sun was creating these amazing light rays penetrating the surface from the side. It really added a little extra to the shot and created a little more of a mood.
We shot all of the images seen here in Raiatea – but really, anywhere in French Polynesia would have been good since the water clarity is amazing around here.
During our first attempt I noticed that I was kicking up sand with my fins and that we had to keep moving to stay out of the murky waters. So we decided to change the location for the second attempt. We needed deeper water, a harder underground and if possible even clearer water. I also noticed that in the afternoon the water above the shallow reef had collected a lot more dirt and particles and was now being pulled back into the ocean by the dropping tide. It was quite a strange sensation feeling the hot water around your body while swimming but clearly passing this now visible line when diving down and hitting the colder water.
Anyway, for attempt 2 we grabbed a sea kayak out to a nearby Motu (island) the size of a tennis court and searched the surrounding reef for a spot deep enough to to the shoot and yet still be able to reach the bottom. We were lucky and found the perfect spot, set anchor and started shooting. Unfortunately we didn’t end up picking a very sunny day and had long waits for the sun to come out from the passing clouds. I guess there are worse places to wait for the sun…
The clarity out there was phenomenal. I mean, we thought we had found the clearest waters near the pier, but turns out it could even get better! Imagine looking into the distance and seeing patches of coral as far as you can imagine. The sand bottom was also much more packed / solid and with bigger sand grains much harder to swirl up with my fins while shooting.
Since the sun was mostly behind the clouds on this day the light was a lot more even and less contrasty and I soon realised that we were getting completely different shots compared to our first attempt on the previous day. The dress worked much better today and I knew I was capturing something special here.
A lot happens in editing. By that I don’t mean removing – adding stuff, but the colour correction definitely adds to the overall mood of the shot. I kind of knew what I wanted to achieve and when I was shooting I really tried to work with that idea in mind. I knew that I wanted something moody and desaturated. I wanted to create a big empty space and this ‘out-of-this-world’ feeling when you look at the images.
All of the editing was done in Adobe Lightroom CC 2015. See below for a before-after shot. It is obvious that using the fisheye I managed to get a lot closer and reduce the particles and amount of water between my subject and the camera allowing me to capture a much greater amount of clean detail.
As a surf photographer this was totally new territory and mostly it was all about fun and trying something new. There is definitely room for improvement and I’m looking forward to creating a similar range of photographs the next time I get to swim in such clear waters. Which – with a little luck – could be as soon as December when I’m heading to Nicaragua for a couple of weeks.
It was a lot of fun actually ‘creating’ an image. When shooting surf my subjects usually last for a fraction of a second, and even with certain shots in mind I rely heavily on the elements and the surfers doing the right thing at the right time. An underwater shot like this relies on the elements too of course, but in a very different way. It was definitely a great experience and at the end of the day I’m more than happy with the results of this first attempt.
I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments below. Have you done anything like this? Do you have any suggestions? Things I could have done better or different? I’m always open to suggestions and would love to find likeminded people to collaborate and create something new.
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