Unlock the secrets of the pros and master the art of underwater portrait photography with tips from seven leading photographers.
“I have seen a significant change in underwater portrait photography in the past few years,” Canadian photographer Gabi Moeller tells us. “These days, everyone seems to have underwater cameras or iPhone housing. Facebook groups and workshops are easily accessible, and social media is flooded with underwater images.”
While once underwater photography might have been limited to marine wildlife, it’s since expanded into fine art and commercial realms. Today, you can find underwater portraits in advertising campaigns, magazine spreads, maternity photoshoots, and even engagement announcements.
We asked seven pros from around the globe to tell us how they create images that stand out to buyers, and they shared some of their behind-the-scenes secrets for unique and surprising underwater portraits. Read on for their top tips for getting started—and taking photos that sell.
Image by Noel Besuzzi. Gear: Canon 5D Mark II camera, Canon EF14mm f/2.8L II USM lens. Settings: Exposure 1/1000 sec; f2.8; ISO 500.
Tell a story.
Like any portrait photos, your underwater images should convey a feeling or a narrative. “My most successful underwater photos are the ones that have expressive emotion or tell a story in one way or another,” Los Angeles-based photographer Noel Besuzzi tells us. “A photo of a baby swimming is great, but a baby overjoyed at swimming is more attractive to someone who is trying to convey a message easily through online sales.”
Image by Noel Besuzzi
“The equipment required to shoot underwater can be expensive, so it is important to have an idea of what you plan to shoot before you choose what you want to buy,” Besuzzi explains. “AquaTech Imaging Solutions has an underwater case for your phone, and that’s a fun place to start. Once you get an idea of what you want to shoot underwater, you will better know what lenses and equipment will be best for what you want to do.”
And rent first.
“Buying underwater housing for a full-frame camera is a serious investment,” Moeller agrees. “Consider renting housing to try out, as each housing is specific to a certain camera and lens.”
Image by Gabi Moeller. Gear: Nikon D750 camera, Nikon 24mm 1.8 lens. Settings: f4.5; ISO 400.
Pay attention to your colors.
“The deeper you get in a pool, the bluer your image becomes, as all the reds are pulled,” Moeller continues. “Skin colors can be super tricky, and some basic Photoshop editing skills such as masking, layers, and curves are needed for you to edit your images. I learned from an online tutorial someone posted editing a turtle picture!”
Another tip from Moeller? “A full-face diving goggle that covers your nose is a good idea; otherwise, you have water going up your nose all the time, and that is not pretty. You can try a snorkel, but I don’t use one because I tend to choke myself frequently on pool water.
“I also use a diver’s belt so I can stay underwater longer. You want it heavy enough that you stay under but light enough that you can easily come back to the surface. Wear a bathing suit that requires no ‘in-between adjusting.’ I typically wear a long-sleeved water shirt so I don’t have to worry about anything.”
If possible, schedule your shoot after a pool cleaning.
“The right pool is crucial and the biggest challenge along with light,” Moeller stresses. “The dirtier the pool, the murkier the water. Not a good thing! If you use a private pool, use it right after it has been cleaned—even run an extra cycle. If you use a public pool, find out when they clean or shock the water and get in shortly after.”
She adds, “Ask your clients not to use sunscreen, leave-in conditioner, etc., as it will just add to the cloudiness of the pool.”
Image by Elina Manninen. Gear: Canon 5D Mark II camera, Sigma Art 35mm f1.4 lens. Settings: f2.8; ISO 800.
Or find a body of water with good visibility.
If you’re not shooting in a controlled environment like a swimming pool, a little planning goes a long way. Helsinki-based photographer Elina Manninen, who collaborates with her ice-diving and freediving sister, Johanna Nordblad, generally shoots in lakes—but she’s deliberate about her locations.
“We have a special lake here in Finland,” she tells us. “Our sea here doesn’t have very good visibility, but this lake is clear and blue and perfect. My tip would be to choose a place that you are familiar with to start. That way, you know the conditions. The lake, for me, is like a big swimming pool. Especially if you shoot under the ice, I definitely recommend a lake over the sea—it’s much safer for picture-taking.”
Choose the right model.
“My sister and I work as the perfect team,” Manninen continues. “We know each other so well, so I almost don’t even have to tell her what to do. Work with a model you know and who is comfortable in the water and can hold their breath. The model also needs to learn to open their eyes underwater. Underwater modeling is quite hard, and it’s very demanding.”
Image by Elina Manninen
Give yourself enough time.
“You need a lot more time for your shoot than you would for a shoot on land,” Manninen warns. Be sure to add in a time buffer so you don’t miss your shots.
Image by Alex Bard
Draw up a shot list.
To help with time management, photographer Alex Bard suggests going over every pose with your model before entering the water. “You cannot lose precious seconds explaining and making changes underwater,” he warns.
Assemble a team.
Having assistants and team members is good practice for safety and efficiency. “First of all, you should always think about the safety of the model,” Bard says. “And you should always have experienced assistants who will be able to physically support the model, help straighten the dress, apply accessories, etc.”
Image by Alex Bard
Use bright colors.
Changes in color don’t just affect skin tones—they also influence wardrobe and accessories. “The deeper you go underwater, the more colors begin to disappear,” Bard adds. “Therefore, even when shooting on a bright sunny day, it is better to use bright fabrics and dresses, as water mutes all colors.” For safety reasons, some of the artists we spoke with also stress the importance of using light fabrics that won’t weigh your model down in the water.
Image by Olga Savina. Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, Canon 24mm f/2.8 is USM lens. Settings: Exposure 1/8000 sec; f6.3; ISO 800.
Select the right time of day.
“I always do a test shoot before the main session to check water transparency, and I shoot in open pools and ponds—usually around noon on a sunny day,” Ukrainian photographer Olga Savina tells us. “For me, this time offers the perfect natural light conditions.”
Give your model time to adjust. “At the beginning of a photoshoot, the model needs at least five minutes in the water just to adapt to the conditions,” Savina continues. “During this time, our bodies adjust to the water, our heart rate slows down, and it becomes easier to hold our breath.”
Image by Olga Savina
Experiment with poses.
To get that “weightless” vibe in your underwater portraits, play with different poses, and make sure to incorporate flowing fabric and hair. “When posing, do not ask the model to put their arms and legs towards the camera, as this shortens them,” Savina advises. “Instead, they should stretch their feet (like ballet dancers) and keep their fingers beautiful and relaxed. Also, try to play with reflections on the water’s surface for cool results.”
Image by goldeneden. Gear: Canon EOS 6D camera, 28mm lens. Settings: Exposure 1/125 sec; f6-9; ISO 100.
Practice breathing with your model.
“The model must fully exhale the air from his or her lungs as they plunge down and open their eyes,” Russian photographer goldeneden explains. Exhaling will help the model to dive deeper, rather than floating near the surface. “Depending on the model, one dive can last for about five to fifteen seconds of posing,” goldeneden adds.
Take as many shots as possible.
In order to maximize your chances of getting a “keeper,” goldeneden advises taking as many photos as you possibly can while the model is underwater.
Image by goldeneden
In a market filled with stunning underwater portraits, goldeneden underscores the value of thinking outside the box to attract buyers. “Advertisers want that element of surprise,” she explains. “I once filmed a girl drinking tea underwater. In another shoot, I had a girl and her boyfriend wearing wedding clothes and posing as newlyweds. I am always interested in trying something new.”
Image by Mert Gokalp. Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark III camera, Canon 8-15mm fisheye lens. Settings: Focal length 15mm; exposure 1/250 sec; f5; ISO 100.
Practice diving yourself.
The more comfortable you get in the water, the better your photos will be—whether you’re shooting in a pool or the ocean depths. “You should be a good freediver,” Ankara-based photographer Mert Gokalp advises. “Many spots demand that ability—for your models and yourself.” If you’re serious about shooting in open waters, see an instructor, and stay safe out there.
Top Image by goldeneden.
Want more on shooting portraits and underwater photography? Check these out.
Shooting Underwater Photos and Videos for the First Time
Why You Should Get a Model Release for Every Shoot You Complete
7 Underwater Photographers Share Their Secrets
Shooting Portrait Photography That’s Anything but Ordinary
5 Cheap Ways to Improve Your Portrait Photography
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