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A Beginner’s Guide to Underwater Portrait Photography
By Jenna Martin, May 18, 2016 @ 04:00 AM (EST)

Why would anyone want to bring a camera underwater? As photographers we know that amazing photo opportunities rarely occur in our comfort zones. We want the shot no one else has taken, from a viewpoint no one else has ever considered. And what a better world than underwater: With more than 90 percent of our oceans left to explore, that makes for a lot of uncharted territory.

Underwater photography isn’t all about diving into the black abyss, though. In fact, amazing opportunities lie right in the shallows of a local pool or lake. Underwater portrait photography is just as diverse as the marine life at the most remote dive destinations. You can add underwater engagement sessions to your wedding portfolio, underwater ballet shots to your high school senior portfolio, or hold summer family sessions in the backyard swimming pool. Oh, and don’t forget those gorgeous, ethereal maternity shots that can only be accomplished in water too.  

“Ellie,” photographed at Flathead Lake, Montana


Choosing the Right Gear for Underwater Portraits

Underwater portrait photography is fun, challenging and unique. And all you need to get started is a camera, a wide-angle lens, and a housing.

Camera: If you can get your hands on a full-frame camera with respectable low-light capabilities, that’ll be your best bet, but if you’re reading this article while staring optimistically at an entry-level DSLR or compact, that’ll do just fine.

Lens: It’s critical to have a wide-angle lens, though preferably not a fisheye to help avoid the fisheye distortion. A rectilinear wide-angle lens allows you to get much closer to your subject. The less water you have between your camera and your subject, the clearer your image will be. If you’re using a compact camera, make sure to attach a wide-angle wet lens to restore the angle of view to more than 140 degrees.

Housing: You don’t need to take out a second mortgage to afford an underwater housing, but you should invest in something with solid construction—avoid the waterproof plastic camera bags! Personally, I use Ikelite housings: They have proved reliable, easy to maneuver, and allow me to easily adjust my camera settings. I also like that my camera is suspended inside the housing, so even if water does somehow get in there, I’ve got a bit of a buffer before I have to freak out.

Keep It Simple: There’s no need to introduce a full collection of on/off-camera strobes when getting started with underwater portrait photography. Focus instead on developing your style with available light. So, all you need to get started is a camera, wide-angle lens, and a reliable housing. Oh, and use a mask—you’ll definitely need a mask!

“Yasmin,” photographed making an important phone call

Portrait Tip #1: Respect the water

First and foremost, water is dangerous and it demands respect. If you’re shooting in the ocean, be aware of currents, tide patterns, and any potentially dangerous animals (like jellyfish) you might run into. Freshwater locations, though clear on the dangerous animal radar, are often freezing, so you’ll need to take the necessary precautions there as well. Even in swimming pools, you’ll want to make sure your model is as comfortable as possible, and don’t go too deep if they are wearing something that might impede their swimming capabilities. Never underestimate the environment.

“Jill,” photographed nine months pregnant with her baby, Amelia

Portrait Tip #2: Learn to breathe properly

When getting started, it’s best to start with minimal gear—so leave the scuba tank at home. While your first thought might be to take a deep breath before going under, actually, you’ll want to do the opposite. Lots of air in your lungs makes you buoyant, and you’ll spend the entire shoot bobbing around at the surface. Instead, let your air out. Sounds terrifying (and it kind of is), but all it takes is a bit of practice and before you know it you’ll be comfortably suspended just below the surface, snapping away.

“Amelia,” photographed in the freezing waters of Flathead Lake, Montana, in a homemade dres

Portrait Tip #3: Embrace semi-automatic shooting modes

It might have been drilled into your head that all great photographers shoot on manual. Not true. Your camera is an amazing piece of technology, so when getting started in a new environment, take advantage of it! Shooting in “aperture priority” or “shutter priority” allows you to focus on framing and composition, rather than spend time fumbling around with your settings. If a cloud blocks your sunlight for a second, do you really want to have to manually adjust for that stop of light while you and your subject are both moving and holding your breath? Trust me, you don’t.  

“Tamara,” photographed on a cloudy day using a homemade lighting unit

Portrait Tip #4: Take lots of shots

This isn’t the time to try and frame everything up perfectly to match what you’ve got in your head. Everything is in constant motion down there. If you see a shot you like, take it!

Portrait Tip #5: Find the light

Water drastically cuts down the amount of light reaching your camera’s sensor, so if you don’t have the budget to buy a full lighting setup at the beginning, just make sure you’re shooting where there is plenty of ambient light already. And don’t bother with on-land strobes—the radio signal won’t trigger them through the water. Just shoot indoors with the lights on or outdoors in broad daylight and you’ll be good to go.

“Madison,” photographed at Flathead Lake, Montana


Final Thoughts

For land shooters, underwater photography seems like an unreasonable venture. From the outside, it appears expensive and intimidating, but really it’s just like any other form of photography. All it really takes is a little bit of curiosity and a lot of practice. And for those who only break out their gear when it’s time for a big trip, hopefully this guide inspires you to try to photograph a new, albeit less aquatically-abled subject—the human.


“Michala,” photographed in a homemade dress and backdrop

About the Author: Jenna Martin is a fine art and underwater photographer based out of Billings, Montana, where she lives with her husband Chris and their small animal farm. After acquiring her Master’s in Psychiatric Rehabilitation, she made a drastic career change into the field of photography where she has been producing surreal images ever since. She is now internationally published, with work also appearing in various art galleries throughout the country.

If you’re ever curious about learning underwater hands on, feel free to join one of her yearly workshops. This year they will be shooting in Zakynthos, Greece and on Catalina Island off the coast of Los Angeles. Follow Jenna on Periscope (@jennamtphoto) and Instagram (@jennamartinphoto) if you’d like to see these shoots live from under the water.



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