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Confessions of an Ex-Underwater Photographer
By Rod Klein, December 14, 2016 @ 05:00 AM (EST)

I no longer want to be known as an underwater photographer. To most, “underwater photographer” means marine life or nature photographer. As an avid diver, writer, and dive and photo instructor for the past 20-plus years, I was very proud of this moniker. But being known as an underwater photographer was never my original intention.

Unlike most who start out as scuba divers, become enamored of the underwater world, and then take up photography, I have a Master of Fine Arts in studio art, so I was an artist first and a diver second. I still love diving, but while on a recent five-week trip to Indonesia, I realized that I was totally bored with marine life! There are so many great marine life photographers doing much better work than I had ever done, or even hope to do. I knew it was time to get back to my art school roots.

These days, my primary shooting environment is my 12-foot studio pool. I always shoot while on scuba, train my models in basic watermandship skills, and breathe from a hookah regulator to avoid surfacing frequently for air. So, you could still call me an “underwater photographer”—just one who shoots models underwater in a confined water environment.

A body paint shoot using multiple backgrounds and color gels. Using PVC pipe, I made a wand connected to a koi pond aerator to create the bubbles

Another body paint shoot using loose color fabric with backlights and color gels

Of course, I am not alone in pursuing this type of image-making. Just do an Instagram search for #underwatermodels, #underwaterfashion, or anything similar (or look for some fashion articles here on DPG), and you’ll find a gazillion images of models in flowing dresses in swimming pools.

Most, if not all, of these shooters call themselves “underwater photographers,” but in reality, the majority are not even certified divers and have never used scuba. They shoot in shallow pools so both they and their models can just stand up for air, and while many do use true underwater housings, some use little more than a transparent PVC bag with no optical lens ports or external strobe ability.

While occasionally images from some of these photographers are quite good artistically, in general the main difference from one photographer to another is simply the use of a different dress or makeup artist. In any event, for me, these aren’t so much “underwater photographers” as they are pool photographers.

For my part, I’m still making images underwater and I although I don’t want to be generally referred to as an “underwater photographer,” I guess by my own definition, I am.

An experimental shoot with fabric in addition to color gels and backlighting

An experimental shot during a fashion shoot. A koi pond aerator below the model creates the bubbles

A pool environment offers the possibility of great control. Screaming currents, bad visibility, or lack of great subject matter are not an issue. As the artist, you become the master of your underwater studio.

This environment, however, can be deceiving, and it is easy to have one’s images fall prey to predictability. Beautiful gowns, flowing fabric, ethereal reflections, and so on, can make one’s friends and Instagram followers drool, but at the risk of being just like everyone else.

An experimental shoot using various elements including mannequins, masks and color gels

If you’re serious about creating artistic imagery in a pool environment, here are some things to keep in mind as you view the images in this article. (For advice on my general workflow, see my DPG article, “Another Way of Seeing: Model Photography in a Custom Pool.”)

  • Lighting is key: I am always thinking about how to use light in the most creative way. I normally use at least three lights, as one would in a studio—a main, fill, and top light. In addition, I try and use backlighting to give dimension to the images, as well as color gels.
  • Get your strobes off the camera: My pool has threaded receptacles embedded for ultralight ball mounts, but I also use cheap light stands and umbrellas as light modifiers.

An experimental black and white shoot on translucent silver background with edge lighting

A night shoot with translucent white fabric and total backlighting

  • Add drama and movement with bubbles: When shooting models, I often ask them to blow bubbles to make sure it is obvious they are underwater. I also use a koi pond aerator to create various kinds of bubbles.
  • Be creative with props: You can use PVC pipe to make all sorts of things—floats for backdrops, props with holes for making bubbles, light stands, and so on.
  • Think about quality: If your goal is, like me, to produce large, high-quality prints to be viewed up close, you’ll need to invest in the appropriate camera, housing and lighting equipment to achieve it.

So, what is the goal here? Think different! While there’s nothing new under the sun, we can always try and put a unique spin on our perspective. My goal is always to push the limits of lighting, content, and the overall set. Sometimes it works, sometimes not, but keep pushing for something new, and be true to yourself.

An experimental shoot with fabric, color gels and backlighting. Notice the bubbles


About the Author: Rodger Klein is an artist focusing on objective and non-objective underwater imagery. After earning an MFA in studio art, Rod has had an eclectic career: artist, video editor, special effects designer, director, scuba instructor, dive guide, and highly published underwater photographer. After spending a number of years photographing marine life, Rod went back to his artististic roots, creating large archival prints from images shot in his custom designed studio pool. He has exhibited in both solo and group shows and was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant. Rod is represented by TAG Gallery in Santa Monica, California and the Ventura Museum of Art. His next exhibitions will be in April 2017 at the Tool Room Gallery, Ventura Museum of Art and June 2017 at TAG Gallery.


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