Underwater Portrait Session Notes

March 08, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

Having recently done my first few Underwater Portrait Sessions, I thought it would be a good idea to share some of my lessons learned in order to help future clients prepare for their shoots as well as to give them an idea of what to expect.

  • Unsurprisingly, underwater shoots are slower and take longer than ordinary shoots simply due to the challenging environment.  Having to regularly come up for air and corrections between shots slows things down considerably!  I have read one estimate of tripling the required time to do an underwater shoot and I think it must be at least that.  Given that 3 hours is my limit in the pool (even with a wetsuit on) I will only take on bookings where clients have pre-paid for the session, so that I can maximize the time in front of the camera for serious clients.  For individual portraits, I shoot 4 rotating athletes per hour, max.  Depending on the athletes' body awareness this will generally allow me to get multiple attempts at 3 or so different poses (with corrections in between).  We can slow things down to spend more time with each athlete, but keep in mind that 3 hour limit and book your shoots accordingly.
  • What we did at during free practice at the 2019 National Qualifiers (and which worked out extremely well!) was to have athletes book 15 minute sessions but then have 4 athletes rotate through over the course of an hour. An athlete would attempt the same pose 3 times while coming up for air between each attempt, then after the 3rd try we would review the photos for corrections. If we felt we could do better, we would give it 1 or 2 more attempts before moving on to the next athlete in the queue. When the athletes weren't in front of the camera, it would give them a chance to practice for the next pose and experiment with the fabrics so they would be totally ready the next time they came in front of the camera. Also, with 3 athletes waiting in queue, they can also help each other out with corrections as they practice.

  • Having an uncluttered background is key to getting a dramatic shot like the one below. Being centered in the pool also allows for a nice symmetry (seeing just one wall on either side of the shot would spoil that).  This means either having the entire pool dedicated to the shoot, or having a bulkhead in the background separating the shoot from other activities going on in the pool.  The powerful studio flash lighting up the scene is just above and behind me on the pool deck which means me having to be backed against the pool wall (vs just a bulkhead which in most cases would be too narrow to safely hold the tripod supporting my flash)

  • While the group shot above looks pretty straight forward, let me say there is nothing straight forward in trying to hold a pose underwater, and it becomes exponentially more difficult as the number of models increase.  It took us appr 30 minutes and 8-10 attempts to get this one shot and it still wasn't quite perfect as one swimmer is sculling to stay on the bottom.
  • The next time I attempt a group shot like this, I am going to have someone tap out a count to give everyone a cue to take a last breath and go under followed by an 8 count or so to scull into position followed by another 8 count to hold their pose for me to get the shot.  I think this would really help synchronize everyone to pose at the same time.
  • UPDATE  As of Feb 2019 I have a 20' x 20' black backdrop that is suspended from the surface by having a number of pool noodles inserted into a sleeve.  This means I can now have a clean clutterless background while working from a VERY small corner of the pool, leaving the rest of the pool available for other activities such as a figures practise, free practice or spacing!

  • IMG_0079IMG_0079

  • At several of my past shoots, I had my daughter Melanie (a former synchro swimmer) help me out in the pool.  She would offer pose suggestions, help the swimmers achieve the desired body placement, offer corrections, etc.  As she may not always be available to help me on future shoots, it would be highly recommended to assign a senior athlete and/or coach join me during shoots.  I can offer some help and advice, but nothing compared to an experienced swimmer or coach.
  • Come to the shoot prepared with a mental checklist of ideas for poses.  Look for ideas online, and discuss with your teammates ahead of time.  Consider trying out group poses before the actual shoot during down time at practices and have someone tap out a count for you all to get into position!  Our time in the pool is best spent actually shooting poses not trying to come up with them!
  • As you are getting into position, especially if you are posing at the bottom of the pool, expel all your air so that you become less buoyant.  Also try to relax mentally - this will hopefully slow down your heart rate and lessen your oxygen requirements, allowing you to comfortably stay in position a little longer.
  • Relax your face and don't puff out your cheeks! #saynotochipmunks  You can have your eyes open or closed, but if you choose to open them, don't over do it - try to look natural and relaxed! #saynotobartsimpson
  • If you don't want any body hair in your photos, please come to the shoot freshly groomed. Dealing with it afterwards in photoshop can be difficult and you may get charged extra editing time.
  • Try to minimize the amount of splashing you do at the surface as this will create bubbles that may attach themselves to your face or body which may be difficult to later remove in photoshop (removing lots of bubbles from the face can be areal issue later in photoshop).  Bubbles also cast shadows from the flash (that end up looking like freckles or moles) which also need to be cleaned up afterwards in photoshop.  I include up to an hour of touch ups for each portrait, most of which is cleaning up bubbles and their shadows (An hour of touch ups is appr 1400 or so bubble removals, but it makes such an amazing difference in the overall appearance of the photo after they are removed!)


  • When striking your pose, continue to hold it even though you may be twisting, rotating or floating to the surface.  We can reset and try again, but the photos won't look very good if you're constantly trying to adjust your position and your arms are sculling in all of them.  When you begin floating to the surface, hold your pose until you actually break the surface.  That will (hopefully) allow me to get some nice mirrored reflections off the surface.


  • Most importantly, don't forget to relax and HAVE FUN!!!  All the fancy gear may seem a little intimidating at first, but there is nothing to be nervous about!  This should be a totally fun experience, make the most of it! :)



Don't fear the manatee,
it's just Dan the Merman

P.S.  Thanks to Calgary Aquabelles Synchro Mom Wendy Winder for the behind the scenes photos! 




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