The Siren of Lake Chelan – Working Underwater.

The Siren of Lake Chelan. Commissioned Portrait, Summer 2010 by Gavin Seim.

Water. Once we sink below the surface of its shimmering waves, we enter a foreign world of untold beauty. A silent land of bending light, murky depths, and unknown dangers…

Whew, did that sound enough like a nature show for you? Good, now let’s move on. Seriously, though, I working with water and I loved making portraits under it. I did it for the first–though probably not the last–time during a portrait commission for Jenaia. I learned a lot about working in the water, and we brought her home some beautiful images, but this is my favorite piece.

It took some trail and error, but my visualization was a calm ethereal portrait, and I think I managed it. I love the color hues and the way the light streams from the surface. We’re in a lake, not a pool, and it’s around 1500 feet deep, making the light fade into infinity. Just don’t drop anything that doesn’t float, or it’s gone for good. I lost a fin during the project, and once it was out of sight, there was no way I was going after it. It’s truly dark down there.

While my fin has joined the aforementioned murky depths, I’m very satisfied with this work. It taught me a lot and it helped make Jenaia’s portrait collection a real success.

For photographers. How it was made…

Canon 5D MK2, 17-40 L, f6.3, ISO400, Canon 580EXII, 1/160th sec.

+like this image on 500px.com

The week preceding the portrait was a planning frenzy. I had finally booked a subject that had the fish gene. I had been looking for an excuse to try out the water idea, and Jenaia was immediately excited about it. First, I knew I wanted my main camera. Not some cheap underwater halfbreed. I wanted the 5D MK2 with a 580EX II sitting on top, all underwater. I went online and bought this Ewa Marine bag. It’s a heavy vinyl-like soft housing for going under the water. It’s not cheap, but, at about $400 USD, it’s lot less than a custom housing.

Next, I started looking around. It seems that not many photographers are doing underwater portraits. And even fewer want to share how it’s done. I was pretty much on my own, save for some tips gleaned from a few forum threads and some very general articles on underwater photography that covered mostly basics.

The day dawned sunny, and I arrived without yet having been under the surface as weather had been poor the previous days. This is not advisable. Practicing with a new setup is always a good plan. But I’m fit, right?

I was not entirely unprepared, however. I had planned a lot and that always pays off. I purchased a good face mask, a pair of flippers, and a dry snorkel (It has a oneway valve that did not allow water to be sucked in. Yes, it’s super creepy when you breathe in and nothing happens, but it’s better than sucking the lake into your lungs). Without this equipment, making this happen would have been far harder. And by that I mean ridiculously hard. Having the gear allowed me to focus on using the camera and less on staying afloat.

It was still a tiring chore for both of us, but we experimented, taking breaks to get out of the water and rest while I fiddled with camera settings. After some testing, Jenaia put on her prom dress, which we had sliced up with scissors. White, flowing material looks great underwater, but it’s not the easiest to swim in. Jenaia seemed to be part fish, however, and that helped a lot.

I wanted the room to move that a pool would not offer, so I decided to get in over my head. We hopped in the family’s boat and went out on the very deep Lake Chelan.  Jenaia’s friend, Brady, her mom, Sue, and her friend, Jennifer, came along to run the boat and make sure we didn’t drown. Once I set up the camera in the bag, we got in the water. Best to set up your camera as much as possible before you jump, because it’s not that easy to change settings through the heavy material, and it’s made worse by the fact that you’re trying to wield it all underwater.

That night, I headed home and reviewed the images. Overall, the session was great, but the underwater work was not as perfect as I would have liked. The next day was Sunday, and I knew that the family was still at the lake. I called, explaining that the images were good, but I wanted to experiment with the water a bit more if they were up for it. Thankfully, they were, and I made the two hour trek back to the resort. The things we do for a great image.

I knew the fins were critical and was not happy about having only one. But this was my day. Across from my studio was a swap meet. And among the sellers was old diver who had some ragged gear for sale. I managed to find an old mismatched fin that fit for about two dollars. If he had only known I might have paid fifty for it at that moment. I was off to the lake.

In reviewing the first attempt, I learned that I was thinking too much like a traditional portrait and having Jenaia swim towards my camera. It made some nice images, but I wanted a piece of art. Not something that felt in any way like a vacation photo or someone looking down the lady’s dress. We did not spend as long in the water on day two, but I came armed with ideas. I focused on having Jenaia swim past me in the water as I tried to swim low and get the perspective.

I should note that it’s hard to swim down with all the gear because having it all in a floating bag increases your buoyancy and makes your body want to float to the surface. I would make runs at it, taking a breath and going down five or ten feet, holding my breath for as long as I could. I had been practicing breath holding as well. In the controlled calm of my studio, I had made it over three minutes using what I learned from YouTube videos. I did not make it nearly that long in the excitement of working in real water, but I managed.

Back at the studio, I used the Siren’s preset from Power Workflow3 for the primary color process and to keep the water rich in tone. I worked further with other LR tweaks, then I went into PS for detailed brushwork, burning, dodging, etc., to polish everything up.

I spent quite a bit of time on the details, in particular, toning down the specular highlights on the face using my soft skin-colored brush method to go over the blown areas, and painting color over the places I wanted tone down (something we cover in my Cloning Magic workshop). There probably would have been fewer hot highlights had the light been soft above. That said, the rays in the water probably would have been fewer as well.

To recap, here are a few things I learned my first time out. As I do this more, I’ll probably find more subtle tips, but taking my time the first round made all the difference, and I learned a lot about handling underwater portrait situations. I look forward to the next time…

Gavin

  • I used a lake. A pool would probably be much easier, especially when starting out.
  • Practice staying calm in the water when using a camera. Just start with floating under there.
  • A snorkel helps a lot, allowing you to work with the camera with your face half underwater.
  • Don’t just have the subject look at the camera. Have them swim around.
  • Try some wide side angles for a cinematic looks and avoid looking right down their chest.
  • Stay close as you can and still get the scene you want. The further away, the murkier the water.
  • Light direction matters. Flash is good, but it takes experimentation, which is harder in the water.
  • Rules still apply. Watch the limbs, hair, dresses, and position. Try things and think it through.
  • Having the subject swim down and towards you is fine, but also try sideways.
  • Bright sunlight is OK since water filters light, but you may get some specular highlights.
  • I set the flash to manual. Find a setting that gives a nice fill and then go for it.
  • I used AV & Auto ISO. It’s not easy to change settings (while drowning). Start simply.
  • It will be easy to forget about technique while trying to manage in deep water. Take it slowly.
  • You can spend a lot of money on underwater accessorizes. But you can start for about $500.
  • A couple practice sessions before the real session would have made it a lot easier.

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  1. Awesome underwater work of art Gavin! Thank you for the informative post, along with all the tips you provided. I shoot with the same gear you use and would love to try this in my pool! Keep up the good work,your perseverance has paid off 🙂

  2. Pool would probably be good for practice, but the extremely clear water and limited size of the pool means you are going to have a less interesting backdrop (i.e. pool sides). Slightly mucky water is probably going to help you pick up the sunrays, too.

    Scuba equipment would probably be helpful, particularly if you were trying to get lower for your shot and stay in position, but probably at least a scuba weight belt around your waist would help maintain attitude control (and if you are wearing fins, you can put a weight belt on and not worry about sinking/drowning — plus, the weight belts are super easy to release and you could just tie a secondary rope to the weight belt and to the boat/dock for easy retrieval after you release it).

    Not sure it would work, but if you could get below her so that she is between the camera and the sun (as a backlight) and use a fill-flash on her from below, that might look really neat. Particularly if you can get her to open her eyes underwater.

    Ideas to kick around…..

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About the Author

Glad you're here.

I'm from WA State USA and started studying photography in 97. I started work as a pro (using that word loosely because I sucked) using film at age 16. I learned fast but was not as easy to find training then. Sometimes I beat my head against the wall until I figured stuff out.

As digital dawned I went all in and got to study with masters like Ken Whitmire. In 09 I founded the Pro Photo Show podcast. I started promoting tone-focused editing. When Lightroom arrived, I started developing tools to make editing and workflow better.

20 years of study and photography around the country earned me a Master of Photography (M.Photog) from PPA. I got to see my workshops and tools featured in publications across the industry. Once I even won the prestigious HotOne award for my "EXposed" light and tone workshop.

Wanting something calmer, I moved to Mexico in 2017. It's a land of magical light. I'm here now exploring light and trying to master my weak areas. I make videos of that for my Youtube channel, sharing what I learn. I hope you'll stick around and be part of Light Hunters Tribe... Gavin

Gavin Seim

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