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Underwater Model Photography

"Erika Thornes is a photographer based out of San Diego, California. She likes to describe herself a photographer of verve. Erika shoots at the beach, as well as underwater. She’s active in local groups in San Diego, on Google+, and is a regular panelist on The PhotoShop Show, where she has been a guest featuring her underwater process. Here Erika presents a bit of the shooting part of her underwater process as a guide to people who want to get more than their feet wet."
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Erika at work. Photo credit: Carrie Mundy


Underwater photography has never been more affordable. Here, I’ll share some budget-friendly ideas for entering the pool, lake or placid ocean with your camera.

The first image of the woman in the wedding dress and ballet slippers is shot in the JPG file format.

If you already own a high-end point-and-shoot from Canon, the company also sells underwater cases for around $300 to fit your existing camera. However, you can snag a Canon underwater case for less than $100 on clearance. Or, you can buy the corresponding camera used, or on clearance, for a lower cost than a new set up – bringing your overall costs under the $300 mark.

If going this route, be sure you can shoot in the RAW format, as you’ll be able to push your editing further and have more flexibility with post processing overall.

There are also brands of underwater camera housings that are not dependent on what model of camera you already own. They’re soft bags designed to hold a camera with a clear glass front for the lens to shoot through unobstructed. These bags offer greater flexibility when using multiple models of DSLRs underwater. While they’re rated for deeper, that pressure makes it hard to change or press buttons if you get too deep. I personally don’t mind using these.

Don’t be scared off by people who think you need a rigid case. For the type of shooting I do, these bags have been a great bargain and a way into the world of underwater photography.


If your camera can shoot RAW, do it. Really…do it. Go ahead and set your camera before you get it in the bag. If you’re using a case that is easier to change in the water, I still recommend getting basic settings down before hopping in.

The settings I recommend are pretty specific to shooting in a pool, or near the surface of a lake or ocean. Your camera will allow you to override its settings. Be sure to shoot +1/3 (over exposed), but you can often go up to a half a stop. The sensors tend to underexpose in the underwater environment. Even if your point-and-shoot has an underwater setting, you can still override exposure if you need to.

Shoot in burst mode. You'll want rapid fire and it just makes life easier as your subject moves underwater. This setting is not standard for most cameras and can be changed in the menu – even if you’re in underwater mode.

I’ve tried using the view finder but, even with goggles, it’s too tough to really see what’s going on through the eye piece. So, use live view and goggles. That way, you can see on the larger screen what’s entering the frame of your viewfinder.

As for ISO, don't keep it on auto. I set my ISO to be about 1600 – depending on how high my camera can go without too much noise. Each camera is different, but don’t be afraid of a higher ISO, as it will allow for more flexibility with shutter speed and depth of field.For most point-and-shoots, auto might be standard and that’s okay. If you’re having problems with unintentional motion blur, you might want to check to see if you can raise your ISO.

I keep my shutter speed over 1/160 and above F/4, but use your artistic discretion. For DSLR shooters, I shoot in shutter priority, as l like more depth of field. I’m not looking for creamy bokeh.

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Go wide, my friends, go wide.

As for focal length, I go as wide as I can without creating too much distortion. In the image above, her fingers are getting a bit long due to the wider perspective. There’s a delicate balance. The wider I am, the closer I can be to my subject without too many particulates from the water clouding my image and making it harder for me to edit later.

In order to get a tack-sharp image, I aim for the water to be as clear and still as possible. Being closer to the subject also helps. I find my personal sweet spot to be between 18-30mm on a zoom lens (full or crop) – depending on the subject, the pool and what camera I’m using.

For those with a rugged point-and-shoot, I’d keep it pretty much at its shortest focal length without any zoom. But you’ll figure out works best for you.

Double Check Your Seal.

Camera is set up, zipped up and locked up. You've checked for hairs in the seal, you've made sure that everything is down tight.

If you have a gasket, you also made sure that you lubed it, right? Yup, you need the silicone. I had a cousin who broke a seal to a dry gasket and it destroyed her camera. If you do have a gasket and it’s properly lubed with a bit of silicone, but not too much, you’ll also need to make sure you don’t have any stray hairs or sand stuck in there.

I’ve heard stories of cameras lost to just a stray hair, so check it. Every time.

Luckily those who have a rugged point-and-shoot don't have to tense up like the folks who use cases and bags. Just check your camera and make sure everything is tight and ready.

DSLR users: A few tips for you.

When you hop in the pool, if you’re using one of those bags or even some hard cases, you’ll see bubbles coming out of the exterior cracks and crevices of your underwater gear. This is the part where you either trust, or you’ve spent the night before with lukewarm cans of soda for weight, wrapped in tissue paper, to check for moisture – dipping multiple times in the bathtub to make sure those exterior air bubbles aren’t interior air bubbles.

I often roll the dice once I’ve gotten to know my gear, and learn the bubble patterns they make when first submerged.

Also, if you’re using one of those bags, stick a couple of tampons in the bottom – under your camera. It’s reassurance, and insurance, as they will swell up and absorb the liquid – just like in the commercials. I wish they swelled up blue but, unfortunately for us, they stay clear. However, they do swell up quickly.

If the dreaded happens and you think you have a leak, you'll see bubbles and your lens could fog up. Those handy tampons – which may freak someone out poolside when they are casually out on the table – will fill up with water before water gets into your camera. You’ll hopefully get to the surface quickly – saving your camera.

They look exactly like the few stray bubbles you’ll see when you put your camera in each time. The bubbles you see when you have a leak is the air escaping from your bag and being replaced by water. That water will pool at the bottom of your bag and your lens will fog up.

Those handy tampons that freaked out some teenage boys will fill up with the water and you'll jump to the surface. And hopefully save your camera before any water gets inside.

Yes, I have a survivor in my collection. Three days in rice just to be safe, and my camera works as good as new. I put my underwater bag in the hot tub. Not smart. Don't do it!

When you hop in the pool, you’ll see bubbles coming out of the exterior cracks and crevices of your underwater gear. This is the part when you either trust, or you’ve spent the night before with lukewarm cans of soda (to avoid condensation) and the bathtub – dipping and dipping to make sure those exterior air bubbles aren’t interior air bubbles. I often roll the dice once I’ve gotten to know my gear, and the bubble patterns they make when first submerged.

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Time of Day:

My favorite time to shoot is on an overcast day or at dusk. Both give us photographers an opportunity for great light.

A close friend introduced me to insulation panels at a home improvement store. For around $10, you can get a 4x8 foot reflector that is light and comfortable to hold. Yes, it would blind above water – but under water, it gives us an inexpensive light to control.

Remember, this is the underwater photography on the cheap (not expensive light rigs) and we’re looking for inexpensive solutions to create great images. I use these panels just as the sun is setting. I’m so thankful to have picked up this great tip.

I also shoot at night using the built-in underwater pool lights. They can create some dramatic images. Another reason I choose to shoot without direct sun is I'm not having the sun create lines and hot spots on my clients. The sun, while beautiful, doesn't look so great when it’s creating tiger stripes on my beautiful ladies.

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I’ve never had a problem getting models for underwater shoots and I normally have more than I could ever use. Although, what I find interesting is the people you’d assume would be great underwater models, may not be.

You’ll find out your top model above water may not be great at handling water up her nose – and that can be limiting. Your models have a very tough job, as it’s especially difficult to swim around in heavy clothes – all while looking graceful, natural and beautiful. The directions they have to take from us are not easy! We often tell them, “Turn this way,” “Hold your hands like a dancer,” “Fling your hair back,” and “Exhale just a bit to look like you're not dead, but don't do it too much or we won't see your face.” It can be exhausting for them!

Another challenge lies in the fact I only have about 20-40 minutes of shooting time before too many particles stir up in the pool and the models get tired. There are a lot of tricks I use to extend shooting time, but I’ve found a lot of trial and error can be the best teacher when it comes to underwater photography.


With underwater photography, it is a great asset to have a partner. My partner through all of this has been Carrie Mundy (on Facebook too). We started shooting underwater with our point-and-shoot cameras together. We bought one underwater bag for an SLR, then we bought a second. We have learned together a lot of the tricks described above as well as many more. Practice and patience, and being able to hash out the details together has worked well for us. We're able to communicate well together, find and solve problems together, and we're able to double (or more) our workable images when we work as a team. 

You can do this alone. You 100% can, but find a buddy. Find more than one. It is great to have a local community of underwater shooters, to share pools, to share tips, and to host underwater parties. Our local groups here in San Diego are fun, and we've grown as photographers from them. I can't wait to watch the world of underwater photography grow as this gear becomes available to more of us. Feel free to reach out to us, as this is a fun community to be a part of.