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Enhancing Your Images with an Underwater Model

Enhancing Your Images with an Underwater Model...

Or how to finally give your dive buddy a job.

Text, Images & Modeling by Kevin Palmer and Tanya Burnett

If you want to publish photos in a magazine, you will likely need to get used to working with a model. If you want to please friends and family, it helps to get used to shooting divers underwater and if you want to give a sense of size and perspective - nothing works better than a model.

All this seems pretty natural, but it can be surprisingly difficult to get a shot that flatters the subject, enhances the impact of the environment and engages the viewer in some fashion. This only comes with practice; both on the part of the photographer and the model. A willing teammate in your imaging effort makes a huge difference in your success rate. Trying to capture a disengaged random diver at just the right moment and right position can be a long shot at best. So here are some guidelines to help increase your success.


1) The first thing to consider the kind of shot you want to take. The vast majority of underwater photography utilizing a model is wide angle - this is not always the case, but we will look at alternatives later. For now, lets assume you will be shooting wide angle, and often, the wider, the better. That means you want something that will provide either a fisheye angle of coverage or an extremely wide rectilinear field of view. This can be achieved by either using the appropriate wide lens behind a port, or a wet wide angle conversion lens in conjunction with an appropriate focal length behind a port. Both options can produce excellent results depending on your camera set up.

You may be thinking, "Why would someone want to shoot a model using a fisheye lens with all of its distortion"? Well, this is likely the most common lens used for all those diver-on-the-reef shots you see in dive magazines every month. The main reason for this is that unless you are shooting models in a pool, water conditions and clarity are rarely optimal and by getting as close as possible to your subject (a few feet away), the water will look clearer than it really is and you will be able to light your subject bringing out pleasing color and contrast. You will need to be mindful of distortion and we will cover tips for handling this.

If you are just going to use your model as a background silhouette, you still need that wide angle of coverage to get close to the reef and mange to keep the model in the frame when they are up in the water column. 

2) Unless you are shooting ambient light, you need good strong strobes. Lighting up your model - including inside the mask - is easier with two powerful strobes.

3) Some people will see this as a cliche, but having the model hold an underwater light, or if holding a camera, turning on the strobe modeling light on the camera rig can help make your model more dynamic and draw the viewers eye. It is important that the light not be too powerful or aimed directly at the camera - it should only be a compliment.

Getting the job done as a team

The job of a photographer and model is a challenge that needs to be respected by both parties. If you are working with a spouse or significant other, make sure the relationship can handle it! I am only slightly joking here. Communication above water can often be misunderstood, but communication underwater is almost always misunderstood to one degree or another - usually associated with great frustration, lots of eye rolling and wild hand gestures. A lot of this can be mitigated by going over hand signals in advance. At least the basics: "Hold Position", "Go Up, Go Down", "Forward, Back", "Watch Your Fin Position", "Direction to be Looking", "Go Horizontal, Go Vertical". 

In a perfect world, your model buddy will learn to see the shot like you do and start to do some things before you even ask... but don't count on it and don't be afraid to give polite and understanding guidance. Otherwise you might not have a model in the future.

One trick to explain to your model is that if you are using a good size dome and you are trying to silhouette the model against the sun for instance; the model should be able to see themselves reflected in the dome in relation to where the sun is. That way they can adjust their position accordingly.

Before you go on your dive, check out your model's gear. Are there loose straps and hoses that can be tidied up? Pressure gauge clipped off? Does their tank look decent or is it better to swap to another one?  


Your job as a photographer is to find the most appealing location possible for your model and guide them (Patiently) into it. Appealing to you, should mean flattering to them, so some guidelines should apply.

  • When shooting very wide angle images, there will always be some barrel distortion. If your model is going to dominate the image, never shoot them straight from the side. This will translate into making their midsection more barrel-like and will likely not be appreciated. Instead, use the the 1/3 - 2/3 rule and have the model angling in one direction or the other near you, but usually not straight at you. 
  • Fisheye and super wide lenses distort the least along the horizontal and vertical axis with increasing  distortion towards the edges and particularly the corners. Try not to have the model too close to the corners where they can end up warped.
  • Except on rare occasions for special shots, never shoot downwards towards your model. They will look their best by shooting on the level or a slight upward angle towards them.
  • If the model's mask is tilted too far away from you, it will go black and looks ominous. Again, if oriented on that approximate 30-45 degree angle towards you, it is fairly easy to light their face. A clear mask on the model can also make it a bit easier to light the face.
  •  Make it seem natural to the viewer: Have the model looking towards a logical subject that is in the frame of the image OR have them look over your left or right shoulder if they are that close. It doesn't matter that there may be nothing they are actually looking at, the viewers mind will fill in the blank. Just don't have them look at the camera (with rare exceptions)
  • Hair explosions don't usually look good underwater. If your model has long hair floating everywhere and there is no current, try having them slowly swim into the shot so the hair flows back more naturally.
  • You are the one with with the finger on the shutter release. Pay attention to what is going on with the model.If they are struggling with the current, dealing with loose straps or buoyancy, don't just keep firing shots. Either go help or wait for them to sort things out. Then look for the best window to shoot. When are they in-between breath cycles so they don't have bubbles in their face? What are their fins doing? Fins together looks best, so if they have to kick to hold position, then wait until they are mid-kick and straight legged before shooting. 
  • If shooting the model as a silhouette, try to place them at the 1/3 and 2/3 line.


If you can get two divers to model - extra points!

Special Circumstances

You didn't hear this from me, but there may be times when you or your buddy may need to hold your breath. Often times exhales will trigger a rain of calcium flakes and debris from an overhang that will ruin a shot and possibly damage animals. Another is shooting steeply upwards toward your silhouetted model where a chain of bubbles heading for them will do no good at all for the image. Always practice common sense and be aware of your surroundings. Safety first, protect your environment and if that is doable, then go for the shot.

There can be times when we break many traditional rules intentionally - nothing is ever absolute!

 Can you use a model when shooting macro? Sure - not always easy, but it can be done!

 Can you work with a model while shooting ambient light? Absolutely!

 Sometimes your model doesn't even need to be in the water!

 ...And sometimes shooting down towards a model works. Especially when it tells a story.


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