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7 Tips for Photographing Underwater Halloween Models

Recently I had the chance to put together a special spooky season, Halloween underwater model photoshoot with my buddy Kenzo Kiren and the team at Dive Ninja Expeditions in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. While photographing models underwater is not something new for me, doing it with halloween costumes was definitely a new adventure with its own challenges. It was incredibly fun to photograph and we were able to capture some great shots. So I thought it would be helpful to look at a few tips for doing a Halloween underwater photoshoot, which in turn could carry over to underwater model photography in general. 

Before we jump in, I just want to say a big thanks to Kenzo, Marcela, Donna, Captain Miguel, Steffen and Ryan for all their help on this shoot! Having a great team not only makes things go so much smoother, it’s also much more fun. 

Underwater halloween model photoshoot in Los Cabos by Jay Clue
witch surfing a broom underwater halloween photoshoot

1. Spend some extra time on your planning.

Like in any form of diving or photography, solid planning is an easy key to success. This shoot started with just the idea of having Kenzo wearing a jackolantern on his head underwater. From there it slowly grew. We began looking for other models to capture different costumes and ideas. Then figuring out what kind of costumes could look good underwater – as well as what we could source in Cabo. Living in Baja can make finding some things pretty trickier so we had to adapt our ideas to what we could actually find locally.  Then once the models and ideas were locked in it’s on to logistics. Where are we going to shoot this? Which spot will have the best conditions? How are we going to pull it off? Do we need a boat or can we do it from shore? Freediving or scuba – or both? What other equipment will we need? And so on… 

I find the best way to plan a photoshoot is to think through it from start to finish making notes along the way. When I come to a part of the shoot that I don’t have an answer for yet; I write it down as a question in my notes. Then when I have it fully outlined I go back through it again to make sure I didn’t miss anything. These notes also double as a checklist for the photoshoot helping make sure you don’t rock up at the location and realize you’re missing a critical piece of gear. The last thing to consider in your planning stages is that things will change and you need to leave space to maneuver things around. One of the best skills an underwater photographer can have is being able to quickly adapt to changing situations. Remember, we aren’t working in a nice little studio, we are in the ocean and at the whim of mother nature. 

2. Think about how colors will look underwater.

Divers & photographers learn early on that colors change drastically underwater – even in very shallow clear water. So, you’ll want to consider this when you are planning your outfits or costumes for the models. For example, a bright red dress may quickly look mud brown underwater if you aren’t using strobes. Or if you are, but the shot is captured in a way that the light from your strobes won’t reach all of the dress then you might end up with a lot of editing to do later in post to match it up. For the underwater Halloween photos we were a bit limited as we wanted to keep to the traditional halloween feel. So we’re looking at orange, black, purple, and maybe bright ghoulish greens or devil reds. Pumpkin orange, similar to red, changes quite quickly underwater looking more faded and dull. But thankfully, it’s also quite easy to bring back in post. 

For Marcela’s witch & skeleton outfits, black was the chosen color as it not only fits the traditional theme but contrasts easily making the costume stand out off the background. Kenzo’s pumpkin head we went for ripped up jeans as we don’t really need the viewer to focus on his pants, we want their focus on the pumpkin. Donna’s devil costume, we had to go bright red to fit the idea, but this meant we need to shoot her shallow to make our lives a little easier in post. 

Tips for underwater modeling for Halloween photoshoot
underwater model devil girl halloween photoshoot

3. Imagine how the costumes will work underwater.

This is a bit of a two for one tip. The first thing we tend to think of is how will it look underwater. Such as questioning whether the fabric will flow through the water, or will it become more flat when wet? Or if you will be able to see hidden weights needed to help your model pose? But the second half of this is considering what its properties mean for your models. Can they swim freely in it? Is it going to become very heavy when wet? Does it pose any safety risks for them?  

Kenzo’s jack o’lantern head is an actual carved pumpkin – not a halloween mask. When wearing the pumpkin there wouldn’t be room to hide a regulator inside to breath from. Nor could we get a regulator in deep enough from outside to reach his mouth while wearing the pumpkin – so it would need to be shot on breath holds. From a safety perspective this seemingly simple shot just became a lot more complex. It would require dedicated safety divers ready react immediately if there were any issues, as well as a lot more considerations to minimize the risks.  

4. Utilize support divers and put extra attention on safety.  

Now this may not be the most fun tip of the article, but it is without a doubt the most important. As photographers we may not always think about extra planning for safety. But when photographing models underwater you need to always put extra attention on the safety of everyone involved. I find the best method is to go back to your original plan and walk through the photoshoot, but this time thinking about what potential risks there are at each step. Then working to find ways to minimize these risks as much as possible. 

It’s also great to have some safety support divers on set watching everything and ready to jump in to help out in case of an emergency. They can see things you may miss while you are focused on getting the shot. Additionally they are also a big help with costumes, equipment, or even supplying air. They’re crucial members of the photo team and are always required shooting commercial projects.  In our shoot we had 2-3 support divers in water at all times. With the pumpkin head Kenzo had 2 dedicated support divers hovering just out of the camera frame able to supply air or to help him to the surface within a second if it was needed. 

jackolantern underwater photoshoot tips
pumpkin head underwater model halloween photoshoot

5. Plan your photoshoot to be in shallow water.

Organizing your underwater model photoshoot in shallow water helps to alleviate a lot of headaches as well as minimizing some risks. This will of course be dependent on what you are shooting, but if I have the option, I always aim for shallow water. The light is much better in the shallows giving you more contrast, color,  and dynamic range. Plus if you’re like me, I always will choose to shoot natural light over using strobes if the situation allows for it. From a safety perspective, you are closer to the surface in case there is an emergency. It also puts less stress on your models if they are doing breath holds or freediving giving you a few more crucial seconds underwater before they need to grab the next breath. 

6. A good underwater model makes the world of difference.

When it comes to selecting models for underwater photoshoots we need to consider a few additional things besides the normal physical appearance and attributes. The first is how comfortable are they in the water. You could have the most incredible looking model but if he or she is not comfortable working in water it’s going to make your shoot much more difficult to accomplish. If you’re shoot also involves scuba diving or equipment then you are going to want someone that is a certified diver, unless you are an instructor and want to teach them to essentially take them on a Discover Dive to shoot. Having a scuba diver that is experienced, comfortable, and confident in the water goes a long way. Consider how their buoyancy and trim are if you are going to be shooting them in scuba gear for example. Having some one that is experienced usually will mean they have good trim, streamlining, and buoyancy – making them look better in the water.

If your underwater photoshoot is going to be done without scuba gear, then having someone experienced with apnea or freediving will make a massive difference. I’ve done shoots in the past where the models could barely hold their breath for a few seconds making shooting even just below the surface really difficult. We were still able to get good shots in the end but it made it a much longer process and required some extra clever thinking on my part. Whereas if we have a Freediver that is comfortable underwater and can do long breath holds it makes it so much easier. Additionally freedivers tend to look very graceful in the water due to how they train to use long fins and such. In the Halloween shoot, Marcela, is an avid Freediver that is super comfortable underwater and able to hold her breath quite long. This gave me the opportunity to do multiple shots, angles, and ideas on one breath. Then as she went to grab some air, I could check my photos and prepare for the next series of shots. Additionally, a shot like the Pumpkin head requires someone extremely comfortable in the water and also with a solid breath hold as they have no mask, and are wearing a pumpkin on their head. Kenzo is a dive instructor with thousands of dives under his belt, so he is not only very experienced working underwater, he’s also very calm, confident, and comfortable. It made shooting this idea much easier than I was expecting.

Beautiful female underwater model dressed as a witch with pumpkin Jackolantern for halloween photoshoot
How to photograph the aurora borealis in Yellowknife Canada

7. Choose the right gear & settings for the shoot. 

Personally I prefer to shoot natural light unless the shoot really requires a strobe. Don’t get me wrong, strobes are amazing pieces of kit – especially the Sea & Sea YS-D3 Lightning strobes. But natural light tends to have a softer and more realistic feel to it. If you decide to shoot natural light though, take some time in the beginning to get your custom white balance as close to perfect as you can. Then keep an eye on it throughout the shoot if the lighting or costumes change. It will save you a bunch of time later in post. One of the other benefits of shooting natural light, if you have bright conditions, is that you can kick the shutter up a bit faster to stop motion as well as use a high speed drive to fire off shots really quickly to grab that one perfect moment when the model is posed perfectly. Remember, it’s not easy for them to walk on the bottom like they would walk down a street. So you want to to be able to grab those perfect moments. This was really apparent in the witch shoot while trying to get a shot of Marcela surfing the broom. She would basically have to ‘jump’ off the bottom bring the broom under her feet and try to ‘surf’ it while it quickly sank below her.

For this shoot I was using my Sony Alpha 1 in a Nauticam NA-A1 housing. The Alpha 1 is a speed demon and capable of firing 30 shots per second and doing 120 focus calculations per second – which means it is actually recalculating focus and exposure four times between every single shot while firing a 30 frame burst. Plus I love the dynamic range and color reproduction of the Sony a1. You can check out my full hands-on review of the Sony Alpha 1 here. My lens of choice for wide angle underwater portraits is the Sony FE 16-35 mm f2.8 GM. I love having a little bit of zoom to it, but also being wide enough that I can be close and cut down the amount of water between me and the model. I’d recommend staying away from fish eye lenses for most model shoots as they will tend to bend the model, which while maybe sometimes it can have a cool effect, most times it’s going to make them look strange.

Wrap Up

Photographing models underwater is a lot of fun and really lets you get creative. Especially for us underwater wildlife photographers that are used to waiting to spot an animal then quickly think of how to photograph it in a split second. With underwater modeling we have time to imagine an idea, work out the pose, and then play with multiple angles to try bring that idea to life. One of the benefits of working with humans, at least until I can figure out how to teach sharks how to properly pose! If you’re interested in learning more about underwater photography I highly recommend joining one of my photography workshops or one on one courses. They’re great to really take your photos to the next level in just a few days and are customized based on your skill level – from beginners just starting out to advanced photographers looking to hone their craft.

I’d love to see your shots and hear if this article helped you out – so make sure to tag me on Facebook or Instagram! Happy Halloween ninjas!

Sunset on Great Slave Lake in Yellowknife Canada