Creating and Lighting Underwater Portraits

All images by Tim Davis. Used with permission.

“My biggest fear is that I will become stagnant and stale so staying near the edge if not hanging over it is where I want to be most days.” says Photographer Tim Davis about his work. Perhaps this is why he got so into underwater portraits–because so few people do them. Tim was born and raised in Wichita, KS and has owned/operated Tim Davis Photography there for 13 years. He tells us that he has 4 beautiful 12 year olds, Joey, Aiden, Sam and Brenna who have helped him become the man and artist he is today.

Well..that and slosely watching photographers like Annie Leibovitz, Joe McNally, Sal Cincotta, etc.

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Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.

Tim: I actually got intrested in photography while attending highschool and eventually became a photographer for my yearbook. So photography has honestly always been an interest of mine. I originally went to college in Vancouver BC for a degree in Psychology. After working in the field for a few years I decided to follow a different passion and went to flight school in Seattle WA to pursue a career as a corporate pilot. However about a month before my check ride, I found out that my wife at the time was pregnant, and we were having quadruplets – that changed everything. So I moved back to Wichita, got a job to be able to start saving for my now family of 6, and someone suggested I start a studio. I never thought it’d be long-term, but here I am 13 years later. So honestly it was born out of necessity but I absolutely love being a photographer and can’t imagine doing anything else!

Phoblographer: What made you want to get into portraiture?

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Tim: I’ve always been a people person and I’ve always loved working with people. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy shooting landscapes and other things, but I really do get a lot of joy photographing families and individuals as well as the memories they are making. Closely watching photographers like Annie Leibovitz, Joe McNally, Sal Cincotta and others also gave me the desire to do something different and beautiful with portraiture.

Phoblographer: How did you decide that you wanted to do underwater portraits?

Tim: I actually had a client ask if I had ever done them and if I’d be willing to try it. I thought, “no, but that sounds AWESOME!” My parents have an ionized (chlorine-free) swimming pool in their backyard, so I did a little research and literally jumped right in!

Phoblographer: A lot of your images have an almost magical element to them. Where does your creative vision usually come from?

Tim: I get a lot of inspiration from really just pushing my limits. I love the cinema. Movies have always been a big inspiration to me…especially the epic ones! I love being outside. Nature places a big role in my creative vision. I will also from time to time look at what photographers from around the world are doing especially on the west and east coast. Being in the Midwest, style and trends tend to slowly filter in, so I’m constantly trying to push myself to do something different and bigger. My biggest fear is that I will become stagnant and stale so staying near the edge if not hanging over it is where I want to be most days.

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Phoblographer: How do you communicate with your models about the images that you’re trying to create? This seems incredibly tough to do and to get just right in combination with the technical issues.

Tim: Great question – a lot of it depends on the personality and experience of the models or clients that we cater to or use. We don’t let just anyone do an underwater session. It’s an interview process, that takes time and understanding of our expectations, and the model’s. We go over each pose before they go under the water, and correct when needed. But a lot of it comes from how comfortable the models are with being underwater in a way the probably never have been before. It’s not as simple as just being able to swim.

“A lot of brides think it’s a “trash the dress”session, but since there’s no chlorine, it’s just like putting the dress in tap water – it usually comes out cleaner! But getting a couple into the water completely changes the whole feel of it. It’s almost ethereal at that point.”

Phoblographer: How do you feel using colors effectively in a scene changes when underwater vs being on land?

Tim: Color is great for underwater – it brings a whole new element. Because our backdrop is dark most of the time, bringing in reds and blues and even whites can change the look of the shot completely. Colors and skin tones tend to be muted underwater so bright bold colors are extremely effective when trying to show that flowing ethereal element of being underwater.

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Phoblographer: What are some of the biggest lessons that you’ve learned about shooting underwater portraiture?

Tim: Having crystal clear water is crucial. Any type of particles in the water make it almost impossible to shoot in. Also, you’ve gotta work as a team. It’s not safe just having myself and the model. It definitely helps to have an assistant there for lighting, and for safety. We’ve got models jumping in water with big ball gowns on, basically immobilizing their legs, so we have someone sitting on the side of the pool, ready to jump in, if necessary. Another challenge is getting our subjects to relax their expression while under water and not give that all too common “blow fish” expression. Lastly one of the biggest challenges we deal with is getting our subjects to let all the air out of their lungs before they descend. This goes against everything you’ve ever been taught and can be a bit scary if you’ve never done it before but it’s very important for being able to sink in the water. If your lungs are full of air…you will simply float at the surface.

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Phoblographer: How do you see your work progressing? Do you have a special project that you’re really trying to get done?

Tim: We really want to push underwater portraits to our wedding clients. A lot of brides think it’s a “trash the dress”session, but since there’s no chlorine, it’s just like putting the dress in tap water – it usually comes out cleaner! But getting a couple into the water completely changes the whole feel of it. It’s almost ethereal at that point. It will definitely get them unique images that we can almost guarantee none of their friends will be having. We are also starting to work with underwater lighting. Up till now we’ve always utilized natural light in our underwater sessions.

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Phoblographer: Talk to us about the gear that you use.

Tim: We use a Nikon D800 with an Ikelight casing. We have off-camera waterproof lights that we are now starting to use, and a dark backdrop we pull into the pool. I also use a weight belt that I wear around my waist over my wetsuit and of course I wear a full face mask.

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