How to Shoot Underwater Portrait Photography

Making images underwater is a totally new world for creativity and expression. However, shooting in the water takes a unique degree of preparation and equipment. I’ll share some of the methods I use to make pictures below the surface.

Underwater Safety

The most important consideration when shooting in the water is safety. The water has inherent dangers, so it’s vital you and your subjects are comfortable and capable in the venue you are shooting in, be it a pool, lake, or ocean. Having swum competitively for most of my life, I’m at ease in the water but I never take for granted the importance of safety. During all of my underwater shoots there’s at least one assistant on deck to make sure everything goes smoothly.

I always spend time getting to know the models and making them feel comfortable in the process. This step is vital when working in the water. A clear explanation of the plans for your underwater shoot with everyone involved is key. I spend a lot of time beforehand explaining how we’ll make the image and where everyone should position themselves. Given that a lot my work features competitive swimmers, I already know they are comfortable in the water. When I work with models who don’t have swimming backgrounds, I want to make sure they, too, are comfortable. They will be holding their breath but I like to remind that they don’t have to worry and can stop to come up for air whenever needed.


Underwater Gear

When it comes to equipment, I believe Aquatech makes the best underwater housing – they’re super rugged, reliable, easy to set up and offer a lot of menu controls for my camera. When setting up, focusing on details is critical. Over the years, I developed a system for the setup that suits my needs; I like to find a space on set that is free of distractions during my setup. Given the limitations on what you can control underwater, I’m very methodical in the setup process. Although I have the utmost trust in my Aquatech underwater housing, I always check the seals and camera connections and do a quick water test to make sure everything is set correctly prior to the shoot. I’d suggest doing a test setup prior to arriving at your shoot to make sure you have a solid grasp on making sure the lens ports and back plates are sealed and secure.


One of the things I really like about the Aquatech housings is the access to the controls on my camera from the back plate.  However, I typically set my aperture and shutter speed before mounting the camera in the housing based upon the available light. From here, I make the necessary adjustments to achieve the creative look I am seeking.

There are several ways to harness light underwater. Natural, mid-day sun is a great place to start. Shallow pools with white bottoms are excellent sources of light to cover your subject. You can also use reflectors and mirrors to shape the light to your needs. Aquatech also makes housings for Speedlights as well as cabling and housing for Pocket Wizards to remotely trigger lights above the surface.


For my portrait and commercial work, I use the Aquatech Elite 800 housing with a Nikon D810 and primarily a 14-24mm or 50mm lens. I also use the Aquatech Strike housing for a Nikon SB-910 Speedlight. For more a action-related project, I’ll bring in the Delphin housing for Nikon D4s (which now has back plates that work with the D5).

Once you’ve set your equipment and briefed your models, it’s time to hit the water and start shooting.

Underwater Techniques

Here are a few ideas to get you started!


Try shooting your subject near the surface of the water to get interesting and unique reflections. We shot this model for a swimwear company with the intent of creating a sense of space and depth. Paying attention to the way in which water patterns impact the pool surface, we established the right look and feel for the campaign. The image was made with the direct mid-day sun. The shallow depth also provided a good light bounce from the bottom.


Use props to create images that will draw the attention of the viewer. Here’s an example of a campaign I shot for a dentist in San Diego. The client, who’s a lifelong swimmer, wanted to create imagery that differentiated him in the market and gave his patients a sense of who he is beyond the dental clinic.


For this image of 4-time Olympian and Olympic silver medalist, Tony Azevedo, we brought in some weights from the training facility to emphasize the power and intense training that are the foundations of his success.


Bubbles are excellent for calling attention to the medium of water and creating a somewhat surreal effect. Using bubbles and light can give you a sense of movement and a unique perspective on your subject. Originally this portrait had the model gliding toward me, but it just didn’t seem right. With the black background draped along the pool wall, I wanted to try and create a look that mimicked outer space so I purposely kicked water in front of the subject as he glided toward me.

Additional Tips When Shooting Underwater

A3 Performance product shoot - La Jolla, CA - the models love th

Take your time during underwater shoots. Tell your models to feel free to come to the surface whenever they want. At first, if the models aren’t very comfortable in the water, help them relax and remind them to break the surface to breathe whenever they want.


Have your models keep their eyes open underwater.


Have your models brush air bubbles off their skin underwater. Tiny bubbles on the skin are common when entering the water.

If the models want to wear sunscreen, have them apply it well in advance of entering the water and make sure it’s absorbed.

Use a pair of swim fins and a dive weight belt. The fins will help you move more freely and the weight belt helps to stabilize you underwater by countering the buoyancy of the housing.

When it comes time for post-production, you’ll need to adjust your white balance and possibly do color correction on your images. The depth of water affects color and light; reds go first and move down the spectrum as you go deeper. I do the initial corrections in Lightroom and then move over to Photoshop for the fine-tuning.

Just like anything else, underwater photography takes practice. But it’s a lot of fun and the dynamic nature of the underwater world can open up new frontiers for your creative expression.

Underwater Portrait Examples and Effects


This mermaid was done for a retail swim and pool supply store. I used underwater lighting and a bounce reflector at the surface


This swimmer was shot in a shallow pool using an assistant on the surface to make surface waves that would create shadow textures on the pool wall.


This competitive swimmer was executing an underwater backflip while exhaling bubbles. This was shot against a black backdrop with a Speedlight directed below the swimmer with bright midday sun as the key light above.


This portrait of Olympic champion Missy Franklin was taken for USA Swimming. I used elements of the pool, lane lines, and lane markers for composition. This image was made in conjunction with a television commercial and we used high-powered stage lighting on deck.

Dive Into Underwater Shooting

Want to try an underwater housing unit for your gear? Here is the best place to get started:

Underwater Housing Units and Sound Blimp Compatibility Guide

Mike Lewis has been a commercial photographer since the early 80s and has worked for clients such as Adidas, USA Swimming, NBC Sports, United States Olympic Committee, and many more. He specializes in underwater/water-related work and is based in La Jolla, CA.


  • Cole

    I want to know the same questions! How to you get the black background?

  • Paul Frocchi

    HI Mike
    wondering if you could suggest a black background. I’ve got a 10×20 pos backdrop; but in testing it’s just not color safe. I’m experiencing bleed which I don’t want to have effect the pool I”m borrowing.
    I’m considering black plastic sheeting, but wonder if that’s too reflective for the deep blacks you show.
    Any help is appreciated.

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