Occasionally I get an e-mail from someone, usually a young woman, who sees the photos of divers in our magazine, often young women, and wonders how one can make a living being an underwater model. The reality is that the person who appears in the photo is such a major component of the success of an image that they should be well-compensated.
Unfortunately, unless it's a commercial shoot, say for a dive equipment company or tourist board, there are rarely significant budgets in place for hiring underwater models. Whenever I get booked for such a project, I am thrilled to pay the models. They work so hard, and contribute so much, that when there is opportunity to pay commensurate with their talents, I do. But more often, the people who appear in most underwater photographers' work are friends or dive staff willing to help out. Regrettably, for those hoping to make underwater modeling a career, the divers who appear in underwater photos are usually unpaid co-conspirators to the art. However, unpaid needn't mean unappreciated. Here are some things photographers can do to make life easier for their models, and more productive for the shoot:
Hold a Strategy Session
Before the dive, discuss underwater signals with your model to make sure you're on the same page. Here are some of the signals that work for me:
The Toot: To let a model know that I need her attention, the sound that works for me is a high-pitched "toot, toot, toot, toot" noise I make through my regulator. I usually have my hands full with the camera and strobe, so tank bangers and the like are inconvenient. Tooting is the best way to get the model to look at me and pay attention. If she's within 10 feet of me, she'll hear it.
Vertical or Horizontal? Arm bent at the elbow, either straight up or fully to the side, announces my intent to shoot either a vertical or horizontal image. This is important because then the model can visualize how he might look in the frame. If he sees I'm shooting a vertical, he might drop his legs and orient upright to better fill the frame.
Finger Flutter. I'll rapidly shake my four fingers on one hand up and down, as if playing a spirited riff on some imaginary piano. It elicits a confused stare unless the model knows in advance from the topside briefing that this means "there are too many particles in the water here, too much backscatter, so let's move on."
Round 'em up. A circular motion with an extended index finger means swim through the frame-again. Maybe there are some snapper or glass minnows in the foreground and I want the model to swim through and part the school, or maybe I just want some implied motion. The model should be reminded, topside, that these circles are fairly tight. There is no reason to swim 25 yards back just to swim through a frame. Simply move back far enough so the school of fish resumes its natural symmetry. Circles with a diameter of just five yards are usually enough.
The Lens. Show the model the camera and lens you are using. There is a chance the model will be a photographer as well, and instantly intuit how wide your lens is. But if not, explain whether you're using a full-frame fisheye (180 degrees), where the diver is likely to be a rather small visual component in the shot, or maybe a 24mm, where the result is more likely a head-and-shoulder portrait. Whatever the focal length, the model should have some sense of the angle of coverage and how close underwater subjects truly need to be for strobe-lit color to be captured. An experienced model can relate a particular lens to how much of the frame they are likely to fill at any given distance.
Eye Contact. This is huge in underwater modeling, and one of the most important aspects of the photo. The subject's eyes direct where the viewer looks, and rarely is there a reason to be staring into the lens. Better to be visually interacting with that seahorse or whatever foreground subject of interest there might be. It is the photographer's job to properly illuminate both the foreground subject and model's eyes.
One More Time. A single pointer finger held upright, often combined with an imploring look from the shooter, means "let's do this just one more time." Of course, we lie. "One more time" usually turns out to be six or eight more times; but fortunately, there is no signal for that or our models would most likely return a single-finger signal of their own.
Use the Right Wardrobe and Props
Nothing says the '80s better than the old phospho-green SeaQuest BC, lime-green Henderson skin, and matching mask and fins; unless maybe it's the pink version of same. Yet, when I outfit my models in contemporary gear of "any color, so long as it's black," I get kind of nostalgic for that old Saturday Night Fever flare. Actually, I see the logic for wetsuits in black. They don't show stains and marks like a light-colored suit might, but there's no reason not to dress our models in colorful masks and fins at least. Light-colored fins help separate and define the model against dark water, and a clear-skirted mask with a colorful rim is both attractive and makes it far easier to light the model's eyes. Some BCs maintain the stealth look of basic black, but others provide colorful accent panels. Given the choice, I prefer a splash of color on the BC as well, but mask and fins are really the most important wardrobe differentiators.
A bright underwater flashlight is useful as a prop, to give the model something to do with his hands and to direct the viewer's interest toward a subject in the foreground. Likewise, a camera with a slaved strobe can make a nice prop; just make sure to operate the slave at the lowest possible power setting so as to not blow out the highlights with the return strobe blast.
One small item often overlooked is a hose clip. Photographers working with models should carry spares with them at all times. A diver looks far more together-and considerate-when all dangling gauges are clipped to the body and not dragging across the coral.
Consider the Current
Even though photographers instinctively prefer being down-current from a setup (all things being equal), it is probably best to abdicate the sweet spot to the model. If there is no current, pick the angle according to light and subject matter, but when there is current, do your model a favor by letting her fin into the current for easier positioning.
Reward a Job Well Done
Even if there's no payday at the end of the shoot, it's important for a photographer to let a model know she is appreciated. Maybe that means burning a CD of favorite images for her, sending her a print of herself, or buying her drinks or dinner. Many of my best images over the past decades have included models. A wide-angle underwater photographer should treasure a model's contributions and respect her skills.