underwater portrait photography

Underwater Portrait Photography: Beginner’s Guide

Last Updated on December 28, 2021 | In Underwater Photography by Stefano Caioni Leave a Comment

Last Updated on December 28, 2021

Underwater portrait photography, on its own, is a phenomenal way to not only showcase and appreciate the often underrated beauty of the underwater world but also fully activate your artistic license.

Underwater portrait photos take undersea photography all to another dimension and allow you to experience the utterly breathtaking amalgamation of creative human expression and the magisterial marine world.

For a general intro to underwater photography, you can check our previous article at this link.

Underwater Portrait Photography
Photo by Guy Schotte on 500px

Nonetheless, doing an underwater shoot requires an intricately detailed level of planning, skill and equipment, and even a higher degree of luck. Naturally, underwater portrait photography is much harder to undertake than marine photography, as you’re basically dealing with humans, subject not in their natural environment.

That is, however, not to say that it can’t be, or hasn’t been done with great success. 

Planning Underwater Portrait Photography

As mentioned earlier, underwater photography requires intense and resolute planning that may take days or even weeks on end. For one, before you even start considering other aspects, you need to ensure that all the models and camera crew set to be involved in the shoot know how to swim. Regular training sessions, where the emphasis is on controlled breathing while underwater, should ideally be part of the preparations. 

Underwater Portrait Photography
Photo by Olga Piskalova on 500px

Another important step to having a successful shoot is assembling all the necessary waterproof gear. If you’re already a photographer, this won’t be much of a hassle. If you can’t afford water-resistant gear, you can buy some housings for your existing cameras and lights instead. Other equipment you may need include, scuba gear (depending on how deep you plan to go), underwater focus lights and a bunch of strobes and focus lights. 

Above all, decide on a good way to communicate with each other while underwater. As you probably know, talking when submerged in water is next to impossible, yet you still need to communicate when it’s time to change poses, move up for breath and so on. We would recommend coming up with a non-verbal communication system that covers everything, from simple set directions to emergency requests. 


Lighting in underwater scenes is dependent on the weather, water density, and position of the sun, all of which will be out of your control. As such, it’s always a good idea to carry your own lighting equipment just in case you need extra light. 

Underwater Portrait Photography
Photo by Juliana Bulgari on 500px

The most important lighting accessories for aquatic photography are external flashes, commonly known as strobe lights. They offer shorter flash duration as compared to continuous lights, which effectively freezes the model’s visual motions – creating a more stable and defined portrait. 

If you plan on going more than 15 feet deep, you may want to carry some underwater dive lights and color filters in case you need to restore the natural colors lost due to things like algae growth in the water column. And don’t also forget to include some water-tight fiber-optic connection cables, and arms for the lights and cameras. 

Underwater Portrait Photography Techniques

Getting the best portraits from your shoot is largely dependent on your technique. To that end, you need to use a wide-angled lens and set your camera to Manual Mode to give you more control over the shot clarity. 

Underwater Portrait Photography
Photo by Rowena Mynott on 500px

When it gets to action time, one of the things you can try is to position your model near the water surface. With good lighting, near-surface shots can produce some breathtaking and eccentric reflections. The enhanced light bounce that occurs from the shallow positioning also gives your photos an extra dimension in terms of space and depth. 

Notably, while the model is the main focus of a portrait shoot, it doesn’t hurt to use some creative props to add some flavor to the shot. Toothbrushes, jewelry, flowers, cameras and gym weights are examples of props that can add extra touches of personality to your photos.

Underwater Portrait Photography Inspiration

The range of ideas, techniques and poses you can use for your underwater portrait shoot will essentially be decided by your budget, available resources, desired effects and whether you are freelance or working for a client.

Underwater Portrait Photography
Photo by Bert Stephani on 500px

If you need some inspiration, check out the following amazing ideas. 

  • Use bubbles, and directed streams of light to add a sense of movement to your shots. 
  • Have your model (clad in bright fabrics) do some backflips while exhaling bubbles inside a pool treated with dark wallpapers and underwater lighting to create an outer space feel
  • In an underground lit pool, have your model keep their entire body, with the exception of the head, inside the water then take a snap from the surface to produce a ‘floating diver’ look. 

Surreal Underwater Portraits

In the photography world, real and normal are boring. This is especially so when it comes to underwater portraits. The marine world carries a certain mystique to most of us, and you should aim to bring that out in your images. 

surreal photo of a lady in a red dress
Photo by Katherline Lyndia on 500px

One way to create some surreal underwater portraits is to use eccentric backdrops and imagery to your scenes. If shooting in a pool, you can try to give your background the dark, uncanny feel of the deep seas by covering the floor and sides with spooky 3D wallpaper and using LED lights. 

Related: How to shoot underwater fashion photography

You can also use a projector (directed at the surface of the water from above ground) to virtually turn your model’s face into a multicolored fish, or a frog. You may also have your model pose amidst a pile of massive rocks and fish projected from the surface, then blend them together in post-production to create a phantasmagorical illusion of the Ocean Crust. 

Post Production

After the shoot, you may decide to touch up your pics to make them look more realistic, or correct some lighting mistakes. For most pro photographers, post-production mainly involves enhancing the photo’s color balance or cropping out some unnecessary items. 

girl portrait
Photo by Seb Bruni on 500px

However, you can go further than that and make use of Photoshop’s entire arsenal to get your desired look. On this, there are very few rules as everyone has their own preferences. Nonetheless, just remember to account for any changes on one side by changing the adjacent and/or opposite side. For instance, if you decide to change the color of the model’s dress, or accessories underwater, change also their reflections on the surface, and the overall color scheme as well. 

Final Thoughts

All said and done, keep in mind that there are typically no right or wrongs when it comes to photography. Otherwise, go with what makes you comfortable and try out as many poses and ideas as you like.

Experiment a lot, improve your craft, and above all, be willing and ready to learn from every shot you take, good or bad. 

Over to you know.

Will you try to take some underwater portaits? Let us know in the comments below!

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