Many of us have had the pleasure of seeing stunning visuals of marine and coral life in the specialized field of underwater photography, but very rarely have we been exposed to settings underwater involving real people. Mick Gleissner, with his fascination for diving, photography and beautiful women, decided to up the ante by taking up the unique challenge of underwater fashion photography.
The challenges presented in underwater fashion photography are many and is unique to each shoot. The photographer is at the perpetual mercy of the weather, visibility. The success of the shoot is also dependent on the model’s skills, the integrity of the camera equipment and set design.
Since communication underwater is severely limited to the use of basic hand signals, much of the directing lies in the preparation and briefing prior to the shoot. Gleissner first presented his vision to storyboard artist, James Neish, who then created elaborate visuals for the models. The storyboards illustrated specific poses for each of the models as well as their placements within the set design.
All the training in relaxation, breath holding, bubble making and strategic hair movement the models receive will culminate in the shoot. An ideal shot captures the model relaxed, posing in the right place with eyes open, with hair floating upwards and out of her face, and bubbles just above her head. The hair and bubbles are considered the icing on the cake – the stamp of proof that the shot took place underwater. The longer the model is able to hold her breath, the higher the number of shots per shooting window. Her relaxation training teaches her to pose in this challenging environment without looking tense or panicky. Her bubble training allows her to release bubbles at a particular pace (as too many bubbles can block her face altogether). All these will prepare the model to coordinate her jump with the aforesaid directions. The myriad of all these factors will certainly limit the chances for success.
Unlike traditional photography, which allows the changing of camera lens to be relatively easy and accessible, underwater photography requires a camera with an underwater housing that are fitted for a single-sized lens. Hence, a shoot may require three separate cameras with different lenses and housings. Gleissner usually descends with one camera, having decided ahead of time which lens he would use. However, at times, extra cameras might be required.
For shots requiring mobility, Gleissner wore scuba gear. However, for shots that required a static shooting angle, he wore custom-made shoes weighing 8 kilograms for greater negative buoyancy.
Unique to Mick Gleissner’s Underwater Fashion Photography is the underwater set design, recreating a basketball headboard, boxing ring and bench press demanded tremendous creativity and engineering and perseverance. Alfred Alesna, Chief Set Designer, and his production crew spent days of trial and error to create set designs that would sustain in an underwater environment.
In the example of the boxing ring, which took several days to prepare, Alesna first tried using the seabed as the platform and erected four poles. However, Gleissner, dissatisfied with the unkempt look of sea grass, requested a red carpet to be used as the platform on which the girls would pose.
Keeping the buoyant red carpet planted to the floor of the sea would prove to be an enormous challenge. With many creative but failed attempts, Alesna achieved success by building a steel platform onto which the carpet spanned. The platform was supported by steel poles. Lead weights anchored the platform, and fishing lines secured the poles firmly to the scaffold and the ground. Four divers, one in each corner, lowered the scaffold using lift bags to control the descent of the heavy steel. Hooks were then used to secure the ropes to the poles.
Soon after, a minor problem surfaced with the ropes: they were buoyant and were floating upward rather than hanging down as they do in a typical boxing ring. Alesna finally used invisible fishing lines to force down the ropes.
As lighting tends to be more muted in underwater sets, the creative use of bright colors – red for the platform and blue for the ropes – produced a brilliant effect in creating a realistic feel of the boxing ring.
Good visibility and a clear sky can go a long way to create the ideal photo opportunity. Visibility is greatly affected by the strength of the current. This will sweep up a lot of sediment and cause the water to be murky. On such days, underwater shoots are simply not advisable. Gleissner and his team used tide and time table predictions provided by the Coast Guard to study the size and direction of currents to schedule photo shoots.
Tides and Currents
Tides are created by the gravitational force between the Earth and the moon. There are two high tides and two low tides each day. Since the ocean is constantly moving from high tide to low tide, and then back to high tide. There is about 12 hours and 25 minutes between the two high tides. When the sun and moon are aligned, there are exceptionally strong gravitational forces, causing very high and very low tides which are called spring tides. When the sun and moon are not aligned, the gravitational forces cancel each other out and the tides are not as dramatically high and low. These are called neap tides. When the tide is at its highest and lowest, the low current provides an ideal shooting time window for visibility and the model, who does not have to fight the current to assume a natural pose.
There are three divemasters assigned to model: one divemaster who is responsible for the model’s safety and providing her air through a regulator; one oversees the shoot and carries a spare tank , and one who handles props. Coupled with the photographer, videographer and model underwater, sediment can easily stir up thereby causing visibility to deteriorate. In order to minimize movement, Gleissner’s team built a long hose device that connects to the scuba tank and regulator. The long hose could be thrust quickly toward the model without the divemaster having to swim toward her.
A strong sun creates ideal lighting conditions for an underwater shoot. However, below 3 meters, the water absorbs red color below 3 meters, so only green and blue colors are visible. Hence, Gleissner used two 100 watt halogen lights to compensate for the color. With dim lighting conditions, color corrections can be done in post-production. Photoshop software also allows for the removal of free-floating particles.