I started taking pictures underwater 27 years ago, on my first foray into California’s coastal waters, as a legit, newly certified, open water diver. After taking a lot of very bad pictures, my screaming yellow Sea & Sea MX10 quietly stepped aside to make way for the sleek and elegant red Nikonos V, which led me swiftly, if not directly, to Cathy Church’s photo center in Grand Cayman. There I learned, for starters, “This is the front of the camera. This is the back of the camera.” And it was true love at first click. Though that love eventually succumbed to the Borg that is Digital in 2006, the change was fortunate.

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Just a few years later, the ability to quickly and easily post on social media connected me with a vast international network of other underwater photographers. Recognizing which artists had unique styles, and which of those styles spoke to me personally, greatly influenced my photography and accelerated my learning curve.

In a roundabout way, that’s how I ended up posing for underwater portraits in a backyard swimming pool in Houston. I kept seeing Ken Kiefer’s fabulous underwater model photography on Facebook, with flowing hair and flowing fabrics, and I thought ‘How cool would that be???’ Ken was shooting regular people, like children, couples, pregnant ladies… Most of these people were not professional models, and not even divers. Yet, in this fluid environment, he made them all look amazing, and other-worldly.

My good sense was telling me that window had long been closed for me. I was not a model. I had never been a model. In fact I’d never, until then, even had the slightest inclination. But this art was calling to me—LOUDLY. So I listened. I had a big birthday (60) coming up. And I thought that underwater portraits would be a pretty bold and memorable way to celebrate. Plus, I figured that if the pregnant ladies could look that great, I had a shot. And I thought that bringing a new demographic and different twist to the Kiefers’ already impressive portfolio would be pretty slick. So, to test the waters (pun intended) I just casually mentioned the idea to a couple of my girlfriends, and they were tremendously, unhesitatingly encouraging—like they were excited FOR me.

Photo by Kimber Kiefer

So I started messaging back and forth with Ken and his wife Kimber. And we three made it happen. I learned from Kimber that much like planning the perfect party, it’s all about the prep. If you do enough practice, planning, organizing etc. before the event, it will appear effortless. I started in earnest, with MUCH help from Kimber, about 6 weeks prior. I practiced in the pool, holding my breath without contorting my face. She suggested I practice my buoyancy along with pointing my toes, and arching my back. “If it feels unnatural you’re doing it right”, she said.

Before my trip to Houston, we collaborated on wardrobe, makeup, poses, backgrounds, props, preferred time of day (for the amount and direction of ambient light), and a multitude of other details. So, once the day of the shoot arrived, we had a war chest of outfits and props, and a solid game plan with built-in alternatives (if this doesn’t work, we try that). We weren’t all standing around looking at each other, wondering what to do next. We were incredibly productive.

Generally, as an underwater photographer, you don’t really think about those kinds of things. You configure your camera and settings to maximize the chances of shooting whatever you think or hope will be there. And then you wait, and watch, and shoot the marine life just doing whatever it is that they do. There’s no staging or posing or practice or props involved. So this pre-planning approach was very foreign to me. Had I not been guided the way that I was, I probably would have just shown up the day of the shoot, like a goofball, without a clue. I would not even have had the skills to submerge, and stay there, without flailing around. Forget about my face looking relaxed and alluring while doing it.

To give you a better idea of where I started, when Kimber asked me about my goals or theme for the shoot, I told her it was to ‘take a bunch of pictures real quick before everything goes to s**t’. Fortunately, she was undeterred. She just kept checking in with me every few days, and she made sure that we were all on the same page, and all doing our respective work to make the shoot successful.

Anyway, at the end of the day, the whole experience left me much better prepared to work with models in my own photography. You often hear people say that they feel they look best in candid photos. I used to say it too. I looked weird and unnatural in most, if not all, of the posed portrait shots I’d ever taken. But even a ‘natural’, or an experienced model will do better with direction. I looked weird and unnatural in those portrait shots because that’s the way I was feeling. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to expect. And I didn’t even really know what I wanted. Being pushed to define those things ahead of time took a whole lot of pressure off. Now it’s clear to me that an average person, like myself, who tends to freeze up the moment a camera is pointed their way, needs not less, but more, guidance.

When both model and photographer have previously agreed upon goals and logistics, it just allows everyone to be more relaxed. You’re freed up to build rapport (which is hugely important) and focus on the subtle tweaks that can make a big difference, like the tilt of the head or the direction of gaze. Effective lighting also requires that the photographer really be present and able to focus, interpret, and adjust. It’s pretty tough to do all of that without having most everything else squared away.

NOW, before I work with a model, I’ll first discuss their goals and the purpose of the shoot. Even something as seemingly straightforward as a professional head shot, can be not so straightforward. For example, an artist may want something more unique and creative—entirely different from the standard passport style mugshot with which we’re all accustomed. Once I think I have a feel for theme and flavor, I’ll start sending ideas for poses, backgrounds (including location), props and outfits. It can be a fun process. But it does require time and effort. And, since most people are used to just showing up like goofballs… It can seem a little over the top. But the results WILL show the work.

Now, ultimate compliment to Team Kiefer, my day in the pool with them made me actually see myself in a different kind of light. Besides having this collection of the coolest photos I’ve ever been in, I believe I’ve grown as a photographer. I have both a better appreciation of the work that’s required to take beautiful portraits, and a truer sense of the vulnerability my models are feeling in front of the camera. Having done the work, my mission is simply to capture and show that vulnerability in my images. So for me at least, the first steps to learning how best to work with and photograph models began with walking underwater in their shoes.

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