Underwater Pool Photography

Use pool photography to hone your underwater photography skills, experiment and be creative!
By Ron Watkins

How often do you get the opportunity to go diving and do underwater photography? If you're like me and live in a land-locked state or country, probably not as often as you'd like. When you've finally saved up enough vacation days and splurged for that long-awaited trip, you often spend the first part of it relearning your underwater photography equipment and skills. By the end of the trip you are finally getting some great shots and then it's time to pack up your bags and head back home. If that sounds like a familiar scenario, then underwater pool photography may be just what you need!


Underwater pool photography has many benefits: it's inexpensive, you can do it as often as you like, and it allows you to keep your skills fresh. Shooting in the pool is particularly helpful right before that big trip, allowing for less time fooling with your equipment and more time capturing amazing underwater images.

I got started in pool photography when a friend of mine wanted some underwater pictures of herself and her children for her modeling portfolio. It was a beautiful spring day and I ended up shooting for over two hours, despite the chilly water.  Even the family Labrador joined in the fun! It was a day of firsts for me. I had never photographed models (on land or in the water), young kids, or dogs. We did multiple wardrobe changes, used colorful backdrops and experimented with several props. After that shoot, I was hooked. That year alone I photographed over 100 models, children and pets!

Nikon D300, 12-24mm @F16, 1/125: outside ambient & single strobe
Nikon D300, 12-24mm @F16, 1/200: outside ambient & dual strobes
Nikon D300, 12-24mm @F8, 1/125: Indoor pool with dual strobes on housing and dual slave strobes above water
Nikon D300, 12-24mm @F8, 1/125: Indoor pool with dual strobes on housing

Getting Started

The good news is, all you need to get started with underwater pool photography is access to a pool, people or animals willing to get wet, and a wide-angle underwater photography camera set-up. Scuba gear is not required because all you need to do is hold your breath while underwater. A compact camera capable of wide-angle photography can be used; however, I use a dSLR with a non-fisheye lens such as the Nikon 12-24mm. A fisheye lens can be used too, but it may distort the subject. This could create a uniquely desirable effect, but often it is unflattering for the model.


One or two strobes attached to the camera should be used and one or more remote slave strobes may be used for special effects. These few items are really all you need. Later, I will discuss other optional equipment and props.


Creative Lighting

Lighting is the key to all types of photography, and the main benefit of pool photography is that you have ultimate control over it in your underwater studio. Lighting options will depend upon whether you are shooting outside in the daylight, in an indoor pool or at night. Just as in the ocean, ambient light photography in the pool can create dramatic images and looks most natural. You still want a little fill light from your strobe, but make best use of the ambient light and experiment with shooting at different times of the day and positions of the sun. This will definitely help improve your ambient light photography when you get back in the ocean.


When shooting in the pool at night, it is helpful to have remote slave strobes as an extra light source. These strobes can be mounted on a tripod in the pool or secured directly above the water by placing a weight on top of the strobe arm placed on the side of the pool. Experiment with strobes at different distances above the water and in the water placed behind the model for back lighting or off to the side for dramatic shadows. For indoor pools, I also use remote strobes to simulate sunlight because the fluorescent lighting in many buildings is inadequate and undesirable.


Photographing Children

A key factor of good images is having a subject that looks natural underwater. Trust me, nothing looks worse than a crying kid with their eyes squeezed shut, puffy cheeks and a runny nose. Luckily there are ways to work with children of all ages to yield better images. First, they must be comfortable in the water. Ideally, children will have taken swim classes or for little ones (as young as 6 months old) classes that practice submersion techniques to prevent drowning. Safety has to be the highest priority and you always need another person in the water with you who will be responsible for the child. Talk to the child before you go underwater to take pictures and instruct them to keep their eyes open, where to look, smile, don’t puff their cheeks out and demonstrate any simple poses you want them to do. Then with a little luck, you will get some good images. 


When you have a child that is comfortable underwater it is time to experiment with different backdrops, props and creative lighting. I like to use colorful shiny backdrops outside in the sunlight to create a magical look. The best props for kids are typically items they use in sports or hobbies, like skateboards, baseball bats, tennis rackets or a favorite toy. The more fun they are having in the water, the longer they will allow you to photograph them and more lively the images will be. Costumes are another way to be creative. I once did a shoot the day after Halloween and the children wore their costumes in the water, rendering some very unique images.

“I’m Batman.” Nikon D200, Tokina 10-17mm @F8, 1/125: outside ambient & dual strobes.
“Mermaid Reflection.” Nikon D300, 12-24mm @F10, 1/200: outside ambient & dual strobes.
“Hanging Ten.” Nikon D200, 12-24mm @F9, 1/100: at night with dual strobes on housing & dual slave strobes above the water.
“Shark Bite.” Nikon D300, 12-24mm @F8, 1/100: Indoor pool with dual strobes on housing and single slave strobes above water.

Getting Creative with Models


An underwater model can be anyone that wants to get in front of the camera in the pool. This may be a friend, a relative, an aspiring model or a seasoned professional. Once again, they have to be comfortable underwater. Unlike young children, older models are better at taking direction and you can work with them on poses. Experiment with poses close to the surface so that you can add the artistic element of reflections that make many pool images look so spectacular. Be creative with colorful, flowing outfits and eye-catching accessories. Female models also look more dramatic when they wear waterproof make-up. If you and the model are comfortable with nude photography, you will be able to create some beautiful and artistic imagery. Refer to Cal Mero’s article on Underwater Model Photography for more examples and tips. 

“The Look.” Nikon D300, 12-24mm @F9, 1/200: at night with dual strobes on housing.
“Crescendo.” Nikon D300, 12-24mm @F9, 1/160: at night with dual strobes on housing.
“Blue Angel.” Nikon D300, 12-24mm @F10, 1/250: at night with dual strobes on housing.
“Arrow.” Nikon D300, 12-24mm @F10, 1/160: at night with dual strobes on housing.


Don't Forget Fido

Underwater photography of dogs has recently hit the spotlight with high impact images like those of Seth Casteeland others showing up on the web and in magazines. Dogs are a lot of fun to photograph but can be a little unpredictable, and like sharks they may take a bite at your camera. Some of the best shots of dogs are when they are jumping in the water, sticking their head in the water after a toy, or split shots of them swimming. Like kids and models, you will need to find a dog that is comfortable going under water or at least swimming in the pool. I find that when shooting dogs, you will do more ‘shooting from the hip’ where you are not looking through the viewfinder, but rather following the dog with your camera extended out. Practicing this technique with dogs and even kids will definitely come in handy in the ocean when that turtle is quickly approaching and changes direction at the last minute.

“Where’s the Ball?” Nikon D300. 10.5mm @F18, 1/125: outside ambient & single strobe.
“Doggie Paddle.” Nikon D300 10.5mm @F18, 1/125: over/under outside ambient & dual strobes.





One of my most memorable pool photography experiences was an evening spent with professional underwater photographer James Wiseman, who was hosting a week long Bahamas shark and dolphin expedition. We spent the night before the trip in Boca Raton, Florida, photographing six different models at three different pool locations from 6PM until 2AM. The models included a young couple, two female college basketball players and two very talented go-go dancers. After that long night of underwater pool photography and the adrenalin rush that came with it, I was completely exhausted. It turned out to be time well spent, as I learned so much. On the first day of diving in the Bahamas, my camera skills were well tuned and I was able to apply some of the wide-angle techniques I had practiced in the pool. The time I spent holding my breath underwater with the models also increased my bottom time while free diving with the dolphins. Overall, my photography was more consistent and better than it had been on previous dive trips.


Hopefully this article has taken some of the mystery out of underwater pool photography and has inspired you to take to the pool for your next shoot! There is no limit to creativity in the pool, and it is no coincidence that more and more pool shots of models are winning the major underwater photo competitions. In fact, some contests now have categories dedicated to pool photography. So get in that pool, have some fun, be creative and see if you can create some truly breathtaking images of your own!


Further Reading


Ron Watkins is an international award winning photographer and writer. He has been passionate about underwater photography since 1996 and his photography has appeared in magazines, websites, juried art displays, national aquariums, libraries and private collections.


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