Working underwater adds yet another level of intricacy for a model to consider. Just like the photographer needs specialized equipment to shoot under the surface, a model needs to specialize her posing. However, most models don’t know how to shoot underwater, so it’s not often discussed. I had to learn how by trial and error (and let me tell you, my first underwater shoot was one big error), and by picking up a few hints from that first photographer, who had shot underwater previously and learned the ideas from the floundering of his past models.
The most important skill to learn concerning modeling underwater is breath control. It’s also the most counterintuitive. I’ve now coached around half a dozen new models and several photographers through their first underwater shoot, and this seems to be the make-or-break skill set. You can’t hold your breath when you go underwater—having air in your lungs will cause you to float quickly back up to the surface while you’re trying to pose. Instead, you need to oxygenate your blood with several deep breaths and then breathe out all of the air from your lungs before you sink under the surface. Most people can’t do that the first few tries. As a survival mechanism, your body instinctively wants to hold as much air in as it can. I’ve seen a few people blow out their breath right after they go under the surface; this can also work, but it will cause a lot of air bubbles around you, which have a high probability of obscuring the image for the photographer.
Once you’re under the water, you still have to deal with the actual posing. A good underwater shot looks effortless, like you’re floating serenely in a weightless environment. The very weightlessness that makes the final image look so ephemeral is what makes posing so difficult. You’re no longer grounded, so if you move one body part, it will affect the rest of your body. Instead of sinking or staying still, you will always be pulled towards the surface. From what I’ve seen, different body types seem to pose better in different positions. I think that this is because of the amount and location of body fat causing buoyancy. I have a lot of curves for a model, and I’ve found that it’s easiest for me to hold stretched out poses—both vertical and horizontal. If I choose to do a more compact pose, I know that I’ll be fighting either my butt or my breasts trying to pull me back to the surface. In contrast, my good friend, fellow model, and part fish Mallory Ann is great at compact poses. She can twist around gracefully in the middle of the water in what seems like an endless series of contortions, but has issues with horizontal poses. She also has a much more traditional fashion model build, with most of her (tiny amount of) body fat stored in her core.
The best advice I can give you is to watch your hand shape, and point your feet. Whether you’re skimming the bottom of the pool, floating in the middle, or just breaking the surface, a perfectly pointed toe adds to the weightless, impossible feel of the image. Try to move slowly and gracefully through the water; it will allow the photographer to keep up with you, and hopefully give you a chance to recover from any change in body position without thrashing around. And realize that, although posing is incredibly difficult, you’re not stuck to the ground anymore. Don’t just orient your body upright! Use the difficulty of the environment to your advantage to create fantastical body shapes and orientations that aren’t possible on land.
Facial expressions, like posing your body, are particularly difficult underwater. The weightlessness will give you chipmunk cheeks, and you’ll naturally want to close your eyes. The best that you can do is to relax your face and make sure you’ve gotten rid of that last bit of air to try and control the puff. Realize that opening your eyes is something that you have to do consciously underwater. Don’t just assume that they’ll be open—remind yourself to do it. Oh, and don’t forget that your hair is now a separate entity with a mind all its own—keep an eye on it, and make sure that it’s behaving and not floating in front of your face.
You can get an incredible underwater image with just a nude (and as a matter of fact, my favorite underwater image that I’ve ever shot is just that). However, props add another element and level of visual interest to an underwater image that isn’t always necessary in an “on-land” shot. Cloth of any kind will illustrate the weightlessness of the water, as will any other type of flowing prop—long hair, dresses and clothes with extra yardage, ribbons, even strands of kelp. Since shooting underwater already looks otherworldly, adding disparate elements will only increase the surreal feeling. Clothing again will do this, but I’ve also had photographers sink everything to the bottom of the pool from chairs and tables to a real gramophone, an antique scythe, and an old radio flyer.
Last but certainly not least, the best tip that I can give you is a product. Your eyes will be burning and miserable after shooting underwater for any length of time (particularly if you’re posing with your eyes open). A little while after that, and you’ll be seeing haloes around anything bright, white, or reflective for hours after. The best way that I’ve found to mitigate this is overnight ointment for dry eyes. Don’t buy plain eye drops or even the liquid gel—only the nighttime ointment will last long enough in the water. Apply it liberally before you get in the water, and on every break. It’s expensive, but the small tube will last for many shoots, and trust me, it’s worth it for the relief it will bring.
Posing underwater is certainly one of the biggest challenges you’ll face as a model. If you ever get the opportunity to try it, remember that it’s not a well-explored facet of modeling. Experiment, have fun, and create images that no one has ever dreamed of!