By Antonia Wilson

Underwater Dance Shoot

Maya Almeida specialises in underwater and dance photography. Combining the two provides significant challenges involving specialist equipment, major safety issues and the ability to hold your breath for six minutes…

Electric dreams and antihistamines

“In an underwater shoot planning is everything. Decisions on lighting, lenses, makeup, styling and the right team need to be made well before the shoot because once in the water it’s significantly more difficult and time-consuming to make even slight modifications,” says photographer Maya Almeida. “I work with at least two safety divers and one dive supervisor allowing the dancers and I to descend on a breath-hold so that movements are not restricted by equipment.”

With the cheapest hire pool at £3000 per day, on top of lighting costs, additional safety measures and team fees – including the top dog of lighting specialists – underwater photoshoots don’t come cheap. “We are mixing electricity with water, so you can’t skip on this stuff, I’m responsible for all those people in the pool. If any of the flash heads fall in the water, we’re all cooked. I trust my lighting guy with my life. He is literally my right-hand man,” she says, gesturing with her wrist-cast, the result of a mishap with a heavy oxygen tank during a recent ocean shoot.

Starlight (2013), by Maya Almeida, shows Lizzie Grace with a reflection on the underside of the water’s surface. To create the dark background, she was lit from above by one external flas

For Almeida there is also an additional, be it unexpected, part of the preparation – having to dose up on antihistamines due to her chlorine allergy. “I can’t breath, my nose gets runny, my skin is itchy, and the most important part is my eyes, they get really sore,” she says. “The way I look at it, it’s just a challenge – roll with it, get into your zone creatively and actually it goes away. I meditate before shoots, I do my breathing, take some time on my own outside, and as long as I’ve taken some tablets it’s fine. It’s all about mind over matter.”

Twist (2013) with Kate Anne-Louise Byrne, by Maya Almeida

Choosing the right dancers for the shoot is also important, because what can be achieved depends on their aquatic ability, whether Almeida has worked with them before, and their willingness to experiment. “Some of the most beautiful models or most graceful dancers are not always the ones who work best in water. People can be absolutely stunning, but if they are tense or not in a good place with themselves, it effects things. You have to relax.” she says. “There’s an instinct when you get into water. You do different things with your body and feel stuff you don’t usually feel. It’s great to be surprised when they give me something that I wasn’t looking for that looks beautiful.”

Underwater Dance ShootEros (2013), by Maya Almeida, with Josephine McGrail and Robert Guy

Superdomes and PocketWizards

Taking out the impressive selection of kit to explain the process, Almeida hands over the heavy but slick looking centrepiece. “It’s the Rolls Royce of underwater housings, custom-made by Harold, the owner of Seacam, a family-run business based in Austria. They are his babies and you have to be willing to wait until he’s ready to release them, but they are perfect when they arrive, they never go wrong.”  This piece of essential gear is effectively a large protective case, in which the camera snugly sits (Canon 5D MKIII in this case), hooked up to external buttons and flash heads, with additional specialist components to defend against corrosive seawater if taken into the ocean. And his perfectionism is worth the price tag, because if it floods, the camera’s had it.

FoetalFoetal (2013)

On the front of the housing covering the lens, is the nine-inch acrylic superdome, a corrective piece of kit required due to the nature of water in bending the image, allowing for wider angle shots. From the side of the housing (the weakest point of the system), bulkheads attach the camera to flash heads on arms, via a hot shoe cable attached to a PocketWizard. This is what synchronises all the lights – one or two flashes in the water, and at least five attached to ladder beams from above. Light works very differently in water, and the fact that it is the flash rather than shutter speed that freezes the image in the pool, not to mention the dangers of using equipment that’s not traditionally made for use in humid conditions, means that getting all of this right is key.

Almeida's underwater kitAlmeida’s underwater kit

There are oiled-up O-rings which help seal connective areas, gels and diffusers for offsetting the water’s cold light, extenders to add distance to the shot, zoom gear, spares of everything, a wetsuit, fins, weight belts, and several spectacular Carl Zeiss lenses, including a manual 50mm that Almeida insists is worth the extra work.

Almeida in the tank with Brett Murray above a large mirrorAlmeida in the tank with Brett Murray above a large mirror

“Between yourself and your subject, in terms of glass, you’ve got a mask, a viewfinder, the lens, and the dome, so to get accurate focus is very difficult,” she says. “On top of that when I’m using a manual focus lens, it means that the margin for error is really high. But I love this lens, they are absolutely the best.”

Work done in post is minimal, as Almeida likes the idea of getting things right ‘in camera’ and being out shooting rather than in front of a computer. “I would rather spend more, both in terms of money and time, getting my lighting fantastic, and then maybe do a little bit of contrast after, bring out something that’s in the shadows or the light, clean up specks, but that’s it,” she says.

Shooting Annie-2Almeida in the tank with Annie Caro

Hold your breath and count to …360

Growing up in Portugal by the sea and with a 3.5 metre pool at their family home, Almeida learnt to hold her breath in water for extended periods of time from a very young age, and is now able to do for up to six minutes. “I don’t like noise, and when

I was little I used to sit at the bottom of the pool for as long as I could,” she says “Growing up, water was a kind of refuge, a place to hide and be protected. Some people find it scary, like it’s an aggressive environment. For me it’s a cosy, fluffy place where I’m comfortable and at home.”

Locks, with Lizzie Grace (2013) by Maya AlmeidaLocks, with Lizzie Grace (2013)

In order for her to be on a level with the dancers, all the shoots Almeida does in tanks are on breath-hold, because heavy scuba equipment hinders movement in and out of the water, preventing adequate direction. She now does yoga as part of her ‘dry training’, and other lung flexibility and strength exercises during ‘breath-ups’ – breathing and meditation done before free-diving.

However, she notes that part of it is to do with the ‘mammalian diving reflex’, something we all have. “If you try now to hold your breath, you probably won’t hold it for long, but if you put your head in water, blood gets diverted to your essential organs, and the heart rate goes down,” she says. “When your body gets to a certain stage, you start producing excess carbon dioxide, and you contract, and some people freak out, feeling like they really need oxygen. But if you learn how to relax into it then you can hold your breath for a lot longer than you could on dry land. We all have it, it’s just a question of training and linking into it.”

From the new Underwater Portraits series (2015)From the new Underwater Portraits series (2015)

See more at 

Lead image: Arc (2013), by Maya Almeida, with the blurred form of Natalie Chick, created by the camera zooming in and out

Read more here:: Into the Blue: New behind-the-scenes video of Maya Almedia’s underwater photoshoots