Working With People
People (i.e. divers) in your pictures is an important compositional tool.
Basically, people love to see people, so adding a diver to a picture is an easy way to add
interest for the viewer. It's also an easy way to take an otherwise-boaring subject
and add a little life to it. I have tons of pictures of sponges, sea fans, coral
heads, etc. that seemed interesting at the time, but the final slide, when seen on a light
table or projector, was just plain dull. Adding a diver can make the difference
between an boring picture of an attractive subject and a memorable picture of the same
Here's an example for you. I took this picture of my wife and a sea fan on
Cozumel in February of 2000. Then, through the magic of Adobe Photoshop, I removed
her from the picture. Look at the difference between the two pictures, and tell me
which one you like better.
The sea fan with Annemarie...
...and the same photo without her.
These pictures are identical except for the presence of the diver. To me, the one
on the left is much more dynamic and interesting. The diver provides several things
that the right-hand picture is missing: (1) a sense of "being there" (most
divers do not dive solo, so they're are accustomed to seing the scenery with other
divers), (2) a size scale, so you can see exactly how large the sea fan is, (3) some
extra color, and (4) another perspective cue--clearly Annemarie is in behind the sea fan,
but in front of the coral formation behind her. Without her in the picture, you
can't easily tell much about the lower coral head.
Mostly, putting people in your pictures is easy, although there are several basic
considerations you'll want to think about ahead of time. Let's look at the various
aspects of photographing divers.
Equipment & Streamlining
Your goal in placing a model in the picture is to make the model one center of
attention, and the 'secondary subject' the other center.. As a result, you don't
want your model's gear to become a center of attention; that will distract the viewer from
at least one of the main things you want them to focus on. So one of the prime
considerations with models is to streamline their gear.
Many pro photographers have their models wear simple, small back-infated BCDs.
These units are so streamlined that they almost disappear. I don't necessarily think
this is the ideal situation, but it is one way to make sure the model's
gear does not interfere with the rest of the picture. Mostly, I think it's important
for model divers to be exactly that: model divers. By that I mean that they should
be streamlined as much as possible, and their gauges and hoses should be tucked in and /
or clipped off. They should be weighted as close to ideal as possible, as this will
reduce the amount of air in their BCD bladders. Fully-inflated bladders will look
strange, and generally "bad" in your pictures.
It's also probably a good idea for your model to wear a wetsuit or dive skin that is
some fairly bright color. Models dressed completely in black should be avoided, as
they just will eat up light and produce an uncomfortable dark spot in your pictures.
I'm not sure I recommend solid yellow, on the other hand, as it doesn't offer a
good contrast. Probably the best setup is a combination of some bright and dark
colors, like yellow and black, yellow and blue, silver and teal, etc.
Finally, it's a good idea to get your model to tuck gauges away so that the face plates
of the gauges do not face towards the camera. If gauges face outward, they can
reflect light from the strobe and show up as hot spots in the picture. Remember: your goal
is two make the model the #1 or #2 attraction in the picture; if the viewer's eye gets
drawn to a gauge, some other subject is going to lose that attention.
Body position is important, too, because you don't want your model to look so unnatural
or uncomfortable that the viewer takes notice of the fact. Basically, the best thing
to do is probably to have your model swim naturally and try to time your shot for a time
when the model's legs are crossing each other duing the kick cycle. There are
photographers who have their models "drop a shoulder" to produce a
foot-to-shoulder crescent shape, but I really don't like that pose. The only time it
looks natural to me is when the model is swimming around something.
Another thing to consider is regulator bubble trails. In most pictures, you will
want to avoid taking a picture with bubbles in it. There are times when the bubbles
provide a useful cue, (for example, when you want to show that the diver is swimming by
photographing the bubble trail), but in most cases they just distract the viewer's
attention. In no event do you want to take the picture with a stream of bubbles even
partly obscuring the model's face.
Of course, you can't ask your model to hold her breath while you take the picture, but
if you talk ahead of time about bubbles, breathing, and modelling, your model will be able
to help you sidestep the problem. Mostly, you want to make your model aware of the
fact that you want to take pictures without bubbles in them, so your model can take long,
slow inhales, giving you time to trip the shutter. Be sure to work out a signal with your
model to tell him/her that there were bubbles in the shot and you want to try again.
See the section on communication below.
The last area of body positioning to discuss involves the most important body part: the
eyes. Here's a simple rule of thumb for you: you must be able to
see your model's eyes in the picture, or you have basically wasted your time. There
are exceptions to this rule (most notably silhouette and diver-sealife interaction shots),
but in general, if the diver is going to be subject #1 or #2, the eyes are critical.
There are two parts to being able to see the model's eyes. The first of these is
that the diver's mask must be pointed basically towards the camera. It doesn't have
to point directly into the lens, but it has to point in the general direction of the lens.
An important thing to remember is that the model does not have to look at the
lens. She is free to look anywhere, preferably at subject #2. But her mask has to
point towards the camera or you won't be able to see her eyes.
The second part to being able to see the model's eye is the strobe lighting.
Since most of the light you will be using is going to come from a strobe, that light has
to be able to reach the model's eyes. In general, that means that your model is
going to have to tilt her head upwards, towards one of the strobes. She has to
perform a delicate balancing act of looking at the subject while looking towards the
camera and holding her head so that the strobe can light her face. A make with a
transparent or translucent frame goes a long way to help this. Opaque frames
frequently cast a shadow across the model's eyes, which results in a dark face. Ugh.
One last consideration concerning the model's face and the strobe: if the angle between
the mask glass and the strobe is too extreme, the light from the strobe will reflect from
the mask, rather than pass through it. In this case, you will get a glazed look, as
if the model's mask were a mirror. This, too, should be avoided. With a little
experience, though, your model will know where to point her mask.
Communication is the most important thing to learn when working with a model. If
you want her to look in a particular direction, you have to be able to tell her that.
If you want her to swim along a certain path, you need to be able to communicate
that, too. If you don't work out some signals ahead of time, you're doomed.
Furthermore, it's handy if those signals can be done with one hand, because you
might be holding the camera with the other hand. Here are a few of my most
|Flat hand,held horizontal, but moved up or down
||I need you to float up (or down) a little
|Fluttering fingers, moved along a path
||Swim this path (usually ends up with the model swimming towards you)
|All fingers waving, hand positioned near regulator, then moved up &
||Let's synchronize breathing
|Hand waved forward & back, over head
||Swim over me; silhouette shot
|Tap mask with two fingers, then show palm to model, then move hand to
||Point your mask towards where my hand is positioned
|Palm facing model, pushed through the water towards her
||Move back, away from me
Composition with a model is critical, because how you compose the picture will decide
how much "weight" your model has, compared to the other subject. In most
cases, you will want to position the model behind the subject slightly. You don't
want the subject to block your view of the model, but you want the model farther away from
the camera than the other subject. There's a simple reason for this: if you're
shooting with a model, you're almost certainly using a wide-angle lens. In this
case, there will be some distortion of perspective due to the lens. That is, things
that are farther away from the lens will seem extra far away, while things closer to the
lens will seem extra close. By positioning your model farther from the lens than the
subject, you accomplish two things. First, you make the second subject seem larger
in comparison to the model, which will generally make it more impressive to the viewer.
Second, you make the second subject brighter than the model, because the strobe
light will be more intense on it. This trick allows you to emphasize the second
subject over the model. Since your model is rarely going to be the main subject,
this is often desirable.
Next Chapter | Back to Composition 101