One of the most challenging and extraordinary underwater projects recently ended in the clear blue waters of the Red Sea. MegaPixel.co.il team set out to interview the lead photographer of the project and came back wet but inspired.
3 models and 10 bride dresses – sounds like a routine photo shoot – but what if you move it 75 feet underwater? This is exactly what professional underwater photographer Sharon Rainis did during her latest project with internationally acclaimed designer Erez Ovadia.
Underwater Fashion video
In early October we conducted an interview with Sharon Rainis to learn more about her recent underwater project as well as her long time affair with the ocean.
Interview with Sharon Rainis
Q: When did you start taking pictures (did you study photography formally or was it a hobby that turned into a profession)?
A: Unlike most photographers, who started holding a camera ever since the moment they were capable of holding a spoon, my romance with the lens was triggered by my passion to the underwater world. Once I found out that I can take a camera with me underwater, I stopped diving without it. Although at the beginning I mainly focused on documenting underwater living creatures, at some point I began feeling that something was missing as I couldn't seem to keep being inspired by a successful photograph of a clown fish, even if a sun ray dramatically lit its right fin exactly just when a hammerhead shark entered the frame from above. I then decided to focus on what really inspired me the most – the unique combination between the human being and the sea. For me, the most beautiful and exciting photographs are those that introduce an additional dimension into the photograph, a personal touch that could have not been observed by simply attending the scene, rather than documenting the happening as is. My aspiration is photographing subjects the way I see and dream them rather than the way they really are.
Q: Did you have a mentor or a photographer who influenced you early on in your career?
A: I had quite a few inspiring mentors along the way. First is my friend and college David Pilosof, who was the first ever to publish underwater images dealing with models and nudity at 1975. That’s when he published his art book called “Samantha”, introducing nudity in combination with the treasures of the sea. David’s creative ideas and wonderful work have made me believe that there’s more into underwater photography than simply documenting fish. Nowadays, David is a producer of international underwater photo competitions and events, in which I often take part in. Another person who significantly influenced my work is Howard Rosenstein – these days the president of Fantasea Line, a manufacturer of underwater photo equipment. Howard got into underwater photography in the early 70’s, when he had also established a diving center in Sinai. We have been working together for the past 6 years and his support, enthusiasm and love of the sea have inspired many of my projects so far. I’m also a secret admirer of Zena Holloway, a British photographer who works a lot with models underwater and produces absolutely stunning images. Unlike Zena, I find myself more attracted to open-sea shots rather than to pool shots, but the way I see it- her techniques and innovative ideas are matchless!
Q: What unique project have you been involved in so far?
A: Up until now I have participated in quite a few underwater photo competitions and won some prizes, such as the first prize of the Underwater Fashion & Nudity category in the Aphrodite 2008 competition in Cyprus and the first prize of the Humoristic category in the Epson Red Sea 2009 competition in Eilat, Israel.
In September 2010, I took part in a production carried out by David Pilosof, during which we live broadcasted in HD from the bottom of the Red Sea straight to the Photokina Fair in Cologne, Germany. I was in charge of the production team in Eilat and served as the live broadcaster above and beneath the surface of the Red Sea. These live broadcasts were carried out with a full-mask, which enabled me to fully communicate with Photokina guests while diving through the crystal clear water of the Red Sea. On one of the broadcasts I established an underwater photo shoot at a depth of 18 meters, on the Satil wreck in Eilat. During the broadcast I introduced the setting, the challenges and the requirements of such complicated scenes.
In November 2010, I escorted and documented photographers participating in the “Fashion & Nudity” category of the Epson Red Sea 2010 competition in Eilat. This footage was edited and screened later on as an item on the FTV channel.
I often photograph newly-wed couples underwater, a day or two after their wedding day. They wear their original bride and groom clothes for this purpose, but this time – in a very wet environment – the pool or the sea. Thanks to the dramatic characteristics of water – such as the magical deep blue background, soft floating hair, flowing fabrics and the legendary filtering of the light – these photographs turn out extraordinarily exciting and serve as a wonderful and original section in these couples’ wedding album.
These days we’re preparing for the Epson Red Sea 2011 competition, during which we will be producing underwater 3D video clips in cooperation with the FTV channel and Recsea Seatool representatives arriving especially from Japan. On the winning ceremony of the competition, November 19th in Eilat, we will be screening these 3D clips on a huge screen. Later on, these video clips will be screened on FTV channels (2D and 3D). It’s a very challenging project, in which professionals are involved.
Q: Where did you have a chance to dive (and take pictures) and what was the most interesting and beautiful one?
A: Ever since my very first diving experience, my traveling around the world was all dedicated to diving. My choices of locations always have to do with good diving spots available around and my luggage always includes my scuba gear and a large underwater photo system. Needless today, I cannot recall what the term “travel light” feels like…
So although my diving career began only about 11 years ago, I managed to visit, dive and photograph in many popular and less popular locations around the world during that time, including Thailand, Mexico, Philippines, Vietnam, Papua New Guinea, Andaman Islands, the Red Sea and more.
Up until my visit to Papua New Guinea, I kept thinking that although the underwater world has lots to offer around the globe, nothing competes with the Red Sea, especially with the southern shores of Egypt. However, my trip to PNG has definitely proved me wrong, as the underwater realm there consists of so many breathtaking elements, such as super-clear water, unspoiled colorful coral reefs, an extraordinary variety of fish, sponges, sharks and much more. Visiting PNG reminded me why simply photographing fish and documenting the underwater scenery is such an adventure after all.
Q: Apart from underwater photography, do you also work on land and what type of work do you do?
A: I photograph on land quite often, but mainly for the sake of the experience and my personal joy. Although I find myself photographing on land quite often and enjoy it greatly, I rarely engage any professional land-photography projects. Underwater photography and land photography differ from each other just like kite-surfing and wave-surfing do. The techniques and equipment required for proper underwater photography are different from those required for land photography, and therefore mastering either one of these doesn’t necessarily mean you have mastered the other. My skills, with respect to composition, equipment, photo techniques, lighting and color – they are all focused and related to underwater photography. While my underwater photographs introduce a professional, creative, artistic and innovative style, my land photography skills are usually enough for perfect documentation rather than for art.
Q: How did you came to meet Erez Ovadia and how was this project born?
A: In June, 2011, I approached Erez Ovadia, a famous Israeli wedding dresses designer, and offered him to cooperate with us on this project. Out of all the designers, I chose to present this idea to Erez since his dresses are so light, natural, free and sensational – which is perfectly in line with how I feel regarding the medium of water. Due to the high value of his wedding dresses, Erez was hesitant at the beginning. However, once we discussed the ideas and planned the different compositions, Erez suddenly realized the amazing potential of such an underwater fashion shoot and decided to go for it. 10 dresses were sacrificed for the purpose of this project.
On an interview carried out with Erez for FTV, he explained that the way he envisioned it, the romantic and natural characteristics of his wedding dresses will be further emphasized by the colorful, vibrant and magical background of the ocean. “We’re doing something strange”, he overwhelmingly said in the interview, “we’re submerging my wedding dresses in water!!!” Then he gently rubbed his eyes and turned away.
Q: Does Erez Ovadia dive and was he a part of the underwater team during the shoot (if not was he willing to completely let go and trust your judgment completely – this is rarely the case with designers).
A: Erez was at Italy during the underwater photo shoot and therefore couldn’t take part in it. Since he isn’t a certified diver and not familiar with underwater photography, he provided us with complete freedom with respect to the composition of the images, choice of dresses and models. Erez’s blind trust and willingness to completely rely on our choices and decisions, based on our personal and professional experience so far, greatly contributed to the success of this project.
Q: What where the main challenges in this production and are they any different than other underwater projects you have done in the past?
A: When carrying out a photo shoot underwater, we are very dependent on sea conditions, which we cannot control or even predict. Sometimes sea conditions are calm, allowing us to carry out the setting precisely as planned. In other cases, surprises await us once we reach the bottom of the sea, requiring that we make some creative alternations in our plan. For instance, in one of the sessions, the current changed in the middle of the dive, requiring us to change the directions of our setting, so the fabric and the hair of the model flows towards the proper direction. Although such a change in plans would be considered quite simple on land, underwater – this requires sophisticated communication among all the divers. Furthermore, the model wearing no mask lost orientation of where the air provider and other assistant divers were located around her, and ended up asking the videographer for air, while he wasn’t prepared to provide her with any. Such disorientation can become dangerous and therefore we had to ask the model to put her mask back on and to figure out how the new scene looks like.
Another challenge we encountered was when photographing in the Satil wreck, at a depth of 20 meters (about 60 feet). Since this wreck is a popular dive site among divers, we had to find a way to keep the divers away from the scene when shooting it. However, at some point and after trying to deliver the message to so many divers around, I figured that the divers turn out as birds in the sky when looking at the image, and therefore we decided to simply host them as part of the natural background of the scene.
On the same dive, since shots were carried out at a depth of 20 meters, we were very much limited by both air supply and decompression limits (which are set in order to avoid decompression sickness, which is life endangering by all means). We calculated ahead that even with spare air tanks, we won’t be able to safely carry out a dive that is longer than 45 minutes in such a depth. We therefore had to carefully plan our underwater schedule for this session, leaving no time for errors and miscalculations. Once our diving computers indicated a 45 minute dive, we had to call off the dive regardless of what we managed to achieve so far.
On another scene, kite surfers began to surf just above us, while we were photographing underwater. Since the model was submerged in relatively shallow water in this scene, we had to find a slightly deeper spot in order to allow for her to be positioned deep enough in order to avoid any risky situations with surfboards crossing right above her head.
Q: Are all the models you have used professional divers?
A: All models who took part in this photo shoot are first of all experienced divers. There is no way one should risk taking an inexperienced diver for such an underwater challenge. Models must be trained to deal with surprising and difficult situations, to hold their breath and to remain calm at all times. The most dangerous factor underwater is panic, and it takes a very experienced diver in order to calmly cope with some of the situations we encounter in the depths. Prior to such a professional shoot, we first carry out a few experimental scenes with each model, so we are sure that the model feels comfortable underwater and specifically in the scenes planned.
Models were required to cope with some serious challenges during these intensive shoots. However, the more significant the challenge is – the greater the satisfaction is. Therefore, and I hope I’m not sounding insensitive here, I think my underwater models are happier than any model being photographed in the fields of barley out there…
Q: In many of the photo shoots the models where tied to the sea floor and spent some time without their oxygen tanks – it seems extremely difficult to do that and something which requires enormous trust in the accompanying divers – how did they manage?
A: Although most underwater photographers tend to carry out such sessions in a pool, I personally believe that the background of the ocean provides the photographs with a dramatic, magical and astonishing sensation that a pool can never compete with. This of course, requires a very different and more complicated setup, but I personally find it so much worthwhile.
For instance, when shooting in a depth of 20 meters, there is no way the model can descend over and over again by free diving and still have enough air to allow for a few photographs to be taken before she ascends again. Therefore, the whole setting was based on scuba diving, which allowed us for safer and easier operation.
In all scenes, the model is rather tied with fishing lines to weights placed at the bottom of the sea or wearing weights on her thighs, to compensate for the positive buoyancy of the body and to keep the model in place. A dedicated “air provider” diver was assigned for the purpose of providing the models with air from a scuba tank in between the shots. A few divers were assigned to supervise the safety of the scene, so that the model doesn’t fall, entangle or encounter any other difficulties that might interfere with the scene, or worse – jeopardize their safety. Lighting assistants were holding slave strobes all around in order to allow for creative lighting from the back and the sides. Other assistant divers were in charge of setting up the scene, such as tying the model to weights, tying fabrics to floating devices in order to keep them stretched, attaching small fishing weights to the dresses in order to keep them negatively buoyant and more.
What a model goes through during such a project is, well, A LOT! First, wearing nothing but a wedding dress, the model’s body temperature rapidly decreases, making it difficult for her to keep a natural look and to hold her breath during the shots. The model isn’t wearing a mask and therefore her communication with the divers around her is very limited. In fact, the only diver she can really communicate with is her air provider, who is the only one close enough for her to see. The model has to hold her breath for quite long periods, which becomes more difficult the more time she spends underwater and the lower her body temperature reaches. If that’s not enough, she’s also tied with weights to the bottom of the sea, which doesn’t add much to her sense of confidence. Great trust and magnificent water skills are required in order for a model to remain calm in such a setting!
These underwater scenes can turn out fun and successful if carried properly, but if not planned well enough ahead, they can also turn out quite dangerous. Therefore, we have a few important rules to follow underwater, which are all discussed prior to each dive. For instance, if a model feels any inconvenience in any point, she signals that she wants to end the session and the crew immediately halts the dive without any further discussions. Also, spare air tanks are always taken along to ensure that we have enough air supply for the whole crew.
Q: Where did you shoot, at what depths and how long did the entire project took?
A: The underwater fashion shoot was carried out in the Red Sea, Eilat, Israel, on July 7th-9th. The first day was dedicated to testing the equipment and our scenes, while the two other days were dedicated for producing the final images. Each day began at 5:30 am and ended close to midnight. We shot at various depths, ranging from 3 meters to 25 meters.
Q: What type of equipment was used (cameras/cases etc.) and how many people where involved?
A: All photography equipment used for this project is dedicated for underwater photography.
Two videographers accompanied the whole process, for the purpose of producing “Behind the Scenes” footage, which usually turns out as exciting as the final images are. They were using Nikon Coolpix P7000 cameras accommodated inside Fantasea FP7000 Housings.
I was the stills photographer who produced the final shots, using a Nikon D300s camera accommodated inside a Subal housing.
All together, we were 15 people working on this project, including 3 models, photographers, videographers, safety divers, logistics managers, lighting assistants and air providers.
All were amazingly cooperative and dedicated, willing to work long hours in order to be part of a unique and innovative project.
Q: Can you talk about lighting underwater – what did you use and how?
A: Since water absorbs light and colors, underwater images tend to turn out very blue and dark in the absence of proper lighting. Therefore, underwater flashes and strobes are absolutely essential for producing professional results. Various strobes were used for this purpose, starting with two main Sea&Sea YS-250 and YS-300 strobes connected to my camera through sync cables, each featuring a guide number of 32. In addition, we made use of a selection of slave strobes, which were triggered by my main strobes whenever they fired. While the main strobes were integrated in my photo system, slave strobes had to be mounted and hanged around the scene or held by divers who were pointing the strobes towards the models. Although tripods are common among underwater photographers as well, I personally find the “human tripod” a much more successful solution, featuring the most sophisticated technology… The challenge of perfectly lighting a wide angle scene with a model in the middle is pretty challenging, and having someone you can actually communicate with on stage regarding the angle and output of the strobe is simply priceless!
Major white-balance settings and modifications were also carried out on all cameras in order to compensate for the loss of “warm” colors underwater.
Q: How did you explain to the models (and the team) exactly how do you want them to look?
A: All underwater communication is carried out by hand signals, which are agreed upon ahead of time. Some hand signals are common to all scuba divers, and some were invented for the purpose of these specific shots. Although communication among our crew of divers is well trained, we still encounter some awkward situations in which I ask the model to stretch her legs a little and suddenly the air provider, who could have sworn I have just asked him to swim away, brutally pulls the regulator out of the model’s mouth and swims away from her…
Q: Can you say a few words about underwater makeup?
A: Well, I don’t want to break any myths here and certainly not to interrupt with the marketing of expensive waterproof cosmetic products, but makeup generally holds well underwater. Yep, even cheap makeup. As long as the model doesn’t swim with the makeup on and uses a mask for all the active parts of the dive, she will look more or less the same before and after the dive.
There is, however, one important rule to remember with respect to underwater makeup. Colors tend to be absorbed by water, even when making use of strobes and when lots of ambient light is available. Therefore, the model’s makeup should be planned ahead accordingly, so it’s extremely colorful and flushed. What may look like a parrot fish above water, will eventually seem absolutely perfect in underwater photographs…
Q: Was it hard for the models to keep their eyes open in the water during the shoot?
A: Since the Red Sea is saltier than any ocean, keeping your eyes open underwater the surface of the Red Sea is more difficult than doing so anywhere else. The model has to constantly remind herself of this challenge during the shoot. Usually, the first 15-20 minutes are fine and the eyes turn out wide open in the images. The 20 following minutes are more difficult for holding the eyes wide open and therefore the model is often urged by her air provider or the photographer to keep making an effort. After approximately 45 minutes underwater, even if the model manages to open her eyes – they are all red, in a way that only advanced editing capabilities can fix. So portrait images after 40 minutes are practically impossible, unless you’re shooting for Dracula of course.
Q: Was the project aimed at the local market or international one and what kind of exposure did it receive so far in the media?
A: The project was set to achieve two main goals. The first goal had to do with promoting Erez Ovadia’s public relations within the local market. The second goal was to promote the general idea of underwater imaging as a commercial tool, featuring a set of unique advantages which cannot be imitated. The project received wonderful exposure in both markets, especially considering its size and allocation of resources. In the local market, the project was covered by a leading prime-time TV program that deals with fashion and media, called “Guy Pines”. A dedicated team accompanied the project during the shoot and reported about it later on. Numerous Israeli websites and local magazines have published a piece about the project as well, including a cover article on the “City” magazine. With respect to international exposure, the project is about to be screened on the FTV channel in a form of video clip which introduces the “behind the scenes” and an interview with both Erez Ovadia and myself. In addition, the project was covered by many online websites and magazines that deal with photography in general or specifically with underwater photography.
Although I’m more than happy with the exposure the project received so far, I think it only demonstrates the potential of such underwater photography commercial projects to create a “buzz” and to draw the attention of relevant markets. The process is interesting, the results are unique and there is great added value in using water as the medium for such photo projects.
Q: Finally, do you have a few tips for someone who is making his first steps in the world of underwater photography?
A: There are many rules and guidelines to follow when heading out to photograph fish and coral reefs underwater. However, when it gets to underwater fashion photography – there’s one rule that precedes them all. Underwater photography is fun, but at the same time, it is complicated and challenging. It takes a while and quite a few dives to pick up all the skills, to master the techniques and to establish a trustworthy and healthy cooperation among the team. Whether the learning curve is slow or rapid, you will only be able to progress if you continue diving time after time, picking new skills on each of the dives. The “catch” is that one can only enter the next dive if he managed to safely complete the previous one. Therefore, the most important technique for an underwater fashion photographer is to maintain the safety of all divers involved in the project, taking into consideration all relevant aspects, such as air supply, decompression limits and the model’s sense of confidence underwater. So be certain to dive safely and the understanding of white balance, exposure, lighting and composition will surely follow.
Behind the scenes of the Underwater fashion shoot
This is an English version of an article originally published on the Israeli Photography website MegaPixel.co.il