• Matt McGee

Backdrops and Other Fabrics Used in an Underwater Fashion Photo Shoot

In my opinion, a backdrop can make a huge difference in an underwater fashion photo shoot. Of course, you can just jump in a pool and start shooting, but the walls of a pool are not the best background, and sometimes they distract from your subject. Tiles, vents, filters, and other things that are part of a pool will make your images less interesting.

Matt McGee uses a black backdrop for underwater photography
Using a backdrop helps make your subject stand out

When I first got into this, I was inspired by images created by Howard Schatz in which his models were posed in front of a black backdrop. I decided that I needed a black backdrop, but the problem was where to find one.

Now, maybe some of you know something I don't, but I don't know where to find an affordable giant black backdrop to put in the water, so I set out to make my own. I'm not normally a DIY kind of person, but this was totally a DIY project.

I gave it a little thought, and then decided that I would use king sized bed flat bed sheets and stitch them all together into one giant backdrop. Taking into account the depth of pools in the deep end, and the amount of space that a model and fabric can take up, I felt that I would need a pretty big backdrop. I didn't really do the math, but I decided that 6 king sized flat sheets would do the job. A row of 3 horizontally, connects to another row of 3 horizontally below it. All stitched together. And here it is all put together...

Matt MCGee shows how to make a backdrop for an underwater photo shoot
This is the gigantic backdrop I use

So you can see, these things are big. I have made smaller backdrops in other colors, but they just don't work as well, because I only used 4 sheets in stead of 6. You end up getting images where the model's extremities aren't in front of the backdrop. If I could do it again, I would have made all of the backdrops with 6 king sized flat bedsheets.

I got all my flat sheets off of Amazon. They're all microfiber (not sure if that makes any difference.) Once I got all the sheets, I had to get them all stitched together. This will be a challenge, or it least it was for me. I walked into several alteration stores, and tried to explain what I wanted to do. Many just said no. The others would hear me out, and then said no. I finally found 2 places that would help me. They stitched them all together and charged me $70 at one location and $95 at the other. So in total each backdrop cost about $200 to make.

Once you've got your backdrop made, the hard part begins... weighting those things down. The backdrops won't sink down to the bottom and lay flat against he walls of the pool on their own. You will have to use weights to hold them on the bottom, and keep them from moving away. Once the models and you get in the pool and start moving around, the backdrop will want to move, and you will eventually have to stop and move it back into place. I use bumper plates used for weightlifting to hold the backdrop in place. These have a stainless steel center, but otherwise are made of rubber. This allows the person lifting the weight to just drop a barbell without damaging the floor, and this helps protect the bottom of the pool. 10 and 25 pound weights work best on the bottom. In addition to the bumper plates, I use a lot of soft weights for that are used in scuba diving. Essentially, these are small bean bags filled with lead weight. They usually vary in weight from 1 to 5 pounds. I use a bunch of these and spread them out on the bottom to hold the backdrop in place. On the pool deck, the backdrop can be held in place by more weights, or things found by the pool like pots for plants, chairs, coolers, or pretty much anything heavy.

MAtt McGee describes how to do an underwater photo shoot
Loose pieces of fabric add interesting color and texture

Backdrops aren't the only fabric that you can use for these photo shoots. Part of the allure of shooting underwater is the was hair and fabric flows and appears weightless. So anything long and flowy will really look nice in the water. Parachute canopies can be used to make gigantic flowing dresses, or even as their own backdrop. I had the best luck finding these on eBay. They can be expensive, but if you can find one that has been damaged and can no longer be used for jumping out of an airplane, you can get them them for a reasonable price.

They all have a hole in the center, which got me thinking that I could make a dress out of one of these. I cut the cords out of it and went back to the seamstress. This time I had them add elastic to the hole and make it smaller, and BAM!... now I had a skirt the size of a parachute to fit models of different sizes. That cost $35. Here's a smaller white parachute that I had made into a skirt in the water...

MAtt MCGee made an old parachute into a skirt for underwater fashion photography
An old army parachute made into a skirt for this underwater photo shoot

A quick word about safety... these fabrics flow very well, and there's a lot of it moving around. It is very easy for the fabric to get over the model's head, and can make surfacing dangerous, or can prevent breathing even once they are above the water. You need to have people on the edge of the pool helping when using these in a shoot. I had a lifeguard and one extra person to take their hand to pull them to the side of the pool and to pull the fabric off them.

In my shoots, I always have loose pieces of colorful fabric for the models to use in the water. The texture and movement of the fabric underwater is what makes these photos so beautiful. My fabric of choice is chiffon. It's lightweight a flows well in the water. You can also use tulle, but you need a lot of it because it is so sheer, and needs volume to be visible. Satin and silk work ok, but I just don't think they flow as well as chiffon. You can find these fabrics cheap online. Tulleshop.com is a good place to start, but there are also stores in China that you can find on eBay. The price is right for sure on these sites, but it takes a coupe of months to get your fabric, so plan ahead.

So that's the next step in putting together an underwater photo shoot.

Matt McGee photgraphing underwater model Micael Leigh
Be careful when fabric is overhead