• Matt McGee

Underwater Modeling Tips

Photographer Matt McGee gives tips for modeling underwater
Underwater modeling is not easy

Models have the hardest job in an underwater photo shoot. Not only do they have to pose and look nice, but they have to do it in a hostile environment. I think that a lot of new underwater models think that it's the same as regular modeling, but just holding your breath. Let me just say that underwater modeling is totally different than regular modeling, and, in fact, some of the techniques used in modeling in a studio will not work underwater.

I've worked with first time underwater models, models that have had some experience modeling underwater, and pros that have tons of experience modeling underwater and know what they're doing. So after working with models underwater for a few years, I decided to give some tips to help them do a great job, and create some beautiful images.


You might be surprised to hear that getting underwater and sinking below the surface can be difficult, especially if you're wearing a big poofy dress. Some people tend to want to take in a big breath before they go under so they will have lots of air in their lungs to oxygenate their blood while underwater. For underwater modeling, this is a mistake. You need to exhale deeply and get the as much air out of your lungs and nose as you can before submerging. Air will make you buoyant and that means you'll tend to float rather than sink. Our bodies are made up mainly of water, so anything less dense than water will keep you at the surface. When you are buoyant and not sinking, you will exert a lot of effort trying to gt below the surface, so you will get tired faster and want to come back to the surface quickly. Additionally, when you are

Underwater photography and modeling tips by Matt McGe
The tiniest little bubbles can ruin an underwater photo

trying to get yourself underwater, your facial expression will be more like someone exercising or trying to lift something heavy than a peaceful and serene expression. One more thing about air... it gets trapped in all sorts of spaces in your head. Even when you get all the air out of your lungs, there's likely still some in your nose, and when you tip your head back, that air is coming out, and if it is coming out of your nostril when the photographer takes the shot, it won't work. Bubbles distort your face, and it's virtually impossible to fix it in post processing. So an otherwise great image can be ruined by bubbles. Therefore, in addition to exhaling, it's also important on the way down to try and blow out your nose to get the air out of there.


There have been instances where a model couldn't pose underwater because they were unable to have the proper facial expression. Many people tend to close their eyes tight and puff out their cheeks when going underwater. I get it, it's just a reflex, but this type of expression won't work in underwater photography. You have to be calm, relaxed, and most of the time your eyes need to open. Being underwater can make some people feel

Matt McGee's tips for poseing for underwater photography and modeling
Having a relaxed and calm facial expression is important

claustrophobic, and they will have a look of panic underwater. I'm not saying this is easy, and just suck it up and be chill, quite the opposite, this is very difficult to do, and for most people it takes a lot of practice to get comfortable. Lots have models have told me before a shoot that they have been practicing holding their breath, which is good, but it's more than that, it's more about getting in a Zen like state of peace and calmness. My recommendation is to get your pose and facial expression set before you go underwater, hold it, then go under. For this reason, it is often best to start modeling in shallow water where you can touch the bottom. Not only does this make it easier to hit your pose and just bend your knees to go under, but it also gives you the confidence to know that if you need to surface, all you have to do is stand up. One more thing about facial expressions... your face will look different underwater. When you go underwater it's as if gravity is gone. The water will support the soft tissues in your body that are normally pulled down by gravity. I'm not saying that this is a good or bad thing, it's just that many people are often a little shocked when they see underwater photos because they look a little different.


A lot of times when someone is modeling underwater, they tend to just do the same thing they do in a studio, but now they're in a pool. They will hit one pose, then jump to the next one, then quickly go to the next. While this may be fine when your above water, when you are underwater this type of movement will create some problems. First of all, fast movement

Underwater models should not move too fast underwater so that their hair will flow and look weightless
Fast movement underwater keeps hair from flowing around

creates lots of little bubbles, and those little bubbles get caught in hair, on your face, and otherwise just creates a lot of distracting and unnecessary elements of your photo. Fast movements also makes long hair look slicked back and not flowing. One of the best things about shooting underwater is the appearance of things being weightless, and long flowing hair is great. Fast movement prevents this from happening. You may do one quick movement of you head to get your hair moving, but then stop and let it flow around. Also, after your hair starts to move, it helps to push your face forward just a little so your hair doesn't cover it. Have you ever seen someone practicing Tai Chi? That's the movement that is best, slow and deliberate. I know that this can be difficult because often times models are amped up and ready to do this and have a bunch of adrenaline going, but you need to chill. One more thing about movement... it stirs up the water. Water clarity is critical, and when you move around a lot, it churns up the water and all the particulates in it, which makes it cloudy. I've noticed that a lot of models tread water between shots. This really stirs things up, and with all that movement, the backdrop starts to move out of place. When you come to the surface, try to stand still, or grab onto a ladder or the side of the pool. Treading water will make you tired and churn up the water. Remember, slow and deliberate movement.

Matt McGee repositions a backdrop during an underwater fashion photo shoot
Too much movement moves the backdrop, and look how cloudy the water is


When modeling underwater, it's easy to lose track of where you are. Photographers will often set up backdrops and lighting that are stationary, and when moving around underwater it's easy to move out of position. You may move a little too far in one direction, and when your arms extends, part of your arm may not be in front of the backdrop, and the photo will be unusable. Additionally, there may be lights above the water shooting down into the pool, and if you aren't right below the light, it won't work. It's usually a good idea to look around and see where you are relative to the backdrop and the lighting when you come to the surface, then you can reposition yourself as needed. Additionally, try to have an idea of where the photographer is, and do not extend your arms or legs towards them. Photographers are usually shooting with a wide angle lens, and if your arms or legs get closer to the lens than

Underwater modeling tip pause at the surface to get the mirror effect
Right at the surface is where you get those beautiful reflections

the rest of your body, they will look disproportionately huge. Arms above your head or to your side are fine, just not in front of you. Same thing goes for your legs and feet, and remember to keep you toes pointed. Also be aware of how far your are from the surface. You need to know how far you have to go to get air, but from a photo composition standpoint, this is where you get reflections. You don't necessarily want to stay under until the last possible second and bolt to the surface. In stead, ascend slowly, and try to pause at the surface. You may even want to look at the surface like you are looking into a mirror, or even extend a hand up like you are touching the mirror, it's such a cool effect.


Underwater modeling tips concerning descending from Matt McGee
It's very easy to descend too fast and the fabric goes over your head

This kind of goes along with the slow movement thing. I like images with flowing fabric that can spread out and create texture and a sense of movement. If you are holding a loose piece of fabric, don't pull it through the water quickly because it condenses the fabric and doesn't allow it to spread out. If the fabric has been in the water for a little while, you may not need to even move it, just hold on to it. The same this goes for dresses. One of the most common mistakes made while modeling underwater is to descend too fast. If you go down too fast, your body will sink, and the dress will fly over your head. At this point, not only do you have a wardrobe malfunction, but now you have to get all that fabric below you so we can see your face. All this rearranging of the fabric takes time, and since you've only got a few seconds to work with underwater, you may only get a couple of shots, or even none.


Let's get real honest here, underwater modeling is hard. With just a few tips here, I've already given you a lot to consider and think about, but beyond all that you need to realize that you may not be able to pull it off, at least the first few times. I've seen models get upset because they get to the shoot, and despite being a fantastic on land model, they can't do it in the water. Maybe they can't sink. Maybe they panic. Maybe they have bad facial expressions. Whatever the reason, they struggle. And along the lines of facial expressions, you WILL have lots of photos that have an unflattering facial expression, so just be prepared. Some will make you laugh, others are so bad you may want to cry. You will have some poses where you look ridiculous as you struggle to pose, and as I mentioned before wardrobe malfunctions are common. When you put on a dress they doesn't totally fit you, get it wet and weighted down in a pool, start moving around with all that drag in the water, something's gotta give. I don't mean to suggest that you shouldn't try underwater modeling, just be prepared for a lot of unflattering images. Use that experience, and try again another time.

I hope you found these tips to be helpful. Of course, there's more to underwater modeling than what I've discussed here, but this should get you something to think about. Let me know if you have any questions, I'm happy to help...


Slow and deliberate