Shooting underwater can be problematic for photographers. Shooting portraiture underwater – beauty work with models in make-up, props, dresses, not using wide-angle lenses but close-up: no photographer had ever done that before Maya Almeida.
For a start, make-up doesn't really stay on underwater. Grace fades from even the most graceful model when they strike a pose while holding their breath. And it's difficult to get crisp close-ups down there – light travels slowly underwater, and gets refracted and scattered.
Still, Maya took on this challenge in Beneath the Surface, a collection of photographs of models shot underwater. Even finding a location for the project was difficult. In London, where the Portuguese photographer is based, pools are expensive to hire. So she set up the shoot in Lisbon, 30km from her hometown, Cascais.
This pool had a heat pump – important for a three-day shoot, with Maya spending 10 hours a day in the water. But it was a domestic pool, not a professional underwater stage, so the water clarity wasn't great. And it was cleaned with oxygen – good, because it wouldn't sting the models' eyes like chlorine, but bad because it made Maya more buoyant and therefore made it harder for her to hold the camera steady. There were reasons why no photographer had ever done this before.
"I had tons of lead," Maya says. "I loaded up the models' ankles, and mine, and I had a weight belt on. Everything is always more difficult in water because you have your mask, a viewfinder, a dome port – there's more between you and your subject.
"And that's why, for example, if you use an autofocus lens it has to be fantastic. If you manually focus you have to have the buoyancy absolutely right."
Maya grew up swimming in the ocean at home and started freediving at the age of three. She studied biology at Imperial College London and became a qualified diver and freediver. In 2005, she bought a waterproof housing for her camera and worked on underwater editorial commissions. Her freediving experience was useful since air tanks aren't allowed when photographing endangered animals.
For an aspiring photographer, she says, there's no better place to train than in the ocean. “Light, currents, visibility, buoyancy, water temperature – there are numerous things to consider. Experience and local knowledge help. But you can never plan for how volatile and dangerous open water can be. If you learn your trade underwater, working on land is easy."
After a few years, Maya felt her technical skills were holding her back, so she signed up for a part-time postgraduate photography course. She had big ideas about mixing diving with her other great passion: dance.
"I eventually started putting people in water, and from then on I became completely addicted to controlling everything to do with cameras, water, and light, which was the complete opposite from where things started."
Shooting in a pool is different from shooting in the ocean. In a pool, Maya can master her environment. Careful planning will pay off. Lighting and lenses, styling and make-up – Maya leaves nothing to chance. That's because, once in the water, even the slightest change takes ages to set up. She makes sketches to show models and crew exactly how she imagines a shot. She employs two safety divers, just in case. And as well as fins, wetsuits and weight belts, she usually takes antihistamines, because ironically she's allergic to chlorine.
Maya has described her work as “minimalist, surreal, dramatic”. Underwater, she usually uses a Canon EOS 5D Mark III ("my workhorse") with a Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM lens ("just wide enough, and it’s not distorted to the point that it bothers me"). Some of her clients ask for large prints so for those – including her Beneath the Surface shoot – she prefers to use the Canon EOS 5DS. In both cases she shoots in RAW, uses autofocus on some lenses but not on others, usually at f/11, with ISO set to 100, and a maximum shutter speed of 1/200 sec.
"When I thought of manually focusing these lenses underwater," she says, "a lot of underwater photographers told me, 'Forget it! You can't manual focus in the water up-close. It can't be done. You’ve got too many things between you and the subject. The viewfinder and the mask fog up...' That drove me on.
"I find the whole Canon EOS system so intuitive. Maybe it's because I’ve been using it for so long but I find it’s almost like part of my hand. With the Canon EOS 5DS, you’re getting incredibly high quality and file sizes that you can put in front of any client but with a body that’s small and lightweight compared with medium format, and where you have all these lenses that are fast, responsive and small. For the quality and size of file that you're getting, you’ve got a pretty nimble little system. It’s something that you could carry around with you – if you're putting a 50mm lens on the body it’s almost like a point-and-shoot compared to a medium format."
Maya uses spot metering and flash heads. She has a custom-made Seacam underwater housing and separate bulkheads that attach to a cable and set off flashes outside the pool. "Different people will have different types of bulkheads and you don’t link it up directly to the flash heads because of health and safety. You link it up to a device that triggers them."
She shoots in RAW and may tidy up in post-processing. "I basically organise everything into subfolders: Capture, Select, Master and Output. Then, from the Selects, I export the TIFFs into photo editing software and I edit there. Then I put them into Master with all the layers, which I can go back and change. Then I have my Output, which is the set size, either to send to clients at a lower res or to put on my website.
"I’m pretty much a purist when it comes to photography. Most of it is really done in-camera."
Maya exhibits around the world as well as working commercially, and describes herself as an underwater visual artist. It feels like a bit of an understatement from someone who's mastered the art of light in water – work that combines photography and freediving, and requires a painter's eye and an athlete's lung capacity. Just because it hasn't been done before doesn't mean Maya Almeida can't do it.
"I take pictures for myself. Sometimes there’s a little bit of an ego thing in that I want to do something that hasn't been done before. I like the idea that if something is difficult or challenging, I want to nail it."