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Great underwater photography tips from leading professional Mark Mawson

© Mark Mawson

One of the leading underwater photographers Mark Mawson was the expert judge in our recent Underwater contest, so we approached him with this question. Here's the interview that came out of it.

How did you get into underwater photography?

I was shooting a series of images with a stuntwoman, and one of the shots was of her chained to a brick at the bottom of the sea, as if she had been dropped over the side of a boat. The shot worked so well and looked so beautiful that I decided to do more underwater shots and specialise in it.

© Mark Mawson

What are the biggest challenges in underwater photography?

There are several challenges, and they are all equally challenging. Movement is one - it is slow to move around due to the resistance of the water, so it takes longer to set up lighting and props and get the model and myself into position.

© Mark Mawson

Lighting is challenging as the light falls off quicker underwater. You also lose red light underwater, which is why things look blue. But this can be corrected by putting red gels over the lights, or can correct it afterwards in post-production.

Communication with the models is difficult underwater. I have to give direction above the surface before we go under to shoot. If I need to change anything or give different direction, we come up to the surface again. And, obviously, breathing for the models is a challenge!

© Mark Mawson

Where do you go to shoot?

I shoot in a variety of places, for example in purpose-built underwater studios called 'tanks'. They are essentially very deep swimming pools with fresh water (no chlorine), but are painted black to help control the lighting. I also shoot in private pools and the sea.

© Mark Mawson

What do you wear?

It varies depending on what we are shooting and where we are shooting it. I wear full scuba gear if I need to stay down deep shooting for long periods. If we are shooting in shallow warm water, I'll just hold my breath and come up for air when the model needs to, and then I'll just wear swimming shorts and a mask.

© Mark Mawson

Do you have any funny stories of shooting under water?

Not really! I have to plan everything meticulously and make sure everything is very safe and nothing goes wrong, which means there's isn't much chance for funny moments.

© Mark Mawson

How long does one need to stay under water to get the shot?

This also depends on what I'm shooting and whether we are using scuba gear. We might stay down for 30-45 seconds holding breath, or we could stay down for an hour or more with scuba gear.

© Mark Mawson

What is the cheapest way to try out underwater photography?

You can get some very good waterproof compact cameras these days. The visibility under the water is key to getting crisp, clean looking shots, so any pool is good for starters. Also, when people go on holiday to warm tropical places, the seas are generally quite clear.

© Mark Mawson

What would be the easiest, most impactful thing a beginner can shoot under water?

I suppose snorkelling on a tropical reef would be the easiest way to start getting some great underwater shots. There are so many brightly coloured fish and corals that you can't fail to get some good photos.

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