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Maya Almeida's creative underwater portraits with the Canon EOS 5DS

Model Ana Casian pictured underwater in a still from the Beneath the Surface shoot. Photographer Maya Almeida shoots with a Canon EOS 5DS to capture detailed files for creating large prints, and uses bulkheads that attach to a cable and set off flashes outside the pool. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS with a Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM lens at 1/200 sec, f/16 and ISO100. © Maya Almeida

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.

A close-up of a woman in profile with blue scarf and pink lipstick; a single air bubble rises past her face.
Model Caroline Loureiro poses underwater in a head and hand still from the Beneath the Surface shoot. With a mask, viewfinder and dome port between her and her models, Maya had to think creatively to give the impression of intimacy. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS with a Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM lens at 1/200 sec, f/11 and ISO100. © Maya Almeida
Underwater shot of a pair of legs with chunky red high-heeled shoes on.
When she started photographing people underwater, Maya says, "I became completely addicted to controlling everything to do with cameras, water, and light." Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS with a Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM lens at 1/200 sec, f/13 and ISO100. © Maya Almeida
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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."

Training in the ocean

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."

A woman submerged in water with both hands on a dark pink pane of glass and a halo of bubbles above her.
Model Alline de Menezes pictured underwater in a still from the Beneath the Surface shoot. Maya's fine art images are in public and private collections and she has worked with clients such as Sadler's Wells Theatre in London, The English National Ballet and The Nureyev Medical Foundation, Switzerland. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS with a Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM lens at 1/200 sec, f/13 and ISO100. © Maya Almeida

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.

A close-up portraits shows a model with red lipstick emerging from water, light shimmering on the coating of water on her face.
Although Maya makes a point of pre-planning everything, she says "Within the creative process, especially when things are well planned, I'm surprised by how much occurs to me while I'm shooting, which is wonderful." Taken on Canon EOS 5DS with a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens at 1/200 sec, f/11 and ISO100. © Maya Almeida
A woman submerged underwater with hands behind her raised head as large bubbles from her mouth break the surface above her.
Model Mariana Rebocho pictured underwater in a still from the Beneath the Surface shoot. Maya describes the project as “a study of the unseen female psyche”. Taken on Canon EOS 5DS with a Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM lens at 1/200 sec, f/14 and ISO100. © Maya Almeida

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."


Custom-made kit

A woman coming up from the water with a black background.
A model emerging upwards out of the water in a still from the Beneath the Surface shoot. Maya grew up in Cascais, a coastal town in Portugal just west of Lisbon, "with an ocean metres from me", and says she's "hugely connected to water." She says water was where her career started, rather than a camera. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS with a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens at 1/200 sec, f/11 and ISO100. © Maya Almeida
A woman draped in gold fabric, with half her body seen from underwater.
Model Ana Casian pictured in a still from the Beneath the Surface shoot. Maya embraces working with the distortions caused by water. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS with a Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM lens at 1/200 sec, f/22 and ISO100. © Maya Almeida

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."

Írta: Jenny May Forsyth


Maya Almeida's kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

A Canon EOS 5DS DSLR with a zoom lens is seen against a black background.

Cameras

Canon EOS 5DS

Combine fast, instinctive DSLR handling with 50.6-megapixel resolution, and capture exquisite detail in every moment. The EOS 5DS will transform the way you look at the world.

Lenses

Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM

This fast aperture wide-angle lens was the first to feature Canon's subwavelength structure lens coating to minimise ghosting and flare, while UD and aspherical elements eliminate distortion and aberrations, for crisp results.

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