~Interview by Shawn Marran
Michael David Adams is a New York-based photographer, and one of his specialities is Underwater Fashion Photography. He travels all around the globe, scouting for locations to create exquisite photographs from below the surface. We had the privilege of interviewing him and finding out more about his work.
How long have you been interested in underwater photography?
I have always had a love for the idea of flight, a love for the visuals of flowing material and a sense of weightlessness in photography. I’ve also had a great love for anything to do with the water – being in it, being on it and especially being completely submerged in it, existing for long periods of time underwater as if we as humans were born for it.
In 2010, I had the great pleasure of honeymooning in Croatia with my wife, who was born and raised there. During our visit, a friend of hers who is a scuba instructor and underwater wildlife photographer, took us out to one of the many beautiful offshore underwater locations, at an ancient shipwreck. We were free-diving, as it was only about 10 – 12 feet deep, and it was there that she introduced me to using the camera underwater. A completely new world opened in front of my eyes and new possibilities showed themselves to me instantly as my mind began to create new scenarios for photography that would not be possible without being submerged in water. As I stood on the bottom of that sea in a world of wonder, with schools of fish swimming around me in the crystal-clear Croatian waters, I knew that this was the beginning of something life-changing for me.
What gear do you use to enable you to portray your vision into a visual format?
The camera that I shoot with Underwater is the Nikon D800E, (I used to shoot with a Canon 5D before that) and I’m currently using Ikelite Underwater housings. I would love to move to an Aquatica Housing soon, as it’s more versatile for my personal application, giving you the ability to modify the case depending on what lighting you are using and more. I use a combination of the lighting of Ikelite underwater strobes, (sometimes Sea & Sea if renting) and then Profoto Lights on the topside. It’s always good to have a selection of remote triggers, long cables, and a variety of Filters or gels for the lights, your basic grip equipment kit essentially.
Can you please tell us how much work goes into retouching your photos?
Retouching can tend to be a bit more involved with underwater photography, depending on what your final vision is for each project. Proper colour is always in question since the water pulls out red from the spectrum and the number of waterborne particles between you and the model is also a concern when shooting.
A few things to keep in mind when shooting underwater would be your lighting direction, lighting gels, camera filters, the colour balance of your lights, and always shooting in RAW format. These things will help to minimise the retouching work needed later. Some water tanks around the world are specifically built for photo shoots and film and have been designed to have a very minimal waterborne particle ratio but that is, of course, not the norm when shooting in pools (even if they have a great filter system) or especially in open water.
In the case of my latest image series “Snowdrop”, the images were composites, made with other elements added to the original imagery with the model that I photographed underwater, so these images required a lot more retouching. I photographed the underwater core of the image with the model and some elements of the Final images’ vision in the water with her and then joined the other elements separately in post to make the final shot.
Could you tell us more about your photography technique, for instance how you get the water to be so dark?
I approach my underwater photography the same way as if I am in the studio. Basically, I make a photography set underwater. The lighting I use is always very much planned and you must take into consideration any variables you may have during the day. If I know there will be some good sun that day, I might use my light to work together with the sunlight, or sometimes will try to work to be brighter than the sun so it doesn’t impede on what I’m trying to accomplish. A wide heavy duty scrim is sometimes needed if I want to get a very soft effect. Lighting control is always a very big concern. With building an underwater photo studio, I will also use backgrounds to further aid in achieving the vision I want. Working in water is very different than what we are used to normally, so I’m always adjusting techniques and methods to compensate for being in a substance that provides resistance and buoyancy, as opposed to air and gravity.
What is your favourite photo and tell us more about it?
Right now, my favourite shots are the two I just finished working on for my Story-Teller project with my wife, Viktorija, who is a well-established makeup artist here in New York City. These two images are my interpretation of Snowdrop (the original tale that Snow White was adapted from.) My vision and concept were to show Snowdrop during the period when she was rendered unconscious by the Peasant’s wife (the Queen) who poisoned her. In these images, I’m portraying her state of mind and awareness of the situation she has again found herself in. In “the Witching Hour” she is amid unconsciousness and experiencing somewhat of an out of body experience, floating above the forest where she had been poisoned, the rest of the visuals of the photograph are left up to the viewer to interpret and fill in the rest of the story as they see it. In “Lucid Descent”, this is her consciousness during the same moment, knowing that she had been poisoned, and is portrayed submerged under the surface of the creek running through the forest (symbolizing the barrier of her consciousness) as she sinks deeper into her physical darkness, yet more awake and aware than she has ever been within her mind.
A Behind the Scenes video from the Snowdrop shoot was also made by Cécile Delepière from DollKillerFilms.
What do you want to achieve through your photos?
I feel that by nature, I see, or interpret the experience of using the underwater environment as my studio with a different eye than most, and this translates into my work with images that feel apart from most other underwater photography. My goal is to always challenge myself and use the underwater characteristics in ways that I haven’t seen before, but at the same time also very simply just to make beautiful photographs.
What motivates you to keep on taking photos?
I absolutely love being in the water and I think it shows in my body of work. Photographing underwater adds a few layers of complication, but that higher level of complication is also what makes it exciting for me. It takes a great deal of planning and intuition to pull off a photographic vision underwater, as well as great communication. When all these things, and above comments, are put together in a well-functioning process/photoshoot, the imagery you can achieve can be out of this world.
Tell us a bit about your journey from aspiring photographer to full-time photographer.
I discovered photography after years of drawing and painting in my youth. I had been part of many gallery shows with my paintings, and then photography took over as my medium of choice in how I expressed myself with art. I was lucky to have some time with darkrooms and the physical process of film, so for me, this made photography more tangible and the concepts of manipulating your work was more of a physical experience.
I was also always very tuned in for experimentation. I was compelled to take what the camera and print can achieve, but then take it further from there by either physical manipulation of the paper to print on, or by using multiple enlargers to achieve an invented composition of photographs that could not exist otherwise, (and this was before even knowing that a select few photographers had done that in the past). Now, in the digital age, the manipulation can happen digitally and has become incredibly specific in its technique, but it’s more of a challenge to make the creativity happen in front of your camera (as opposed to relying only on photoshop for all effects or technique), and then after it’s been photographed, adding further retouching techniques to fine tune and add to the vision.
Commercially speaking, it didn’t take long for my Fine Art photography to expand to photographing models and then to Fashion / Beauty, general advertising work as well as my Conceptual and artistic endeavours, seen on my website. Prior to my full-time career, I was living in Pennsylvania, so the move to NYC wasn’t a big one for me, and this is one of those cities where you need to be if you want to be surrounded by other successful creatives in the business of photography.After my move to New York City, I immediately began producing work that was chosen for top magazine covers and has been commissioned and hired by top magazines and advertising clients around the world.
I’m happy to be continuing more Conceptual work these days, as well as spending more time Underwater. Being a full-time photographer, I’ve also had great success with selling my Fine Art and Underwater photography from my Fine Art website, to collectors around the world.
Describe what your Dream Shoot would be like.
I would love to have a photoshoot in the open ocean with Whale Sharks. I’m not exactly sure what I would shoot with them if I had the opportunity, but swimming with them is something that is top on my list of things to do in life. I’d also love to shoot a series of photographs with some world class Free Divers soon, maybe off the coast of Belize would be nice 🙂
Do you have any advice for photographers who might be interested in underwater fashion?
I believe safety is one of the biggest concerns with shooting underwater as well as specialising as an underwater fashion photographer. It’s easy to forget that you are underwater in a non-breathing environment and the other difficulties that come with that when you are concentrating so intently on achieving a vision. You always want to make sure that you and everyone helping you, especially the models you are working with, are aware of their surroundings and that they feel comfortable to tell you when they are tired or need a break. It only takes a second for something to go wrong. Communication is the most important aspect of underwater photography. I still have some “make it work” moments with my underwater work, as all photoshoots are not high budget endeavours with the amenities that come with that. It’s those times when trying to “make it work” that things can happen that you weren’t planning for. I think it’s also very important to remember, if you are working with photographing fully clothed models, perhaps in a dress or gown, to know that the clothing will add a lot of weight and resistance to the model wearing it. Be aware of these things and have extra people in the water to help them come back up to the surface if they are having trouble for any reason. The crews’ health and safety are your responsibility since it’s your shoot.
Which other photographers inspire you?
With so many great photographers out there it’s hard to narrow down to a few to mention. I’m more in love with specific images, and/or techniques used in those shots and get inspired by these aspects as they would apply to my own ideas. I also draw inspiration from non-photographer sources. For example, I had a fashion shoot, and the inspiration was the sand storms from the Goby desert as they invaded neighbouring cities. We recreated those visuals from news stories I referenced. I created the set in the studio with sand on the floor and 2 huge sewn backdrops with 5 to 6 people working them and fans to emulate the walls of encroaching sand. I also had a beauty shoot, where the inspirations were the relationship of Black to White on such things as the Space Shuttle, architectural concepts of museums like the Guggenheim, and Apple commercials at the time.
In regards to my Underwater photography, I again find inspiration, not from things that exist already underwater, but ideas that would typically be airborne or require weightlessness and then translate that to being achieved underwater. The magical way that fabrics, inks or other objects flow and interact underwater is mesmerising and is always a great source of unending inspiration.
We are featuring more of his exquisite work below: