While writing this blog post... I decided to break it into parts: The Emotional + The Educational. If you came here strictly for insight on how I attempted my very first underwater shoot and don't want to read through all the "fluff" or you just came here for the story behind these images-- I made it easy on you, the two sections are obviously labeled. And maybe, just maybe, you came here for both. Because I honestly believe you can't have art without the feelings but I also think art has so many different teaching moments. Whichever one of these paths describes you, I just appreciate you being here.
Photography has always been a therapy for me. I spent a REALLY long time not expressing myself-- choking on my own feelings or pretending to be someone I wasn't-- and that was how I lived. I should say... that was how I managed, because I was not living. For a really long time, I didn't live. I just went through the motions of the day-to-day. But now, photography gives me this platform to express what I am truly feeling on the inside when words are just not enough. As I looked through this entire series... some of the photos were "pretty" like I had set out to create, but the majority were more "painful" than "pretty." How did something I set out to be so pretty become so painful? I was confused.. not mad, because I loved the images, just confused. Until I realized: Cydni was me. No, I don't mean she looked like me (thank God)... but she had become this vessel for everything I had been feeling. She was no longer just this pretty girl in my photos-- she was the years of pain and hurt I felt, she was the strength I once never knew I possessed, and she was the hope. She was me and this was my story.
I have talked endlessly about the depression I struggled with, but in all my years of using photography as a form of therapy, I have never once created something that so perfectly depicted that time in my life. And if you're saying to yourself, "Sheesh, get the fuck over it... it happened a long time ago." Trust me, I am with you. I tell myself that all that time. But recently, I got myself sucked into a stupid conversation that brought up a lot of those feelings again... that's how it works for me, one tiny thing can bring back this sea of emotions. I don't seek it out, I don't want it at all... and before I can even try to run to shore, the tide grabs me and pulls me under. And every emotion, every ounce of pain, every bad experience of that time just hits me at once. But its weird, I don't feel the feelings, I just see them. Almost like I am just watching a movie... of my own hurt, and I feel for him, but I don't feel his pain.
I could talk forever about the bullies... I could list off all the things they ever did to me like a well-organized grocery list. But this isn't their story. This is my story. I was a very emotional child. When I look back at who I was as a child... I see a lot of crying. I cried about everything. At the time, a lot of people deemed me a crybaby, or a spoiled brat, who was just throwing a fit. For the longest time I bought into that narrative too-- I look back and think, "Get it together kid." But as I go through old memories-- I don't remember setting out to cry, it was just this natural response I had. Then I had this lightbulb moment. I wasn't crying because I was a baby, I wasn't even crying about the small things that would set me off... I was crying because I was hurting. I was 8 years old when I switched to a new school where I first experienced bullying and by 10 I had my first thoughts of suicide. Clearly I was going through some shit... and I just kept those feelings locked up tight. I was dealing with feelings and emotions no-one should ever have to, yet alone a child. It felt as though I was walking around with this huge pot of water and even the tiniest misstep would cause it to spill over. And without knowing it, this became my way of dealing with life. This big pot of water became a part of who I was.
By the time high school came around, I was completely broken. My pot of water was two times the size and I just dragged that fucking pot around everywhere I went. Water spilling over with every single step. Until one day I stopped carrying the water around and instead just climbed inside. And I stayed there, for a very long time. So many people knew I was in there too, but sometimes its easier to ignore the kid suffering than it is to do anything about it. And my pot grew bigger and bigger-- until it became an ocean. And some people would yell from the shore that it was time to come back in while others would make sure there wasn't a scene being made by the kid who wouldn't get out of the water. No one could hurt me out there. I told myself I was safe out there. And it wasn't until I finally tried to swim back to shore that I realized I didn't need to be scared of the people on land... I needed to be afraid of the ocean.
This ocean was still once the pot I grew tired of carrying around and at some point along the way, I got confused. And now that I was trying to get out, the tide kept pulling me under. The hardest part of my story was not becoming depressed, that was a gradual progression that started when I was 8 years old... it was trying to get better. Getting to this point was easy for me, like floating. Then one day I woke up and realized how far I had drifted. Now all I wanted more than anything was to be on the shore... to be normal. I was so tired of the pain and hurt... and yet I kept hurting myself. I had never really loved myself, but now I hated me. How did I allow myself to get to this point? I fought so hard for so long and now, I had no fight left. And eventually, I stopped swimming. I just let go. I gave into the ocean. I became numb.
And I almost drowned, out there on my own.
Broken and bruised.
With nothing left to give.
This is how my story would end.
Until one day, out of nowhere... came this light. At first faint, but in this dark ocean I couldn't miss it. I swam to the surface and there was a girl, in a little paddle boat and she asked, "What are you doing out here?" She had no clue that this ocean was the one I built. She had never heard of the boy who wouldn't come back to shore. For the first time in awhile, someone saw me for me, not the things that were said about me. To her, I was just another swimmer enjoying the water. My wife, 12 years ago, didn't befriend me to try and fix me. She didn't even know I was sinking. She was just there. She was a light I hadn't seen in a very long time. She was the air my lungs had been longing for.
She never asked me to get in the boat with her. She had no clue how long I had been out there. Being that far out, she assumed I must be an excellent swimmer. To this day, I am still so thankful she never asked me to get in. I would have likely capsized her boat, losing her trust, or even worse, leaving us both stranded out there. That was the fear everyone else had... if they weren't careful, I may pull them down too. So she stayed there in her boat and me in my ocean but she never left my side. I didn't need my wife to save me... I knew if I was ever going to get better, if I was ever going to get out of this ocean and stay out, I had to do it on my own. She was a lighthouse when I got lost at sea.
And it took awhile. Years. Before I ever reached the shore. But she never gave up on me. Even when I would sink back down for a little bit, she would wait for me. She would shine her light for me. And she loved me every single step of the way.. even when I was so hard to love. My wife showed up for me when everyone else walked out. And over the years, she has given me the strength and courage to face the ocean. No matter how hard life gets, because of her, I know I can handle it. No matter how strong the tide may be and how hard it fights to pull me back out... I will never stop swimming. You see... when you fall into depression at such a young age, it just starts to feel normal. I felt like I was broken and I would always be that way... I couldn't remember what life was like before my depression. I still don't remember life before depression. But I will never forget about life after depression. I know now how good the warm sand feels beneath my feet... I know what its like to be happy and to be loved and I will never stop fighting for that.
All the love.
-Your buddy, Ace.
Before you go and just dunk your livelihood into the pool-- I want to give you some insight on my experience and the gear I used. During the beginning phases of this shoot, I reached out to my good friend Brianna who I knew had dabbled in some underwater stuff to get her perspective. She told me she used the DiCAPac Waterproof Case and she liked it and for $70 and free two-day shipping from Amazon... it was amazing! But she said it did have a few draw backs: 1. Once your camera is in the bag, it becomes essentially a point and shoot camera. The controls are hard to access without getting it out of the bag and once you have the bag sealed and secured you don't exactly want to keep taking it back out. 2. Because the case is a bag, it is also a floatation device. Which means its pretty difficult to pull the camera under the water-- for what she was using it for, just dipping the camera under the surface of the water, it wasn't a problem... but I knew I wanted to be completely submerged. And 3. While Brianna's experience was good with the case... there were too many horror stories under the reviews on Amazon for me to dunk $3,500 worth of gear in it. So I started researching some more and came across the AquaTech Elite 5D3 Camera Water Housing and I knew I had to have it. But dropping $1,595.00 on something I was experimenting wasn't about to happen. Thankfully for me, one of my absolute favorite companies, Borrow Lenses partners with AquaTech on rentals. It was still more money than I wanted to spend between the housing, lens port, and shipping.. but I will say it was money well spent. Here was my set up: AquaTech Elite 5D3 Camera Water Housing + AquaTech P-100 Underwater Lens Port (this was the port compatible with my 35mm) . It was INSANELY easy to put together-- I am not the sharpest tool in the shed, nor am I very good at following directions, and I am saying it was easy.
I set up a quick shoot with one of our clients the morning of this shoot so I could just figure out what the hell I was doing. And I am so glad I did. Typically, when I am shooting, my Auto Focus is set at ONE SHOT and my Drive Mode is set at SINGLE SHOOTING... and after one jump in the water, I knew that was NOT going to work. I got one completely out-of-focus shot that was absolutely terrible. So I switched up some settings. First, I switched from ONE SHOT to AI-SERVO (which tons of photographers use already-- but I've always hated that it doesn't give me feedback or a beep and so I have just never gelled with it). Next I switched from SINGLE SHOOTING to HIGH SPEED CONTINUOUS because while holding my breath under water.. my main objective was to just get in as many shots as possible. Then I did something I would never normally suggest: I shot in AUTO WHITE BALANCE. I am typically am a Kelvin guy for life... but I was willing to give up some control for the sake of the shoot. In the future I would love to be more in control than I felt during this... but it would be weird if your newborn baby came home and started walking around. You know? Take it slow.
The next challenge I faced was something anyone with common sense would have accounted for... but not me. I was floating. I would go under and as soon as I went down I came back up. Katelyn suggested blowing out my nose... but I am one of those people who can't pat their head and rub their belly at the same time... so that wasn't going to work. And while our solution may have not been the safest or smartest, it worked. We filled a small backpack with two 8lb weights and that combined with the water it filled up with.. I was able to sit on the bottom of the pool no problem. *I AM NOT CONDONING DOING THIS... IF YOU DROWN, THATS ON YOU* Yeah, my backpack made it extra hard to tread water in between shots, but totally a sacrifice I was willing to make. Anything for the picture.
Here is a screen grab from a video where you can see my backpack. It wasn't big at all, and while you wouldn't think 16 pounds + some water could hold down 255 lbs of man... you are wrong. Unless you thought it could... then you are right.
I talk a lot about location and making the best out of what you have... but THIS shoot? I couldn't just settle for a pool.. I needed to shoot at the lake, or the ocean if it was closer, because I could NOT have this look like it was a pool. And then I remembered I am terrified of any body of water... even the deep end of the wave pool at Wet-N-Wild. And how the frick was I going to get a light out in deep enough water? Pool it is. Our pool was out of the question because its only 5 foot deep. Cydni's pool is gorgeous-- they are so fancy they don't just have 1 pool, they have 2-- but at the end of the day, it was still a pool. So as if shooting underwater, at night, with weird light sources wasn't a challenge enough... I wanted to throw myself one more. In my last post, I talked about editing out distractions... same thing applied here. I had to edit out pool tiles and drains... but I also used my Gradient Tool in Lightroom, pulled from the bottom up, to darken the floor of the pool and give you the illusion of a deeper bottom than what was really there. So now, a 10-11 foot pool is deep enough to make me feel eerily uncomfortable.
You can see in the images above, I added a pretty dramatic gradient filter to the bottom of the picture but how much it paid off in making the photo dramatic. That mixed with the extreme contrast I added between the Blacks and Lights of the photo made my vision come to life. Boom Shaka Laka.
For this shoot we had 3 different set ups. The first was the red dress shot entirely with natural light. We started around 6:30 PM -- with sunset being at 7:11 PM that day. Then we took a break for dinner because we had to wait for the light to be completely gone. Our second set up was with the pink flowy dress. We turned every light off outside and then, again not the safest thing in the world, my wife held a portable work light over the water. Guys, in fact this was the dumbest thing we could have done... had she dropped that light we would all be fried. Thankfully, our life insurance policy isn't that amazing and she loves Cyd. If you are currently fighting with your spouse and they hate you... I don't suggest this set up. And the third set up was just a lace body suit that covered literally nothing and our only light source was the pool light behind her.
This is our first setup with the red dress and only natural light. I waited until close to sunset because I didn't want any part of the sun to hit the surface of the water and create reflections... I needed these to be as dark and moody as possible and because of that these feel the most "deep ocean"-ish to me.
Our second set up with the pink flowy dress and the work light as a our only light source... and definitely one of the most stupid ideas we have ever had. "Yeah, hold this light that is plugged in, over this giant pool of water... no biggie!" So worth it in the end though.. the results from this were pretty amazing.
This is our third setup with the lace bodysuit and the pool light giving off some serious back lighting. This is also one of the only pictures were you can really see my weighted backpack, as well as their TWO pools... how fancy is that? "No matter which pool I am talking about, I always refer to it as my second pool. That way people know I have two." -Me, if I had two of anything, except pizza in my hand. This setup was honestly one of those in the moment decisions. Cydni's mom asked if I wanted it on and I said, "Let's try it... if it doesn't work... we will figure something else out." And it worked... at least I think it did. For anyone wondering... there is NOT actually a second light source... that is simply just the reflection of the pool light reflecting off the top of the water.
I am SO proud of this shoot, but obviously, there is always room for improvement. So here are a few of the challenges I faced. First, you will notice the majority of these photos are in Portrait Orientation (up + down)... when I was using the camera housing, there was a button that stuck out far right next to my eye that would throw my camera into Live View (or video mode) and every time I tried to shoot in Landscape Orientation, I would hit it and boom... I couldn't take pictures. After the first few times, I didn't want to deal with it anymore and just stuck with what I could do. This was frustrating me in my post-processing because limbs would be cropped out that I wanted to keep and so-forth. And its not a design flaw by the company... honestly, had I been wearing just eye goggles (and not the ones that cover your nose) it probably would not have been an issue. Second, things don't move the same way they do underwater as they do on land. We picked the pink flowy dress for the big movement we thought it would have... but not so much. Thankfully Cyd's friend was over and was more than willing to help us by pulling the dress out once she was at the bottom... and then swim like Michael Phelps outta there to make sure she wasn't in the frame. Third, I am a skin freak. I pride myself on how good my models skin always looks in my shoots... and editing these photos was definitely more of a challenge. Underwater skin doesn't edit the same as on land.
But for real, I am so happy with how everything came together. It completely took me out of my element... physically, it kicked the shit out of me, I was so sore the next day... and creatively, I grew a lot from it. I know its scary putting yourself in a situation where you are having to learn along the way, but that was exactly this shoot for me and I am so thankful I did it. Yes, I wanted to barf leading up to it... I was so nervous that all my time planning, everyone else's time, the money spent and energy would all be a waste on my epic fail. Thankfully it wasn't. I really am so excited about what I created. If you guys have questions, feel free to ask!
Love you fools.
-Your buddy, Ace.