Editor’s note: Here’s how photographer Sophia Costa began developing her skills in underwater photography, and how she eventually grew her business to offer underwater maternity photos in Hawaii.
I feel the water enveloping my body, muffling my senses. Holding my breath, I drift and the water caresses my skin, sends strands of hair across my face. Weightless, I let myself remain suspended, aware of my lungs’ need for air. in a moment, my creativity takes over. For a few seconds I focus on only the beings before me, unaware of my earth-body’s needs. We have become integral to this liquid atmosphere.
Being underwater in the vast ocean is exhilarating. I count my blessings every day that I live on this island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, where I can shoot year round in the element I love the most: water.
I discovered I wanted to be in the ocean.
My voyage into underwater photography began in 2013, and it wasn’t glamorous. It took me years of struggling, of not having the money for the proper equipment, of losing cameras to the ocean. And struggling as well to find my voice in a world where you cannot speak, simply feel and capture what’s in front of you.
Back then, we had moved from Hawaii to South Florida to be near family. I was fighting the postpartum blues, at home full time with my newborn and my toddler. I’ve always needed a creative outlet in my life, and photography became my saving grace. I had been exploring genres of photography to identify the one that made me excited to create images.
I soon discovered I wanted to be in the ocean shooting rather than shooting the water from the sand. I started taking risks with the unprotected Canon EOS 7D I had on hand. With each beach shoot I would venture farther into the shore break, incorporating droplets of water or fluffy white foam into my shots.
We were in no circumstances to immediately invest in expensive underwater equipment, but I saved my pennies and bought a soft-bodied housing kit for my lens. I remember the feeling of taking my camera underwater for the first time. I was so nervous. If I lost that camera, I’d be doomed. But the desire to create images underwater outweighed my fears.
I wanted to create underwater maternity photos.
Within the first few months shooting with that housing system, I decided to photograph pregnant women in the ocean. Pools were never my jam; I liked the challenge of creating something beautiful in whatever conditions were given me: One day a school of fish could be part of my shots, on another, no fish to be seen. One day the water would be clear as glass, the next day roiled and murky. The ocean constantly changes and undulates, so my creativity and my technical skills in the water grew and adapted.
In 2015 we moved back to Hawaii; my underwater photography was a big factor in that decision. I wanted to further explore that genre, and being in Hawaii would likely open doors for me. And too, we wanted our kids to grow up in the country lifestyle of the North Shore of O’ahu, our former home.
When my first camera was totaled by a heavy leak in the housing, I decided it was time to invest in a more rugged housing system. Broke again after the big move, I borrowed money from my sister to buy my first AquaTech housing system. Four years later, I’m still loving it, and loving all the images it’s allowed me to create.
I revved up my marketing and grew my business.
Next hurdle, find pregnant women who are proficient swimmers and want to be photographed in the ocean. In 2015, wet maternity shoots were being done solely in pools. In pools you feel safe — no currents, and the edge of the pool to hang onto while you catch your breath. In the ocean, you have to float on your back as you recover your breath, and the salty water buoys you up, making it tough to stay submerged. It’s exhausting. But undersea images convey a unique sense of calmness and peace.
Once they saw the images on my feed, women could envision themselves being photographed in the ocean, their pregnant bellies suspended upside down in a perfect poetic moment. I began to get curious inquiries.
I wanted to attract even more women who wanted those images. In 2018, I revved up my image posting on social media, even the repeats. I began working more intently on my own fitness and doing more diving to build my lung power; I had to be strong as possible in the water just in case.
My dive plan for underwater maternity sessions.
The week before a client shoot day, I do a lot of behind-the-scenes work. I have to track the sea swells and the weather conditions to make sure it’s safe to swim out. I monitor the surf forecast for every side of the island and pick the day with the smallest predicted waves. Half of my clients are now “baby-mooners,” couples who come to Hawaii on vacation, so it’s up to me to know when the conditions are safe; I take this job very seriously.
I fully screen every potential client; she must be a strong swimmer, be able to dive without nose plugs, and be able to tread water comfortably when they tire.
You’re probably thinking, What about sharks? Everyone asks. My answer is that, yes, the ocean is the sharks’ home and we are the intruders. It’s a dangerous possibility that I cannot control, and I do take precautions, and I’m always on the lookout. But it’s also something I’m not afraid of, and I believe my confidence transfers to my clients. I am happy to report that in seven years of underwater shooting, I’ve never encountered a shark during a client shoot. On my own — w-e-l-l-l, that’s a story for another day.
6 Tips for getting started in underwater photography
1. You must be a strong swimmer. Practice holding your breath for increasingly longer periods and sinking your whole body to the bottom of the pool or ocean floor.
2. Rent an underwater system before investing in one. Try out different brands to find a fit.
3. Have a plan before swimming out. Communicate that plan to your subject in advance and get her to repeat it back to you.
4. Be prepared to try the same shot several times until you nail it.
5. Shoot underwater at different times of the day to explore the angles at which the light enters the water. It’s fascinating.
6. Editing underwater images is different than land images. I developed my own set of presets for every image. I’m not a big fan of perfectly peachy skin tones underwater because that’s just not reality. The closer you are to your subject, the more realistic the colors. As you distance yourself, the blue cast increases, and that could be a beautiful thing, too.
Photos by Sophia Costa