Although she eats and sleeps on solid ground, you won’t find Zena Holloway working anywhere but underwater. “Working topside is very distracting,” explains UK based photographer, describing the drawbacks of shooting on land. “There’s always a buzz about working underwater, creative’s are intrigued to see how its done, the artists are excited to be doing something different and the water gives me a unique space to put it all together. My experiences of shooting on land are very dreary by comparison and not nearly as creative. Water always adds a magical quality.”
Her love affair with water began well before her career in photography. For several years Holloway worked internationally as a diving instructor, a talent that serves her well when training neophyte underwater models how to deal with weightlessness and a lack of oxygen.
The little boy in The Water Babies, though, is no stranger to the challenges of this type of shoot. “The child has been working with me throughout the last two years and has become the best little four year old swimmer that I know.”
Because of the inherent risks of combining water with electricity, all of the lights were positioned outside of the gigantic blacked out water tank Holloway used at Pinewood Studios in London. Seven Broncolor heads attached to A4 power packs illuminated the subjects from different directions while a 6’ x 6’ mirror positioned on a platform below the subjects added fill. She shot with a Canon 1DS Mark II using a 24mm lens and an exposure of f/8 at 1/125th of a second at 200 ISO. The woman, baby and sand falling out of the shell were shot separately and composited together in post.
This image is part of her just completed project, the visual retelling of the classic novel The Water Babies. “The whole book is shot underwater, whether or not the story took place on land or underwater,” says Holloway. “I loved taking away all the water references. Shifting back the bubbles, removing the water surface, making a really unusual space where the viewer can’t see whether you’re underwater or not. There’s weightlessness and this sort of quirky quality to the imagery.”
Holloway is one of the few outstanding photographers who specialize in underwater photography. “There are a few of us around but I don’t think there is anyone else who shoots purely underwater.”
Never mind its surreal and addictive beauty, it’s also a field rife with logistical constraints and intimidating costs. “I have back-ups of all of my cameras as a safety measure. Occasionally the water gets somewhere it shouldn’t and getting a hold of spares at short notice isn’t an option,” says Holloway. “Shooting underwater is an expensive activity with cameras, housings, dive kit and then spares of all of the above. The kit is really too specialized to hire.”
Nonetheless, Holloway won’t consider leaving the deep blue waters for any kind of “topside” shooting. It’s her goal to explore the world via the special magic of water photography. According to her there’s nothing under the sun that can’t be shot underwater- fashion, cars, still life, people. Anything, that is, except food. “No. I’ll draw the line there. Anything else,” says Holloway. “You just have to dream up the idea of how to shoot it.”
Holloway was interviewed by our Editor Zack Seckler about her career and her craft:
F STOP: Let’s start out by talking about the image we’re featuring here in The F STOP. Please give me a basic run down of how you created this image?
Holloway: It was for a book I just finished working on, a remake of The Water Babies in 1865. This is a character from the book, Mrs. Be as You Would Be Done By. I mostly used strobe and I lit it from above. It’s a task to get the lights the way you want to put them and keep them safe, so I have electricians and gaffers on hand. And then I use mirrors to bounce things around. There’s a number of lights coming from above. There’s some directly above and then some coming from behind, and then I use mirrors. I have small lights, which I put on the camera, and a little tiny battery-operated strobe.
F STOP: Now why do you think there aren’t any lights that work underwater yet?
Holloway: There are lights, but not strobes. Nothing powerful [enough] to compete with the studio flash that I use. So you can get, like you know, massive HMIs, and they just do nothing compared to what I get out of the studio flash. You can put it underwater, and people use it for underwater filmmaking, but not for photography. It’s a shame, really. It’s just safety issues, because they store a lot of power in the capacitor.
F STOP: Was this a commissioned image?
Holloway: It was shot for a book and then we sold this image and a few others for a fashion story for the Financial Times.
F STOP: Tell me about working with the talent. How do you get a child to do what you want underwater?
Holloway: Henry is brilliant. I’ve been working with him for two years now. He stood out from the start. He was just a great looking kid underwater and a great, easygoing character. I got lucky with him.
F STOP: How does it work exactly? I’m assuming that you have divers that are down there with oxygen tanks and every few seconds they go over and refill? Or does the child have to swim up to the top?
Holloway: This shoot was done in two parts. So although both people were underwater, they were not at the same time. I picked the best shot of the girl to go with the best shot of the boy. I used divers to move props. Generally when we’re shooting everyone holds their breath. I tell everybody what I need and then when we’re ready I just say, “Okay, go!” When you’re working with kids, you need to be really energetic and just keep them moving, otherwise they get bored.
Holloway: I suppose. I try to keep the shoots exciting for them.
F STOP: Was there a lot of trial and error getting the hair and clothing right for the female model?
Holloway: I only have about 2 hours shooting time with any one model. You can’t work with them much longer because their eyes get sore, so there’s not really a whole heap of messing about to get the right shot. Sometimes you just get lucky. Sometimes it all comes together in one go. Sometimes you have to work a bit harder, but there are ways to tweak things and you know, if the hair’s doing the wrong thing, then we just try a different movement. Or if the clothes aren’t doing quite the right thing, then we can rig a diver to hold a fishing line here and there.
F STOP: Do you use fishing lines a lot to make sure the garments are in the right position?
Holloway: I get the best results when I go with the flow – but it is possible to manipulate fabrics, hair or whatever with fishing line or more likely with jets of water.
F STOP: How did you get your start as a photographer?
Holloway: It’s a bit mad, actually. I used to be a diving instructor and I worked in Egypt and in the Cayman Islands. I saw this mermaid on the beach filming a beer commercial with a top UK director and I thought it’d be a really cool thing to work with a crew like that. It took quite a long time to get the contacts when I got back to the UK, but I got in with some underwater film cameramen and started assisting them. It was quite handy having a background as a diving instructor because I got all the training jobs.
F STOP: How long were you a diving instructor?
Holloway: I qualified to be a diving instructor when I was 18. I came back to the UK when I was 21, in 1995.I’ve been a photographer for approximately 10 years.
F STOP: Do you ever shoot on dry land?
Holloway: Working topside is very distracting, there’s always a buzz about working underwater, creative’s are intrigued to see how its done, the artists are excited to be doing something different and the water gives me a unique space to put it all together. My experiences of shooting on land are very dreary by comparison and not nearly as creative. Water always gives a subject a magical quality
F STOP: So you find your talent is really focused because there’s really no other option, right?
Holloway: Exactly. They’re in a space where there’s no one else to chat with and nothing else to really look at. The only time I did a topside shoot I found it really awkward.
F STOP: So you’re staying underwater?
Holloway: I’m self-taught and everything I know is about how to shoot underwater. Shooting on land is completely different – as different as comparing reportage photography with still life whilst throwing in a weightless environment, breathing apparatus and a different camera.
Holloway: I cast quite heavily. I’ve got to see them underwater. And often you see somebody who’s not terribly experienced and they’re struggling a bit with the ability but can just be perfect for the shot. Often those people are the people who I take and I train up. By the time they’ve done one or two jobs with me they’re as good as everyone else.
F STOP: How do you train them?
Holloway: I used to teach diving, so it comes quite easily.
F STOP: How long do people have to hold their breath for?
Holloway: It’s really up to them. You have to work with people and say, “Well, let’s try it this way, and if you can do 10 seconds, that’s great, and just come up whenever you need to breathe.”
F STOP: And what about you? How do you breathe? Do you have scuba gear?
Holloway: I do sometimes. I try not to because it’s just such a pain. It slows everything down. If you’re breath holding, then you can be much faster in the water and you can talk to your model. There doesn’t have to be a huge brief before everybody goes down.
F STOP: And then you don’t get bubbles in front of your lens either. Right?
Holloway: I don’t have issues with that because the bubbles tend to be coming out of your mouth and they’re going straight up and the camera tends to be in front of you. If you were looking up, then you’d have that issue. But generally I’m looking across, so that’s okay.
F STOP: You put a weight belt on a child for one of your shots, how do you maintain safety in that sort of situation?
Holloway: What we are trying to do is to allow him to take a nice big breath so that he can stay down more comfortably for a bit longer. You’re not making it so heavy that he can’t swim up to the top. You’re just making sure that he can take a nice big breath and you got a bit more time with him. Whenever we put a weight belt on them, there would be somebody just out of shot to make sure everything was okay and the kid wasn’t going to get in trouble.
F STOP: Do you have a general approach to lighting?
Holloway: It’s different for every shot and depends on what you’re doing. If I’m at Pinewood, I know I’m going to need absolutely tons of light. And we just start by setting up one light building from there. Let’s say I’m shooting in a pool, where it’s normally a pale space, as opposed to being black, you don’t need half as much light. So I put one or two lights and then we smooth them around.
F STOP: Are a lot of your images on your site personal work? There’s a lot up there that have more of a fashion flare.
Holloway: I’m really trying to get more fashion work. I’m doing a lot more editorials and I’ve just finished a book. It’s taken me two years and comes out in October.
F STOP: Why do you think fashion is so underwater photography friendly?
Holloway: Fashion is hugely creative and that is where I want to go. I think at the moment it’s a bit staid. When I mention underwater photography to some people they think blue pools and swimsuits but there’s so much more that could be done with it. It’s just a matter of thinking laterally.
F STOP: Can you tell us a little bit more about this book?
Holloway: It’s out in October and it is the story of the water babies. It’s about a chimney sweep who goes on an underwater adventure. It’s a classis novel written by Charles Kingsley in 1865. The whole book is shot underwater, whether or not it the story took place on land or underwater. I loved taking away all the water references. Shifting back the bubbles, removing the water surface, making a really unusual space when the viewer can’t see whether you’re underwater or not. There’s weightlessness and this sort of odd quality to it.
F STOP: Do you think anything else, aside from fashion, could really benefit from your vision of the potential of underwater photography? I wouldn’t imagine food would be one of them.
Holloway: No. I’ll draw the line there. Anything else. You just have to dream up the idea of how to shoot it. I’d love to put a car underwater.
F STOP: Have you ever done any portraiture underwater?
Holloway: No, not really.
F STOP: Is there much competition for you?
Holloway: There are a few of us around but I don’t think there is anyone else who shoots purely underwater
F STOP: Why do you think that is?
Holloway: Perhaps because it is expensive. I have back ups of all of my cameras as a safety measure. Occasionally the water gets somewhere it shouldn’t and getting hold of spares at short notice isn’t an option. Shooting underwater is an expensive activity with cameras, housings, dive kit and then spares of all of the above. The kit is really too specialized to hire
F STOP: You’re going to be the first female photographer that we feature on The F STOP and I’m excited about it. I’m curious to know why don’t you think there are more female photographers doing commercial work?
Holloway: I don’t really know. I have a family and I work it very well. I work from a home office and have an a nanny 9 to 5. It’s a good set up and I’m very lucky. I guess many other female photographers are forced to choose between a family and a career. Both take a great deal of dedication.
F STOP: Do you think that being a minority sex in the industry has any pros or cons for you? Is it easier or harder to get work?
Holloway: I don’t know. I never tried it as a bloke. I think being a photographer is quite hard as it is. It’s a competitive industry and I hope that you get judged purely on your work, not what sex you are.
F STOP: Now lets talk a little bit about your film work, the television spots you’ve done.
Does that present a lot of different challenges versus doing still photography?
Holloway: Mentally, it’s the same. You’ve got the same problems to overcome working underwater. I always find it really interesting directing, and I’d love to do more of it.
F STOP: What do you like about it?
Holloway: It’s got another element. Instead of thinking still frame; you have to think about the motion as it goes through. Then you have fun with the editing and the music that can go with it. I’d love to do more, but I’m so wrapped up and busy with my photography that I don’t get as much time as I would like to push the directing, but I think in time it will come.
F STOP: Are you also the DP (director of photography) when you direct?
Holloway: I’ve done a bit of both. I prefer being behind the camera…If you’re not the one operating, you don’t have as much control over what you catch.
F STOP: Do you have any particular dream jobs that you’ve been dying to do?
Holloway: I would love to shoot a car commercial. That’s a big project. BMW did an underwater commercial a few years ago: this girl dives off a diving board and she swims around the car that’s in a swimming pool but and there’s no water. All the water had been removed. Then the car just drives out of the pool. A beautiful commercial and really well styled. Fantastic. I’d love to shoot something like that.