Maya Almeida specialises in underwater and dance photography. Since being commissioned by well-known dance companies, and several wildlife magazines pulishing her ocean images, she is now focusing on a project that brings these worlds together. We talk to her about her creative process and what it’s like to shoot in the big blue …
CR: Can you tell us a bit about your background – how did you first get into photography?
MA: I was given my first Canon when I was 12 and photographed mainly animals, being very attracted to everything that moved. Growing up near the ocean and having a deep 3 metre pool at home meant that I started free-diving at the age of three – water was home and the only place I felt entirely comfortable.
After my undergraduate degree – which was in Biology at Imperial College, London – it took a while to get back in the water, but eventually I gained a qualification as a diver and freediver. I bought my first underwater camera housing in 2005 and started photographing the incredible dance that takes place every day in the ocean, often having to go through complex procedures to obtain permits from local Environment Agencies and photographing deep on a breath-hold (due to tanks not being permitted when diving with protected species).
After a few years cutting my teeth shooting underwater, I felt I needed some sort of formal training as my technical capabilities were limiting my creativity, so I enrolled in part-time postgraduate photography course.
A couple of years later, as a result of my love of dance, I had the opportunity to photograph dancers for an initiative called ‘Big Dance London’ during the Cultural Olympiad. One opportunity then led to another, whilst I worked and learned simultaneously, and I had the luck of spending time with great photographers like Lois Greenfield, Chris Nash and Tim Flach, and went on to photograph the English National Ballet, Cedar Lake Contemporary Dance and the Akram Khan Dance Company.
CR: What were your early creative influences?
MA: Artistic influences are hard to pinpoint, as I grew up in such a creative environment. My father is an artist in Portugal and our home was always filled with a variety of fascinating individuals. He exhibited with Dali and knew many of the greats having lived in Paris in the 50s when the art movement was huge and more intimate than today.
In my early years, I was influenced by sculpture and architecture, being drawn to dimensionality, structures and hard light, and artists such as Alberto Giacometti and Constantin Brâncuși. In terms of great photographers, I love the work and method of Sebastiao Salgado and Richard Avedon.
Dance and music have probably had the deepest impact. Inspirational choreographers for me include, Maurice Bejart, Nacho Duato, Frederic Forsythe and more recently Wayne McGregor as well as many extraordinary dancers, and composers such as Max Richter.
CR: How would you describe your aesthetic?
MA: Minimalist, surreal and dramatic.
CR: What is it about this relationship between water and photography, or art more widely, that strikes you?
MA: Art appears to handle its relationship with water in two polar extremes: we either treat water as an all-powerful exotic element to be reckoned with and dominated, or at the other extreme we tend to produce visual clichés. Personally I prefer a more ‘Neptunian’ theme of oneness – of surrendering to the source.
And for me, the thread between dance, water and light is one that is in my view absolutely coherent, which is what led me in to bring these worlds together in an underwater dance shoot in September 2013.
CR: How would you describe your process?
MA: In an underwater shoot planning is everything. Decisions on lighting, lenses, makeup, styling and the right assistant need to be made well before the shoot because once in water it’s significantly more difficult and time-consuming to make even slight modifications.
To communicate with models I make sketches of what I am looking for and speak to everyone before getting in the water. I work with two safety divers and one dive supervisor so that the dancers and I descend on a breath hold so that movements are not restricted by equipment.
There is huge creative scope because of the 360 degree shoot angle that’s only possible in water. What can then be achieved will depend on the models’ aquatic abilities and whether or not I have worked with them before. Just because someone is a good swimmer does not mean that they are natural in water.
CR: You have shot in the ocean as well as in a studio tank – what are the differences in terms of the challenges you face, and aesthetic variations?
MA: The ocean is a completely unpredictable environment. It is probably the best training ground for an aspiring photographer. Challenges include buoyancy control, constant variable light (or the lack of), visibility, water temperature, currents and learning how to deal with the unexpected. Creativity is more restricted because both environment and subject are volatile and at times potentially dangerous so aesthetic considerations are not always at the forefront. It’s possible to pre-visualize to a certain extent but whether what is planned takes place or not can depend on chance, reduced of course by experience and knowledge of the environment.
This is the most obvious difference from shooting in the controlled, sheltered setting of an underwater studio. To create striking imagery in a pool requires a more sophisticated level of lighting control and therefore of technical know-how.
CR: What is included your must-have kit?
MA: With underwater shoots the list never ends really. From a technical perspective – I always hire extra flash packs as with the humidity everything electrical can go wrong. There are many options of how to light a pool, I use 4-6 high-powered flash heads outside the pool and 1-2 underwater strobes. The biggest difference with the underwater environment is that there are huge health and safety considerations – the whole lighting system needs to be signed off by a specialist lighting gaffer due to the obvious risks.
I use a Canon 5D MKIII body housed in a Seacam underwater housing, which provides state-of-the-art optical correction. Because of the challenges with light you need fast/wide lenses, and I use a variety of prime and zoom lenses from Canon and Zeiss, some automatic, some manual, ranging from 16 – 50mm.
Other stuff… a wetsuit, weight belt, fins, extra fabrics, dresses, masks, towels… and in my case, anti-histamines, because believe it or not I’m allergic to chlorine.
CR: How much work is done in post?
MA: I keep this to a minimal. I always shoot RAW because of the need to white balance (because images tend to have a blue tonality in water). I manage the work in Lightroom, which presents great tonal control, exporting to Photoshop occasionally when there is a need for cleaning up the background or other basic adjustments.
This may change over time but at the moment I like the idea of getting things right ‘in camera’ and being out shooting rather than in front of a computer.
CR: What is the best thing about being a photographer now? And the worst?
MA: The best thing for me is without a doubt collaborating with great people. The energy that’s shared when a team works well is incredible. Because the industry has become so commoditised you can’t get away with average work, which pushes everyone to continuously strive for excellence. The worst: tight budgets!
Behind the scenes video
For more visit www.mayaalmeida.com.