Tips + Techniques

Turn a Pool into an Epic Underwater Studio with Kristina Sherk  

February 14, 2024

By Hillary Grigonis

Underwater photography creates the illusion of defying gravity, but it also escalates the challenges. While Kristina Sherk is primarily known for her Washington, DC headshot photography and Photoshop courses, her passion is underwater photography, even when that means planning every breath and worrying about things like whether or not the lights will float away. Sherk recently shared a behind-the-scenes look at how she created a full studio set-up, including lighting and a backdrop, inside a swimming pool. The result is a stunning, colorful portrait worthy of a sea goddess. 

Sherk explains that the session was a personal shoot designed for sparking creativity and exploring. “I try to do at least three creative ‘growth focused’ shoots a year in order to always keep learning and growing,” she says. “They’re always so much fun, and it’s hard not to learn through trial and error.”  

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For this shoot, Sherk worked closely with Robbert Minnick, a fellow underwater photographer, who with Sherk hosts an annual underwater photography and modeling workshop in The Bahamas. Minnick graciously allowed Sherk to use his pool at the Chesapeake Bay Diving Center in Virginia Beach. Besides providing the 16-foot pool “studio,” Minnick also helped plan out the lighting. Sherk sketched out some ideas and sent them over to Minnick. Besides having a background in international opera set design, Minnick was also able to calculate if the lights would sink or float using Archimedes’ principle, which Sherk refers to as “math genius sorcery.” His calculations helped inform how to hang the lights underwater. 

The lights in question were Nanlite Pavo tubes and their underwater housing. Using an app, the lights can be set to different colors or to randomly loop for more variety. The team used two tall C stands laying on the side of the pool deck to reach out into the water, then secured the lights using Hollywood clamps and boom arms so the lights extended vertically into the water. 

Wanting to exaggerate the natural reflections created at the surface of the pool, Sherk used a plexiglass mirror at the bottom of the shallow end. A black vinyl backdrop eliminated distractions so the model, the lights and the reflections could be the star of the image. 

© Kristina Sherk

Sherk cautions that finding models with underwater experience is incredibly important. For this shoot, she called in a local underwater performing group, Sisterhood of Sirens, and asked them to bring bright neon and iridescent costumes. “Underwater photography shoots are always challenging, even on the days when everything goes right,” Sherk says. “The model is unable to see the photographer, hear the photographer, heck — they can’t even breathe while the shoot is going on! Plus, if they turn their heads too far upwards, water rushes into their sinuses and causes excruciating pain. All the while, they need to look beautiful and graceful. It’s a lot to ask of a model. And it’s incredibly important to work with models who have experience modeling underwater.” 

“If the models are at all inexperienced or if they are in water deeper than they can stand, I always have a safety diver in the water making sure the model is ok,” Sherk adds. “Underwater models can quickly become tangled in fabric, or lose their orientation because of the nature of the shoots so having a safety diver is extremely important.” 

© Kristina Sherk

While this shoot involved a lot of planning, Sherk says that her creative shoots are all about exploring and learning through trial and error. Sherk’s two favorite images from the session involved happy accidents. At one part of the shoot, the light came unclamped, but the experienced model grabbed onto it and continued posing, creating a triangle rather than the original planned rectangle. “At that point, as soon as I saw the new shape (a triangle instead of a rectangle) I knew we needed to keep it like that,” Sherk said. “That was happy accident number one. I never envisioned the lights in a triangle shape, but it worked so much better in the image.” 

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The second accidental discovery came as the larger of the Nanlite tubes ran out of battery after running at full power for more than an hour. Not quite ready to leave the water yet, Sherk asked model Staci to free-style while holding the smaller light tubes — a decision that resulted in her favorite image of the entire session. Before heading underwater, Sherk walked Staci through how to hold the lights to avoid overexposing the face or unflattering up lighting. “Since she was holding the only light sources in the image, not only would she be responsible for modeling, but also for holding the lighting that was illuminating her! Not an easy ask,” Sherk says. 

For that final freestyle image, Sherk flipped the image upside down in Photoshop, making the model appear as if she’s floating above the water ripples rather than underneath it. Jackie Sera Retouching finished the image. 

© Kristina Sherk

5 Underwater Lighting Tips from Kristina Sherk 

  1. Lighting looks different underwater. Because of how light travels through atmosphere (water or air), all colors of light receive a blue tinge when taking a colored light underwater. You’ll need to compensate for that. Making your light colors a little warmer than you would like in the air will translate to the right color under the water.  
  2. Underwater light can be a double edged sword. It allows you to illuminate your subject, but it also illuminates everything else floating in the water column between your lens and your model. Try to shoot with the widest lens you have, so you can decrease the amount of water between you and your subject. This will decrease the amount of particulate that is illuminated by your underwater lights. Also try to make sure the water you are shooting in is as clean as possible.  
  3. When shooting in open water, use on camera flash to fill in shadows. I often turn my models so their backs are facing the sun. Then I use my strobe to illuminate them. This protects them from getting specular highlights from where the sun is refracted while passing through the ripples on the top of the water.  
  4. When shooting with a black backdrop in the water, try to condense the spill of the light as much as possible. Use grids on your modifiers to make sure the light only goes where you want it to go, and not on the background.  
  5. Fun fact: When photographing faces underwater, you will never see catch lights. It’s something to do with the refraction of the light rays. I think it’s super cool.  

Follow Kristina Sherk on Instagram for more underwater photography and tips. 


Kristina Sherk is a retoucher and Photoshop educator based. She loves “translating Photoshop” for photographers, and her ability to teach retouching is second to none. Her WPPI seminars are on LightRoom mobile and using AI for portraits. Her Photo Walk is called Enhance Headshots with Catchlights: Striking a Balance Between Natural and Constant Light.

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