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Interviews

Howard Schatz on underwater portraits with EOS DSLRs

Howard Schatz on underwater portraits with EOS DSLRs

© Howard Schatz

March 2013

A pioneer of the digital underwater portrait, Howard Schatz has refined his technique over many years of experience and now, recently paired with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III, he’s raising the bar even further, as CPN Editor David Corfield discovers…

© Howard Schatz

Underwater Study #1. Schatz’s first ever digital underwater image, which he still rates as one of his best. Taken on a Canon EOS-1Ds with an EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens at 40mm; the exposure was 1/60sec at f/11, ISO 200.

There aren’t many photographers like Howard Schatz. He’s at an age now where lesser men would hang up their cameras and contemplate a quiet retrospective in a gallery somewhere, but not Mr. Schatz, not a bit of it. The very thought, in fact, is enough to send this genius of the underwater image into a creative maelstrom as he finds ever more exciting ways to push himself – and his photography – to new heights. Or should that be depths?

Schatz ignores my ridiculous pun and looks me square in the eye through his webcam. It’s 8am in California and he’s just come in from jogging. “Let’s get right down to business: I’m driven by quality,” he explains. “And I only ever work with the highest quality cameras to get the results I demand. I’m a tough worker – I shoot pretty much every day – and the equipment I use gets one heck of a pounding... it’s one of the reasons I switched to Canon eight years ago, because I knew they were producing the very best tools for the job. I’ve never had any reason to change.”

© Howard Schatz

Underwater Study #3223. Taken on a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III with an EF16-35mm f/2.8L USM lens at 17mm; the exposure was 1/60sec at f/11, ISO 200.

Howard Schatz has been shooting for the last 20 years, having given up on a career as a retinal surgeon after the lure of another type of lens got the better of him. It’s his underwater work, involving dancers and – later – celebrities, that caught the world’s attention and Schatz points out that it’s basketball in particular which he has to thank for it.

“In 1990 my wife and I bought a piece of land in Marin County, California, just north of San Francisco, and we designed a house together. I am very athletic and I wanted an indoor swimming pool that had a basketball hoop on the wall at just the right height for me to shoot baskets while I was in the pool.”

“It was while I was shooting baskets that I got thinking about taking photographs underwater,” Schatz reveals. “One day I got splashed in the eyes by the ball landing right in front of me, so I put on a pair of goggles. It was at that moment that I realised how interesting the world under the water looked…”

© Howard Schatz

Underwater Study #3222. Taken on a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III with an EF16-35mm f/2.8L USM lens at 17mm; the exposure was 1/60sec at f/11, ISO 200.

Howard Schatz knew straightaway that he was onto something, and rushed out to buy an underwater housing for his camera. On the way back he invited some friends to join him in the pool so that he could try out the housing and see if he could get some interesting images.

“I realised this underwater world was magic,” he admits. “I could see that under the water there was this beautifully weightless environment. So, for the next six months, I began to explore ways of making images underwater. Nobody could help me with the technique either, because all the other underwater photographers I knew went deep underwater with scuba gear and lights – whereas all I wanted to do was shoot human beings.”

“I had to learn about composition, resolution, colour correction, lighting, water chemistry, water temperature and a host of other things before I was ready to do this properly,” he recalls. “I made careful notes and over the course of six months I discovered how to make a great image that I had complete control over.”

Schatz started working with a prima ballerina from the San Francisco Ballet, British-born Katita Waldo, who was very happy to have Howard Schatz photograph her in a weightless environment. “The adversary of dance is gravity,” Schatz warns. “And underwater, where there is none, you can make glorious pictures. From those early sessions with Katita I realised I was onto something. In fact some of those pictures from that first shoot are among the best I have ever made.”

A purpose-built photographic pool

Howard Schatz’s stunning images of ballerinas underwater had soon caught the eye of fashion magazines and in mid-1995 he published a book called ‘Water Dance’, which led to a number of shoots that elevated him even higher in art circles. “By 2002 we decided to buy a property in upstate Connecticut and I had another pool made,” he explains. “But this time a proper, photographic pool because by now I had become an expert.”


© Howard Schatz

Underwater Study #3200. Taken on a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III with an EF16-35mm f/2.8L USM lens at 30mm; the exposure was 1/60sec at f/11, ISO 200.

“I built the studio pool with glass walls, so that I could light it properly with flash. I had a dome built over the top of it too so that it was totally safe. We use Broncolor flash because I can control the flash duration. To get perfect images underwater you need a flash duration of 1/2000sec at least,” he advises, “and Broncolor offers very good control over the strobe speed.”

Of course, by now you are probably thinking that with all this flash equipment set up next to water, models would be less than enthusiastic about dipping a toe in… Howard Schatz explains: “The rule is never to have a strobe pack or head within 10 feet of the pool – I have all sorts of safety measures in place for obvious reasons.”

Exposure and colour temperatures are calculated with the aid of an underwater grey card in the pool. “My assistant stands by the side of the pool with it [the grey card] attached to a long pole and he puts it in front of the subject for me to get a light reading and adjust my settings,” he explains. “In camera RAW we correct colour – it’s not an issue, especially with the EOS-1D X and the 5D Mark III.

“I carry the EOS 5D [Mark III] with me all the time – it’s light and I use it a lot with the EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens. I love that camera – we’ve blown up images 18 feet high and they interpolate wonderfully.” Schatz is suitably ebullient over the camera, and is quick to praise its focusing and superb resolution.

© Howard Schatz

Underwater Study #132. Taken on a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III with an EF16-35mm f/2.8L USM lens at 35mm; the exposure was 1/125sec at f/11, ISO 200.

He reveals: “For most of my underwater images I shot with the EOS-1Ds Mark III before changing over to the EOS-1D X last year. The full-frame sensor just gives me that absolute guarantee of the highest quality. In my opinion nothing can touch Canon in DSLR terms.”

Howard Schatz is now busier than he’s ever been. “There are many projects that I’m involved with, because I like to shoot every day. I have up to 20 projects on the go at any one time – I’m my own worst enemy!” he laughs. “We have a full-time producer now at the studio in New York and her job is to keep me out of my office and in my studio during the week. I want to be shooting, I love photography – especially now. It’s so exciting.”

“I don’t like looking back at my work,” Schatz admits. “I shoot to find new treasures. I like to surprise and delight myself first and foremost. For me, that’s what keeps me young – and keeps the business afloat!”

Howard Schatz’s tips for underwater portraits:


  • Stay close to your subject. Water reduces colour, contrast, and sharpness.
  • For best composition get low, and shoot at an upwards angle, and try to fill your frame with the subject. Don’t shoot looking down at the subject as distortion from the water will ruin the image.
  • Always make sure the subject’s eyes are in focus.
  • Perfect your diving skills before you start using a camera underwater.
  • Practice using and handling your camera inside the housing before going underwater – your knowledge of the equipment should be intuitive.
  • Use manual or aperture priority modes, so you can control the balance between ambient light and the light from your flash.
  • If you are shooting with natural light, shoot in 20 feet of water or less, with the sun behind you.
  • For quickest focus, use spot focus mode.
  • If your underwater photographs don’t look sharp, check to see which shutter speed was used; as a rule 1/30sec for still objects, 1/60sec for slow moving objects, and 1/125sec or faster for moving subjects.
  • Most underwater photographs of people will need an increase in contrast when post-processing - but don’t overdo it.

Technical

Howard Schatz’s kitbag

Cameras:

EOS-1D X
EOS-1Ds Mark III
EOS 5D Mark III

Lenses:

EF16-35mm f/2.8L USM
EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM
EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM

Accessories:

Seacam underwater housing
Broncolor Unilite flash system

Biography: Howard Schatz

Howard Schatz

Howard Schatz was born in Chicago, USA. He trained as a retina specialist at Johns Hopkins University and while living and practicing as a retina specialist in San Francisco, started working as a fine art photographer, turning professional in 1994. The photographs of Howard Schatz are exhibited in museums and photography galleries internationally and are included in many private collections. He has received international acclaim for his work, which has been published in 18 monographs. His most recently published, ‘With child’, is the result of a 20-year long exploration of the landscape of the human body in the last two weeks of pregnancy. Most recently, Sports Illustrated magazine published Schatz’s study of boxing and boxers from his book ‘At the Fights: Inside the World of Professional Boxing’.



Showcase

Pascale LeRoy #1. Taken on a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III with an EF24-70mm f/2.8L lens at 50mm; the exposure was 1/60sec at f/11, ISO 200.