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September 2015

Maya Almeida: ‘Beneath the Surface’ with the EOS 5DS

Photographer and filmmaker Maya Almeida is carving out a growing reputation for her images of dance on dry land and fashion shot underwater. In an exclusive interview she spoke to CPN about her work and why the 50.6 Megapixel EOS 5DS DSLR proved invaluable for her recent underwater beauty project ‘Beneath the Surface’.

It's little surprise that Maya Almeida shoots a lot of her work underwater, as she explains: “The beginning of it [my career] was water, rather than a camera. I’m a free diver and I’m hugely connected to water. I grew up in Cascais [Portugal] with an ocean metres from me and, after spending ages in the water and loving photography, it made sense that I should try and get a camera down there.”

© Maya Almeida

Please click on the window above to watch a behind-the-scenes film of photographer Maya Almeida shooting the underwater beauty project ‘Beneath the Surface’ with an EOS 5DS DSLR.

Initially Maya shot editorial and natural history imagery in oceans for about eight years and then faced the decision to either be constantly travelling or to base herself in London. “A mentor of mine said to me ‘you’ve got to be shooting stuff that you can shoot every day to integrate with your life. Frankly you're so creative that the only way you're going to do that is to control the whole environment.’ I eventually started putting people in water and from there on I became completely addicted to controlling everything to do with cameras, water and light, which was the complete opposite from where things started.”

Maya’s mentor was Zoe Whishaw, a former Director of Photography for Getty Images Europe, and she was also influenced by photographer Tim Flach during her transition to shooting more commercial work. She adds: “During that transition period I ended up in Shoreditch, London, knocking on his [Flach’s] door and saying ‘can I come and assist you and learn about lights?’ So I interned there for a few weeks and he’s now a friend and he’s been amazing.”

Her decision to base herself in London means Maya now combines her two loves – dance and water. Her dance photography ‘guru’ was Lois Greenfield, who she assisted in New York, and she learnt how to shape light by visiting lighting manufacturer Broncolor in Basel, Switzerland.

Workhorse cameras

Of her usual camera equipment for shooting, Maya reveals: “I use the [EOS] 5D Mark III – it’s kind of my workhorse. The Mark III has a great ISO capability and I did a lot of fast moving theatre shooting where the light is a disaster and where the autofocus needs to be absolutely fantastic. For that I use it with the EF70-200mm [zoom lens] – that’s a great set-up. For portraiture I use the EF85mm f/1.2L.”

© Maya Almeida

Model Ana Casian pictured underwater in a still from the ‘Beneath the Surface’ shoot. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS with an EF24mm f/1.4L II USM lens; the exposure was 1/200sec at f/16, ISO 100.

She explains: “For underwater it’s completely different. In underwater [photography] the closer you are to your subject; the more rich the colour and you need to work with distortion. For example, a 14mm lens is way too distorted for people. My workhorse underwater is the 5D Mark III and the EF24mm f/1.4L II USM. That’s an extraordinary lens – it’s just wide enough and it’s not distorted to the point that it bothers me. The 35mm is just a little bit too narrow for how close I need to get and I think the 24mm is a better lens.”

Maya says: “I always use spot metering. I always use flash heads – in the water and out of the water. That’s why 95% of the time I will have my ISO set at 100. I use a maximum shutter speed of 1/200th of a second – 1/160sec to 1/200sec is the maximum to be able to sync that flash and not to get that curtain thing going on. In terms of f-stops, generally I’ll be shooting at about f/11. For some portraits, if I switch off the flash, I’ll probably go to f/4.5 to f/5.6 if I want to do something really shallow [in terms of depth-of-field] that I love, I’ve got natural light and I’m maybe just using one light on my housing. But generally it’s f/11 at ISO 100.”

She adds: “I always shoot RAW and I use autofocus on some lenses but not on others. On the 24mm I generally always autofocus because it’s fantastic with that and if I’m doing macro work with a Canon 100mm I tend to manually focus, but it depends on the type of work.”

The ‘Beneath the Surface’ project

For her latest underwater beauty project, ‘Beneath the Surface’ – which she describes as “a study of the unseen female psyche” – the idea was to shoot models close-up rather than wide-angle. Maya explains: “A make-up artist, Sara Menitra, who mainly works in the film industry, approached me about a year and a half ago to do this and she said ‘I’ve never seen underwater beauty work – it’s always wide-angle’. Maybe it’s to do with the fact that the make-up doesn't stay on and the fact that it’s very difficult to get really crisp underwater pictures up close; it’s very different getting the wide stuff to getting in close. We started talking about this project and she was going to be in Lisbon at a time that I was coming from a shoot in Spain so I thought ‘let’s co-ordinate this’.”

© Maya Almeida

Model Alline de Menezes pictured underwater in a still from the ‘Beneath the Surface’ shoot. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS with an EF24mm f/1.4L II USM lens; the exposure was 1/200sec at f/13, ISO 100.

She reveals: “I had huge trouble finding a pool. One of the major considerations is a pool that is not normally considered warm, say 25 degrees, that’s freezing for an underwater shoot. One thing is spending 20 minutes in a pool, or in my case nine or 10 hours, but for a model who doesn’t have a wetsuit on… after 30 minutes they're cold, they're cringing and they're not giving me the right energy, so it’s very difficult. In London you have purpose built pools but the cost is huge, whereas in Lisbon I knew I had cost-effective options, so I found a pool that had a heat pump that warmed up the water. To co-ordinate with the make-up artist and get a cost-effective solution was the reason I did it here [in Portugal].”

Maya has used custom-built Seacam camera housings throughout her career, with cameras such as the EOS 6D and the EOS 5D Mark III, and as she had procured a 50.6 Megapixel EOS 5DS for the shoot she had to be sure it would fit. “There’s a hire place in Lisbon, where I hired all my lights from, who happened to have a [5DS] body around and I just made sure [it fitted the housing] before the camera was shipped to me. Everything fitted perfectly; everything was exactly the same [as with the 5D Mark III], which is great.”

She adds: “There are customisations – for example, on the underwater housing I have separate bulkheads which attach to a cable that then sets off the flashes outside of the pool. Different people will have different types of bulkheads and you don’t link it up directly to the flash heads because of health and safety – you link it up to a device that triggers them. I use Broncolor flash heads – Grafit A4s.”

Maya reveals: “It was a three-day shoot. The challenge for me with this shoot was mainly keeping the stability and the temperature of the water and because it wasn’t a commercial pool – a purpose built underwater stage, which is what I normally use – the clarity of the water was not perfect. There’s a big difference between a clean domestic pool and a clean professional pool.”

“To be honest it’s all about planning. Something will always go wrong but I have to plan the shots because once I’m in the water everything takes longer. That’s why it’s so important to have some of your scenes pre-planned. Once you have that as a backbone that’s not to say that other ideas don't come to you and they did [in this case]. Within the creative process, especially when things are well planned, I’m surprised by how much occurs to me whilst I’m shooting, which is wonderful.”

Composition and focusing underwater

Not surprisingly, for Maya shooting underwater is more of a challenge than working on dry land. “It’s a bit more difficult than [shooting] out of water and the reason is, depending on the type of water we’re talking about, your buoyancy changes. The pool I used was not cleaned with chlorine – I picked a pool that was cleaned with oxygen so the models wouldn't have any issues with their eyes, because that would take off the make-up and all that sort of thing.”

© Maya Almeida

Model Mariana Rebocho pictured underwater in a still from the ‘Beneath the Surface’ shoot. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS with an EF24mm f/1.4L II USM lens; the exposure was 1/200sec at f/14, ISO 100.

She adds: “When you clean a pool with oxygen you become more buoyant and especially if you’re doing close-up shots – where someone needs to be more or less still and there needs to be a co-ordination between the shooter and the subject – that throws up all kinds of challenges. What I do is I have tons of lead and I load up their ankles, and mine, and I have a weight belt on. Everything is always more difficult in water because you have your mask, a viewfinder, a dome port – there’s more between you and your subject and that’s why, for example, if you use an autofocus lens it has to be fantastic. If you manually focus you have to have the buoyancy absolutely right.”

Maya reveals: “A lot of people – underwater photographers – told me about a year ago when I thought of manually focusing these lenses underwater they said ‘forget it; you can't manual focus in the water up close – it can't be done; you’ve got too many things between you and the subject – the viewfinder, the mask fogs up, you can't do it.’ That does drive me on sometimes.”

Working with the EOS 5DS

When talking about working with the EOS 5DS Maya admits: “I used it pretty much as I do the Mark III – there was one difference in the autofocus capability, so I went into autofocus and I believe that it had the better AF capability. I do a lot of post-production and I kept the crop ratio pretty standard. Even in terms of white balance [settings] I stayed with Flash or Custom; and for Picture Styles I always go into Faithful. I keep everything pretty RAW and then I post-produce all of it because of the whole [keeping] control thing.”

After the recent ‘Beneath the Surface’ shoot, Maya was impressed with the EOS 5DS: “For the size of those files it was faster than I thought it’d be. I just got a kick-ass memory card and I didn't feel much of a difference between my normal workhorse [the 5D Mark III] and that camera. I don’t go on autodrive – the way that I shoot is that I do one [picture] and then another. I shot with an old, bulky Hasselblad 503 with a leaf shutter so [continuous] is not my style of shooting. Frames per second is irrelevant to me – it's the flash that does the business.”

© Maya Almeida

Model Ana Casian pictured in a still from the ‘Beneath the Surface’ shoot. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS with an EF24mm f/1.4L II USM lens; the exposure was 1/200sec at f/22, ISO 100.

She adds: “It’s an intuitive, small physical tool with high quality output – that is the main thing for me. The improved dynamic range and level of detail I got zooming in at 100% is fabulous and the file size step up in quality now opens up the scope for huge prints with a DSLR body. One nice-to-have feature, which is relevant to me, is the SuperSpeed USB 3.0 which would be useful for outside water when I shoot tethered.”

She explains: “The kind of work that I do, a lot of my private clients really like big prints and I don’t feel that the Mark III can always do that. So it [the 5DS] gives me that with freedom of picking up a body that I’m so familiar with and that’s just so easy to handle. I find the whole Canon [EOS] system so intuitive; maybe it's because I’ve been using it for so long but I find it’s almost like part of my hand. I don’t have to think about it, so obviously that’s a huge advantage versus a medium format [camera] where they’re not as intuitive.”

Maya notes: “From my perspective [from the 5DS] you’re getting incredibly high quality and files sizes that you can put in front of any client but with a body that’s small, lightweight compared with medium format and where you have all these lenses that are fast, responsive and small. For the quality and size of file that you're getting you’ve actually got a pretty nimble little system. It’s something that you could carry around with you – if you're putting a 50mm lens on the body it’s almost like a point-and-shoot compared to a medium format [camera]. So, it’s a ‘no-brainer’ if you want to be more versatile with it.”

Editing and workflow

After shooting Maya has a fairly straightforward workflow: “It’s very simple – I use Lightroom as my file management system. I basically organise everything into Capture, Select, Master and Output. Then, from the ‘Selects,’ I export the TIFFs into Photoshop and I edit there; then I put them into Master with all the layers, which I can go back and change. Then I have my Output, which is the set size, either to send to clients as a lower res or to put to my website etc. So it’s fairly organised nowadays – that’s my every day workflow.”

She adds: “I do have a process – because with underwater there’s always a couple of little things in the water. So, the first thing I will do, either myself or if I’m working with a client that needs an image tomorrow I will on occasion use a retoucher, is I’ll clean up the image first and then I will work on skin to make sure it’s even, and then I’ll touch up a little bit on levels. I’m pretty much a purist when it comes to photography and until about two years ago I barely used Photoshop – just a little bit in Lightroom and that was pretty much it. Most of it is really done in-camera – that’s because of using a great light system and taking the time [to get things right].”

Future projects

When CPN spoke to Maya she was looking for magazine publishers for the ‘Beneath the Surface’ work and was shooting privately commissioned underwater portraits in Lisbon before working on a black and white music video for an artist in London. She also had a couple of exhibitions in the pipeline with a client in Gothenburg, Sweden, wanting to show some of her underwater wide-angle prints and her experimental underwater work was exhibited as part of the 125LIVE exhibition for outstanding innovation in photography in London from 9-20 October 2015.

As to her central ethos, Maya says: “I take pictures for myself more. Sometimes there’s a little bit of an ego thing in that I want to do something that hasn't been done before. I like the idea that if something is difficult or challenging… I want to nail it!”

Maya Almeida’s kitbag

2x EOS 5D Mark III

EF24mm f/1.4L II USM
EF35mm f/1.4L USM
EF85mm f/1.2L II USM
EF100mm f/2.8L Macro USM

Seacam underwater camera housing
2x Inon Z-240 underwater strobes with 3x sync cables
Broncolor Grafit A4 or Scoro A4 power packs with 4-6 heads


  • 50.6 Megapixel full-frame CMOS sensor with ISO 100-6400 (Lo: 50 and H1: 12,800) sensitivity range.
  • Low-pass cancellation filter for maximum sensor resolution.
  • Dual DIGIC 6 Processors for outstanding image processing speed and camera responsiveness.
  • 5 frames per second (fps) with selectable burst speeds and silent shutter mode.
  • 61-point wide area AF with 41 cross-type sensors with iTR, AI Servo AF III and AF Configuration tool.
  • 150k pixel RGB+IR metering sensor.
  • 100% magnification Intelligent Viewfinder II with electronic overlay.
  • 1.3x, 1.6x and 1:1 ratio crop modes with masked viewfinder display.
  • Mirror Vibration Control System to reduce mirror vibration blur.
  • Fine Detail Picture Style.
  • CF + SD (UHS-I) dual memory card slots.
  • Peripheral Illumination and Chromatic Aberration Lens Correction in camera.
  • Multiple Exposure and HDR mode.
  • Customisable Quick Control screen.
  • Built-in timer functionality – bulb timer and interval shooting timer.
  • Time-lapse Movie function.
  • SuperSpeed USB 3.0 for high-speed tethering and image/movie transfer.
  • 150,000 shutter cycle life.
  • Compatible with most EOS 5D Mark III accessories (note: for the WFT-E7 new USB cables required and firmware updated).

Biografía: Maya Almeida

Maya Almeida

Portuguese photographer Maya Almeida has spent over a decade photographing motion and form. Primarily self-taught she holds a Bachelor of Science from Imperial College and a Masters from The Photography Institute. Her early work consisted of editorial images underwater but the fusion of water and human motion occurred due to being involved with the UK Performing Arts scene. Her fine art images are in public and private collections and she has worked with clients such as Sadlers Wells, The English National Ballet and The Nureyev Medical Foundation. Her work was part of a multimedia installation at the Arles Salon in France 2012 and in 2015 she won bronze awards in the OneEyeland competition in the Fine Art and People categories.


A model emerging from the water in a still from the ‘Beneath the Surface’ shoot. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS with an EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens; the exposure was 1/200sec at f/11, ISO 100.