responsiveslider_lol_02 The Language of Light DVD - More
MeetJoe_02 Meet Joe McNally - More
inthebag What’s in the Bag? - More

Under the Waves

Aug 8

In In The Field at 12:08pm

The New York Times just did a piece on the grabbing and grappling that goes on under the surface during the very tough sport of water polo. It’s rough down there. Water polo athletes are amazing aerobic machines, constantly jockeying for position, levering their bodies high out of the water for shots, and fighting through opposing blockers and grabbers. The submerged WWE matches that occur are all just part of the game to the players. But, all that underwater strategizing was one of the reasons I once took the entire 2000 version of the U.S. women’s water polo below the surface for a portrait. It was a hoot.

I’ve got a huge, huge American flag I’ve used at the behest of Sports Illustrated, LIFE and National Geographic many times. So, I simply took the flag and put it in the pool, and let the team get creative. The above ran as a two page spread in SI.

Lighting this type of scene is simple in terms of structure, but daunting in terms of volume. To do this, I laid down a 20’x20′ silk on a frame right over the water. How you do this is to sand bag the hell out of the frame corners resting on the deck, and then tie rope to the far corners. Those ropes run up to high rollers, again thoroughly sand bagged. You basically construct a primitive pulley system and just gently lower this huge diffuser down to where it is inches about the water line. Then you pump six 2400ws units through it. I used Speedotrons out of the SI bank of gear for this. Underwater, you trigger the whole mess with a flash running off of your underwater camera. That lights up a slave eye that is dangling at water’s edge. That, in turn, fires all the packs. Trust me, all those huge packs are safety roped and backed off the water. It would not be a good headline…”Sports Illustrated Photographer Electrocutes Entire US Water Polo Team.”

Shot the pix with a Nikon RS camera, an underwater SLR that they, sadly, no longer make. I loved that camera, despite its tendency to flood. Great array of lenses, and for an underwater rig, eminently focus-able and handy. I’d wait underwater with two or three bodies, and the water polo ladies would confer up top about what to try, and then just all jump in. It was awesome, kind of like being depth charged with beautiful, athletic women. Below is my favorite frame of the take, albeit not really a storytelling, publishable image. A shot like this just goes away in the rush to publish a weekly, but it has a certain randomness I’ve always enjoyed.

More tk…

April Vest says:

on August 8, 2012 at 1:56 pm

YOU are so amazing. I have your book and follow you and I just love your work, your creativity, your attitude and you knowledge. Don’t ever stop!

Gene Simonalle says:

on August 8, 2012 at 2:01 pm

Wow. Love the story of how you lighted this. Did you put the strobes out over the water on booms or rely on the light coming in off the edges? And if you’re feeling extra generous, how would you light it today?


Alex Atienza says:

on August 8, 2012 at 2:02 pm

Awesome! Thanks for this blog Joe. I’ve been trying underwater photography lately and my current problem involves triggering lights.

Brian Powell says:

on August 8, 2012 at 2:11 pm

Wow Joe… great product on a really challenging vision. This is why you’re the man, socks and boots and all!

Barb Rice says:

on August 8, 2012 at 2:15 pm

Fantastic comp. I love to dream and be inspired by your work; thanks so much for sharing! GO USA!!!

Pete Tsai says:

on August 8, 2012 at 2:15 pm

Such cool Olympic assignments Joe! Was this the same flag used to make the mirrored sunglass shot?

Joe Masucci says:

on August 8, 2012 at 4:11 pm

Awesome shots. I wonder how you would have approached the assignment knowing you could only use one or two SB-910’s 😉

Andre Blais says:

on August 8, 2012 at 4:27 pm

Great stuff Joe!!

Steve Pomeroy says:

on August 8, 2012 at 7:12 pm

Thanks for sharing the technique and story, fascinating, with great results.

Ken Dobson says:

on August 8, 2012 at 8:35 pm

Always creative. Love it.

Simon says:

on August 8, 2012 at 11:17 pm

Wow. What sort of assistance did you have doing this shoot Joe? I imagine it would have been a lot of work, and pretty ‘interesting’ getting everything safely into position. This one would make for a great lighting diagram I’m sure.

Matt Brown says:

on August 9, 2012 at 12:54 am

Excellent!!! This reminds me of the Belmont pool in CA where i played waterpolo back then. I cant imagine what lighting/camera challenges you first saw when you walked up to this blank canvas. You make it look so easy. Thanks for another great image.

Bob says:

on August 9, 2012 at 8:43 am


You had me at “like being depth charged with beautiful, athletic women”


Gale Bizet says:

on August 9, 2012 at 8:54 am

One word, well maybe a couple



Thanks for sharing this one:>)))

Best Regards,

Harald Harnang says:

on August 9, 2012 at 9:38 am

Amazing, but the creativity is not unexpected – from you. Thanks for sharing. H :-)

Linnea says:

on August 10, 2012 at 11:18 am

Fun colours and movement, makes you stop and really look.

callmebob says:

on August 12, 2012 at 11:57 am

I used to be impressed when I read your posts because they were so unusual. Now, I’ve come to realize that unusual is your norm and I am impressed when I finish reading and realize you didn’t let anyone down. :)

Nicolle says:

on July 12, 2013 at 10:17 am

That was a fun shoot! And a bonus workout!

Leave a Reply