Photographer Steve Haining didn’t only take gorgeous underwater photos that you’ll absolutely enjoy looking at – they also landed him a Guinness World Record. Yup, Steve broke the world record for the deepest underwater portrait shoot! While doing something like this is no joke, it actually started as one, and Steve shared details of this incredible accomplishment with DIYP.
An idea born out of restrictions… And a joke
Steve’s idea was born in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. And as I mentioned, it started as a joke between Steve and his friends. “I was already diving and messing around with underwater portraiture in pools and controlled environments when the lockdowns and business shutdowns happened,” Steve tells DIYP. “At the time, they were saying we couldn’t work in the studio because we would be in each other’s air space, so jokingly I was bugging my team to get suited up in their dive gear so we could each have private air and be safe while we shoot.”
“Well, that idea turned into maybe we should just shoot underwater, and then that idea combined with my bucket list goal of diving the icy waters of Tobermory, Ontario, in the shipwreck capital of the world to create the passion project that landed me the Guinness world record of “deepest underwater portrait shoot (no scuba.)” What would have normally just been a pipe dream for me kind of became a reality out of the sheer drive to simply do something cool during a time in history where I was unable to create artwork by no choice of my own, and so really, that’s what happened.”
Planning, practice, and breaking the record
For over a month, Steve practiced with Ciara Antoski, a model who was also a diver. She trained to hold her breath in cold water, preparing for the conditions they would face in Tobermory. As Steve tells us, she was really dedicated, practicing even on her own. Alongside his model, he recruited an experienced dive safety professional, Mareesha Klups. She also works as an underwater escape artist for Penn & Teller. What a great team!
“The deepest dive we did with the model was 32 ft for an incredible 30 minutes at depth with the model borrowing air and navigating the WL Wetmore wreck,” Steve tells us. “Though we did visit and shoot at several locations including just practice shore dives the first day to make sure it was even going to be possible to achieve.”
“We didn’t know that this was going to be a Guinness world record, but we did submit it, and that began a really cool relationship with Guinness as well. The extent of evidence they require, video proof of the entire process, documented depths, nautical charts approved by the government, and proof of the location. It was probably the most paperwork I’ve done in my life. At the end of it, Guinness approved the record for 16 minutes at 21 ft at a higher part of the Wetmore. IT wasn’t the deepest spot, but I was excited and beyond happy to take it simply because I couldn’t [provide] the dive computers and information for the deeper dive. Had I known I needed better documentation I certainly would have been prepared, but this was about the photos, not about the record.”
How did the shoot go?
As already mentioned, Ciara spent months practicing in pools and controlled environments, even holding her breath in ice water to prepare for the three-day shoot. On the first day, Steve and the team reviewed logistics and safety on land with Mareesha, the dive safety partner. To test the waters, they did a shallow dive from the shore, about 20 feet out, to see if Ciara could handle the cold and if the shoot was even possible.
After a successful first day, Steve, Ciara, and Mareesha took a boat to several wrecks on the second day. Mareesha and Steve dived first to survey the wreck and find the shoot locations, angles, lighting, poses, and potential hazards. Afterward, they briefed Ciara on the plan and took her to the wreck for the shoot.
One of the many interesting things about this shoot is the communication. There’s no talking and directing the models at this depth! Other than the standard sign language that divers use to communicate, Steve tells us that they also had to build their own communication for other things in order to execute the shoot.
“There [were] never any expectations,” Steve tells DIYP. “I have worked with Ciara often, and I always push her.”
“We have a trusting relationship, but the whole shoot itself was pushing her far beyond every single one of us out there, so she knew there were no expectations – we would just do what we could, and if we couldn’t, then we would just surface warm up and get her in a suit and just go for a fun dive. There was no pressure.”
During the photo shoot, Ciara went above and beyond by staying submerged in freezing depths while wearing only a dress. She remained there for up to 30 minutes at a time, displaying incredible determination. However, in the interest of her safety, Mareesha and Steve had to cut the shoot short during her longest dive. Steve tells us that Ciara’s strength and bravery in subjecting her body to such pressure make her the true hero of this shoot. And I can’t help but agree. What a trooper!
The underwater gear
Being “a Fuji medium format guy,” as he says, Steve took these shots with the Fujifilm XT3 body fit inside the only housings he had at the time. “When you shoot under water you have to keep colour and visibility in mind,” Steve explains, “so wider lenses are your friend.”
“The further you are from the subject the more sediment in the water to dirty up the image, as well the deeper and further you are from your shot the more you lose colours like yellow, orange and even reds and magentas as you go deeper.”
Because of all this, Steve shot between 20-35mm for the entire shoot. He used an Aquatech Elite housing, and he has only words of praise about it (in case you’re looking into buying one). For the lighting, Steve used very high-powered constant lights, not strobes. The reason: you can’t transmit wireless flash signals underwater so you need to run cables for your lights if you use strobes. I never thought of this, but it makes perfect sense! “By changing to LED we could have divers around with lighting and not worry about distance or loose hanging cables etc.,” Steve explains. “There was a total of four lights used for the shot two on camera and two off camera.”
Steve tells us that he wanted the series to be different than his usual work. “If you know my work you know I love a polished photo but this series I felt needed to be as raw as possible.” The majority of the editing was just bringing back a bit of color to the photos, as you start to lose color when you go underwater.
“Once you pass even 5 ft under water you start to lose yellows and then oranges and the deeper you go the faster you lose warm tones. You can bring some of it back by lighting the area but if you want it to look how it really would appear you have to colour grade your photos.”
Other than a bit of color correction, Steve also did do some spot healing to clean up the artifacts. The shooting day was bad for the dive, the visibility was low, so there was a lot of algae and sand kicking around as Steve tells us. “I needed to clean some of that up to save some of the images, though I did keep it in the images to some extent just to show how the atmosphere was because I felt it added to the wreck.”
The Guinness world record chase isn’t over yet
Steve holds the Guinness world record for the Deepest underwater model photoshoot at 6.40 m (21 ft). But he’s not stopping there! Since he wasn’t able to prove the actual depth, he is set to break his own record in just a couple of months!
“I am setting off this September with my team as well as some cool friends at Fujifilm who just love that I like to push their cameras to oblivion and were heading back to Tobermory one more time,” Steve reveals. “But this time we’re going to beat our own record by a seemingly impossible amount. And this time we’re going to invite Guinness to be there in person to witness it.”
While I’ll keep my fingers crossed for Steve and his team in September, I think this photoshoot is remarkable too, in every possible way. And Steve completely agrees.
“As for this particular shoot, I’ll hold it dear and close to my heart forever because of the memories of coming together with the bravest most dedicated group of friends who heard my stupid idea and trusted me enough to say ‘Where do I sign up?’ That is the reason we all got to experience one of the coolest shoots I’ve ever done in my life. And the take home is that we all have that record on the wall beside the photograph to remind us.”