Dive into the ocean’s mysterious depths and see underwater photography as you’ve never seen before. Through the work of champion freediver, photographer and videographer Pepe Arcos, learn how he achieves his ethereal shots and where he turns to for inspiration.
EOS 5D Mark III, EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens, 23mm, 1/160sec, f/10, ISO800
Kingdom of Tonga
Hi Pepe, please tell us about yourself.
Hello! I’m a freediver photographer and filmmaker from Spain, but I’ve been living in Asia for 5 years, currently based in Bali. I have been shooting since I was very young with different types of cameras across a range of genres from portraits, landscapes, fashion to street photography. My first ever camera was a fully manual film camera that my father gave me. It was a time when there was no Internet, so through hands-on practice, I got to learn a lot about working with lenses, using the manual mode and developing film.
EOS 5D Mark IV, EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens, 16mm, 1/160sec, f/7.1, ISO100
Tell us how you got into underwater photography.
I guess it all started in the Red Sea. I used to travel to Dahab for training and I always missed seeing photographs of freediving. I only knew a few friends who shooting [freedivers] at that time and I really wanted to merge my land photography skills and design background with an underwater environment to show what freediving looks like. At the present I combine professional fashion photography with underwater and freediving photography.
EOS 5D Mark III, EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens, 35mm, 1/200sec, f/9, ISO800
Garden in the Sea
What made you want to focus on freedivers?
I believe that by freediving, we experience a different connection with the ocean. It is just natural to be underwater without using any artificial gear and there is a harmony and beauty in all of it.
EOS 5D Mark III, EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens, 16mm, 1/250sec, f/9, ISO400
What are the main differences between scuba diving photography and freediving photography?
I could talk about this for a long time! But the highlight will be freedom of movement as we can move anywhere, anytime. We can go deep, and surface fast without the need to do safety stops, or never be bothered by pressure (except for equalizing), and this allows me to analyze the light and composition in a reallife scenario. With scuba diving photography, everything needs be planned ahead of time as communications can be complicated, where else in freediving I can discuss with my models what to do and also improvise by just following them while they freedive, looking out for interesting moments.
EOS 5D Mark III, EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens, 16mm, 1/250sec, f/9, ISO400
Dancers of the light
We have to ask: how do you communicate with the models underwater?
I like to find unique moments during their interaction with the ocean so I like to dive with my models. We hold our discussions during surface intervals so I can direct or discuss some ideas. Repetition is key and in my case, as it is quite important to capture the essence of the moment, where posing will break the momentum. I see it as a dance between photographer and model, enjoying what we like doing the most together.
EOS 5D Mark IV, EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens, 19mm, 1/160sec, f/9, ISO250
What are the biggest challenges you face shooting freedivers?
The main one is to take them out of their preconceived notions of freediver modeling –if you will– as most people are not familiar with my work, and they try some cliched poses like underwater yoga, or over-pose as though they are in some sort of fairy tale, or try to look like a superhero...
Once we freedive together and they relax, and see the first results on my camera, we can begin working in sync. That’s when I get the shots I want.
EOS 5D Mark IV, EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens, 16mm, 1/160sec, f/5, ISO6400
You also shoot marine life. What is that experience like, compared to shooting freedivers?
One of the main reasons that keeps me motivated to continue freediving is to have more encounters with wild animals. I have a strong attraction to wildlife as it's an endless source of inspiration. Shooting whales, sharks or mantas is a unique, emotional experience that moves me every time I have the chance to do so. One of my main topics in photography is humans’ relationship with the oceans, so the perfect combination for a great shot is to have a freediver interacting with marine life. It allows me to capture unique moments that always makes us think about the way we live and understand our realities.
EOS 5D Mark III, EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens, 23mm, 1/160sec, f/9, ISO640
What does your set up look like?
At the moment, I use an EOS 5D Mark IV with a EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens in a Nauticam housing. I shoot with natural light, but I recently added two Inon Z240 strobes for my underwater fashion shoots.
EOS 5D Mark III, EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens, 16mm, 1/200sec, f/6.3, ISO400
How do you go about setting up an underwater shoot?
I usually start with a basic setting preference of 1/160 shutter speed with a f/5.6 aperture. Then I calculate the optimum ISO according to the lighting situation during my shoot, and whether my subject will be moving fast or not. I change up my settings accordingly to achieve desired effects like bokeh. I also love shooting close-ups at f/2.8 when the model is still.
EOS 5D Mark III, EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens, 35mm, 1/200sec, f/7.1, ISO640
What are 5 tips that would allow someone to achieve shots like yours?
1. Have a deep understanding of light and composition.
2. Be an experienced freediver yourself so you will feel comfortable holding your breath and staying safe underwater.
3. Observe first, shoot later. Educating our eye is the most important part of achieving good results.
4. Try to be original and play around with the environment and your models to find original compositions.
5. Know your gear, use manual mode and get used to freediving with a camera. It takes a lot of energy out of you, so one must get used to it.
EOS 5D Mark III, EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens, 35mm, 1/50sec, f/2.8, ISO100
Who are some of your biggest inspirations?
That’s a big question... as a designer, I have been studying arts and aesthetics my whole life and I get inspiration from many different sources. For photography, I’m always touched by Sebastiao Salgado, Tomas Munita, Steve McCurry, Richard Avedon, Henri Cartier-Bresson etc, but I frequently go back to the classical works of Velazquez, Caravaggio and William Turner.
I’m also amazed with the creative process and the end results of the work of avant-garde chefs like Ferran Adrià, who change the way we perceive food. Then there’s also the conceptual architecture of my friend Eduardo Arroyo. I could keep going, but I have endless sources of inspiration!
EOS 5D Mark III, EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens, 20mm, 1/160sec, f/7.1, ISO250
Tell us about your most memorable shoot?
I can't name just one but I can say that freediving in the Mexican Cenotes was a life changing experience for my photography career. I remember shooting Flavia Eberhard at the pit; the laser beam-like rays of light shining down on Flavia in full harmony with the environment, the contrast between the dark cave below and the lush jungle above made an eternal impression in my mind. Lucky me, I also got to shoot it! One of the images from this shoot became the main image for my exhibition, ‘ESSENCE OF WILDNESS’ where I printed it in a big format and it was the main protagonist of the collection.
EOS 5D Mark III, EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens, 23mm, 1/200sec, f/7.1, ISO3200
A friend of yours wants to get into your line work – what are some useful pieces of advice you’d impart?
To be a really confident and an experienced freediver. Shooting while freediving is tough, it is very physically draining and plenty of training is required to ensure you stay safe and can equalize properly while using your gear. You must also learn how to manipulate your camera quickly and make snap decisions.
The rest of the process is art. From composition to light, you must teach yourself to see different perspectives in order to find interesting moments worth capturing that are happening around you.
EOS 5D Mark IV, EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens, 35mm, 1/200sec, f/7.1, ISO400
Finally, any exciting projects in the pipeline?
I’m planning an exciting new exhibition with a collective of fellow underwater photography friends, where we will showcase our passion of freediving through different viewpoints. I’m also looking at future expeditions within Indonesia and the Banda Sea, Mexico and several trips to China to collaborate on different projects. I’m always open to new crazy ideas, so let’s see what 2017 will have in store.
EOS 5D Mark III, EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens, 16mm, 1/200sec, f/6.3, ISO1250
Sky Jungle Water
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Former Freediving champion and now full-time photographer and filmmaker, Pepe Arcos is an award-winning, multi-talented shooter who explores the underwater domain, holding his breath for minutes at a time to capture unique images of an ethereal world. He is a talented individual who faces even the greatest odds in order to document aspects of the underwater world that even the fastest scuba diver will fail to capture.
View his work here: