as born in Bahrain in 1973 and raised in London. At 18 she traveled the globe working as a SCUBA instructor and developed a passion for underwater photography and film. Completely self-taught Zena’s images are striking, instinctive and driven by a deep understanding of her medium. She delivers the remarkable combining the highly technical aspects of underwater photography with superb creative direction resulting in extraordinary magical imagery. She has taken underwater photography to entirely new depths. Zena’s renowned underwater photography appears regularly for publications such as How to Spend it, The Observer Magazine, 125, Tatler and Dazed & Confuzed. She has won many international awards and her commercial clients include: Nike, Umbro, Polydor, Sony, Epson, Herbal Essences and Jacuzzi. Technically, shooting underwater may be the biggest challenge a photographer can face. Not only is the environment diametrically opposed to the equipment required, but the water itself also can act as an aberrant lens and a cc filter all in one. Holloway has overcome these technical challenges by spending so much time underwater that working there is second nature.
“I stopped logging my dives at 1,500,” she says. “That was about seven years ago. So I’ve got quite a lot of diving experience. All the diving that I did when I was younger has been very valuable. When I’m underwater, I don’t think about it at all. Scuba is just a means of transport to get you where you want to be, which leaves me to concentrate on getting the shot.” Where Holloway usually wants to be is in the pool, but she’s just as comfortable shooting in open water as she is working in an indoor facility. While the photographic approach and equipment required may be different for each situation, that variety is part of Holloway’s underwater fun. “Shooting in open water is slightly different,” she explains.
“You don’t have as much control, but you gain an amazing working environment, which can look incredible. In open water, I always just try to go with the flow, literally. I often start with a quick setup, but find much better alternatives along the way. “I wish I had a studio pool,” she continues. “That’s on my 10-year plan. But there are a number of locations throughout the U.K. that provide underwater facilities, and all have a variety of pros and cons, which need to be taken into account with each job.” Along with the size, shape, depth and color of a pool, Holloway factors in everything from the quality and temperature of a location’s water to the availability of electricity and the necessary facility costs involved. Since she’s mixing water with electricity on every shoot, her number-one concern is safety. “I always have an electrician on site when I’m drawing power,” she says of her pool work and the lights required. “All cables have RCD circuit breakers and we use ropes to tie off lights and stands. However, there always needs to be a safe distance that the lights can sit from the water surface.
You can use reflectors and diffusers underwater, but you have to start with a lot of light from the beginning, otherwise it just has no effect.” Holloway mixes underwater lights with standard studio lighting above the surface as much to increase the amount of light available as to help her mimic effects she sees in other images. She says that the principles of lighting on dry land and shooting underwater are the same, but the additional intensity is needed because, along with altering the color of the source, water behaves like a giant neutral-density filter between her lights, her lens and her subject. “Actually, the essentials are very similar,” she says. “The biggest effect that water has on light is to gobble it up. Underwater lighting needs to be very powerful to get anything out of it. Everything tends to take on a cyan cast, and colors can alter a bit, but other than that, the boundaries are set by equipment limitations. I’m frequently trying to simulate interesting-looking lighting that I see on the surface and trying to adapt underwater strobes or lights to see if I can make a similar effect underwater.
My shoots normally involve quite a bit of rigging to get lights exactly where I want them.” Though she frequently adapts dry lighting to her underwater work, Holloway doesn’t do much out-of-water shooting. When she considers the differences between wet and dry workflows, she says there’s literally no comparison. “I don’t really shoot on dry land, so it’s hard for me to compare,” says Holloway. “I had a small shoot the other day, however, working with a couple of dry models. I didn’t enjoy it at all. I kept feeling that I needed to jolly everyone along to keep their interest. Of course, it doesn’t really happen like that underwater, where you’ve got 110% of their attention.” Though Holloway enjoys photographing the natural undersea world, most of her advertising jobs involve working with props and models. While a photographer in his or her own studio can simply speak instructions to the subject while he or she is shooting, that process is almost nonexistent underwater. Holloway prefers to clear that hurdle by minimizing the diving gear and simply taking her subjects for a swim frequently, with as little gear as necessary. “I actually prefer to leave the scuba out when possible and to breath-hold instead,” she says. “With this method, the models and I need to come to the surface to breathe between takes and I can give them instructions for the next dip down.
Working on scuba can slow everything down, just because the kit is cumbersome. And here in the U.K., the law requires a minimum of three commercial divers per dive one standby, one working and one supervisor. That can make shooting with scuba too expensive for some budgets. When we use scuba for the model, a spare regulator is attached to a broom handle and a diver feeds air to the model between takes.” While preparation and planning are essential to the success of any shoot, especially for those underwater, Holloway says that rehearsals are usually impractical. The fluid movements of the body in water are impossible to replicate on land, so she takes a simpler approach. “We don’t tend to rehearse so much as just shoot tons,” she says. “The more you shoot, the luckier you get.” Luckily for Holloway, her recent conversion to digital capture has made it possible for her to stay underwater longer and shoot more. Now when she surfaces, it’s to catch her breath. Shooting with a $7,000 digital device underwater, however, means that the technical and electrical hurdles are that much more immense. “About a year ago, I swapped everything over to digital,” she says. “It was an expensive procedure given that I always go with two of everything the kit tends not to be as reliable around water.
It’s not just from the water that I’m shooting in, but frequently humidity causes big issues. The list is endless. I’ve been known to blow a few packs and I’ve had enough static on my G4s to power a small power station. Dribbles of water also get into the kit here and there. Connections on cables need constant attention, and at the end of a shoot, my studio looks like a Chinese washhouse drying dive kit, props, wardrobe, camera, towels, backgrounds…“To date, I’ve been lucky with flooding,” she continues, speaking of the underwater photographer’s greatest gear fear, “which means I’ll probably flood the next camera I submerge. However, in the last 10 years, I think I’ve only killed one small video camera and a Mamiya body. I’m very pleased I’ve made the change to digital, though. It has revolutionized the way I shoot. No more coming to the surface to reload every 20 frames, and the optics are dazzling compared to what I used to get from a scanned tranny.” Beyond capturing with a pair of Canon EOS-1Ds Mark IIs, Holloway also uses a computer to handle any necessary retouching and color corrections—like removing that cyan cast caused by the water. She doesn’t like to rely on postproduction, however, preferring to get the shot right while she’s still submerged.
“I tend to treat each image individually,” she says. “Some shots need retouching and others are fine as they are. Essentially, I try to keep retouching to a minimum, but sometimes I’m faced with a task that would be impossible to shoot underwater. For example, the campaign that I did last year of a girl laying on her back and floating above a Jacuzzi needed to be a montage of two images. I shot the girl underwater, and another photographer was commissioned to do the room set which would have needed a ridiculous budget to shoot underwater.” Holloway is happy to have that type of advertising assignment, even if she has to share some of the duties with a dry-land photographer. Ultimately, with her camera in one hand and her regulator in the other, she has created a career out of client-funded fun. “A couple of years ago, I had a run of advertising work,” says Holloway. “And since then, it has been a steady flow. I’m very lucky to have such a great job.” Zena Holloway has staked out a unique niche; almost all of her photography is underwater. This realm isn’t merely a home to her fine-art imagery; it’s also the environment where she performs most of her commercial work.
By specializing in underwater photography, Holloway gets a steady flow of clients who have a need for the look she creates. There aren’t many, if any, situations that are more challenging than underwater photography. Catastrophic gear failures are common. Holloway keeps her gear in top shape and always carries two sets of everything, in case one fails. It gets expensive since she’s shooting with Canon EOS-1Ds Mark IIs and a variety of lighting gear. Shooting digital enables Holloway to stay in the water with models and work steadily to refine her images. Water sucks up light, and Holloway works hard to ensure she gets her look by using high-power strobes. Among the benefits of digital is the ability to review an image in the water to see if the lighting worked. In the days of film, a fair amount of uncertainty was part of any shoot, and that just won’t do when you’re shooting ads for clients like O’Neill. “My main kit consists of the Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II cameras, which are superb. I have two Seacam housings, which are a work of art and designed to perfection. I nearly always use Subtronic strobes. Their recycling time is very good and they hold a great deal of power for their size.” To see more of Zena Holloway’s photography and for information about her limited-edition prints, visit her Website at: