Fairfax photographer Sylvia Liber’s ‘Underwater Playground’

Fairfax photographer Sylvia Liber has covered a wide variety of photo assignments and has won two Walkley awards for her work - most recently for a series of images documenting a mother's decision to tattoo her body to cover mastectomy scars, which appeared in the Illawarra Mercury.

Liber also has a considerable body of personal work and she spoke with Clique about one of her personal series Underwater Playground, which combines the raw power of the ocean and quite intimate portraits.

From Liber's personal photo series 'Underwater Playground'. <cite>Photo: Sylvia Liber</cite>

From Liber's personal photo series 'Underwater Playground'. Photo: Sylvia Liber

Tell me about this series, it seems to combine the environment and portraiture.

I've grown up living very close to the ocean, one of Mother Nature's most beautiful elements and one of my favourite places to be. I'm also very passionate about portrait photography. So I decided to combine the two and create my own surreal underwater world.

The idea behind Underwater Playground has been a project that I've wanted to do for a while now. I wanted to create an underwater visual paradox. I wanted to create an underwater world that would encompass dance and passion draped by the innocence of water.

I photographed Olivia [the model in the series] at Bass Point on the South Coast.

My husband Brad Liber, an ocean lifestyle photographer, often joins me. We shoot together, but take our own photos. We inspire and help each other.

"With Olivia being a dancer, I knew I wanted to see passion, motion and almost a dreamy romance with the water." <cite>Photo: Sylvia Liber</cite>

"With Olivia being a dancer, I knew I wanted to see passion, motion and almost a dreamy romance with the water." Photo: Sylvia Liber

Why shoot in black and white?

A common obstacle in underwater photography is the loss of colour and contrast, unless you have strobes. Any warm colour gets absorbed by the surrounding water, which to the naked eye can make it appear green. This particular day was in fact, dull and grey therefore, making the water look green. This can look OK, but I preferred to use black and white to make the photos appear more timeless, this in return accentuated the light and shadows.

I'm not trying to communicate any particular message. I just shoot according to how I feel and try to tell what ever it is I'm feeling through my eyes. I see myself as a passionate person and an avid lover of the ocean, oh and I love portraits!

In order to capture the feeling I'm after, I've had to understand my subject and ensure that in return she trusted me. At the end of the day, I love the challenge and I love being able to visually document and share my perspective and I think the key to capturing the moment is being able to connect with your subject,  making them trust you, so that they can open up to you, whether that be on land or under water. Olivia felt comfortable and in return she performed an amazing underwater dance that showed the passion I was after and the magic of weightlessness.

The woman in the photos looks quite ephemeral, ghost-like, with the high contrast of her skin and the dark water. Was this intentional? If so, why?

Olivia's photo shoot was planned a couple of weeks in advance. With Olivia being a dancer, I knew I wanted to see passion, motion and almost a dreamy romance with the water. With this in mind, I have no control over Mother Nature and had no idea what the weather or the water quality was going to be like. In addition, Olivia, who is only 15, had never been photographed in the water before and had no idea what she was up against.

The day of the photo shoot was in fact overcast, had rained that morning and the water quality wasn't the clearest and it was late in the afternoon around 4.30pm. I knew then that I was up against some obstacles and that I wouldn't be getting any vibrant colours and consequently shot for black and white. The high contrast is caused from a combination of a high ISO, water and ocean particles and ocean colours and converting to black and white.

<cite>Photo: Sylvia Liber</cite>

Photo: Sylvia Liber

How did you take these images? 

I took these images using an older Canon and a wide 20mm lens and an AquaTech water housing. My ISO was at 800 ISO, the water wasn't the clearest and the weather was dull. But I kept my shutter on 320 as I wanted to show some movement but still keep the subject sharp.  I used a medium aperture, at F5.6, shooting a moving subject in the water is rather challenging. And I wanted to show some depth of field, but not too much. I felt like F5.6 was a good middle ground. To make things easier for my model Olivia, I dragged along a boogie board, so she could rest up whenever she got tired.

<cite>Photo: Sylvia Liber</cite>

Photo: Sylvia Liber

Any advice for our readers who might want to have a go at taking images underwater?

Shooting under water is a different world. Just remember the closer you are to your subject the clearer the photo. So, think about your lens size, preferably a wide angle. Shooting from the water can also be heaps of fun. It's a perspective I really love! It requires patience, an open mind, physical endurance and good humour! Beware, you will get addicted!