Underwater cave photographer Carolina Wells takes us on a photoshoot in cenotes Angelita and Aktun-Ha. You can watch the episode on the DiveSAGA YouTube channel or continue reading below!
If you’ve been watching the last few episodes, you may have noticed that I’ve been spending a good amount of time in the Mayan Riviera in Mexico. This area is known for its sprawling cave systems, also known as cenotes. I’ve been getting cave diver certified and also hosted a DiveSAGA trip in this amazing area. You can find episodes about these diving adventures on the DiveSAGA channel.
Today, I am meeting up with underwater photographer Carolina Wells and safety diver Damian for a photoshoot in this amazing environment. I can't wait to learn a thing or two about underwater cave photography.
Light placement in these unique environments is definitely a factor and while I’m just being the model, I’m eager to learn and see how Carolina gets the stunning results she does. Our first stop of the day is Cenote Angelita. A place I’ve dived many times before and I’m absolutely in love with. Angelita is not a cave, but rather a sinkhole with a very unique phenomenon.Fresh water fills the top 30 meters / 100 feet of cenote angelita. But because all cenotes are connected to the ocean in one way or another, below that the water is salty. As foliage from the overhead jungle canopy breaks off, falls into the sinkhole and decomposes, Hydrogen Sulfide gas is released. This gas sits between the salt and the fresh water like a giant cloud. The perfect mysterious place for a product photoshoot!
“Unique” is an understatement when referencing the mesmerizing environments Carolina operates in. When working as a product photographer in a place like this, it’s key to not only let the product shine, but also maximize the potential of the surroundings. Carolina is shooting on a Sony AR7IV with an 8-15mm Ultrasonic Canon lens and an Isota dive housing. Not unimportant are the BigBlue video lights for added effect.
The small platform at Cenote Angelita provides access to the underworld. Aspiring photographers beware because anything that falls into the sinkhole will tumble through the hydrogen sulfide cloud into the depths and become virtually impossible to recover. An underwater camera or lights would be an expensive sacrifice to Xibalba, Mayan god of the underworld.
From here, the dive is basically a 30 meter / 100 foot drop to the sulfur cloud. Safety diver Damien, whom you can see in the back, makes sure the equipment looks optimal and keeps an eye on the model. In this case, that’s me.
The stunning visibility lends itself to beautiful wide shots and the hydrogen sulfide cloud below acts as one giant softbox, bouncing light upwards. The pile of fallen jungle debris and the hydrogen sulfide cloud make for interesting staging elements to bring the photos to life. But this is harder than it looks. Sink too deep into the cloud and the subject becomes invisible. Rise up too far above it and the effect is lost. And at this depth, there isn’t very much time for trial and error.
A lot of communication is important but when both the photographer and the model have thousands of lumens of video lights and dive lights shining in opposite directions, the planning better be solid.
For one shot, safety diver Damian stages a large video light behind me. This creates a separation between the model and the background. It’s not something for every shot, but a super cool effect for sure.
Time is running low, so we stage one more shot at a shallower cavern passage to get some cave-like shots. After that, it’s time to leave the darkness behind and level up. In the shallows, the sunrays piercing through the jungle foliage help create a magical light effect as they break through the cenote water. As a professional underwater photographer, Carolina knows that every second of the dive must be spent looking for additional photo opportunities to increase the yield of this shoot.
But, this isn’t our only location for the day. Angelita is super cool, but we still have something more cavernous on the menu. When shooting for clients, like today, it’s important to have enough time and variety of location. So we make a stop at Cenote Aktun-Ha, also known as Carwash. A cenote with a large shallow open area with pristine visibility, as well as a substantial cavern and cave area. Even though the clear water and sunlight offer an excellent location in the open water, we are here for the cavern area. Shooting in these overhead environments brings with it its own set of unique planning considerations and challenges.
It is important to note that everyone involved on this shoot, including the photographer, is cave diving certified. Photography adds a level of potential distractions to any kind of dive. In cavern or cave diving specifically, being distracted can be potentially fatal. Even experienced underwater photographers and certified cave divers should proceed with caution before combining these two sets of skills.
What Carolina does takes a lot of skill, dedication and practice, but once these skills are mastered and combined with the right dose of entrepreneurship, the results are absolutely stunning. Definitely give Carolina a follow, and keep an out for the results over on Instagram, and on YouTube on the DiveSAGA channel.