Charlotte Bories Creates the Most Beautiful Underwater Portraits

“…it was an opportunity for me to take the time to experiment with new things, a bit different, a bit crazy,” says French photographer Charlotte Bories in an interview with The Phoblographer. “It’s notably at that time that I started to mix the techniques, adding photo-manipulation and digital painting to my underwater shots.” Charlotte is an ND Award winner and a photographer who works on underwater portraiture. She draws inspiration from many places. But no matter what, her photos have something you’ll fall in love with every time you stare into them.

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The Essential Camera Gear of Charlotte Bories

Here’s some insight into how Charlotte uses the gear:

“A…DSLR (quite reassuring in case of a slight leak in the housing) with a full-frame sensor, good performance in low light (natural light decreases quickly under the water), and high burst shooting speed (to ensure I catch the perfect moment of grace between two froggy poses…!), long-lasting battery (believe me, it’s not funny when you have to change the battery or SD card in the middle of an underwater session…)…

In underwater photography, the choice of the lens is really a tricky question for several reasons…
– it takes a looooong time (and it’s risky) to change the lens during the session (you have to perfectly dry your housing, perfectly dry yourself so that no water drop falls from your body to the sensor, fully disassemble the housing, change the lens, reassemble the housing…)…under the water, the body moves much slower than on land. It can take quite a while to get closer or to move away from the subject, that’s why a zoom is very convenient.

Although shooting in natural light has its own set of constraints, it’s still the final render I prefer so far. Of course, strobe lights would help my subject to pop up, as light and colors quickly fade away when you go deeper under the water, but I’m not sure that’s what I want: I really love the idea that my subject is part of the aquatic world…

The best light is obviously right under the surface, in the first two meters, but I have to be careful with the marbles of light that can sometimes be unsightly. As many portrait photographers, I tend to flee from the direct mid-day sunlight and definitely prefer shooting in the morning or evening, or in the shadow, or under a wide light diffuser when it’s possible.

I have a very classic setup for my post-production: iMac 27inch with Retina screen + Wacom pen tablet + Lightroom (a little) + Photoshop (a lot). Without this editing process, my artwork would definitely never exist–I’d say that at least 50% of the work is done at that step.”

Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.

Charlotte Bories: The path that led me to photography was a bit winding…

When I was a student at Fine Arts College, I practiced a bit of film photography, but at that time I have to say I really was a jack of all trades, fluttering from one technique to another. Moreover, as I’m a photographer’s daughter, I was reluctant to get into the same “business” as my father, probably for fear of falling into mimicry (or maybe to escape my Oedipus complex…!).

But I eventually got into photography many years later, at a time when I was at a crossroads in my life: tired of my job in a publishing house, I had resigned and given myself 6 months to reconnect with creation and find my way. At this point, I was pretty sure that illustration would be that way, but I was wrong… During a casual conversation with my husband, as I was saying with a laugh that it would be funny to marry underwater, I suddenly had a kind of epiphany: aquatic portraiture! There was an artistic activity that promised to be exciting! (And that, by the way, allowed me to reconcile my different passions.) Over the days, I became more and more obsessed with the idea, and then I finally threw myself into it with all my heart.

I trained myself in the technical basics of photography with the help of an e-learning platform, I bought all the equipment, and then I started testing, again and again, using my friends as models. As I couldn’t find any online resources about underwater model photography, I had to learn everything by myself, only through experimentation.

Well, now you know that I started my photographic journey directly with underwater portraiture!

Phoblographer: Do you feel you’re more inspired by the water, your subjects, or by art? How do you feel you channel that in your photography?

Charlotte Bories: That’s a very difficult question, because I think the inspiration is far from being a linear and siloed process.

Although I’m strongly influenced by art, literature, mythology, etc. because of my studies, I still think my main influence is the water itself: its different symbols, its ambivalence, the mysterious atmosphere it creates, the poses it allows. When I see someone gently floating between two waters, it generates a very strong aesthetic emotion inside of me. Maternal water, melancholic water, white and clear water, stagnant and turbid water: I love all the facets of this element.

Although I really like nurturing my imagination by browsing books and exhibitions, I think the way all this is channeled into my art is absolutely instinctive and almost unconscious.

Phoblographer: In Hamelin’s flute, you photographed a man among jellyfish. How did you work to ensure that no one got stung?

Charlotte Bories: Well, I think you will be disappointed by my answer. This series is a creative project entirely done in a pool!

I never really considered myself as a regular underwater photographer (if there’s one…), but more as an artist using water to create dreamlike pictures. For my creative projects, I do not hesitate to mix my favorite techniques: underwater portraiture and digital manipulation. I seek, above all, to create unusual and poetic situations.

I didn’t even imagine that my pictures of a flutist among jellyfish and moray eels would be seen as anything but a pure invention…! Next time I’ll use creatures from the abyss, so that there will be no confusion, I promise…! 😉

Phoblographer: Most of your work is in color, but this project and one other are black and white. What makes you choose one over the other?

Charlotte Bories: My project, “Hamelin’s flute,” was first created in color, just as in all my other series. But I realized later — almost by chance — that it definitely has a stronger impact in black and white.

It’s a bit difficult to explain exactly why, but I feel like this very contrasted black-and-white reinforces the dark and mysterious atmosphere of these pictures, since the idea was that the flutist attracts to him sea creatures that come from the darkness. Also I feel the black-and-white fits very well to a male character. Why? Pure synesthesia, I guess…

Phoblographer: How much post-production is typically done in your work?

Charlotte Bories: As I said earlier, my artwork wouldn’t even exist without this post-production step. And it’s more than just the cherry on the cake: it’s the oven, the place where the alchemy happens.
Underwater photography always requires a lot of editing, even when it isn’t a highly creative project. Green veil, lack of contrast, suspended dust or misplaced bubbles, unaesthetic tiles or pool elements, etc. Usually, I rough out the work on Lightroom, but the main part of the editing is done
on Photoshop.

Usually, for a classic underwater photoshoot, I think I spend 2-3 hours minimum on each picture. For a more creative project including photo-manipulation and/or digital painting, I’d say I spend 2-5 days, depending on how complex it is.

Phoblographer: How did the pandemic change you as a creative?

Charlotte Bories: At the beginning of the pandemic, I felt huge stress — professionally speaking — when the countries started to close their borders and when everyone was more or less locked up at home. Then, little by little, I began to see the positive side of this break: freed from the pressure of client deadlines, it was an opportunity for me to take the time to experiment with new things, a bit different, a bit crazy. It’s notable at that time that I started to mix the techniques, adding photo-manipulation and digital painting to my underwater shots.

And that’s interesting to see that, by dint of working on such creative projects, I really polished my post-production techniques, and it has obvious impacts on the quality of all my images, even for more “classic” underwater shootings.

Phoblographer: You’re an ND Awards winner: congratulations! What do you feel it’s done for your career?

Charlotte Bories: I must say I was both surprised and extremely proud when I received this title of “ND Special Discovery of the Year” for my series Sleeping Waters that I started in a Parisian pool and finished in an Indonesian sea. This series has a very strong symbolic value to me because it accompanied a big turning point in my life, personally (new country) and professionally (new job).

I was very surprised to receive this award because I started my activity as an underwater photographer shortly before; moreover, it was my very first participation in an international photography contest. Like what, we never start completely from scratch when we retrain: we are nourished by our past experiences.

Anyway, although this award didn’t open the MOMA’s doors for me, it had a huge importance to me.
Of course, winning an award in a prestigious contest is a great asset to build customer confidence and convince them of our value. But above all, receiving the approval of my peers confirmed to me that I’d made the right choice and that I was going in the right direction. It’s been a great self-confidence and motivation booster, for persevering, going even further and doing even better.

Phoblographer: How do you think you’re changing as a creative photographer?

Charlotte Bories: As I told you previously, I’m inclined to consider that I’m not taking pictures of people underwater, but I’m using water as a way to place my models in dreamlike and surreal situations.
Until recently, the most important thing for me was the final image: Qu’importe le flacon, pourvu qu’on ait l’ivresse (“No matter the bottle, as long as you get the exhilaration”).

I’m now realizing that the “flacon” might be important, too (by saying “flacon” I mean what the model is experiencing and what people think the model had experienced during the photoshoot). When I’m shooting in a pool, but the final image looks like it was shot in the sea, I now feel it can be a bit confusing for the public… Because I also shoot in the ocean sometimes, with real sea creatures, and I don’t want people thinking that it’s all fake… I’d like to preserve the value of each experience: because, although they are different, they are both super exciting! Maybe it’s a bit difficult for people to classify me right now, and I feel I want to clarify my position to ensure I’m in a sincere relationship with the public.

From that perspective, I’m quite sure my digitally manipulated pictures will evolve towards something more obviously creative. And I think this evolution is already underway.

About Charlotte Bories

Charlotte Bories is a French photographer from Paris, now based in Bali (Indonesia). Graduated from College of Fine Arts, Charlotte later specialized in underwater model photography and digital photo-manipulation. She creates delicate pictures deeply inspired by mythology, tales, cinema, historical painting… Over time, water became much more than just a nice background. “When you immerse yourself in the water, you immediately enter a completely new world. Even a simple pool is a kind of rabbit hole to me: it allows me to go in Wonderland on a single breath hold.” In order to work on an equal basis with her models, Charlotte always uses apnea during her photoshoots.

All images used with permission from Charlotte Bories. Visit Charlotte at her website, her Behance, Instagram, and Facebook page. Want to be featured? See how right here.

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