Shooter: Zena Holloway

Zena Holloway has evolved into one of the world's top commercial underwater photographers in a circuitous and nontraditional fashion. She did not live by the sea as a child, and she does not point to Jacques Cousteau for her inspiration. She grew up in urban London until the age of eight, when she went off to boarding school in the countryside for the next eight years. Not much from those years suggested her future profession. However, there were the stories her mother told about her dad. Although he died when she was young, Holloway grew up hearing about how he loved scuba diving, and she decided she, too, should give it a try.

At 16 she enrolled in a diving course, and when she finished school at 18 she went on a dive holiday to the Red Sea. That's when her life's path took a plunge beneath the waves. Not ready to return to London at the end of her vacation, she got a job at a dive center and did odd jobs to make ends meet. She recalls being quite good at "cleaning the loo." One advantage she had was being English where most of the captains and instructors were Egyptian. This gave her the language and cultural knowledge to work as a hostess aboard the daily dive boats.

Holloway's time in Egypt provided some great dive experiences, but to make a career of it she needed to become an instructor. She enrolled in an Instructor Development Course in Sharm el Sheikh and upon graduating got a job on Grand Cayman, first at Red Sail Sports and then at Bob Soto's Diving, where she became one of three staff videographers filming the tourists as they dived.

After three years she decided there was more to life than producing tourist videos and in 1995 headed back to London, where the underwater production scene there was just coming to life. Mike Portelly and others were shooting movies and stills in local pools, generating enough work to keep an assistant occupied. She found opportunity and inspiration to develop a portfolio of her own work, which led to a two-month gig shooting in Uruguay for National Geographic.

In 2002 Holloway traveled to Ibiza, Spain, to photograph the UK freedive team. During the shoot she found communication with the divers difficult and had to repeatedly swim to the surface to tell them what she was looking for. Although she was never deeper than 33 feet, it was a long day of zig-zag profiles and no safety stops. After the shoot she had some symptoms that made her very concerned about decompression sickness (DCS). She drank some water and took some aspirin (not what DAN® would recommend), and fortunately her symptoms subsided. But in the course of that health scare she discovered she was pregnant. Her panic and subsequent research about the potential effects on her unborn child led to the realization that DCS could be dangerous to a developing fetus. Happily, her daughter was a normal, healthy child, and Holloway continued on with a career that involved both open-ocean photography and many more pool photo sessions commissioned to bring to life art directors' visions.

Holloway at work in New Providence, Bahamas, with Stuart Cove’s shark wranglers and safety divers

Her expertise in the pool was refined in a rather humble way. From 2005 through 2009 she conducted annual "bread-and-butter" tours of the USA, visiting seven cities in two weeks, shooting underwater portraits of up to 50 babies a day. While business was good at the start, advancing digital technology and increasingly accessible underwater cameras took away the novelty of what she offered, and demand for her work diminished.

From there Holloway's career turned to a more stylized and commercial genre, involving work with art directors, stylists and talented models all working together to create vibrant underwater sets. Today she is one of the most creative and in-demand producers of underwater fantasy images in both stills and video. Her client list includes Nike, Speedo, Umbro, Sony, Jacuzzi as well as publications such as GQ, Observer Magazine and How To Spend It. Based in London, she lives with her husband and their three young children, Brooke, Willow and Woody.

In deference to her need to shoot both high-quality stills and 4K video, her primary underwater system is a Canon EOS-1D C in a Seacam housing. Her lighting systems include Ikelite strobes underwater and a variety of studio lights above the surface as dictated by the set and the concept. She does much of the postproduction work herself but often prefers to take images only as far as rough concepts before turning them over to a digital artist for the refinements necessary to make them finished pieces of art.

Read along as Holloway tells the stories behind some of her images.

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"This image was shot in the underwater stage at Pinewood Studios in the UK, the same tank used to film the underwater stunts for Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation as well as for several James Bond movies. I was lucky enough to get a commission to shoot there for 125 magazine, and the 3D Agency in London created this stunning jellyfish to go with the futuristic theme of the shoot. The orb behind the model is a powerful light in the background. The exquisite styling was by Harris Elliot (, and this editorial shot led directly to a booking for a large campaign for Rosemount wines."

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"In 2007 I was commissioned to create the photo illustrations for a retelling of Charles Kingsley's classic 1863 book, The Water-Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby. The version I read as a child was illustrated with paintings, but this retelling combined my photos with artwork from illustrator Heidi Taylor to create the whimsical fantasies of the book.

"I fell in love with Sue Flood's Whale Calf photograph and was delighted when she agreed to let me use it for the book. I had to get the child to fit the existing composition, so we shot him against a gray background underwater, which actually worked much better than expected. I love the child's wrinkly little feet and the white parasitic crabs on the whale from the original.

"The otter wasn't nearly as sweet as he looks. He spent the whole shoot trying to jump onto my head, and the stink of his musk was incredible. Really — they had to air out the swimming pool room for days after we left. Photographing both the child and the otter in a swimming pool was the only practical way to match the lighting.

"In the story the main character, Tom, meets all sorts of incredible underwater creatures; I thought the turbot image came together really nicely. I used a stock image of the fish, and the challenge was to get the light on the boy to match the lighting on the fish. Once this was achieved, it was a blessedly simple composition."

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"In 2008 organizers of a freediving championship invited me to take pictures. The competition took place in 330 feet of blue water and was staged from a tanker moored off the coast of Cyprus. The visibility was sensational — a photographer's dream. Freedivers swarmed everywhere, diving up and down the lines from the boat. The freediver in this image in particular caught my attention as he looked like he was enjoying the freedom of the water. His pose says it all. Actually, I shot it the other way around, as a horizontal with the sun at the top, and it wasn't until I got it to the editing table and turned it that it became the image it is here. It has since been printed many times for art collectors' walls."

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"Shot in 1998 in the Caribbean, this image launched my career. I won some awards for it, it appeared on several magazine covers, and it was sold as a fine art print. The good luck from this image is a droll twist: I hadn't anticipated that a horse could move so quickly in water and was very nearly killed by a hoof to the head while shooting."

* * * * *

"Speedo has been a loyal client for me over the years. They tend to run similar kinds of stylized advertisements each year, and I get a lot of repeat business from them. This model is Charlie Turner, who at the time was one of the fastest swimmers in the UK and made a great model for the image. All the retouching was completed by the advertising agency in London that took over that side of things after I had completed the shoot in the swimming pool. Sometimes I do my own retouching and postproduction work in Photoshop, but often the clients prefer to execute their own vision. That's one of the big differences between my personal work and commercial assignments."

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"This image for Greenpeace was an exciting commission from the famous Saatchi & Saatchi advertising agency in London. They were pitching to Greenpeace for a marine conservation campaign, and I was lucky enough to land the job. Sadly, the image was never used, but we had great fun being in the water with the freedivers and making the shot. The shark was added in postproduction, but the cage and divers were all as shot. The cage was a specially commissioned aluminum construction that was very much full size. We used a crane to swing it into the sea from the deck of a large vessel. Last I heard the cage was being used in a Cyprus nightclub for a go-go girl to dance in."

* * * * *

"In 2005 I traveled to the Turks and Caicos to shoot a series of mermaid images for a commission for Toto bathroom fixtures. It was one of the most difficult shoots I've done. Digital technology was still in its infancy, and I was shooting with a Phase One digital camera back and a medium-format Mamiya RZ67 body in a very dodgy housing. It was hard work in open water and terrible weather. But we survived, the client was happy, and against the odds we got the image."

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"Early in 2015 this UK model did a brief checkout dive in a shallow pool and soon afterward found himself in 30 feet of water, buddy breathing with a safety diver and surrounded by dozens of sharks in the Bahamas— and all without a mask. He had worked with me many times before on breath-hold shoots in pools, so I knew he was a superb underwater model. I wasn't sure how he'd handle the sharks or being on scuba. In the end he did me proud.

As we were fizzing out before flying home after the job, I somehow managed to persuade him to get back in the water to do a test shot for me from the beach of the hotel. I wanted an action shot, and among a few variations was this running sequence, which came to life when I added the shark. I'll be returning to the Bahamas this summer to run an underwater photography workshop, where I look forward to making more images like this."
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To see more of Holloway's work, view her bonus photo gallery and visit

Watch the videos below to learn more about Holloway and her work.

© Alert Diver — Q1 Winter 2016