The subjects this M’sian photographs underwater aren’t marine life—they’re influencers

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In our influencer-filled world today, it’s common to see them posing in cafés and other new, popular Instagrammable spots. Usually, they don’t even need a professional photographer for some decent snaps of them at these places.

However, if you were to see a picture of an influencer like the one below, not just any Insta-boyfriend or mum or dad is going to cut it. You’d need a professional photographer, and one who’s able to do underwater photography to boot.

A pose that takes more than a “1, 2, 3, smile!” / Image Credit: Cheah Kim Hup

This is where someone like Cheah Kim Hup would come in.

A journey from land to sea

Cheah’s career in underwater photography actually began on land, where he was a nature guide based in Penang and Langkawi rainforests in 2014.

“I always loved watching ocean documentaries, and did join a few conservation activities,” Cheah shared with Vulcan Post. Some of these conservation experiences included working with sea turtles, dolphins, Dusky leaf monkeys, and more.  

One thing led to another, and soon enough, he applied for a scuba diving licence in 2017. His love for the underwater world only grew from there, so much so that he quit his job and went to Sabah in early 2018 and joined the Sipadan Kapalai Dive Resort to do underwater videography for their resort guests. 

Now, it’s no surprise that the gear for underwater videography isn’t cheap. Cheah revealed that the whole DSLR gear with underwater housing costs more than RM40K. 

Dictionary Time: Underwater housing is a camera case for your popular topside camera but one that allows full control of the camera when diving, is waterproof and pressure-proof, and in many cases as ergonomic as using your camera without it. 

Housing Camera

Fortunately, the resort covered the costs for the gear and provided him with underwater videography training, all of which took about 3 months before he could take on clients for them. 

Not your average camerawork / Image Credit: Cheah Kim Hup

Clients have burdens to bear for a shoot too

The scuba diving gear alone weighs around 15kg to 20kg, which is really heavy for first-timers who make up the majority of his clients. 

Cheah himself has to carry another 5kg to 10kg of additional weight with him thanks to the camera equipment, and he also sometimes assists guests who aren’t used to the weight of their own scuba gear. 

How much extra equipment he has to carry depends on the situation of the dive as well. When there’s bad weather, bad visibility, or if he’s going for a night dive or has to go deeper into the water, he’ll need to attach more lights to his equipment to ensure a clearer shoot.

For every dive, Cheah will actually have an instructor come along with him and the clients if they are first-timers, but if the clients themselves are licenced divers, a buddy system can be used (when more than one licenced client is around).

For licensed divers, he just has to instruct them on posing, which includes positioning their scuba fins, controlling their buoyancy, etc. But for newbies, it’s a whole other story. 

The various ways he’s taught his clients how to pose underwater / Image Credit: Cheah Kim Hup

Dealing with anxious clients

“Beginners easily panic and their bodies get stiff because they’re afraid of water. When that happens, we usually guide them to breathe slowly and help practice some basic safety skills before diving deeper,” he explained. 

“I’ll also try to distract them from their fear by encouraging them to focus on the beauty of their underwater surroundings.”

There are instances where Cheah actually has to ease their anxiety and continuously practice these safety skills with clients for hours, because of how afraid to dive some of them were. 

Sometimes, the clients end up giving up diving altogether, and in those cases, Cheah would convince them to pursue a snorkeling shoot instead. 

Taking a break from shooting humans once in a while / Image Credit: Cheah Kim Hup

More clients from China than locally

Even though Cheah works with local influencers, he’s more popular among Chinese tourists and influencers because he actively posts on Douyin (Chinese TikTok, for those who aren’t familiar).

“I have 80.4K followers on my Douyin, and that’s actually how these tourists and influencers from China got to know me and approached me to work with them for their underwater shoots during their trips,” he shared. 

“Usually before we go underwater, I’ll discuss with them what kind of angles they like and don’t like and try my best to meet their expectations during the dive. But at the end of the day, the output really depends on their movements and pose which, with practice, becomes closer to what they want.”

Besides influencers, Cheah has also collaborated with big-name brands like WeChat China, PADI China, Insta360 China, and even Douyin China themselves. These big-brand collaborations typically involve underwater product reviews, like he did for the Sublue Underwater Scooter and the Insta360 camera.

A pool of new models for him / Image Credit: Cheah Kim Hup

Normally, the service is a shoot with 2 dives, and if you’re working with him at the resort, you’re charged RM900 for 1 to 2 pax, and RM250 per person if it’s more than 4 pax. But if you work with him outside of the resort, it’s around RM600 to RM1,000 for 1 to 2 pax, depending on the location. Cheah shared with Vulcan Post that he’s worked with over 500 clients already since he started. 

But of course, the pandemic has changed things for him. Cheah isn’t able to take on any client work since the tourism industry has been hit badly and the majority of his Chinese clients are now absent.

Hence, he’s back on land in his hometown, Sungai Petani, Kedah, working as a freelance videographer. He’s using this break from his underwater career to focus on upskilling in product and corporate shoots, but is definitely looking forward to getting back in the water when it’s safer.

You can learn more about Cheah Kim Hup here.You can read more about more photographers we’ve covered here.

Featured Image Credit: Cheah Kim Hup 

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