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The Wonder of Water

Someone recently requested that I post some behind the scenes shots of my water shoots. These are NOT underwater sessions. To date I am not skilled enough in the nuances of underwater shooting. Lighting and its color are very different, radio transmissions don’t work underwater, the equipment needed is different. But I have done quite a few sessions involving water, just not UNDER water….

I really love the organic nature of water and the story and drama it can add to the right project. So this first example involved quite a bit of engineering to set up the mood of rain. First off the restrictions were as follows:

  • The talent could only be at a specific location at a specific day and time. This prevented me from scheduling the session at a time when the sun would be in the optimum position so I was not fighting its influence.
  • The location where I was able to shoot must be at the client’s venue. So I could NOT rent a studio that allowed me to use water.

I scouted the client’s building area two weeks prior to the scheduled shoot and determined the best place to conduct the shoot would be the enclosed area where they keep their dumpsters! On one side was a chain link gate, the right and back wall were part of the building and the left wall was 20 feet high. The entire area had no ceiling. Shooting inside of their building would be impossible due to the water damage that would occur. Pushing the dumpsters out of the area and washing the concrete was first. The next thing to do was to rig up a sprinkler system to shoot water up and in front of my black drape. I rigged two garden sprinkler heads onto the top of the background crossbar and ran garden hoses to the outdoor spigot. Figuring out how to prevent the sprinkler heads from rotating in the Super Clamps once the water was turned on was another challenge. They naturally wanted to rotate back away from the forward direction I needed the water. If they did that while the strobes were firing the bulbs would explode from the temperature difference.

Then of course there is the issue of power and I needed to wrap my strobes in plastic so no one would be electrocuted including me! In order for water to show up in a photograph the way I wanted it to, it must be lit. In this case backlighting of the water was necessary.

I along with my clients prefer to NOT create elements in post processing, but in camera. First of all doing so adds so much authenticity and also excites the talent which then adds even more real emotion to the shot. My work IS NOWHERE NEAR THE LEVEL OF GoT’s not even close but, David Benioff’s comment about shooting on location versus graphic treatment is so spot on (at 2:19 mark in the video).

You can see the two garden sprinkler heads at the top of my backdrop crossbar. I had to consider the weight of the water as it runs up through the hoses. This is a test of fabric, the water and lighting. Two strobes were required to illuminate the water.

Testing the water pattern and illumination of the water. It was necessary to have a wind protected area to keep the water droplets from becoming uncontrollable due to wind. ALL OF THAT MUST BE CONSIDERED WHEN WORKING WITH WATER.

Another test of lighting and fabric flow.

A final light test with water raining down along with the key light and ground reflections.

One of the final shots for these costumes.

This next example was to shoot dancers with water trails. These are high school dancers so the restrictions were:

  • Photograph them immediately after school, two hours maximum time
  • The session MUST be held on school grounds

So I selected a wall that runs around the perimeter of their school’s pool area. Because the sun was high in the sky it was very difficult to find and area that I could shade just a bit. So I extended my background stand as high as it would go, about 12 feet. I then asked the student’s dance teacher to ‘douse’ the dancers with a bucket of water from the pool! As SOON as the students were wet they MUST perform their dance routine otherwise the water would dry and not be sufficient to leave water trails.

Again all strobes were covered in plastic.

Some fun antics after the shoot was over was called for!

This final example took one year of planning. YEP one full year. I’ve worked with these two Argentine Tango dancers for a number of years. They are the only tango dancers to have ever appeared in Cirque du Soleil, they are that skilled and beautiful. One of the main barriers was to pick a surface that would afford them traction in water and contain the water, so plastic was eliminated. It was very difficult but I finally figured out what to use, textured rubber. The other aspect that I didn’t anticipate is the timing of the shot. I am very accustomed at photographing dancers at the apex of their movement. But what I discovered is once they reach that apex, water trails are gone!

The momentum necessary to carry the water in an arc stops when a dancer reaches their apex. So I had to retime my shots, which took a bit of effort, but I was able to time my shutter press appropriately. 

The room was VERY small!

Getting the water into the area was accomplished using a garden hose from the building’s restroom located 75 feet away!

The couple practicing their dance moves.

Once we finished the clothed shots we moved onto the nudes. Keep in mind that this was shot during winter in Seattle. Because the water was cold and the room has one heater near the ceiling we pumped up the temp to 95 degrees! I wanted to be nude! Oh and ask me how we got the water OUT of the room! Can you say towels and buckets! Yep, we had to soak up the water, wring them out into a bucket, carry those buckets to the restroom and do it over and over and over….UGH! I kept reminding myself that the shots we got were worth the effort!

Whenever people ask me about what camera I use, what modifiers, what this or that I tend to ignore those questions. Why? Well because those are NOT the elements most important in what I do. Sure the right tool for the right job helps, but CONCEPTS ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT and EXECUTING those concepts well are key. I sometimes think that people believe they can buy their way out of poor imagery creation by purchasing expensive gear. A crappy photo can be created by a 50k camera as easily as it can be with a phone camera. And the inverse to that is also true.

A big part of my job is to figure out how to create unique and emotive moods and stories for my client’s imagery. A pretty picture without emotion or a story is just a pretty picture. One of the most challenging part of the job is to come up with a COMPELLING concept and then determining how to execute that concept with the restrictions I know I must face. In truth my client base could care less what gear I use. What they care about is if the product I produce for them evokes emotion, is unique and contains a story which will help sell their product. Can I CONSISTENTLY produce compelling imagery and does the talent enjoy working and collaborating with me? Can I overcome impediments to a shoot on the fly and quickly? If not I can expect a one in a row job from that client. Not to mention my reputation would suffer in this very close knit community.

Imagination and working around restrictions is the most challenging part of my job. And I would not have it any other way.

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