How I Try to Now Avoid The Most Obvious Approaches on Set

How I Try to Now Avoid The Most Obvious Approaches on Set

It can been said that according to Occam's Razor, the simplest solution to a complex problem is usually the correct one. That's all well and good in logic and philosophy, but when it comes to art, solving problems is hardly the priority. Or rather, it shouldn't be. This is why my motivation of late is steeped in the mantra of "How do I eschew my usual, or anyone else's for that matter?" when I walk onto a set.

Case in point, take my speaking engagement in Ojai, California recently at the AIBP Retreat. Charged with teaching my lighting approaches outdoors, I knew I had to come up with my curriculum after I arrived as I'd never been to the location before. Upon stepping onto the property, I noticed everything was beyond perfect: insanely beautiful (and massive) mansion and grounds, gorgeous pool, incredible weather, and a model as experienced as she was striking. By any respect, this should have been a walk in the park when it came to creating stunning images.

And this is just a small portion of the property and grounds in Ojai, CA.

The weather was...very Southern California.

But I had a problem. I knew I didn't want to go through my usual motions of setting up a bikini glamour set in a pool. I wasn't hoping to do anything too radical, but I just didn't feel like demonstrating to the retreat attendees what I, shall we say, always do. 

I spent an admittedly inordinate amount of time making efforts towards crafting something that would add, I was hoping, an element of uniqueness to this potentially common bikini glamour imagery I tend to create. I drafted in the event staff, other speakers, and the attendees themselves into a sort of impromptu set team, and searched the grounds for items that could possibly make what I had in my mind a reality.

It wasn't anything complicated, mind you. I simply wanted the model, Gracie Kay, to be in the middle of the pool, but with the water line just below her waist. The problem? The pool was nearly 2 meters deep at the middle where I wanted Gracie to stand. Also add in that an integrated tile spa was essentially in the way of the angle I wanted to shoot. On top of that, the model and I looked at the potential bikini options on set and thought, at the same time, "Another bikini though?", which we both candidly frowned at. Oh, and wet hair? Not feeling it, we agreed. Certainly not after the work the hairstylist put into it.

How my simple glamour photographer brain went about trying to change things up on this idealistic set in SoCal.

First off, we opted for a two piece lingerie set. Because of course that makes sense in a pool.

Secondly, the pool I was to use had all the usual elements you would expect, including an integrated spa, geometric stairs above and below the water line, a shallow entrance area, beautiful surroundings and a patterned tile patio that matched the house all too perfectly. A model in a bikini could have been positioned in any number of spots around the pool, on the patio, perhaps at the edge, in the spa, or quite easily in the shallow bit. The options were abundant, but none of them truly spoke to me. 

After some deliberating, and I said earlier, I decided I wanted the model in the exact middle of the pool so I could play with long focal lengths and create a sense of depth despite knowing I was going to be at ƒ11 or tighter on that extremely bright day (more on that in in a bit.) 

An attendee, Natasha, volunteered to be a stand in for the model while I explored how this would work. Once she entered the pool and swam to the spot I wanted the model in, I realized this pool looked more shallow from the patio than it actually was. It was now obvious that standing the model in the middle would have her totally submerged, a result that should have ended that idea immediately.

And initially, that's what I did: I gave up. But after a few seconds, I told myself I was going to make that look happen no matter what. I started to roam the grounds, trying to find anything I could prop the model up on, and that would be able to be submerged without being damaged or fouling up the pool. I was hoping whatever I found would also be neutral or perhaps unobtrusive in general so no serious edits would be required on the final shots. Instead the hunt yielded a large, bright red plastic bucket. Not ideal, but it was all we found. We dunked it in the water to test with Natasha. Unfortunately, she barely had her chin above the water line while on the bucket, so I knew Gracie would be no better off on it.

AIBP President Erin Clark Zahradka found another item to submerge, this time a plastic plant pot. It was cracked, and I initially dismissed it as impractical. After finding nothing else, Erin suggested stacking the pot on top of the bucket to raise Gracie out of the water further, an idea I was hesitant to even mention myself because my mind was still drowning in practicality and reason at that moment. I stood there with the pot in my hand after Erin rinsed it out, and said to myself "Screw it. Let's make this work." (At this point, I hadn't even thought about how I wanted to light the shot.)

A 1280ws strobe on a Mola owned by Craig Lamere was tested as a key light option, but I knew I wanted the sun diffused before anything else. As such attendee Oscar allowed me to use his scrim and boom arm, which he graciously volunteered to hold in place. I ended up scrapping the dish instead for a medium octobox.

This setup now involved a large bucket at the bottom of the pool, with a plastic pot on top of that, which would jet Gracie almost 1.5 meters above the pool floor. On top of that, she would have to balance on top of the pot, which was no more than 20 centimeters in diameter. She didn't necessarily risk injury or drowning if she slipped off, but an arbitrary dunk into the pool would ruin the hair and makeup work that Miranda worked tirelessly to make look perfect.

Speaking of hair, Gracie would also not be able to even swim the spot I wanted her in because it would submerge the bottom two thirds of her long hair in the process. 

What could possibly go wrong?

Natasha was slightly shorter than Gracie, and as evidenced here she was decently above the water line balancing on a pot on top of a bucket. Our model Gracie stood on the steps, keeping her hair and outfit as dry as possible to ensure I got the shot I was envisioning.

After I annoyed my all-volunteer team by asking for the minimally stable bucket/pot spire to be moved centimeters back and forth until I liked where it stood, I now had to turn my attention to how I wanted to light the model.

It was a super bright SoCal midday, and I knew instantly that the sync speed limitations would net me a super tight aperture to keep the sun in check. This would mean very minimal depth of field dramatics, and of course hyper clarity. I initially attempted a PCB White Lighting 3200 with a white Mola Demi, reasoning that 1280ws of power with fairly hard light would be the simplest way to get enough light on the model from the pool side.

But then Occam's Razor came to mind again, and I instantly dumped the idea of simple and I decided I wanted diffused light - hell or high water. In this case, 2 meters of high water.

I also had to solve how to get the model to the spot without submerging her too far. It was suggested she put her hair up with a clip, and then carried to the spot. Thankfully, a volunteer clip was donated, and another event speaker, Michael, dove into the pool to carry Gracie to nearly the center and poise her gently on the wonky bucket/pot structure.

Michael carrying Gracie to the improvised prop to avoid getting her too wet while Natasha supervises.
"Swim out there, stand on those two wobbly objects, and then rock it." is precisely what I should not have said to Gracie, and I am happy to say I didn't. Instead, Natasha and Michael worked to stabilize her and make her more at ease.

I grabbed a medium octobox and harassed my good friend and event speaker Craig Lamere until he agreed to hand hold the strobe with on an improvised boom arm (a closed light stand). He agreed and did a kick ass job in holding it in a consistent position, allowing me to keep the same exposure over 40-50 clicks, all while having a battery hung from his neck, standing on slippery spa tiles.

Potential disaster in so many possible ways.
Michael stood right next to Gracie, just off frame while I shot, in case she slipped. This minimized the chance of the model getting her hair and makeup soaked, but it also had the added benefit of providing some sense of security for her. Asking talent to take risk on set, even risks that don't pose potential injury, should not be something you take for granted.

Off frame you see Oscar holding the boom scrim above the model to provide diffusion for the sun and allowing me to re-light her with a medium octobox held in place by Craig. The result is a studio like diffused look outdoors.

So what is worth it?

You decide. Here is the final shot (larger version on my 500px), and the EXIF data as well for you to peruse. Special thanks to Erin, Craig, Michael, Oscar and Natasha!

Model: Gracie Kay | MUA: Miranda Richards | Assist: Craig Lamere, Natasha Lassen, Erin Clark Zahradka, Michael Sasser


  • ƒ11
  • ISO100
  • 1/160 sync
  • 135 2.0L
  • 5500K
  • Raw work in Lightroom
  • Retouch in Photoshop

The end result isn't an earth shattering, life changing image, but it ended up as close to my vision as I possibly could. After all was said and done, I was glad I didn't give in to practicality that day. 

Here are a few other shots from the set, unedited, including a test with Natasha and a BTS of Michael helping Gracie.

What have you done on set to get the exact shot you envisioned, even if it seemed horribly impractical and under time constraints?

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Jordan Randall's picture

Very great post, I think there is a lot of problem solving that goes on in shoots. It's often easier (at least in retrospect) than one would think but as an amateur it's hard to know what goes into these good shots! Thanks

Jason Ranalli's picture

Great post and great work!! I love this kind of problem solving and seeing the actual working thought process of someone like yourself....a bucket here, a pot there, a helping hand, etc.

I have to ask though, would the attendees have been just as happy if you had gone with the vanilla solution and was this more for your own goal of trying to keep things a bit challenging for yourself?

Leigh Smith's picture

Gotta say, judging by the title, I was hoping this post was going to be about not getting cliche shots. But it seams more like "How to Get Cliche Shots in the Most Difficult Way Possible".

Not saying its a bad image, it just seams pretty standard and all the effort maybe wasn't wasn't that necessary. There is something to be said about getting the shot that you have in mind. But maybe just save it for the not so standard shots.

Am I being to harsh?

Nino Batista's picture

Nah man, you're good. Everyone has a different view of things. No worries here. Thanks for reading!

Prefers Film's picture

That's kind of what I see.

Michael Kormos's picture

Nino, awesome post. Thanks for a good read. I also love your SOOCs. Damn near close to being a finished product. I always say, a great photographer walks away with a great shot. A Photoshop Artist waits to make one later (or something to that extent. still finessing the wording :-)

Anonymous's picture

I really like this post and it shows how much is often involved in a simple-looking shot when you're a commercial photographer. It seems that the weather rarely cooperates, things are always in the way, fountains or other things are turned off, etc., etc. but you still have to get the creative shot the client wants. In today's photography world, I think that's the biggest difference between a pro and an amateur - the ability to solve problems and come away with the shot.

Pat Paulsen's picture

Great write up and a great team. Craig is the bomb and so are you! I really appreciate getting a look at what goes on behind the scenes and also inside the heads of other photographers as they're preparing for a shot. I can't wait for your Tulsa workshop. Thank you!!!

Jason Brietstein's picture

I always love the problem solving / hacking solution stories.

Jason Guy's picture

Thank you for the BTS! I love seeing/reading about how other people work. Beautiful job on the final edit!

Mr Hogwallop's picture

That's where a short aluminum ladder comes in handy, but you make due with whatchu have.

Prefers Film's picture

The end result was not terribly different than a standard bikini shoot. You should have taken her up to the Sespe, given her a Tenkara rod, and placed her in the stream. That would have been sexy.

Jon Dize's picture

I can't get past the fact that the guy is barefoot on a wet surface while handling a monolight.

Nino Batista's picture

Craig is made entirely of synthetic rubber so he was ok.

Jon Dize's picture

I read that in the Enquirer!

Leo Tam's picture

Love the thought process

The battery pack that near the water scares me though, hoping the fuses blow out before the pack shorts

Nino Batista's picture

Was sooooo beyond the ideal situation. But oddly enough, extension cords were not on offer at the property - at least not in timely manner.

Jim Pickens's picture

This is where great ideas come from. I want to do this at night with a few more lights. The way the pool is situated makes multiple interesting background perspectives.

Brian Fischer's picture

I've shot Gracie a number of times, she is a wonderful model and person!