Behind the Scenes: Photographer Composites Incredible Underwater Restaurant Shoot

Last year, we shared Andreas Varro's popular photo series 'The Condom Challenge' here on Fstoppers. Varro has now pushed the limits, or in this case, the deep depths in his latest project. He was called for a commercial shoot for one of Sweden's most exclusive restaurants. How he came to his final composition is something you need to see to believe! 

Varro's commercial shoot concept for Katrinelund Gästgiveri & Sjökrog was quite fitting, as the restaurant directly translates to "lake restaurant." The motto for this concept was to convey: "You can't get any closer to nature and fine dining than Sjökrogen." Varro shared that the image was composed of 4 models, 20 separate images, and over 170 layer adjustments to create the final product to give the viewer a unique feel of Sjökrogen.

Varro gives you a behind-the-scenes glimpse of his thought process:

One of my goals with this image was that I wanted people to look at it for a very long time to try and figure out the story behind it. That's why I created several main elements in the image. The story behind this image is a couple about to order food inside this water-filled 'lakeside restaurant.' A woman is returning from the restroom, and a man is calling a waitress, who is swimming towards the table to take their order. At the same time, the chef is preparing food behind the bar, chopping vegetables and chasing away a fish with his knife.


It goes without saying the biggest challenge must have been filling the restaurant with water, which would have to be done in post. Varro listed some of the challenges he faced during the shoot:

  • Make the props, clothes, and hair appear to be floating.
  • Make the models appear to be weightless in the water.
  • Visibility underwater is exponentially restricted.
  • Colors appear saturated underwater.

Makeup, Hair, Clothing Concepts

Hair, makeup, and clothing had to be altered specifically to make the elements of the photo complement the underwater feel of the image. Varro explains:

The stylist brought some metal wire to the shoot, which she used to style the female models’ hair by embedding the wire in their hair to make it appear to stand up and which she anchored with fishing line to the ceiling for some support. That way, it would look like the hair was floating in water.

An exclusive feel in the image was desired, so Carina came up with the idea that one of the female models would wear a thin, long, coral-colored ball dress. This way, we could blow on and under the dress to add an 'underwater feeling.'

The male model would have a blue tiger suit and a handkerchief in his breast pocket. He would also have a Porsche key and credit card floating beside him. Together, these effects help create the feeling that the models are actually under water. We also attached fishing line to the male model's suit to make it look like the fabric is floating.

The chef and waitress would be dressed as usual in working clothes in the kitchen and serving guests in the restaurant.

Props and Models

Photographing a Fish Swimming on Land 

To make the image more realistic, Varro thought it would be great to add a fish swimming and make it appear that it's about to be prepared by a chef holding a knife while also chopping vegetables. The fish was not alive, and they hung it off a tripod with fishing line.

Fish hanging from the background tripod using fishing line. BTS photo: Sarah Karlsson

The Swimming Waitress

Varro used crates to prop her up in a planking-like position to have her appear to be swimming.

BTS photo: Sarah Karlsson

The Female Model

The hair stylist anchored her hair to the ceiling with a metal wire to make it stand up. To make the dress more lifelike, the crew tried to use a leaf blower to add movement. The leaf blower was unsuccessful; it was too obvious. Varro then decided to hook the dress up to fishing line to create a more natural look. She also held her arms out to make them look more buoyant. 

Stylist anchoring model's hair with fishing line to the ceiling. BTS photo: Sarah Karlsson

The Male Model

A similar method to the female model was used for the male model as well. They used tripods and fishing line to raise part of his suit in order to make the attire look more natural underwater. The props around him were taken separately and composited in post. 

Male model's suit is attached with fishing line to a tripod, making the suit more natural underwater. BTS photo: Sarah Karlsson

Air Bubbles and Other Elements

The water surface on the top of the restaurant, the air bubbles, and plants were shot separately in studio. Varro shot different plants at different angles using a fish tank and a strobe modified with a soft box. He also used the same method for photographing air bubbles.

Varro used a long drinking straw to blow air bubbles in a fish tank, which were added later in Photoshop.

Photographing plants, added later in post.

Compositing 20 Images With 170 Layers

Varro says he used 20 images and over 170 layers for his final composition. The restaurant and background were shot using natural light for a soft light effect. The models were shot with a strobe light, which is essential for capturing dresses, hair, and props with a faster shutter speed. The models were then extracted from their photos and composited in the background. 

The models were shot with a big light source (soft box) coming from the left, as this would be the same direction as the natural light coming from the window. When creating composites such as this, it's important to think about light direction and light source size. A smaller light source was used from the right of all models to fill in the shadows.

Fun Facts

  • Photography time: 8 hours
  • Retouch time: 25 hours
  • Total Photoshop layers: 300
  • Total images used for composite: around 20

Gear Used 

To see more of Varro's work, check out his website

Images used with permission of Andreas Varro

Nick Pecori's picture

Nick Pecori is a Florida-based advertising photographer who has shot for clients Acer, Bealls, Shoe Carnival, the Florida Lottery, etc.

Log in or register to post comments

this kind of creativity makes my coffee taste better.

Beautifully executed :)

Looks great! By the way I have a question, how would one go about photographing a female model dressed in flowing fabric, in water inside a fish tank while the photographer is standing outside the fish tank? I want to kind of recreate the Oracle scene from the movie 300. Anyone with any suggestions or videos out there would be much appreciated!