Unique Beauty - Lighting On Water

Unique Beauty - Lighting On Water

As a photographer, my skill set is constantly put to the test. In most cases, I’m handed an idea on a slab of wood and the mission is to hand that idea translated to a tangible artifact back to my client on a silver platter. It’s never an easy process, but it’s a part of my job.

I’ve shot in water over half a dozen times and I love it. I love the challenge and I love doing something different. The idea brought forth by makeup artist Casey Ritchie was to shoot a model in black water, with only the face to be seen and the makeup as the stand out. I was immediately presented with two mighty challenges; shooting the photograph in water in the middle of winter and shooting in water from directly overhead without the use of a ladder. The first step was to conjure a way to shoot this idea in a studio setting. The only way I felt it could be accomplished was with a child’s plastic pool, rather than using an indoor pool or bathtub. Using a bathtub would present a lot of problems, most importantly it would be tough to rig lights safetly. Draping a black cloth over the plastic pool would be the best way to darken the water to the blackness we needed. The next hurdle was safety, lighting and camera placement.

Fortunately, I have a lot of experience with booming my camera for a 90 degree overhead angle without the use of a ladder or crane. So, we secured a Canon 5D Mark III with a Manfrotto 026 Swivel Umbrella Adapter and wrapped a Vulture Equipment Works A4 camera strap around the head of the stand in case the adapter failed. I fired the shutter using the CamRanger; a wireless DSLR remote control and tethering system. The next step involved lighting the pool. Unfortunately, we couldn’t just jump in the water for pre-lighting so, we had to estimate and use the palm of our hands to predict how the light would fall on the model’s face. 


This broke the mold of my “go-to” beauty setup. Initially, I had a good idea of how I wanted to light the pool, but once everything was actually in place, I realized it was completely impossible. The key would provide the main source of light, but also be very dramatic and directional. Using a 20.5” Profoto Softlight Beauty Dish and a 25° grid, I rigged the dish over the models head and feathered the light, so it wasn’t nearly as direct.


At first glance, it looks as if the side lights are acting as a kick of some sort. But, in actuality they are simply adding fill to the shot and provided some incredible catch lights. I set them up purely as an experimentation. They didn’t provide much interest or contrast, but certainly added a different dynamic to the face.


I normally dislike the look of direct light, unless it’s a hard speedlight or modified light source. But, in this case, I felt the ringflash was fitting as it added a strong fill to the face that white foamcore or light from below her face couldn’t provide. I needed a direct fill and because of odd reflections the ringflash was the best option. It added the right amount contrast in all the right places. 


We decided to “lock” the model into place by adding a white piece of foamcore below her chest to reduce shadow density under her chin. Although it played a small role, it was crucial to fill the black shadows.

Unfortunately, we weren’t able to nail the lighting until the model was in the water; we fought with inconsistent reflections and drastic shifts in the models semi-weightless head. Fortunately, using the “man-made” ripples in the water and strong direction, we were able to break up the reflections and reduce the amount of shift.


The model was briefed long beforehand, our intentions were made clear and my team made all the proper precautions. Safety was our absolute number one concern; the boom stands were weighted with double the sandbags, the light cables were gaffed down and we made sure to keep the walkways clear. And, I’m always prepared on the backend with the proper insurance and releases. When dealing with these types of setups, safety must be a main concern; never sacrifice safety for speed or poor pre-production.

To keep the water at a luke-warm temperature we continually poured hot water into the pool, but once the model stepped into the water, it dropped quickly. Eventually, the model became cold in the water and began to shiver. I immediately called for a space heater to be placed under the key light and I made sure to turn up the modeling lights to create more heat. By the end of the shoot my studio was breaching 95 degrees(Fahrenheit) and felt like a sauna. But, I know it’s important to keep the model comfortable, warm, hydrated and fed at all times; a rule that is consistently kept in the back of my mind, every shoot.

We tackled a total of three looks, and I knew we had the shot we needed. We carefully broke down the lights and emptied the pool bucket after bucket. I wasn’t handed an easy scenario, but I certainly think we delivered a photograph worthy of a silver platter. My clients love to see creative work like this and in many cases contract me to do the same for them. I challenge you to a unique beauty or portrait session. Create light outside the box and a future client might be waiting to love it and pay you for it.

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Previous comments
christian lacasse's picture

Original !! although I'd be a little worried about being electrocuted surrounded by all these lights ;-)

steven spaulding's picture

wow, i don't think i've seen anything like this. both lighting and setup.

Umm.., WOW!!! I don't know if it is your lighting set up or post production, but the water almost looks like plastic, which adds that surreal "editorial" look to these photos. Thanks for the detailed explanation of how you set up this photo! Great post!!!

Louis Joseph
NYC fashion and beauty editorial photographer