Portrait Photography In A Pool

Photographer Nick Saglimbeni recently shot an image of Jhené Aiko for a Humane Society campaign to save the shark population. The goal of the image was to photograph Jhené in the ocean at night (or at least make it look that way). To create this shot, Nick decided to use a pool and strobes to create a similar look. 

Besides the obvious risks to talent, shooting in an actual ocean isn’t terribly practical. There’s nowhere to place backlights, and you’re certainly not going to run electricity in the deep blue sea. So, we opted for a much more controlled environment: a large swimming pool. As you’ll see in the behind-the-scenes video below, our first challenge was turning a bright daylight location into a night scene. The second was getting the lights and camera into the water.

Nick used an overhead scrim to cut down on ambient sunlight and Profoto strobes to light the scene enough to stop down his camera and block out all remaining natural light. For his key light, Nick used a Photex Softlighter and for the hair light, he appears to have used a bare flash head. To create a more dramatic shadow on the cheeks, Nick also used 2 black flags on either side of his model. 

The final image is a gorgeous shot that would be relatively easy for the average photographer to recreate, even with speedlights. Hopefully, this image will be one more small step toward protecting our oceans and shark population. 

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Ryan Cooper's picture

This is super impressive, and I love Nick's work, especially how effectively they turned a bright sunny day into light. I am completely confused though, as to why they didn't just shoot at the same location once the sun went down? Seems like a ton of extra work and planning to simulate darkness when it comes every night for free? ;)

Henry Louey's picture

That's like saying why climb mount Everest? Because you can!

stefano druetta's picture

this looks more like "why not climbing a hill in mid summer wearing an astronaut suit?" of course you can. that doesn't mean you should.
the shot doesn't look hard at all to recreate, so maybe they simply wanted to test out if they could've achieved it the hardest possible way. every working team should put itself in a controlled yet totally challenging situation for the sake of training, for instance, and to look for potential weaknesses and work them out.

Lane Shurtleff's picture

It was a waste of time to build all the overhead silks when they didn't start shooting until the sun was already behind the house. And unless they had circuit protectors for the strobes ( since they are Profoto, he may have been using battery packs, which is safer but still dangerous).

Nick Saglimbeni's picture

Hi Ryan, thanks for your question. The reason we shot this during the day (even dusk) instead of at night is because I wanted a low-contrast exposure on both the water and Jhené. People often forget the subtle beauty that ambient light adds to a shot (think of the softness of a perfect headshot lit by the sky). At night, there is no ambient light, so while your strobes will technically give you the same exposure, you are left with a much higher contrast image and harsher shadows. Personally, I don't like artificial lighting on water, and you will never find a smoother light source than the sky. All the best.

Tom Lew's picture

holy crap that makes a ton of sense! pro status level 10. Another question, Nick.. any reason behind using a leaf back and what looks like a hasselblad 503? (As opposed to a 35mm size digital sensor or another type of medium format camera?)

Nick Saglimbeni's picture

Hi Tom,

Yes, it's a 503CW. I’ve been shooting with the 503 series since my film days and it’s still my favorite camera. I’ve yet to come across glass I like as much as the analog Zeiss CF lenses for the Hasselblad. As for the Leaf, I am partial to the way it renders color and contrast, and the larger sensor takes advantage of the medium-format film frame. This way I can upgrade the digital back and the camera body mechanics don’t change. I prefer to manually focus lenses, it keeps me in the present. Thanks for your question.

Dennis Helmar's picture

I haven't seen a more dangerous set up ever. What do you guys think would've happened if the strobe head had fallen into the pool?

Henry Louey's picture

Well the video wouldn't be posted for one thing :)

Brendan Baker's picture

I work on film sets as well and their number one thing is safety. I totally agree- this isn't exactly the safest setup. Especially if you have talent in the pool.

Lane Shurtleff's picture

At least Nick would have fried along with the model being in the pool together. Not that I want to see that happen, but maybe that gave her more reassurance about safety knowing the photographer would be in the pool along with her.

Dennis Helmar's picture

It seems to me it's just a little bit more effort could've been made to run a safety line to the strobe head from above. Looks like a very professional crew. Maybe a battery self-contained head would be a little safer. Beautiful shot for a great cause!

Roman Kazmierczak's picture

If that head got in the pool it would get wet. Unless you press the shutter the electricity stays in the generator. Only thing that is powered is modeling light that has fuse. So, although there is a risk, it is not as big as some people insinuate.

Gustav Hoiland's picture

Why shoot this in a residential pool instead of in a studio with some kind of deep tub? Maybe it was all pro-bono and this photographer wanted to try out this technique with a full team. Huge production for a fairly simple shot. Very high quality result, but I don't understand why it couldn't be easily done in a studio.

Studio 403's picture

I was in the ocean one day, I heard these two whales talking. " Gee hump, I don't know why they want to save us, these humans can't save themselves" , "hum" said Hump.

I have to agree about the saftey issue. It would have been nice to touch upon what they did to have a safe set. Water and electricity do not mix well. Beautiful shots though.

Sean Shimmel's picture

(Electrocution aside) Such an intentional, visionary approach to beauty

The final image is beautiful. Full stop. But. The amount of equipment they used seems absurd. The overhead scrim seems like it's doing virtually nothing, and same with the one in the back. IMO, these big sets often seem to be about impressing the client and making them feel good about the money they're spending, when in reality, it could have been much simpler.

Roman Kazmierczak's picture

They could have different idea for the image, or created different options but they chose one that was shoot with flash only. It is better to have more options then less. Obviously ;)

Nick Saglimbeni's picture

Hi everyone, thank you for your thoughtful comments. This was a very meaningful campaign for everyone involved. Since I know that many artists look to Fstoppers for guidance and inspiration, I want to take a moment to address your concerns about electrical safety when working in and around water, because it is a very serious issue that shouldn’t be left to speculation.

As many of you know, I was a cinematographer and a gaffer for several years before moving into professional photography. Movie lights draw an extremely high current (measured in Amps) due to their size and light output—and electrocution is a very real concern. As a result, my team and I have been through rigorous electrical-safety training throughout the years. I also teach electrical safety at our PhotoKamp workshops.

To be clear, there is always a risk when mixing electricity and water. It doesn’t have to be a water concept, it could simply start raining on your outdoor shoot. You can see in our setup that we had a single light “in” the pool. The other lights were safely placed (and heavily sand-bagged) on dry land. The light that I brought into the pool was on a sturdy C-stand, ratcheted down tightly, with about 120 lbs. of sandbags on it, both on the base and higher to distribute the weight evenly. The feeder cable was then looped around the stand arm and run up through the frame of the overhead silk, then dropped down to the ballast on dry land, well away from the water. The 1200w/s Profoto ballast was then plugged into a surge protector, which was itself plugged into a pool-safe GFCI outlet (the same ones used for actual underwater pool lighting fixtures). You can read more about ground-fault interrupters around swimming pools here if you are interested: http://blog.poolcenter.com/article.aspx?articleid=6065 On top of these multiple layers of protection, you’ll notice we kept slack on the cable (some may have wondered why we didn’t pull it tighter). This prevents cable tension and decreases the risk of the light being knocked over should someone bump into it. We also have this area roped off and continuously manned to minimize human error.

My team and I take electrical safety extremely seriously, and you should never take a chance until you’ve been trained by an expert. Any misjudgments are most certainly errors that you only get to make once. Wishing you all the best in your creative endeavors, and thanks again for your thoughts.


David Cannon's picture

Nick, I am respecting the heck out of your politeness and patience in your replies. While reading your thoughtful responses I was thinking that you have got to be thinking, "You guys are all telling me this stuff, but I was the one hired to do the shoot.... And I know a little bit more about lighting and safety than you're assuming..."

Adam T's picture

I think you should have given her a shark to pet.

Paul Ferradas's picture

What's with the constant light? Was that for focusing or did it play a part in the final shot?

Sean Shimmel's picture

Modeling light to position the strobe... but even that placeholder light was beautiful with its warmth