Behind the Scenes Look Into My Commercial / Fashion Photo Session

A single photograph from a photography session barely shows you all the planning and execution that goes into a photoshoot. Dozens of ideas, shooting styles and concepts often come into play in the pre production, not to mention the hours that can be spent in post production as well. As a result, I decided to give you all a breakdown of my recent photoshoot with good friend and model, Harmony.

The concept of the shoot was simple, we just wanted to shoot. Harmony was moving out of state in a week, and being that she was one of my favorite models in the Albuquerque area, I wanted to get one more collaboration from her before she left. And since she was moving in about a week from the planning stages, we didn't have a lot of time to put it all together. However, her and I have worked together a few times before, so we were extremely comfortable with each others workflow, and had confidence in each other's ability.


We decided that we wanted to do something with water. I grew up in Michigan, so I never understood the appreciation that people in this desert city had for this water stuff, since it has surrounded me all my life. However, it was something that I didn't use often in my work, despite living with a swimming pool, having a family boat, and living just a few miles from lakes and rivers all over the state.

Because of the short notice on the shoot, we had to work quickly to get everything together. We started by finding a pool, something her friend Crystal was able to accommodate. We then focused our attention to a film crew. Since we were shooting in water, hair and makeup wouldn't be as important. I was able to get in touch with a couple people locally that had the knowledge and equipment to put together a video.


As stated above, I don't have a lot of experience when shooting in water, especially on angles from above. Because of this, I focused a lot of my attention to watching light patterns. Water is reflective, and while I did want some reflection in the water to show its depth, I didn't want anything too distraction for the photo. So I decided that a large softbox would be much too large, and push too many reflections, and that a bare light could easily be too harsh on her skin tones. I chose the 21” Beauty dish.


In order to get the shallow depth of field I prefer in my work, I must use an ND filter when working with strobes. This is because my camera's sync speed doesn't go beyond 1/200th a second with conventional strobes, so using an ND filter to help block some of the light coming into the lens. So I'm able to shoot with a larger aperture, and shallow out the depth of field. The ND filter I chose was a Variable ND filter, which is a ND filter that cover multiple stoppage levels depending on how much you turn the filter's dial. Because of how these work, the quality of them is reduced, and a strange purple vignette can come from them when shooting in low light conditions. However, these filters still work great for everyday use, and provide excellent image quality if they're a higher brand. The brand I used in these photos is a Fader ND II from LightCraft Workshop.

Lighting Break Down Photo by Photo -



This one was a simple light testing setup, hence the dry hair. With all of my shoots, I start with just getting exposure and settings correctly, and then aim to complicate the lighting as the shoot goes on.



This one was a bit more elaborate, as I wanted to narrow light her so that he face would not appear too wide in the frame. This is done simply by lighting the side of the face that is further from the camera. It also adds a lot of drama to the photo as a result. Also, by keeping the light at a little bit of a distance and feathering it, I was able to avoid reflections on the subject from the water. I wanted to keep some of them in however, so I have a nice gradient from dark to light in the frame.



This one a bit more complicated, as since I did not have a stoop to stand on, I had to shoot incredibly wide in order to get all of Harmony in frame. I did this with a 17-40mm lens at 19mm. It also provided a nice vignette with the photo, and the direct lighting on the subject only increased that effect.


All of the retouching on this session was done by Pratik Naik of Solstice Retouch, a fellow writer for Fstoppers. This was because not only was I eager to see what he'd be able to do to the images, but I also didn't have much time to edit them, as I was about to leave town for a week without computer access. The retouching done was pretty self explanatory, I wanted them to be toned, and I wanted the subjects body to be liquified, only to help bring back her natural figure that was distorted by the water refraction and barrel distortion. On image #3, I also asked him to remove the pool noodle, which was helping her float, and the border of the pool, to make the water seem endless. Below is gifs of the before and afters of each image from the session.






So that is just a quick look into a behind the scenes of one of my recent shoots from start to finish. For a further look of what goes on behind the scenes, I encourage you to check out the Behind the Scenes video on the top of this post. I'd quickly like to thank Harmony for being a lovely muse for the shoot, Crystal Sims for opening us to her house and pool, Eric Martinez for assisting and being my line of contact for the video crew, and Jesse Heidenfeld and Allen Hrynick of H/H Films for filming and producing a great behind the scenes video with very little time to spare. Be sure to check out some of my other work on my Website and Facebook Page.

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Andrew Griswold's picture

Wow Zach, I am impressed. This shoot turned out fantastic and it was great to see you at work! Very inspiring!

This is neither commercial nor fashion

Zach Sutton's picture

Meh, I'm a commercial and fashion photographer. I suppose I have a habit of rolling everything I do into that genre.

You're not actually a fart...

Sander van der Veen's picture

Too bad there is no information about the light setup, that would've been more helpful I guess.
Other than that, nice movie with nice massage-salon music ;-)

There are diagrams and the photos state what the camera and strobe settings are; what more do you want? Zach to hold your hand and press the shutter for you?

Nice shots, Zach, and thanks for the BTS post!

Sander van der Veen's picture

Oh I didn't see that, I only watched the film. My bad :)

Zach Sutton's picture

Ofcourse Sinareo,

Thanks for taking the time to check it out!

What iPhone water thingy is that btw? Oh, and nice shots!

Zach Sutton's picture

I think it was an otter box, though I'm not sure. The phone was actually Crystal's...the woman who had the pool.

The underwater footage was filmed using a Canon 50D w/ RAW video from Magic Lantern and the scariest underwater housing kit you've ever seen in your life.

David Apeji's picture

So you just stood at the edge of the pool and shot down, or did you hold the camera out and away from your body and take some a bunch of 'guestimate' shots?

Zach Sutton's picture


I took the photos from the edge of the pool, and shot down. Using wider focal lengths, I was able to make myself appear taller than I really am, though I am still a giant at 6'3".

JOHN PARISI's picture

thank you so much for the lighting diagrams and the retouch photos. What a great help. Most times these are just behind the scenes with nothing else.

Seriously now, how expensive is a polarising filter ? That reflection on the water could have easily been avoided, it really is noticeable. Otherwise, good shots and processing, but ..

Zach Sutton's picture

Using a polarizer could easily lose the depth of the water all together. I wanted the water to be part of the photo, not taken out of it.

So you would rather have the reflection from the softbox ? Not what I would have done ..

David Vaughn's picture

Well, it's a good thing you didn't take the photo then, isn't it? :)

What if strobe fell down in the water (possibly pushed by the wind)?

Zach Sutton's picture

I had an assistant on the light about 95% of the time. It wasn't an issue.

Westley Jerdon's picture

Zach, when you move your camera back and forth are you setting for ambient light? How does that work?

Zach Sutton's picture

I'm using center point focus, as it has the best accuracy for focus. So I'm focusing on her eyes, and then recomposing the shot

Westley Jerdon's picture

What are photographers doing when they look away from their subject and then looking back? Are they adjusting for ambient light? If so what are they doing? (Sorry noob question, I never really shoot outdoor with lights).

Exposure lock or possibly focusing and recomposing.

Very interesting in that I share not only a surname with Zach, but I've also done a similar shoot with almost identical lighting.

Zach Sutton's picture


Also, that link above is NSFW for anyone about to click it.

Awesome, thanks for sharing the lighting diagrams, so useful and inspiring to see also the retouch work. :)

Two thumbs up Zach! I loved the third picture most, the light, the angle and her pose was incredibly stunning. I wonder how you edit the third picture or what tools did you use because it looks like you didn't edit the picture until I saw the behind the scene.
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