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Laketop Lady: Photographing a Woman on Water

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Two days after Christmas, I was out at the crack of dawn with my friends, in water, photographing a model. I'll talk about how this shoot came to be and how much planning and work it took to pull off this "quick 'n dirty" concept.

You'll also see just how little gear was used to pull off these shots and that the bulk of the work was in the planning and having good understanding of photographic technique to execute what was bouncing around in my brain.


Safety First

Since we're going to be bringing electricity and water together, safety is a big issue. To reduce the risk of electric shock, keep all flashheads, cable connections, batteries, and power packs out of the water and dry. Have someone whose sole job is to supervise the electrical equipment and keep it safe.

Also, since this shoot takes place on a lake in Florida, there is a small chance that an alligator could be lurking around. To mitigate the risk, we shot early morning, in the shallows, and had someone keep a constant eye out the entire time.

Alligators are reptiles and therefore cold-blooded. They need the sun to warm up before becoming active. I planned to be done before the alligators, if any, started basking.

When doing productions like this, don't cut corners. Have clear instructions for your team and assemble and use your rigging properly. Make sure everybody knows their role. Don't endanger your friends just to get a nice shot.


The Idea

The plan is to photograph an attractive young lady and make it appear as if she is standing on the water. I wanted the sky to be a dramatic sunrise or sunset and the water's surface to be calm and hopefully mirror-like.

The sketch of the general idea and likely lighting setup.

The idea is simple enough, but how do I get her on the water without Photoshop?

I personally don't like using Photoshop to do heavy lifting with my photography. I want to get as much done inside the camera so that post-production isn't as much of a pain.


Scouting

With this idea in mind, I set about looking for a suitable place. I knew of a nearby lake in a public park that could work, but didn't know what it would look like a dawn. So, there I was, December 26th, sitting in a park waiting for the sun to come up so I can figure out my camera settings and shooting window. It was important that I knew what my sky was going to look like, where I was going to shoot, and how long I had to do it since I was going to have people come in from their vacations before sunrise.

Take your camera with you on location scouts. You never know what you'll find.

I had about 15 to 20 minute window of excellent light where the sky was the right rainbow of colors and my shadows wouldn't be filled in by the ambient. I snapped several photos and noted the ISO, shutter, aperture, and times of the photos that were within that window. That way, I could be dialed-in and ready before that window opens so I could use every minute of it.


Simple Tools

The technical challenge of this shoot wasn't going to happen with the lighting or the camera settings or any of that stuff. It was going to be how do I get her onto the surface of the water and not have to retouch things like platforms, assistants' arms, or poles? I also, didn't want to spend a ton of money on rigging (that already went to Christmas gifts).

I figured out the best way to save money was to DIY a platform and weigh it down with sandbags from a local landscaping business. Just a few dollars. To save even more I chose a location where the water was shallow and the floor level, about thigh-deep. Choosing such a shallow depth meant I didn't need as much material to get my model high enough.

I hopped over to Home Depot to get my materials for the platform and pick up a roll of heavy-duty painter's tape - a good substitute for gaffers tape. I stumbled across something better than a DIY pathway and it was a $9 stepping stool, in black, and the right height! Sometimes you just get lucky.

DIY is great, but this was better.

It was important for the platform to be black because a light-colored platform would show up in the shadow areas and present a retouching challenge. It was wide enough for my model to stand on and light enough to be easily transported.

The most challenging part (to me) was resolved.


The Gear & Settings

I had probably more people on site than did I equipment. When you have a great location, you usually don't need a lot of equipment to make it work very well. This was one of those times. But I still packed a backup of nearly everything especially since we could be near water. You don't need to double-up on everything, but I was just a little worried since I was bringing stuff into the water.

To save a few more dollars, I rented whatever I didn't already have on hand. That was a strobe powerful enough to work quickly and easily above my ambient, even as it changed. Speedlights could do the job, but with me and my crew up since 4:00am during Christmas vacation, I didn't want to be waiting for my flash to recycle.

  • Canon 1D Mark IV
  • 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM II
  • 24-70mm f/2.8L lens
  • 17-40mm f/4L lens (borrowed)
  • Elinchrom Quadra 400ws kit with "A" heads (rented)
  • Elinchrom Skyport radio trigger (came with kit)
  • Elinchrom 39" octadome (rented)
  • 13-foot heavy-duty light stand (rented)
  • X-rite ColorChecker Passport

The 400ws Quadras are great portable lights that have really good range and color consistency. They're light, and at 400ws have more than enough "oopmh" for what I was planning to do. You can use other brands such as AlienBees, Dynalite, Quantum, and others, if Elinchrom isn't your brand. The ColorChecker was used after I got my light dialed-in so I could have an extremely accurate neutral starting point when I color-corrected. An 18% grey card can be used as well.

You can see the under-exposed sky as well as the wide spread of light the octadome has even though it's not in position yet.

My goal was to keep the sky consistently under-exposed from shot-to-shot because the sky is like a huge light source. And the details wouldn't be very legible unless I dropped it down at least 1 stop. What was considered -1 stop would change as the sun got higher, brightening the sky. I controlled my flash power depending on my flash-to-subject distance and to fill in the shadow areas not touched by the sun's rays. I essentially had two lights and just balanced them to my taste.

So, here are the settings I had for my camera and Quadra:

  • 1/160sec @ f/4.5 - f/8, ISO 200D+
  • 1/2power to 1/4power on the flash, depending on the distance

I kept the aperture above f/4 because one of my lenses was no faster than that and it was one less thing I wanted to worry about since the ambient light would be changing quickly. I also used the highlight tone priority function on my camera to pull out as much highlight detail as possible from the sky. On Canon's, this option limits the floor of your ISO range to 200. To keep the amount of information I had to work with at it's maximum, I shot in the RAW format and kept as much of the histogram as possible within the 0-255 limits.


The flash was not only powered to only fill in the shadows, but also the octadome was angled and positioned to provide the most wrap-around and gentle fall-off possible. The positioning of the light as well as myself was important because I didn't want the platform to show up in the shot, requiring retouching time I didn't want to invest. So, I kept myself outside the "Angle of Incidence" as an added layer of protection.


The Shoot

The aforementioned gear and settings were quickly put together because of the location scouting I did beforehand. I also have extensive practice with the gear (important), so the actual set up went quickly and we were ready to start shooting almost immediately once the model was in position. Not knowing what screws into what and asking "what's this button do?" is a sure way to grind to a halt.

Now, my job was to give life to these camera and flash settings as well as the model. A good photo isn't just the proper gear or settings, but making a creative thought become a reality. So, I have to keep my composition in mind and position my model the right way as well as get her into the proper mindset so that what I'm trying to convey happens more naturally.


Flash and camera settings as well as the gear are robotic, unfeeling parts of a shoot. They do not make great photographs, the photographer decides to make the image come alive. So, at this point I'm giving my model instructions and shooting, keeping an occasional eye on my histogram so I can know when I need to adjust my aperture.


Posing Tips

There are a bizillion ways to position a person. However, there are just a few things you should be aware of when photographing people, especially women. I'm focusing on women because their image is on more media than men, things, or children. Like in drawing or painting, a woman's figure is more curvy than a man's. Even female body-builders cannot escape this fact. So, because a photograph is a 2D space and perspective is extremely influential upon the perceived proportions, you may need to have your model exaggerate a pose so that it looks right to the camera.

She's twisting and leaning in 5 different directions.

One way of simultaneously slimming and emphasizing the female form without fancy Photoshop is to twist the shoulders in the opposite direction of the hips. Have the model pull the shoulders back, extend the neck, firm up the abs, and chest up. Adjust these positions according to your lighting and camera's perspective. It may feel awkward to your model, but they will appreciate the results.

With this 17mm shot, I had to be extra careful about perspective. She had to add extra twist to compensate.

Pay close attention to dancers, ballet poses, and posture techniques as this will help you extract the most from your models because you will understand the mechanics required to perform such poses. I used my experience photographing ballet performances and classes to help my model on the water achieve the desired effect quickly.

Good posing in conjunction with appropriate lighting can give you the final body shape results in-camera. Therefore, there is little to no need to shift pixels around, saving time and making your photography more realistic. If your model is happy with the results prior to post-processing, he/she will be enjoying themselves and help you achieve more great photographs.

The sun provides separation and context to my model.

Good expression is a big chunk of a great photo. Communicate clearly and always be encouraging.


Post-Processing

If you've been following my articles for a while, you know by now that the ethics and workflow approach of photojournalism influences all facets of my photography. Even if I am compositing images together, I strive for reality and try to get as much of the shot right in-camera before I open up Photoshop.

Thankfully, post-processing for most of my shoots is mainly color and density. I'll dodge and burn, zap away some zits and blemishes, and apply natural-looking sharpening, but I don't like spending longer than I need in Photoshop. Overall, just really basic stuff to optimize what has been created.

Once back at home base, I do my usual file management workflow with multi-location back-up. I don't clear off my cards until each location's files are confirmed (not corrupt). Sometimes a drive can freeze up or eject itself mid-copy, by deleting your cards before confirming everything is "ok" could be disastrous.

I go through Photo Mechanic to select which photos I would like to work on and copy them to another folder inside the same job. I then launch Capture One Pro 6 to edit my selected RAW files. I'm using Capture One more and more for these kind of shoots because of its robust tethering capabilities and the very neutral TIFF files it outputs. However, you can use whichever program works for you.

Inside Capture One, I find the properly exposed photo with my ColorChecker in it and set the white balance by clicking on the grey card. I then adjust the density, clarity, contrast, and give it a little saturation bump. These settings are applied to all the images in my "Selects" folder. It works well for most of the images, and since I've done so much in-camera to maximize the results, the program's corrective calculations are faster and more accurate.

After that, I go through each file and make minor tweaks, especially if the aperture has changed or if the file's color has been "too" neutralized. Overly neutral color can rob you of that golden sunrise light. Remember, we want to maintain the feeling of these images.

Making good exposures, shooting in RAW, and leveraging the highlight tone priority of my camera, I was able to pull as much highlight detail and saturate colors more than if I hadn't.

Once these global settings are adjusted per image, it is time to further enhance the sky. Capture One has an adjustments brush similar to what you'd find in CameraRAW or Lightroom, albeit a more clunky because it doesn't have "Auto Mask". I use that brush to drop the exposure of the sky just a bit more and give it a nice saturation boost, particularly in the blues and pinks. However, I keep these changes nicely within the color gamut so as not to cause posterization or flat spots due to compression or printing.

Finally, I export these files as 16-bit TIFFs and do a few more tweaks in Photoshop. Again, it's still pretty basic and because of Capture One's neutrality and the 16-bits of colorspace, Photoshop's adjustments are very accurate and predictable. Inside Photoshop I do some dodging and burning, a little healing brush, and my final sharpening at the end.


Conclusion

I hope you've enjoyed this in-depth article on how I put together a nice fashion shoot on the water. On these kinds of shoots it's not the camera settings that make up the bulk of a creative photograph, but the planning and execution of the idea. Good preparation is the only way you can photograph well. Pressing the shutter is the easiest part. So, the next time you have a crazy after-Christmas photo shoot idea in your head, do a lot of good research and problem-solving before hand so that you and your sleepy friends can have a good time at the crack of dawn.

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