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Studio Anywhere: Turn a Kiddie Pool into a Photography Studio

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Nick Fancher, author of Studio Anywhere: A Photographer's Guide to Shooting in Unconventional Locations, shows you how to use a blacked out kiddie pool for a dramatic fashion shoot.
This chapter is from the book

Ohio is not an island. We don’t have access to exotic beaches. Hell, a good number of Ohioans probably don’t even know what the word exotic means. So when I want to construct a dreamy water scene for a portrait here, I need to get creative (Figure 8.1).

Figure 8.1

Figure 8.1 The setup. By blacking out a kiddie pool, you can get the most out of the ripples and colors of reflections.

For creativity, I can think of no better source of inspiration than the fashion industry. Although I hardly consider myself a fashion photographer, I regularly study the photography in fashion magazines, which contain some of the best lighting and storytelling techniques. I have always found it useful to look at those who are doing better work than me, so that I may glean from their work and apply it to my own. A word of warning, however: Studying photographers further along than you can also be discouraging. When you topple from the heights of inspiration down the slippery slope of “I’ll never be that good,” catch yourself by comparing your work to what it was one year prior. As long as you’re growing, you are doing more than okay!

Which brings me to this next scenario. Awhile back I came across the dreamy fashion work of French photographer Bruno Dayan. In particular, he had done a beauty shoot featuring jewelry on a model partially submerged in water. I had never seen colors and tones quite like his. They were simultaneously some of the most beautiful and also the most discouraging images I had ever seen. I was determined to figure out how he had done it—so that I could do it.


Ideally, I would have liked to see a behind-the-scenes photo of the tools and location that Dayan used. Alas, I could find none. So, I tried to read the light in the photo and make up the rest as I went along. Clearly, I needed water, so I started there. Lacking a beach and exotic body of water to experiment with, I turned to the next best thing: an inflatable kiddie pool. I set up the pool in the shadow of my house, making sure to keep it out of direct sunlight, because it was a cloudless summer day. I set up my lights and began shooting a few frames to check the light, before the model even entered the water. The first issue that I encountered was that no matter how I angled the light or set the exposure, the water wasn’t appearing black like in the inspiration pictures. So I added a bunch of black towels and sheets to the bottom of the pool. Now I was on the right track.

I did this shoot back when I was still using High Speed Sync (HSS) to kill my ambient outdoor light. Because of the light output that is lost in HSS mode, I had to gang all four of my Canon 430EX flashes on one light stand to get sufficient output. (I’ve since converted to using variable neutral-density, or ND, filters instead, as you’ll learn in Chapter 21.) Using a FourSquare bracket from Lightware Direct, I attached the four flashes to the pole and set them all to half power, allowing for a decent output without killing the refresh time. I was shooting through a white umbrella, so a bit of the output was lost, but I was still at a shutter speed of 1/3200 with an aperture of f/1.4. This exposure allowed me to squash the ambient light and sufficiently light the model. Figure 8.2 shows the lighting diagram.

Figure 8.2

Figure 8.2 The lighting diagram. For this shot, I used High Speed Sync (HSS) to kill the ambient light. Because of the light output that is lost in HSS mode, I needed to gang four flashes on one stand to get a sufficient output.

I had my exposure, but I needed movement in the water. I’ve since deduced that Mr. Dayan must have been shooting in a lake or pond, where the water is naturally dark with naturally occurring ripples and water movement. At the time, however, I was halfway into the shoot and all the way committed to getting a good shot. I began kicking the edge of pool, which sent ripples across the surface of the water. Now I was getting somewhere, as you can see in Figure 8.3. Note that the patches of soft blue light in the waves are reflections of the sky.

Figure 8.3

Figure 8.3 The raw file. To get ripples in the water, I had to kick the sides of the kiddie pool. The patches of soft blue light in the waves were reflections of the sky.

I made sure to snap several frames with good ripples before I called it a wrap (which I never say out loud at a shoot). When I imported my files and started to compare them with Bruno’s (not recommended), I was feeling pretty down that the experiment had failed. But the truth of the matter was I shouldn’t have been so hard on myself. The shoot was not only my first attempt at blindly emulating his work, I was also working solo using a minimal setup in my backyard, while a whole team of creatives with much better resources had been at his disposal. After all, it was just a fun experiment, and I still had Lightroom up my sleeve.

Once I began playing with the Levels and Curves controls in Lightroom, the images really started to come alive. Dayan’s images looked like he had essentially pulled up the shadows in Tone Curve, which created a nice texture in the water ripples. So, I spent most of the editing time in these areas. I also wanted to push an overall blue tone on the image, so I added a +64 blue tone in the Split Toning panel and a +58 warm tone to the highlights, to retain a warmth in the skin tones (Figure 8.4). Finally, I decided that I liked the image better with a vertical orientation. I cropped, making sure to retain the original canvas dimensions, and my experiment was complete (Figure 8.5).

Figure 8.4

Figure 8.4 The Lightroom settings. I did most of my color grading in the Tone Curve panel, while also imparting an overall cool feel by adding a Split Tone overlay.

Figure 8.5

Figure 8.5 The final image. Although it’s a bit different than Dayan’s, I am still happy with the result. Plus, now I have more knowledge about working with lighting and water, so the next time around will be smoother sailing.

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