Boudoir on Water

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Most commercial photographers are familiar with the elegant results of shooting products on black glass, but because of cost and the dangers of breaking large sheets of glass, the technique is usually limited to small subject matter.

What if you could get the look of black glass without the cost or the danger? What large subject would you photograph? A diesel engine, a grand piano, perhaps a motorcycle? All of those are possible, but for this lesson, David Cross and Jeffery Jay Luhn chose a glamorous model. The lighting challenges were numerous, but David had a clever solution for each.

“Boudoir on Water” showcases a clever technique using an innovative approach of creating a reflecting pool in the studio. David used this technique with an earlier lesson entitled “The Buddha’s Hand”, but he scaled the concept up for this project. The results will delight you. Once you see how this lesson was shot, you’ll think of countless uses for this approach.

Topics Covered:

  • The Concept
  • Building the Set
  • Shooting the Model Standing
  • Into the Water
  • Evolving the Concept
  • A Different Perspective


  • Olympus E5
  • Olympus Zuiko 12-60mm
  • Adobe Photoshop CS5

The Concept

Photographers often use the ‘black glass’ technique for shooting products such as jewelry, perfume bottles and other small and expensive items. No other surface gives a perfect reflection and conveys the simple elegance of this approach. For those reasons, it’s a favorite for tabletop shooting. But what if you want to photograph something bigger than small product, like a beautiful fashion model?

A sheet of black glass big enough to use for a human model is too expensive, too heavy, and too breakable. Ever since shooting the The Buddha’s Hand a little while ago, where I used a shallow black pan filled with water to create the black glass illusion, I’ve wanted to take the concept to the next level.

My fellow photographer, Jeffery Luhn, related to me how he had once developed huge sheets of film in a ‘controlled puddle’ using a simple wooden frame and black plastic sheeting to create a 1-inch deep developing tray. We agreed that the concept could be used to create a black reflecting pool.

Building the Set

To build the reflection pool, I picked up a few supplies (figures 1 & 2):

  • (4) 8-foot lengths of 2×3″ wood
  • (1) box of wood screws
  • (4) elbow/corner rigid ties
  • (1) roll of black plastic sheeting

First, I created a frame with the wood and secured the corners with the rigid ties and the wood screws. (figure 3)

I then took the plastic sheeting and laid it evenly over the surface of the frame. Because I planned to fill it with water, I didn’t have to secure the plastic to the edges in any way since the water would hold everything in place. Not only did this save me some time, but it would also make disassembling and storing my makeshift pool easier.

I wanted to have some softboxes suspended over the model, but I wasn’t comfortable with using boom stands as they could accidently tip over into the water. The safest approach was to construct a lighting truss that spanned the reflecting pool and was supported at each end with heavy duty light stands. I planned to hang a pair of LiteDomes from the truss. The ProDuty BackDrop Support Kit, while not designed for this purpose, worked perfectly for my needs because the Crossbar is 12 feet when fully extended. The reflecting pool was only 8’x8′, so the CrossBar easily spanned the pool and left room for maneuvering. I attached two StarFlash® heads to two Medium LiteDome® soft boxes and mounted them to the Crossbar using GripJaws™.

For extra precaution, I connected the strobes to the CrossBar using a few zip ties to ensure that neither StarFlash® would fall into the water, even if the hardware became lose.

After both StarFlash® units were attached to the crossbar, I had my key light nicely positioned above my shooting space. Since the lights were supported by the ProDuty BackDrop Support Kit, I would be able to raise and lower the lights as needed.

I made sure to keep all the wires and plugs far away from the water by zip-tying them to the Support Kit. The last thing I wanted was for a live wire to make contact with the water.

NOTE: Take every precaution when using electrical items near water. Make sure that no cable or connection can come into contact with moisture.

I wanted to make a slight deviation from the Buddha’s hand shoot by making the background white instead of black. To achieve pure white, I would need to light it separately from my subject.

I mounted two more StarFlash® 150watt strobes onto medium LiteStands with HalfDome softboxes and aimed them directly at the background. This would allow me to keep the exposure of the background independent from that of the model so that I could render it as pure white.

With these four lights in place and the model on the way, I filled the pool with warm water. I didn’t want it to be too deep, but enough to create a contiguous reflection. I settled on about an inch of water in the pool.

The reflecting pool looked great but the plastic sheeting at the back edge of the frame was not laying flat and it was creating a dark and uneven horizon line. Jeffery cut a long strip of white background paper and placed it over the back edge to minimize the line. It helped a lot, but some retouching in Photoshop was needed still needed on the final images.

Here is a shot that shows the overall setup from an elevated vantage point.

Shooting the Model Standing

When the model, Sarah, arrived, we decided to have her start with standing positions. Afterward, we would have her move into the water slowly as she got more comfortable with the shoot.

In order to accommodate her height, my assistant Jaron and I moved the BackDrop Support Kit towards the camera about three feet and raised the bar to about seven feet high. With the soft boxes angled down, this height would place the lights exactly where I needed them.

With the lights and model in place, I started shooting. For the first few shots, the key lights (the StarFlash® hanging from the crossbar) were set to half power. For the entire shoot, the background lights were also set to half power.

I chose my 12-60mm lens and set my Olympus E5 to the following:

  • Shutter Speed: 1/160th of a second
  • Aperture: f/6.3
  • ISO 125
  • Focal Length 30mm

Due to the delicate nature of the set, it was important to me to first try and get Sarah to loosen up a bit so that she would be comfortable working with us. I asked her to give me her best “Thriller” pose, which she did beautifully. It made us all laugh!

Next, I asked her to strike some more fun poses. Here’s one from that series.

Next, I had Sarah kneel down and run her hands through the water. I pulled back a bit with my lens to 30mm.

Into the Water

Happy with those results, we asked Sarah to change into a different outfit so we could try some different poses.

In the meantime, Jaron and I adjusted the key lights down and back towards our backdrop so that they would be optimally aimed to light Sarah lower to the ground.

When she was ready, I had Sarah sit down in the water facing me. I wanted to showcase the reflective nature of the water in the black pool, and having more of Sarah visible in the reflection would do that for me.

For these next few shots (figures 18, 19, and 20), I set the E5 to the following:

  • Shutter Speed: 1/160th of a second
  • Aperture: f/4
  • ISO 125
  • Focal Length: 24mm

I really liked the sharp reflection I was getting in the water. I focused on that reflection in the example below, which ended up being a personal favorite from this series.

Evolving the Concept

One of my favorite results shots from the Buddha’s hand shoot was the bright, angled shot that still showed the reflection.

Seeing that result, I wanted to do a similar look with Sarah. I had her lie down (her hair got wet in the process, but we ended up liking it), while I angled to get that “floating” look that was so appealing with the Buddha’s hand.

For these last few shots, I didn’t alter my camera settings at all, but I did drop my key lights down to a quarter power.

I was very happy with the look of these shots. Though they mimicked the style of my Buddha’s hand shoot, I felt they really stood out in their own right.

As we were shooting, Sarah leaned her head on her chin, which I liked. But since I had so many good shots with the water giving the nice reflection, I decided to try something different. Employing the help of Jeffery and Jaron, I had them sprinkle water over and around Sarah to give the effect of rain falling on a body of water. I also had Sarah lift her chin in order to avoid the “raccoon” eyes that I was seeing.

A Different Perspective

In the next set Jeffery did some shots from directly above Sarah. The idea was to use two HalfDome® soft boxes to create incident reflections on either side of the model. Jeffery instructed Sarah to splash the water with her hands to get the sparkling reflections we see in the following photo. Note that the photo is turned upside down so Sarah’s face appears more naturally positioned in the photo.

When we wrapped, I was very happy with the results of this shoot. It was rewarding to be able to develop a concept into something fun and visually compelling.

For about $80, I built a shallow pool of an ideal size and depth. I encourage you to try a concept like this for yourself. Good luck and have fun in the process!

Written and photographed by David Cross and Jeffery Jay Luhn

Indoor Portraits,

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