Category Archives: fine art photography

Underwater Photography, Part One – shoot concept and test shots


just keep swimming, just keep swimming. no really. don’t drown.

I have always had a love affair with water and mermaids.  I never understood why Ariel wanted to become human in the “The Little Mermaid” because I would have traded places with her in a heartbeat.  Underwater photography is something I have always wanted to try but it’s a bit difficult when you don’t have a pool and also can’t afford to buy fancy equipment.   In college I was able to do a few underwater shoots using anything from a Kodak disposable camera to borrowing an acquaintance’s scuba camera gear. For a hobby photographer on a modest salary, even renting equipment seemed prohibitively expensive, especially when factoring the cost of renting a pool.  A thousand dollars for a day shoot?  Not that likely, even with my models chipping in to help out with the cost of all this.  So when I fortuitously got a hookup to a private pool through the friend of a friend who was house sitting at an amazingly posh house, I jumped at the chance.

I’ll take a moment here to highly recommend  – I have used them several times now and it’s just the best, simplest way to rent equipment for a shoot that you couldn’t otherwise afford.  I’ve rented lenses, cameras, and now casings.  Totally easy, fuss-free, and pretty affordable all considered.  I rented the Aquatech case for the Canon 7D.  It was amazing!

The main inspiration of our photo shoot was the Chinese fairy tale “Madame White Snake”, also referenced as “White Snake, Green Snake” or “Lady White Snake.”  It’s the subject of movies, Chinese opera, and a number of TVB series, featuring two sisterly snake demons who take on human form.  My friend AJ has always adored the playful character of Green Snake (check out her other cosplay and a dance homage to this character), and she wanted to do an underwater shoot to get the neat CG effect of this series of artworkWei-Ling has been AJ’s White Snake partner and as a fellow waterbaby, I really wanted to shoot her in the pool as well.

We were really all going to get our money’s worth out of this equipment, so we scheduled a shoot to also include the lovely Laura whom I had previously shot at Preston Castle.  Wayne planned to shoot her in several different outfits – and I thought,  I might as well make myself a sea nymph costume as well to fulfill my mermaid dreams.

bubbles!  my bubbles.

bubbles! my bubbles.

We scheduled the day of the shoot as far in advance as possible and the two costumers got to work designing and sewing their costumes.  One week before our scheduled shoot, we had the good luck to be able to do a test shoot at the location.  I was very concerned at how difficult it might be for our models to safely swim in their heavy outfits.  Swimming is one thing; trying to model underwater is entirely different.  We’re all good swimmers but I have read horror stories of poor brides getting pulled underwater during their “trash the dress” shoots and drowning – safety first!  Plus doing a run through of our shoot allowed everyone to practice posing, see how our fabrics reacted underwater, and a chance for me to check out the lighting conditions.  I don’t mind admitting my greatest fear was that our models would be disappointed in their shots because of my inexperience in this setting.




go go GoPro camera

go go GoPro camera

For the test day, I rented a GoPro camera but I ended up not really using that and going with my iPhone camera inside a scuba suit.  The GoPro was fantastic and easy to use in terms of making it take pictures, but hard for framing as there is no preview.  Luckily the very wide angle let me see everything that was going on in the scene anywhere I had the camera pointed, so I was able to get a fairly good idea of the lighting conditions and how the images would appear on the day of the shoot.

I’m super pleased with our test results from just using the iPhone, though!  I have an iPhone Scuba Suit that I had bought for a Cabo trip and it worked really well. I believe it only fihts the 4/4S, but there are other waterproof cases for the Iphone5.  This actually suited my needs really well for the test shoot day and I was very encouraged by our shots that day – my anxiety level went down and we all felt much more prepared.

Plus, after our test shots, we had time to goof off.

underwater pyow!!!

underwater pyow!!!

Lessons learned from that day:
1) underwater modeling is far harder than swimming.  After a two hour session, I was completely exhausted.
2) stick with light, bright colors.
3) less is more for makeup – stick with just eyeliner and maybe some cream-based shadow.  MAC gel eyeliner works great (magical stuff!), and this Aqua Seal from Sephora really did the trick for the rest of our eye makeup.  Test makeup stayed on for two hours in the pool!  We skipped lipsticks, but figured a stain would work better.


Stay tuned next time to see some of the shots from our day!

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Painting the Stars (and other things)


Stars!  I’m still on a Les Miserables high, although I was thinking about a stars themed images since before I saw the movie.  But it seeems like I can’t see any twinkly little star without thinking of the lyrics “Stars, in your multitudes/Scarce to be counted/filling the darkness/with order and light”.  This images was done with a pop of flash to get the jumping figure, and then over the rest of a long exposure as a light painting for the blue nebulas and me flashing a small LED flashlight straight at the camera for the actual stars.

The last few weeks I’ve been experimenting with a cool painting with light technique to create a spectral glowing fire or smoke effect.  In a case for looking at the “related links” or “You might also be interested in” ads on the sidebar, I found this fabulous tutorial on Youtube by French photographer Wen-Jie Yang.  He’s helpfully added English subtitles for those of us who don’t speak French! Right after I saw this I had to go straight to Amazon and order the electroluminescent wire that he’s talking about.  Hooray for Amazon Prime!

Of course in his videos, it looks really easy to just get the shot he wants, but with these long exposures I’m finding it takes a LOT of tries to get everything just so.  For the things I’ve been working on over the last few weeks I’ve been finding that getting the lighting right is extremely tricky – I’m using a small flash, LED lights, LED rope lights, and the wire for various things and the resulting long long exposures (and possibly jumping) take about a million tries.  Probably it’s time for me to start getting models or assistants or SOMETHING, if I only didn’t always start playing around with my camera at 9 pm on a random Wednesday, which is how it usually goes.  Still, I’m very happy with some of these:

“Shine Bright”

This was done entirely with a single LED flashlight.  I was really inspired by Rihanna’s recent radio hit, but more so about the idea that everyone has hope and beauty inside of themselves.  It’s just a matter of letting the world see, and letting that inner light touch the lives of others in some way to make it better. This was right after the Sandy school shooting and that was really a moment when it was so clear how the bravery and sacrifice of those who chose to give their lives for their students was in such stark opposition to anyone who could choose to take the lives of others.  Not saying everyone ought to run out and be a hero like that, but we can all help others in some small way, all the time.



“Playing with Fire”

Did you know I always wanted to be a sorceress?  This was incredibly hard to get right, I used an LED flashlight to light myself (which was sufficient to to light the background) and drew in the rest with the El wire.





” Summoning”

In addition to wanting to be a sorceress, I suppose I also secretly want to be a demoness that you’d summon up from some hell dimension? The lighting on this one was too complicated to really make me like the end result – LED rope, flash, AND the El wire.  Still learning how to get the effect I want, which gets infinitely harder the more you try to have in the scene, as you can see.  Still, I get a kick out of this because when I look at it I think about Arnold in the Terminator in a similar pose, and his line “Your clothes.  Give them to me” in his heavy accent.



After all this I’ll probably take a little break for this technique because I have other ideas that need exploring.  But it’s a nifty and fun trick – definitely a great one to have in the bag.  Until next time! :)

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Taking the Waters


More composites this week!  This was my most composite intensive piece so far despite the simple composition.  This one was inspired by a recent visit to the spa – I love water and hot soaks.  It goes well with one of my mottos in life – “When in doubt, take a bath.”

I had been flipping through my Pinterest board of photo inspiration and saw some beautiful examples of underwater photography.  A few months ago this image was making waves through my social media and I absolutely adore everything about it.  If anyone knows who is the artist or what the provenance of this image is, please let me know!  I have no information about it.  Anyway, for any pursuit whether it be photography, cooking, travel, snowboarding – anything that can be a hobby passionately pursued, there comes the moment when you start thinking “If only I had a boatload of money.  Then I could buy this-and-such thing that would totally take me to the next level.”  I was having this sort of thought moment in wish I might have endless amounts of money to buy or rent equipment and props and settings and feeling rather down about what I didn’t have.  The old adage about being thankful rather instead for what one does have applies in this case – having less is a good motivator for creativity.

To do underwater photography two things really come in handy.  One is a black walled pool, and second would be all that underwater gear which is pretty darned expensive.  I have neither of those things.  I was playing around with shooting through a container of water to get some bubbles and distortion, but that was going nowhere.  To me myself feel a bit better, I thought that I could at the very least get the LOOK of shooting underwater.  And then I couldn’t resist adding an implausible element, like a splash of water.

There are a LOT of advantages to having your own place.  No one complains when you start transforming your bathroom into a photography set at 9 pm at night.  This is a stitched panorama of what my setup looked like:


Occasionally I also think about how I might not be the smartest person out there.  Strobe equipment, camera, and water?  I might not be trying something like this again really soon, and I’m glad I didn’t end up destroying my equipment or electrocuting myself!  Ignoring the strange angles of the panorama, I had my camera there on the right side on a tripod, facing the wall and tub.  I taped up black fabric for my backdrop and I was perched on the chair.  For some of the photos I was balanced on that black box you see under the trailing cord of the strobe to get enough height, but as it’s not waterproof I switched to just the chair when the water was around.

It turns out to be very hard to maintain good control of one’s body (all the while trying to use a remote control) while crouching in such a situation.  I took a ton of shots while flinging around a skirt and a length of teal chiffon I had wrapped around me, and ended up using two of them to create the bottom portion of my body.


It turns out to be INCREDIBLY hard to maintain any kind of calm facial expression when you are repeatedly dumping bowls of water over your head.  At this point I put the remote control away because I didn’t want to get wet, and I had the camera on a 10 second timer, so the routine went something like:

1. get a bowl of warmish water
2. gather up soggy skirts in one hand
3. turn off light
4. start 10 second self timer on the camera
5. clamber gingerly while trying not to slip on a wet bathroom floor to the chair in the tub
6. pose and then pour water over my head and try  not look too shocked each time the water hit my head
7. dry hands with towel laid by the tub
8. lather, rinse, repeat

It was the worst the first bowl because I forgot to make the water at least kind of warm.

Anyhow, from there, I added in my upper body and left arm (separate shot, that’s the arm I was using to pour said bowls of water), and layered in additional splash around my body, and then the pour of water from the top.

I am definitely thinking an assistant would be called for next time.  That would make this whole thing much easier!

In the end I had more layers that I’d ever had before, especially with the many curves/lighting adjustments I was making along the way.  You can see a bit of what that looked like when I was getting close to the final image.

After that was a few more lighting adjustments to make everything match.

I seem to be halfway to creating a series involving waving long lengths of fabric in a particular color.  Red, blue, and I had a white one in there somewhere.  (Yes.  The fabric store was having a sale and I had stocked up on potential prop pieces.  I find long lengths of chiffon incredibly useful.)  Anyone have any suggestions on what color to tackle next? :)


Until next time!


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This is my photographic equivalent of the actual desire to get things off my chest, but there’s certainly times when it is appropriate to unload and times when I feel like I’m in danger of returning to angsty teen days of posting up a leading “Oh sigh…life is so awful” status message up on some social networking site.  Hooray for art to succinctly summarize emotions! The idea for this piece was floating around in my head for the last few weeks.  Originally I had wanted something quite a bit more gruesome in appearance with a more bloody, exploded look, but after some experimentation and feedback, that idea seemed a bit overkill. (Though…I may return to the idea in a future piece.)

I feel like I’m back in school too!  This piece was a combination of double exposure, and using flash to stop motion.

Here is my original jumping shot.  You guys can have a great view of what my room looks like; in lieu of a studio large enough to hang full infinity backdrops you’ll see where I had to digitally extend my background.  One day, it would be fabulous to not have to do that extra work outside of the camera, but until then I’ll freely admit it’s cheaper for me to just keep on doing this in my bedroom. F 9, 2 second exposure with a strobe pop – I’ve been working a lot lately with these longer exposures mixed with the strobe.  I find that having a faint continuous light source adds a good glow to the background over that exposure, but there isn’t enough light to get me on camera except during the actual strobe flash.  I originally had tried a black background, but my hair blended in too well with that.

I layered a shot of tossed rose petals over this, check out my unglamorous assistant of myself in the background.  Same thing, F 9, 2 second exposure with strobe pop.   This is the only petal toss shot I had – I had to leave my home studio setup and was expecting to get back to do a few more tries later.  However, on importing the photos I found this shot had what I wanted.

So – I took shot one, digitally smoothed out and extended the background.


I rotated and layered a selection of the rose petals three times to create the volume I needed.  This is on a transparent layer.   Thumbs up for layer masking in Photoshop.


Then I just layered the two and added a few lighting adjustments for the final image.  Overall I believe I was only shooting for 20 minutes because I had been mulling this idea over for quite awhile, and I honestly expected this session to be only a testing session and that I would need to come back and try this all again a second time.  I was pleasantly surprised when evaluating those test images to have some that really worked.  Maybe I’m getting better at that whole pre-visualization thing where I get that whole piece figured out ahead of time? :)


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Seminar: Storytelling and Compositing


Last week I had the opportunity to attend a seminar taught by Brooke Shaden.  I always love going to these seminars to pick up on tips and tricks, especially from successful artists (as Brooke Shaden is successfully making a living off of her art – that’s a lot of street cred she has with me.)  I wasn’t aware of her work much before the seminar was brought to my attention, but her imagery really strikes a chord with me; and I think my work might develop along similar lines.

The topic was storytelling and compositing – the art of taking multiple photos and blending them together to create a new whole.  Personally I’m still deciding what level of Photoshop I feel OK with before I don’t want to call the end work a “photograph” verses a “digital painting”.  Still, can’t argue that when one hasn’t got a budget of thousands to get sets and props, a judicious use of Photoshop to get the image you want has its place.  And I really love the term “self portrait artist”, because I often end up using myself as a model in my photos – so, I’m going to have to start using that term for my photography!

This is the image I walked away with at the end of the day.  We had done another group shot with a model with a levitation shot, but due to the size of the class I wasn’t really able to get a good angle and shots to work with.  This one actually IS a composite of 3 different images, although if I had more setup time I know I could have gotten it in 1 or 2.  There’s nothing about it (such as including thing in motion, supports that really needed to be erased, etc) that couldn’t have been done with one shot…well, maybe some support.  But we had 30 free minutes to ourselves and a bunch of props in this gorgeous old library room and I was inspired to do a mysterious wrapped figure, like a library gargoyle!  A patron gargoyle of learning, as it were.

One of the most important techniques of the day was taking a blank setup shot, or plate, of the setting without any of the models or action.  This works to your advantage down the line, particularly in a levitation shot where you will be masking out a visible means of support, but it is good practice to do for any shot you know you will composite. And of course, this works best when all your shots will be take from the same angle/height/lighting conditions, so for this kind of work a tripod is necessary and a remote control trigger very handy.

I have 3 basic layers of the shot – I do love layer masks as just about the best thing ever in Photoshop.

Here’s the 3 shots I started with.  One is the background, and I admit I didn’t do this in the best way – in the end I liked a slightly different framing of the background, so you see all the subsequent images of the figure had to be scaled down to fit in the new frame.  Not a big deal, but if I’d gotten it right I would have saved myself some post processing work.  The second was chosen for the upper body.  The shelf I sat on was actually quite narrow, so I was in danger of tipping completely forward and falling off.  I wouldn’t have been able to lean forward without Wayne’ support.  The third shot was of the lower body with no support – I had Wayne draw back for just a few seconds while the shot was snapped.

thanks for the support, wayne!

I liked this shot quite a bit for something I only had a short amount of time to work on.  In retrospect, the image would have been more evocative with more story (perhaps another figure to interact with the gargoyle?)  But I do love red, and drapery.

And here’s a quick shot of the demo of how to do a levitation shot.  It was pretty neat – I’ve started messing around with them a little bit, so stay tuned for more. :)

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