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So it’s a rainy, gloomy Saturday morning, a balmy 48* outside, what do you do to pass the time? Well, if you’re me, you convince your friends to meet you at the county park, where you proceed to do a photo shoot in the pond!

It’s actually a bit more complex than that; I’ve been talking about doing a “meaningful portraits” project for a couple of years now, but I’ve only actually photographed one or two of the people I’ve intended to work with. In some cases it’s a matter of coming up with the right creative idea for how to show them, but in other cases, it’s just a matter of gathering props, scouting locations, and finding the time to do it.

That’s how it was with my dear friend Chris; I’ve had the concept for a while and we’ve talked about it, but we’ve just never done it. And now with autumn upon us, we decided it was finally time to stop talking and start doing, so we agreed to meet at the park Saturday morning, hopefully before anyone else arrived.

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Turns out we had the place to ourselves, no doubt thanks to the combination of cold air, scattered rain, and gloom that permeated the morning. But it was the exact look I wanted – overcast sky, fog rolling off the water, a bit of wind.

The concept for this photo is “Lady of the Lake,” a take on the Arthurian legend, where the magical lady rises out of the waters bearing Excalibur and presents it to Arthur. Why does this work for Chris’ meaningful portrait? Because Chris is truly the lady of the lake; an avid swimmer, she simply cannot get enough of the water, and will literally swim – or at least wade – right up to the point where the pond freezes solid. No joke, I’ve seen her in the water on days where it’s sleeting and she has to break through a skin of ice on the surface.

Call her crazy – I do sometimes – but this passion for the water made for an easy concept for my portrait of her. I gathered some props, the circlet and sword from Amazon, the dress from Mandy’s theater box in our basement, and we were in business.

lady of the lake lighting diagram

The lighting for this session is very straight forward. For the first of the three phases, where Chris is standing on a stool in the shallows to give the look of “walking” on the water, I’m just a few feet away on the beach and her husband Paul is holding a lightstand to camera left. I’ve got a pair of YN-460 flashes running at about 75% power through a large shoot-through umbrella, triggered remotely.

At this close range, it worked out well, but as we moved to phase two, where Chris moved out into water up to her chest, the umbrella no longer had the range necessary to light her properly. At this point, I simply took it off and went with straight hard light, both flashes kicked up to full power.

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This served two purposes: first, eliminating the umbrella made it much easier for Paul to maintain control of the light stand, which kept trying to get away from him in the wind. And second, using the lights in hard mode extended their range and ability out to where Chris was. I chose to use two flashes right from the start knowing that I’d want all the light I could get – my goal was to underexpose the ambient by about a stop, while lighting Chris to a proper exposure, and two flashes give twice the power of one and makes this easier all around.

I’m not normally crazy about hard light, but in this case it worked well, and there were two factors that helped:

  1. There’s no real background behind Chris, so any shadow cast by the hard light is invisible in the photos.
  2. Her proximity to the water, especially in phase three when she was submerged up to her shoulders, let it act as a giant reflector and bounce some of that light around to provide nice fill.

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For phase two and three I was lying on a towel on the beach, attempting to get as low to the water as possible for the desired angle. I’m shooting with the E-M5 + Lumix 35-100mm combo, at f/2.8. 1/160, and the Low ISO setting, with the purpose of keeping the DOF as shallow as possible, while also shooting at max sync speed and underexposing the ambient. The underexposure didn’t get quite as pronounced as I would have liked, but it was enough to start with and add to in post.

The whole shoot was over in ten minutes, which for this kind of creative, conceptual session is really fast. But it’s all that the conditions allowed; Chris knew she had limited time in the water when we started, and a photo shoot is never worth risking hypothermia in your models. We talked through how the session would go while she was still wrapped in a thick robe on the beach, then we hit the water and got through it as quickly as possible.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

For reference, here’s the original version of my favorite image from the session. The whole series required somewhat more post processing than is normal for me, but a lot of that had to do with the nature of the setup and the desire for a mysterious, magical look to them. I began with a touch up layer, for any healing/cloning work, followed by a basic curves layer, then a layer for dodging the fog to brighten it. This was followed by a low-opacity exposure layer, which added a bleached-out effect to the shadows, itself followed by a burn layer to strengthen the vignetting, and all topped off with another curves layer to add some more contrast in a final adjustment.

Unusual for my process, I didn’t convert the curves layers to the luminosity blend mode, but instead left them at the normal setting, which resulted in the colors – specifically the dominant blues – getting punched up. For the dodge & burn layers, however, I did use the luminosity mode, as it looked better. The whole process began in ACR where I used one of the VSCO film emulations, modified to taste.

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This was my first time doing a photoshoot that involved an aquatic element, and overall I enjoyed it. I think it’s something I’ll try to return to in the future, although to be fair it does present some real challenges. Done during summer, at a time when the model could be in the water for an extended period without risk, I think it would work better. In the right conditions I could even get lights out in the water via VALs, and wade in myself, for a much more dynamic shooting environment.

But on this day, I was happy to only get my feet wet. And after we wrapped up and Chris had changed back to street clothes, I took her and Paul to breakfast. It was the least I could do for friends who helped me out with a crazy idea!

Brent Pennington is a freelance photographer and the driving force behind The Roving Photographer. When he\’s not working with portraiture or promotional clients, he’s usually in the field, hiking, or kayaking in pursuit of nature and wildlife shots.

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