Monday, March 19, 2012

Aquarium Shoot (Caution - Long post ahead)

About two years ago I was looking at pictures done by a photographer who was showing how to get some of those cool "underwater" and "splashing" effects on products. We've all see the photos of the shampoo bottle that looks like it just hit a wet counter and water is splashing everywhere. This photographer went through some of the basics on how he got some shots he had posted. I don't recall if he is a professional or not, but his photos certainly were good. I've looked through dozens of old bookmarks trying to find the original post, but I can't. I do remember it involved shooting upside-down for a lot of the images and letting water do its natural gravity thing. Some images were shot in an aquarium, and a lot of plastic covering and towels were involved. HA!

Not too terribly long after reading that post I found myself walking around downtown Dallas and to my amazement, there was an aquarium sitting on the curb next to a garbage can. It was filthy, and stank as only an old, uncleaned fish tank could. Nevertheless, I picked it up, and carried all the way back to my car. Finished my business downtown and took it home with me to see if I could clean it.

After a little while with bleach and water it was looking nearly good as new. And then I did something incredibly stupid. I put it in a closet, and left it there for two years. Every time I wanted to get photo equipment out of the closet it sat there, staring at me, begging me to get it out and use it. But I never pulled it out, unless it was to get to something else behind it.

Fast forward two years. I had done a shoot last weekend and, as usual, had to pull the aquarium out to get to stuff. During the week I was on Flickr and saw someone posting photos of their "water dropping" session and the bug bit me again. My mind started thinking through what I'd need to make a shoot happen with it, and what the subject matter could be.
I woke up on Saturday morning determined not to let another day go by without using it.
So I went to the store, bought some supplies and came home to set up a shot.
It took me nearly an hour to get everything set up and get the lighting right. The initial setup had the aquarium sitting on half a ping-pong table with plastic under it. In hindsight I probably should have put something black under the tank as the green showed through when light hit it. But that kind of turned out to my benefit later, so I was ok with it.

The longest task after that was filling the tank as it is pretty big. It probably took me 25-30 minutes of carrying buckets back and forth as I didn't want to mess with dragging a hose into the house (working alone has its down sides).
My first few shots, just to see what the tank was going to do at the exposure I wanted, left me with a very green background, even shooting at 1/250, ISO 100 and F/10 in a dim room. So I reached for the black seamless and used some pieces of it to cover the back and side of the aquarium.

I tried a few different lighting setups at first, but everything I did exposed the black paper and made the background grey. Then, remembering that I had read something about lights from the side being snooted. I decided to try that and it worked perfectly. After that I added another light from above to light the water splashes (also upon the recommendation of someone who had undertaken this challenge before me).

This gave me the total darkness that I needed. The next step was trying to get the exposure and focus dialed in. I couldn't really think of anything that I could stick in the water that would stay put long enough for me to play with lights and exposure, so I took and empty CD spindle, wrapped white gaffer tape around it (to create a point of contrast for the auto-focus) and weighed it down with some rocks so it would sink to the bottom.

Once the focus was dialed, and the lighting was good I was ready to rock and roll.
Here's a shot of the final setup:

The plastic bag was just a safety precaution, haha.
I have the camera on a tripod so I can have my hands free to drop things into the water. It is being fired with the
pocket wizard on top of it. The plan was to have the camera remote pocket wizard in my right hand, and to use my left to drop things into the water.

First test shot yielded this:

Canon EF 50mm F/1.4 | 1/250s | F/10 | ISO 100

And from there it was just a matter of time before I was in the car heading back to the grocery store to find more things to drop in the aquarium! haha!
I tried strawberries, lemons, mini sweet peppers and a bottle of Axe bodywash. The lemons were a total bust, but the other things turned out pretty great. You can see them all here.

Total spent on this project was a measly $14. So it's not like it is something that would break someone's pocketbook. The biggest expense (outside the equipment) was probably the aquarium. But if you go around to garage sales and some used clothing stores (like Goodwill) you can sometimes find them there. Or you could always try CraigsList.

I also shot this with speedlights, so you can see you don't need fancy and expensive studio lights.
The lights were: Nikon SB-28 at 1/32 power, Nikon SB-80DX at 1/32 power, and I ended up putting a snooted light (Yongnuo YN560) on the opposite side of the tank for a bit of fill.
They were all really low power (despite shooting at F/10) so that I could shoot bursts.

Sometimes I was lucky and got a great shot, other times the timing of the shots were off and I'd have to shoot again. All in all though, it was a huge success and I hope to do be using the aquarium again soon for a different kind of water shoot.

Thanks for reading! Now go make some images! ;-)

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