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Walking on Water Photography Concept

The Infinity Pool Illusion

The Technical: Tiffany K. posed at the edge of the infinity pool during one of my Virgin Islands exotic, photography workshops. This location has provided for a “trademark” style sunset look that makes the model appear like she’s standing, sitting, lying, or walking on water or the ocean itself. Like the pose itself, the sunset varies everyday, causing unique colors, as seen in this photograph—colors so spectacular viewers often ask if they were altered in post-production (Adobe® Photoshop®), which is rarely true.

Photography photo tips

In this photo of Tiffany, I used a Rosco #02 Bastard Amber gel to provide a sunset color of light on the model.

The other key to these beautiful color combinations are the use of the portable studio flash systems with either a beauty dish or soft box light modifier used to properly illuminate the subject, producing either a balanced or overpowering fill flash to combine with the natural daylight. And for even more dramatic skies, the flash unit itself is often gelled with either a Rosco #02 Bastard Amber gel, or any other colored gel while the camera is set to a custom white balance setting. Still another technique is to use a Rosco ¾ CTO (continuous temperature orange) gel over the flash unit while setting the camera’s white balance at a range of 3200 to 4,000 Kelvin. The latter method ensures a dramatic blue sky.

Photographer’s Toolbox (1st Photo)

Camera: Leica R-9 with Leica Digital Modul back
Lens: Leica 100mm APO-Macro-Elmarit-R (effective, 137mm) F/2.8
Shutter Speed: 1/125th shutter speed
Aperture: F/5.6
ISO: 100
White Balance: 6000K

When photographing sunsets the lighting is done in two parts. The first part at the brightest point of the sunset where I set my portable studio power packs on high-power to ensure I have an intensity of light value of F/8.0 (at ISO 100) reflecting back from my subject. This allows me, as a minimum, to balance my ambient daylight with the fill flash illuminating my subject. Normally the shutter speed for this time of day at F/8.0 and ISO 100 is set at 1/125th of a second.

Photography instruction tip

In this photograph of Candice, by increasing the shutter slightly, the sky and water darken up, thus more blue saturation. This photo was illuminated with a flash covered with a 3/4 CTO gel.

During the first 30 minutes, I’ll only adjust my shutter speed to my personal tastes and stay at a shutter speed of either the camera’s sync speed or below. Moving the shutter speed to a higher speed will darken the sky while a slower shutter speed (dragging the shutter) will result in a brighter sunset. If I’ve utilized gels over the flash units itself to provide for a custom white balance to change the color of the sky in the background, the shutter speed will either increase (slower shutter speed) or decrease (higher shutter speed) color saturation wherever the flash doesn’t strike, such as the water, ocean and sky. The shutter speed for the subject is the duration of the flash.

Infinity edge swimming pool photography

In this photograph of Candice, by slowing the shutter slightly, the sky and water brighten up, thus less blue saturation. This photo was illuminated with a flash covered with a 3/4 CTO gel.

Eventually as the skies darken toward the last 30-minutes of sunset, I’ll power down the portable studio power packs to get a light intensity output that measures approximately F/4. By increasing the amount of light striking the camera’s sensor with the larger aperture opening in the lens, I’m able to raise my camera shutter speed back up to it’s highest flash sync value. During these last 30-minutes of sunset, I’ll drag my shutter speed again, sometimes down to a complete one-second exposure, while standing in the pool with no monopod or tripod. Again, the key here is that the duration of the flash is the model’s shutter speed.

The Story Behind the Image: During my recent Moab and Los Angeles photography workshops, attending photographers have indicated they’ve seen infinity pool, walking on water style photos appearing everywhere, from Victoria Secrets advertisements to other photographer’s online portfolios. Normally the conversations start out, “Hey Rolando, I saw someone copy your infinity pool photo, or someone stole your idea.”

Rangefinder Magazine Photography Cover

Model Laura F., poses on the edge of the infinity pool for what would eventually become a a Rangefinder magazine cover.

I simply chuckle, remind them that it’s common for photographers to take someone’s idea or concept, copy or refine it, to fit their style—and it’s OK. Though I’m flattered that these photographers tell me I should take credit for the concept. I also believe that any professional photographer walking by an infinity pool, with an ocean sunset in the background, would see what I saw during my very first Virgin Islands workshop in November 2004. It’s common sense, the Earth is curved, and if an infinity pool has the ocean in the background, all a photographer has to do is get in the pool, bring the camera down low, and the illusion of the pool and ocean water connecting is created, giving the appearance the model is walking on water. It’s that easy.

Ever since I created that first image in the Virgin Islands, it’s become one of the goals of every photographer attending my exotic Virgin Islands photography workshops, to get theirs too, and they usually do. Some capture that signature image better than others. Even the models, that are lucky enough to attend the event, come with the same perceived image in their minds. The most interesting moment upon their arrival, is when they find out the infinity edge is only about five inches wide and tilted at a slight angle so the water can spill over edge, thus providing that infinity look. I might add, it’s one thing to walk the wall barefooted, but it’s even more of a challenge to stand on this slippery tilted edge in high-heels.

Photography instruction

Infinity edge swimming pool, especially with an ocean as their background, provide of the photographic illusion that the model is walking on water.

A few models have lost their balance, even barefooted, and all but one, fell forward into the swimming pool. The one that fell backwards, while she was lying on her side, was not in her heels, she was patiently waiting on the photographers as they adjusted their cameras and just lost her concentration. Fortunately, after a visit to the hospital, other than a few scrapes, bruises and a mild concussion, she survived—so posing for this photo is not that easy and has an element of difficulty, though we take all precautions possible including having plywood between the infinity edge and the outside pool wall located approximately three-feet behind this edge.

Bottom line, the infinity edge pool with the ocean in the background concept, I created almost six years ago for myself, though I’m sure it was done before, so I don’t claim the first mover advantage. I will claim I’m probably the first photography workshop instructor that started and branded this concept and my photography workshop attendees plus myself have created hundreds of standing, lying down, or walking on water photos. It’s a concept fairly obvious to any veteran photographer with creative common sense. So I laud any photographer, past or present, for creating their version of this photo concept.

Photography Instruction Virgin Islands

Tilae was photographed using a cyan colored gel over the flash, then custom white balanced to create the red background.

It makes for a great photograph and it’s always worth capturing, so if you see the opportunity, don’t pass it up, no matter who did it first. It’s a photographic illusion captured in the camera, not done in postproduction. It’s how it’s ultimately created, like changing the color of the sky with white balance techniques that separates one photographer’s version from another photographer’s vision. I always enjoy the opportunity, because the only constant is the infinity pool edge itself.

The sunsets are always different and the model talent changes too, thus providing infinite possibilities for any photographer and apparently more and more of these types of images are popping up, from Victoria Secrets shoots to photographer’s portfolios—no wonder this style of shooting is so popular and often confused as something I developed.

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2 Comments

  1. Fantastic use of colored light. I love the final image of Tilae where you used a Cyan gel on the light to push the white balance towards the magenta! We have an entire range of gels specifically for this purpose called CalColor. Did you use one of the CalColor Cyans in this shot?

    • Joel,

      Hi. Thanks for your comments. I’m not sure if they are from the CalColor collection, as your previous marketing director, now long gone, used to send me Cinefoil, Tuff Spun, CTO’s, and an assortment of gels to use, and I’m still using them (though could use a few new ones, hint). I’ve always believed in Rosco products and back after I wrote an article for Studio Photography magazine on the uses of Cinefoil, Rosco came out with Photo Foil. Nice to see Rosco around to help on this new site. I’ll see if I can find my old article on Cinefoil, update it and post it here. Thanks, rg.

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