March 12th, 2010
Photography Tutorial: Nautica Cologne Ad
Davidoff Cool Water cologne ad


This photography tutorial will cover how to shoot a fairly challenging photo of a cologne bottle, in water with ripples that appear to radiate from its base, outward into a seemingly endless white space. The shot is very designer friendly and was purposely shot with lots of white copy space. The final result is pictured below.

Before You Begin

Before you try doing any kind of photo like this, there a few things you want to make sure you have on hand, or are capable of doing - otherwise you could end up wasting a lot of your time.

  • Be absolutely sure you have enough room! This image looks like it won't have a setup that takes up much space, but looks can be very deceiving. You will need a bare minimum of cleared space that is 7 feet wide, 7 feet deep, and 8 feet high. More room would be even better, but a space that size can work, it will be very cramped however.

  • This is a wet set - so treat it with respect. Anything running off of AC power should be plugged into a GFCI protected outlet. Common GFCI outlets in homes would be anything in a bathroom, kitchen, or located outside. If you don't have any nearby, you can buy short little pig tail extension cables with GFCI boxes built into them, like this.

  • You will need black trash bags, I recommend the heavy duty variety.

  • Four wood planks about 3 feet long.

  • A table to work on, about waist high.

  • Ideally, a long, seamless white sheet of paper about 6 feet wide and 6-8 feet long, preferably one you won't mind messing up by getting it wet. Later on, you'll see that you can get away with something slightly different like I did, which was a big white foam board and a separate sheet of flexible white poster board.

  • Four small weights or heavy objects

  • Black river rocks. You can get these for super cheap by the bagful at the dollar tree if your in the USA

  • A small thin brick, wrapped in black. There's a LOT of options for this, but the pedestal is very important, and due to the various pond depths, its hard to give an exact recommendation. Just know that you will need something about 1 inch high that won't float and is totally black.
  • Water pitcher

  • Two flashes and necessary gear to hold/mount them.

  • At least one CONTINUOUS light source if your flashes don't have modeling lights.

  • Diffusion for at least one flash

  • Basic grip gear - I recommend at least three stands with gobo arms - four would be more ideal if you don't have a softbox that hooks onto your flash.

  • Your Camera - DUGH!

Set Rigging

Once you have all the gear and supplies for this shot, you can begin with the set rigging. First things first, set up your table and start building your "pond". I laid out my boards in a manner similar to Lincoln logs, the photo below says it all.

After your pond frame is built, take your black trash bag and lay it into the pond. Make sure it sits nicely inside the frame all the way down to the table. Once the bag is laid into the frame, use your weights to secure the frame by placing them on top of the ponds corners (where the boards are intersecting).

Now that your pond is rigged, its time to put up a big white seamless background. This background is really, REALLY, ***REALLY*** important because its what essentially makes the water show up in the photograph. This shot won't work without it. Did I say this is really important?... You'll want this to go fairly high, and be wide. The reason why this thing needs to be substantially larger than the actual pond has a lot to do with how it shows up as a reflection in its surface, if its too small, you'll see the edges in the reflection. A good rule of thumb here - the LONGER your pool surface is, the wider and taller your background needs to be. I wish I had a set ratio, but I don't. Just keep this in mind though, as its EXTREMELY important. Backgrounds that are too small are usually the number one source of headache when trying to do these kinds of shots. I also recommend you keep your pool size in mind as well, specifically how wide the farthest end of the pool is (side nearest the background), as it can all too often creep into your frame.

Once your background is up, make sure the bottom end of it sweeps into the back end of the pool, and is held down by something heavy and black - in my case (and what I recommended above) black river rocks. This is quite important, the reason being that you want a seamless transition from water to white background. Without this little feature, you'll get a stark line at the back of the pools edge, which will also be reflected in the water to boot.

At this point, the set is pretty much rigged. You'll need a black, heavy base for the cologne bottle to sit on inside the pool, literally just under the surface. What you use will depend on how deep the pool is. Mine is pictured below, out of the water.

At this point, you can now begin filling up your pool with water, use just enough to submerge your underwater base. Below is another photo of my underwater base, but this time shown inside the pool, with water now covering it and my cologne bottle set in position on top of the base ready to be photographed.

Lighting and Shooting

Now that the set is rigged, we can finally start lighting it! The easiest part of this setup is the background light. A simple boom setup with a wide angle flash pointing at the the white background sweep, set to be about 1-2 stops brighter than the foreground light should be sufficient. The foreground lighting is where some challenge comes into play. If you look at the final shot, you'll see the bottle is clearly reflecting a large white surface - which is actually a diffusion sheet in front of the flash lighting it up - alternatively you can use a fixture with a mountable softbox as well. Getting this effect is the end result of carefully angeling the bottle, the camera lens, and the keylight illuminating the bottle. Getting this reflection to be perfect is nearly impossible without the use of a modeling light you can at least see for a few seconds. I actually used a flash that did not have a modeling light built into it, so I rigged a small 300 watt Mole Richardson betweenie fresnel film light just next to it to act as my modeling light. There is a real "trick" to this, and the trick is your camera lenses height. Only certain angles will work, I wound up having to raise the camera up a few inches, and effectively look slightly down at the bottle. The bottle was also angled in a manner that helped bounce the light. Simple trial and error seems to be the only low tech way of figuring this out. TIP: Make sure you can see the lighting thru your camera lens, merely looking beside the camera won't always work with this kind of photography. Pictured below is my final setup.

Once your lighting is in place and your camera rigged, the actual shooting is fairly easy. You need two shots, as this photo is actually a composited image. The first shot is of the bottle and totally still water. The second shot, you just barely grab the tip of the bottle with your fingers, and quickly move the base around in tight motions while firing another exposure. If you did it right, the bottle should roughly line up in both exposures if you were to lay them on top of each other. The two shots I used are pictured below.

Post Processing

Post processing was fairly easy on this shot, most adjustments were done in batch processing style to each image in Photoshop CS4's raw converter. The real post work was in the compositing stage. Essentially I just cut out the bottle from the free standing shot with no hand in it, and laid it on top of the other shot with the ripples. That's a really watered down description though, as there was more work involved in making the composite seamless. In some areas I had to make use of the clone tool for example, to fill in some problem areas that didn't combine perfectly etc... You can't really get to detailed with this step, as everyones "issues" will vary to some degree - just realize that this will probably be the toughest part of creating the image. I hope you enjoyed this tutorial! If you are in need of a photographer for a commercial assignment, contact me here.

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