April 5th, 2010
Photography Tutorial: Water Waves
blue water wave against a white background


This week's tutorial is something I've been getting requests for lately. I've also had a lot of people over the years ask me questions about how I shoot this particular kind of photo. This week I unmask the secret.... to water wave photos! I've literally shot HUNDREDS of these before. Pictured below is this weeks shot.

Before we begin, I would just like to say sorry for not having a tutorial up last week, I was out of town and did not have time to produce one. My goal with this blog is to challenge myself to produce a challenging photo each week, and present a tutorial breakdown of it here. With that said, especially now that I have some 600+ people subscribing to this blog, keep in mind I'm still a working professional! I can't guarantee I'll make it every week, but I will try too. With that said I also have a small administrative note, I've reformatted my blog posts to include header and footer menus, there you'll find a new little treat, a tutorial archive link! Check it out if you haven't seen the other tutorials. Without further ado...

Embed from Getty Images

Before You Begin

Before you try doing any kind of photo like this, there are 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.

  • Space! This is probably always a requirement for everything I shoot. Be sure you have a cleared place to work in that is at least 7 feet long by 7 feet wide, and 8 feet high.

  • 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.

  • Grip gear - this shot is actually fairly lite on the grip gear. I suggest having at least 3 stands (preferably C-stands), one gobo arm, one solid black flag, and a few sandbags to boot.

  • A white background, at least 4x3 feet in size. I used a white foam poster board this size which I bought at Staples.

  • Medium sized fish tank - I highly recommend you get picky about the tank you buy, make SURE it's glass is listed as being optically clear or high grade clarity. My tank is about 20 inches wide, 10 inches deep, and 12 inches high.

  • A TV dinner table tray - I'm not really sure what the heck you call it, but essentially its a small one person table that folds down for storage. This may seem awfully mundane, but its CRUCIAL for these types of photos. Whatever you use, make sure it is easy to rock side to side, even with weight on top of the table.

  • Two flashes - I recommend hardwiring them, so you'll benefit from having some sync cables and splitters.

  • Camera tripod - I HIGHLY recommend a tripod with a rising center column for this shot.

  • Towel - preferably something very absorbent that won't shed any fibers easily. I don't recommend paper towels.

  • Lens - I'v used all kinds of lenses for this type of shot, so I can't really say "use this one" - its up to you. I will say this however, the closer you're lens requires you to be (wide angle lenses) near the tank, the tougher it can be to light the shot. Keep this in mind.

  • Small post it note with an "x" drawn on it - more on this later.

  • Water.

  • Photoshop or comparable program.

  • Time.

  • Luck.

  • Patience.

Before shooting, make sure you clean your fish tank, you don't want mineral deposit spots on the glass or any loose dust/fibers at the bottom of the tank. Pictured below are the mineral deposit spots I had to scrub off my tank.

Set Rigging

Begin with setting up your white background, make sure its high enough off the ground that it will line up with the fish tank when you look threw it at eye level. A few feet in front of the background setup your table and fish tank. A few more feet in front of the table setup your camera tripod making sure that it will be level with the tanks height - this will be fine tuned later... When everything is in place, fill up your tank, but only fill it up about 1/3rd.


The lighting for this particular shot is fairly simple. Setup a flash on the ground not too far behind your table setup and have it aimed up at the background. I recommend using a very wide angle flash head here, as you want an even illumination of the background. I used an Adorama AC Master Slave flash for this, secured with a saddle sandbag. Next to the tank, setup your second flash to be pointing down at the water threw the tanks overhead opening. Last, but not least, rig a black flag to make sure light coming out of the second flash unit does not spill over into the area where your tripod is setup. Pictured below is a shot of my setup.

Please note that this is not the only way to light this shot! I've personally used numerous approaches - all of which produce different looks. For all setups however, make sure that your lighting is powerful enough to allow you to shoot at a deep f/stop and fast shutter speed. I shot the image above at f/13 at 1/400. Also make sure you keep the camera area dark and reflecting as little light as you can - this prevents YOU from showing up in the glass.

  • Be sure to expose in a manner that doesn't blow out the background, it helps to have it just under blow out; then have the foreground about 1 stop below the background. Blowing out a background is much more refined when you do it in post.

  • I typically do not diffuse the light aimed at the water.


Before you start shooting, make sure your camera's point of view is perfectly level with the tanks water line, you should not be able to see the surface from above or below. Below is an example of what you would see in your viewfinder.

I highly recommend giving yourself a decent amount of headroom above the water surface, you will be splashing the water around after all, so you'll need it! Focus your camera on the tank wall closest to your lens. Focusing on a clear surface isn't exactly easy, so you'll find it far more easy to use the sticky post it note with the "x" drawn on it, see, I'm not crazy ;) Make sure you wipe off any residue if it leaves any, it shouldn't be an issue though.

By this point, your essentially ready to shoot. From this point on, its mostly just practice and technique. There are a few approaches to this. You can either use the camera timer, or you can fire manually with one hand and use the other to produce waves. I use setups that allow me to do both at once, as I feel it works much better timing wise. My wave technique is pretty simple, I just rock the table side ways and build up momentum, eventually the water will begin to slosh around, and if your timing is just right, you can capture a barrel looking wave. Below is a picture of this shenanigan in action.

Once you have fired off a shot, you will need to use your towel to clean off the upper glass walls of the tank. Make sure there's no streaks left behind! Below is an example of what can happen when you don't clean the glass enough...

Before you fire off another shot, I highly recommend waiting for the water in the tank to settle down completely. You'll never get a good barrel wave unless you start out fresh - trust me on this.

Needless to say this is a very time consuming type of image to create! The setup isn't really the most challenging, its actually creating and capturing the wave that is the real challenge! I've spent literally HOURS trying to capture a perfect barrel wave, and have gotten a few in my day.

Post Production

Post is fairly simple for this shot, but I do have some helpful tips of course! I do most of my processing in camera RAW for brightness and contrast. I don't totally blowout the background in RAW. Once I lock down the desired contrast in camera RAW, I actually desaturate the image and then take it into Photoshop. Once I'm in Photoshop I duplicate the layer and begin painting out big areas above and below the wave with a white paint brush. Fine tuning the edges of the wave is the tricky part, and I use the dodge tool, set to highlights, to gently work around the waters edges. To help guide me when doing this, I create a temporary adjustment curve layer that really cranks the contrast. Pictured below is the curve I use, and the effect it has on the shot when I'm working on it.

After I've cleaned up the background, I then search the image at 100% size to look for areas to buff up, like small water drops that need to be cloned out, etc... There is always something to fix. If you ever find little white dots on your wave, I recommend a 100% blur brush to quickly buff them away. The blue color of the image is created by using a solid color layer (blue in color) set to "soft light" blend mode. Once everything is finalized I turn off the temp curve layer and collapse the layers into one single image, convert to 8 bit, and export. I hope you enjoyed this tutorial! You can comment below. If you are in need of a photographer for a commercial assignment, contact me here.

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