Water has its own soul in the way that beautiful light can stir intense feelings.
Together with a good lens, water and light can delight the senses and feed the artist’s hunger for something new. Water’s kaleidoscopic texture and hue and the interplay of light provide endless, inspiring variations in photographing the same subjects, in the same places.
Once I realized the powerful combination of water and light, my documentation of moments and faces began to become more artful interpretations.
On their own, water and light give a beautiful effect, but the lens can freeze the interaction in a way we miss with the naked eye, and perhaps add another layer of interpretation of the subject or scene.
Whether it’s the sun’s warm glow reflecting off a pond in a close-up or a child playing in the spray of a hose in a spirited lifestyle session, water and light are my preferred backdrop for almost every kind of portrait.
As you can see in the images here, water can provide varying energy and mood. You’ll always find me taking photos of my kids or holding my portrait sessions next to ponds, pools, lakes and beaches. Add a little wind and I’m in love!
I know it’s a little ironic that as a portrait photographer, nature’s elements are my biggest inspiration. But it’s that special unseen quality in a person or a moment that I’m trying to depict — the heart and magic of it — and water and light always help articulate the unspoken story.
Fresh Water & Dreamy Light
When I moved to a house with a pond in the front yard, I had no intention of starting a photography business. A few months later I couldn’t not start one.
The sunlight would strike the water beside the dock, flooding my lens with a divine light. It seemed serendipitous, yet I wanted more, more!
I could track the light on this familiar pond, but finding golden-lit water elsewhere is far less predictable. My neighbor’s pond, while more beautiful in ways, didn’t get the intense glow at sunset that ours did.
It all depends on the direction of sun and its relationship with the water and shore. I think looking for amazing light is worthy of a good search, and when found, it’s important to visit frequently and get to know the timing of the light’s effects like a best friend — someone who is changing and growing and never fixed or fully knowable, but always intriguing and invigorating!
I didn’t tell my clients I was driven by the desire to merge their moments with water and light when we planned afternoon sessions at my dock. And they might have wondered why I paused as we hovered around the dock for a spell. I was watching the sun’s descent with anticipation.
Fresh Water Tips
My favorite lens for working with pond light is my speedy Nikkor 85mm f/1.8. I use a polarized filter to diffuse the flares, and lend an even color to the light (less chromatic aberration).
I generally shoot at an aperture of about f/2.5 because I like to isolate my subject in a soft background. I often use a reflector in backlight shooting to give my subject’s face enough light to compete with the otherwise overpowering backlight.
The Beautiful Sea
My love for the ocean runs deep for many reasons; in terms of water and light, it’s second to none. The waves reflecting the light on an open horizon and the low, low sun, the minimalistic palette of sand and water that so effectively isolates your subject — it’s portrait heaven if you ask me.
That light I had to search for at ponds and lakes is in abundance on the coasts at sunrise or sunset. There are no trees and structures and geography to interrupt the scene. It’s an open conversation among you, the water and the sun, if you want it to be.
As with all bodies of water, there are no better times to shoot the intensity of feeling between people than dusk and dawn, when a golden glow is reflecting off the water. I’m always after the golden flares and the sparkles in the water — the bursts of light that seem to dance — but I’ve seen spectacular shots by the sea taken at all times of day.
For maternal shots, the beach is the perfect way to depict the limitless love we have for our babies. And the scene has such breadth that we don’t have to corral the kids. They can be and play freely, the way we want to remember them at that age.
Shooting at the beach can be dangerous for a camera, thanks to the sand, water and unpredictable splashing of children. I recommend using a simple rain shield around your camera for general protection of the body. I think a polarized or UV filter is a must to protect the lens.
I rarely change lenses on the beach because the wind can blow the sand into the camera body in an instant. That makes me a one-lens shooter on the beach, always the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art lens, which handles the light and flare beautifully, while the wide angle emphasizes the scene’s expansiveness.
Below the Surface
The inherent dreaminess of underwater shooting captivated me from the moment I tried it. It gives me a new genre to love after more than a decade into my photographic journey.
It’s somewhat involved to take a nice DSLR camera underwater, but even a point-and-shoot with raw file capability allows me to capture the underwater antics of my kids. I discovered that my children achieve a grace underwater that’s not so apparent on land. Suspended mid-water in a pool’s deep end, they seem to be in their element, a place of quiet, purity, innocence.
I still find golden hour appealing in underwater shooting, because the side light is gentle and the rays can penetrate the water and provide a complementary blend of orange and blue. But it’s midday with cloud coverage that I prefer.
Absent are the harsh rays of direct sun that, while interesting, can complicate the scene and the in-motion subject you already have little control over. Instead, there’s soft, subtle highlights in the little details, such as the bubbles, that are so intriguing to the eye.
I shoot for 1/500 second in aperture-priority mode and stop-down more than I do above water, because my underwater subjects are constantly in motion, and focusing can be tricky with the bubbles, lighting and action. The Sigma 35 is the lens I use here too, and I think it works well for both close-ups and full-body shots.
Never Miss the Water
Even when you don’t have a body of water at your disposal, the magic of water is usually within reach. I’ve noticed the interesting water-lens-light relationship with the sprinklers, puddles and hoses in my own backyard. Bathtubs, showers, even the sink spray can make interesting captures.
And I just recently discovered spray-bottle photography (how’s that for a genre!) thanks to my talented photographer friends on Instagram. When the sun is rising just outside my family room, the light pours in and this is the perfect time to spray into a beam and see what happens. My boys love the experiment, too!
Words & photos by Samantha McBride