In my fifth self portrait for Round 29 of The Photography Scavenger Hunt – a challenge that banned all photo editing and Photoshop – I had no choice other than to use in-camera trickery and practical FX to create intentional conceptual imagery. As I dove more and more into the process, I learned to  love this back to basics challenge. I mean really love it. I'd go so far as to say it lit a fire under my muse and sparked an insatiable desire to create photography on whole different level. 

This post explains the process I went through to create my self portrait on the subject of WATER.


Every photographer, at some point, experiments with capturing liquid splashes using a flash set to high speed sync. Above are the results of some tests I completed several years ago doing exactly that when challenged to do so for an assignment in the Project 52 Pros community.

For general photography the high speed sync is not used so often because the power of the light is reduced. But high speed sync is very useful in those situations where there is movement in a shot that you want to capture crisply, with reduced blur.  

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Day One • Experimental

I was playing with the idea, initially of jumping in the shower, fully clothed and seeing if I could capture some interesting water captures of the shower droplets hitting my head. I also determined in advance that I wanted my shot to have a blue watery feel, an artistic interpretation of an underwater world.       

I set up a strobe light on a boom arm  in my bathroom with the addition of a blue gel to get the color effect I was looking for. I tested several items of clothing of varying hues in the scene with the blue lighting, but all of them distracted from my overall color story I intended, so I resolved to create the shot without a stitch on, au naturel instead. I adjusted the camera position a little to preserve my modesty. 

My shower head is fixed/non swivelable, and it projects water at an angle instead of straight down. Due to the limited space and the available room for lighting, the first thing I had to do was go borrow an adjustable/pivotable shower head from another bathroom. It still wasn't perfect, but at least it made the shot possible.

Although I captured a few interesting gestures and expressions, including some self portraits I really liked, I felt the results were lacking an emphasis on the word water. I also felt there was space in the frame for something more magical.  In a couple of shots I had played with splashing water out of my hand and I liked the effect this resulted in. How awesome would it be, I thought, if I could combine a photographer's ubiquitous water splash in a scene with a portrait. It was something I couldn't recall seeing before.  If I could somehow fill the space in the composition with a watery tentacle, it would provide me with more of the drama I was looking to convey.

For these first tests I was shooting with an ISO of 1600, aperture between f5.6 and f6.7 and shutter speeds of either 1/500 or 1/1000 of a second. 

behind the Scenes of the WATER Shoot

Prune Fingers

After 1 hour and 40 minutes under the shower, my body had had enough for the day. 

Thankfully it was 81F/27C during my first shoot attempt and even warmer in my bathroom, so at least I wasn't in danger of catching a chill!

behind the Scenes of the WATER Shoot

Lighting Setup for Day Two

Working in a bathroom can be challenging, spaces are often tight. I positioned the strobe on a boom arm so that I could suspend it over the bathtub. I also wrapped it loosely in plastic so the electronics would be protected from accidental splashes. Talking of splashes, I rounded up just about every towel in the house to protect the surrounding areas from getting soaked by too many splashes. I set up the camera on a tripod with an 85mm lens. 

The stool in the bath was for me to sit on. This not only gave more space  for the water to widen before arriving in the area viewed by the lens, it also was for safety (it can get very slippery standing in the bath tub) and comfort (I didn't want to be standing for all that time).  

behind the Scenes of the WATER Shoot

The idea that didn't work out

On day two I had a brainwave which turned out to be the ruin of me! Building on my underwater color idea, I thought it would be cool to have blobs of slightly different greeny/blue patches of colour across the frame. I decided to achieve this by sticking little pieces of gel directly in front of the lens. It *seemed* like a good idea at the time and when reviewing the shots in the moment, on my ipad, I didn't yet realise how much I didn't actually like the results. 

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behind the Scenes of the WATER Shoot

I thought I had a winner

After 69 minutes under a deluge of droplets,  when you are soaked to the point of saturation and your eyeballs are drowning in the tears of shower, your judgment can become blurred. On reviewing the results during the shoot , I thought I had a winner. But after I dried off and downloaded the images to my computer I realised my color idea hadn't worked as well as I'd imagined. Because of the no editing rule to the contest, there was no there option for me at this stage than to reshoot once again.

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Exhaustion Makes Mistakes

Remember when you were a kid and you used to go swimming and then you'd come home hungry and utterly exhausted? Well, standing under a shower for over an hour makes you feel the same way.  I think it is the water itself that is exhausting more than the exercise. Your eyes feel strained and you feel tired – that really good kind of tired – but tired nonetheless. This is how I felt as I dragged myself back into the shower on day 2 for a third attempt at getting my water shot.

It was getting dark and without realising it I didn't set up my lighting on the subject well enough. After another 90 minutes I was done, but I hadn't done well.

behind the Scenes of the WATER Shoot

A Day of Rest

I took the next day off from re-attempting the water shot. Not only did I need time for all the soggy towels to dry out, I needed to refuel my energy levels ready for one more attempt at getting the portrait I imagined in my mind.

behind the Scenes of the WATER Shoot

Fourth & Final Setup

The setup remained similar but I moved the light a little bit lower and closer. Even more towels were added to soak up the splashes. 

behind the Scenes of the WATER Shoot

Making the Water Splash

Inside the bath I had a jug (for collecting water) and some plastic cups which I would fill with water again between each take. It was the water in the cup that I would throw up into the air to create the water tentacle effect. As you can imagine, this was fairly random and I had to get the timing just so. Other challenges included getting the splash in the right focal plane with the right amount of light (some landed too near the strobe and were too bright or too out of focus) and getting a good facial expression and eye direction all at the same time. 

behind the Scenes of the WATER Shoot

The Trigger

In order to control the shutter I was using an infrared remote. I had this sealed inside a plastic bag to protect it from the water. I held this in my left hand whilst I threw up the water splash with my right hand, trying to click the remote at precisely the moment the water seemed it would be most suspended in frame. (aka random).

behind the Scenes of the WATER Shoot

Wearing Glasses & Self Portraiture

My camera was also attached to a Camranger which allows me to control and review shots from an ipad. The ipad was also sealed in plastic bag and perched on top of the toilet so I could easily reach over from the stool in the bathtub where I was sitting. This I was grateful for, because it saved me from having to keep getting out of the shower to look at the back of the camera. Can you imagine?

At this point I'd like to add a note about wearing glasses and self portraiture. I can't see the ipad without my glasses on. So each time I'd stop to review results I'd have to dry my face, dry my glasses, look at the ipad, take off glasses, repeat. Self portraiture for those who need to wear glasses is a whole other level of challenge on top of all the other challenges that self-portrait artists face. 

Results from the Final Session

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The advantage of making so many attempts to create a shot is that your technique gets better and better with practice and you begin to get results you are much happier with.

Some Tech Specs from this final set:

1/2000 sec at f/7.1

ISO 2500

85mm lens

Time in shower: 72 minutes

I was pretty torn between two results from this final set, liking the water from shot and slightly preferring the expression from another. Take a look - what do you think?


  • Untitled photo
  • water

If only I could have used photoshop, I could have mixed the two together...


Which is your favorite?

Let me know in the comments...

  • Sam Breach

    on May 16, 2021

    Hey @Maszup Art House - good to see you here and thanks for reading!

  • Maszup Art House

    on March 3, 2021

    thanks a lot for sharing your knowledge and ideas. I like the final mix of two shots. great idea, and perfect execution

  • Sam Breach

    on November 16, 2020

    Thank you Jamuna and Robin. If only we could hang gifs on the wall, eh?! I'm with you Robin - I think the combined one has most impact for me.

  • Jamuna Burry

    on October 30, 2020

    The gif is definitely my favorite, as it conveys the full effect of your contagious joy. Thank you for this great journal of the shot. It's a delight to see your process.

  • Robin Griggs Wood

    on October 29, 2020

    My favorite is the one you combined! ... ;oD
    I particularly love all the water that is dripping on your face in the one with the expression you liked the most.
    So amazing you are, Sam!!

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