Wet & Underwater Product Photography

Introduction: Wet & Underwater Product Photography

About: Ordinary guy with no special skills, just trying to change the world one backyard invention at a time. See more at: http://300mpg.org/ On Twitter - @300MPGBen and at Ecoprojecteer.net

My buddy, Josh, (who I met through Instructables) asked if I could lend him a hand doing some underwater product photography of his new Waterproof Solar USB Charger.

While modern sports cameras (yes, like GoPros) are often available in a waterproof version, they are far from ideal for nice clean product photography in a controlled environment. They also don't have many of the manual controls and other features found in a DSLR.

In this Instructable, I'll show you how I decided to do wet and underwater product photography, and what I learned form it.

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Step 1: Equipment and Materials

To start with, I was asked to do both video and still photographs of a product. So, I would need a video camera, a still camera, tripod, lighting equipment, and a place to use them all.

I set up shop in the back corner of the small warehouse space.

Equipment I used included:

  • Nikon D90 DSLR and Kit Lens
  • Panasonic HMC-150 Video Camera
  • The Product Itself
  • Arri Softbank IV tungsten lighting kit
  • Dedicated portable Ground-Fault Interrupt (GFI)
  • tripod
  • field monitor
  • Seamless paper backdrops (both blue and white)
  • 45 Gallon aquarium and stand
  • Garden Hose and faucet adapter
  • Magnets, Clamps, Coins, Washers
  • Photoboop Automatic Shutter Release
  • Squeegee, sponge, towels, glass-cleaner
  • Spray bottle
  • Flags, Reflectors, black cloth
  • Props

Step 2: Studio Setup

Television shows like BAYWATCH used a combination of actual waterproof equipment in the ocean AND regular film equipment shooting in a studio through the side of essentially a large aquarium. This allowed filmmakers to use their regular equipment and production techniques - all without getting wet. I intended to do the same.


I set up a 45 gallon aquarium on a stand in corner of the small warehouse space.

The aquarium was placed away from the wall far enough to put a backdrop behind it and separate the light on the background from the light on the aquarium. In this case, about 6 feet.

I made sure that all lights and everything else was in place BEFORE filling the aquarium with water

I used both blue and white "seamless" paper, held up by c-stands - heavy duty multipurpose light stands.

I started with traditional four-point lighting - Key, Fill, Backlight, and Background Light. However, due to reflections in the glass front of the aquarium, the Key Light (the main light illuminating the product) had to be brought much more to the side than normal.

Besides that, I also added a pair of very small lights shooting straight through the ends of the aquarium. Those light up the product WITHOUT causing reflections.

All of these were video style "hot lights", running on 120V AC wall power. Alternatively, strobes or "Flashes" could have been used, but I only have very basic flashes, whereas I have a full video light kit.

Working with electric-powered lights near water has the potential for electric shock! Places like kitchens and bathrooms often have Ground-Fault Interrupters (GFI's) built into the electric outlets. However, the back of a small warehouse space does NOT! I used a portable GFI with all the lights. A portable GFI is a handy thing to own and useful for construction sites, odd photography, and other unusual situations I seem to get myself in to.

Once everything was in place, I filled the aquarium with water. I added a faucet to garden hose adapter to the bathroom sink and ran a long garden hose to the aquarium to fill it. Right away, I noticed I would have a few issues. The water was cloudy. Besides having tiny air bubbles dissolved in the water, we also have very "hard" water in my area. That means that there is a high concentration of iron and other minerals in the water. Unfortunately, that also usually means that the water can have an red/orange tint to it.

This "industrial strip mall" building also does NOT have a water heater. All water going into the aquarium was EXTREMELY cold. (It was the end of winter as I was doing this.) My arm would actually go numb just trying to position the product in the aquarium.

One simple solution to the water being cloudy (and COLD!) was to simply let it sit for a day or two. This would allow the air bubbles to work their way out and for the water to warm up. I also purchased an aquarium hard-water remover from the pet store down the street. This is a bag of chemicals that absorbs the iron from the water to "soften" it. I placed it in the fish tank, and let it sit for two days. After that, the water was much more clear (and a little warmer too!)

Step 3: Taking Photographs

Although I now had dry lights and cameras to work with, it was still challenging to place and arrange the solar panel for filming.

Normally, a product is "posed" or placed in position, propped up, and tweaked. All of these things are much harder to do underwater. For example, using some double-sided tape or putty adhesive to prop up the product doesn't work underwater.

So, what does?
Clamps, weights, magnets, and physical attachments (hooks, rope, etc.)

One issue that I had right away was that this product has a zippered pouch on it. The purpose is to have a place to put electronic gadget charging accessories, but what it ends up doing is trapping air. This makes the solar panel semi-boyant. In other words, it FLOATS!

It's rather hard to position a product when it is floating.

To solve that, I opened the pouch, and added coins as weights until they counterbalanced the buoyancy. Nuts, bolts, and washers all also make good weights. The advantage of coins is that they are NON-Magnetic.

There is also a flap on the solar panel that I wanted to pin back. Tape won't work underwater, so I instead used some small rare-earth magnets and a large flat washer to pin the flap back with magnetism.

Things like spring clamps (or "Pony" clamps) can also work well for holding and positioning a product, you just need to make sure they stay out of the shot.

I had several images that I wanted to create of the product with this photographic setup:

  1. An ACTION shot of the panel splashing into the water
  2. An artistic photograph showing detail of the water resistance
  3. An animated GIF file showing the solar panel obviously underwater
  4. The aquarium as a background for the video with my friend speaking to the camera.

1) I worked on the "Splashing Shot" first. In this case, I was working by myself, so I would need some sort of remote shutter release or timer. The timer feature on my DSLR could work, but is slow, and will only take one photograph. Instead, I used my "Photoboop", a device designed to control a camera to take four photos on a timer - Photo Booth style. I originally got it to use at a friend's wedding, and it was a blast.

Here, I set up the Photoboop on my camera tripod and connected the shutter release cord. I would then press the big green button. The Photoboop starts a count-down (with audible beeps) and takes four photos, with a few seconds between each photo. This allowed me to position the product over the aquarium, and drop it right as the camera took the photo. I could recover the product and drop it again in time for the next exposure. Of course this did take a little trial and error, but after just a few times, I was getting the photos I wanted.

I used as high of a shutter speed as I could get away with, to minimize motion blur of the slash, although a small amount of motion blur CAN add to the sense of motion. Using more light allows the camera to have proper exposure at a higher shutter speed. (Early Hollywood movies were all shot in outdoor light because film-speeds were so low, only sunlight was bright enough to work. Even INDOOR scenes were shot this way!)

2) While I was working on the "Splash" photograph, I also noticed that the top of the aquarium made a neat-looking out of focus background. I shot an "artistic" close-up of the solar panel by placing it right over the top of the aquarium. By using "macro" close-up photography, nearly everything else is out of focus, including the ripples in the top of the aquarium water.

3) I was also asked to make an animated GIF file showing motion and depicting the product being underwater. This time, instead of only using the aquarium to hold the water and create an abstract image, I intentionally included the gravel in the bottom of the aquarium as part of the image. I also added a prop - an aquarium old-fashioned diving-helmet. I also changed the background from white to blue. The gravel, the prop, and the color blue all imply "Hey look, this is underwater!" to make it as obvious as possible, as WATERPROOF is one of the main selling points of this particular product.

At this point, there was still no motion. The solar panel really has no moving parts to draw the eye's attention. Because the product itself doesn't move, I added some motion to the background. I ran an air hose and pump to the diving helmet so that air bubbles would come out of it. I quickly found out that that would then make the helmet float away! So, I modified the helmet by drilling a small hole near the top of it, but on the back side. This would allow the air bubbles to escape (and keep it from floating!) but the hole would not be visible to camera.

Another thing about real water in a lake or ocean is that it moves, creating waves and beautiful ripples of light just below the surface. I experimented with trying to create waves in the top of the aquarium, but by the time I had enough water movement to create a good effect, the waves would push the product out of the position I had carefully placed it in. Instead, I found that I could create a good "wave ripple" effect by moving my hands and some scrap pieces of wood over the top of the aquarium.

I shot this with a video camera, although I could have done it just as easily shooting multiple stills on the DSLR camera. I converted the frames into an animated GIF file in Photoshop, but you could do it in many different programs. There's even web pages that can generate animated GIF files for you automatically. (Start here on Instructables. There's all sorts of fun photography tutorials here!)

4) I also used the aquarium (with the product in it) as the background for my friend's video. In it, he sits in front of the aquarium while telling the story of how and why the product was created and lists its features. Having the product splash into the water right behind him just helps drive home the WATERPROOF feature.

The main difference here is LIGHTING. I now had to light both the aquarium AND a person. I used "flags" to block off the key light so that it would light Josh, but not the aquarium. Flags are frames with black cloth on them than can be easily positioned to block light. Pieces of cardboard work great as the low-budget alternative. (Just don't keep them very close in front of hot lights for too long!)

I also placed a reflector on the opposite side of the actor from the Key. (OK, so he's not an actor, he just plays one on TV!) This gives a nice simple lighting ratio without adding another light.

I also covered the the tripod, the light stands, and any other equipment with black cloth (cheap colored bed-sheets) to keep their reflection from appearing in the aquarium. I also wore dark clothes so that I wouldn't be seen in the reflection either.

The other main thing that I did was raise the aquarium. I wanted the product height to be roughly the same height as a person sitting in a chair. To do that, I had to drain most of the water, then lift the aquarium and stand and place them on wooden riders known as "apple boxes".

Step 4: Out of Water Shots

Besides the underwater photographs, I also wanted to showcase the product outdoors. Since this was a solar product, I did those photos on a sunny day in a local park.

I chose that location because it had grass, a river, a pond, and some large rocks that would make an excellent place to shoot the solar panel. The rock implied the ruggedness that was another selling point of the product and was nice contrast to the grass background and black of the solar panel.

I arranged the solar panel on a rock, propped up the solar panel with a spring clamp, and placed various accessories, such as a GoPro camera or tablet computer, any of the devices the panel is designed to charge with it.

I used a tripod to minimize motion blur, but also so I wouldn't have to set the camera on the ground every time I needed my hands free.

I also propped up a small reflector - some white foam - to get some light onto the solar cells themselves to make them "pop".

I also made sure to get some images with the product relatively off-center, knowing that there would need to be at least one photo where a product logo would be added. I framed several shots with the solar panel on the left, and relatively empty space (just grass, etc.) on the right to allow for a logo.

To imply that perhaps the weather was a partly sunny, partly cloudy day, I used a plain water spray bottle to spray a mist of water onto the solar panel. Since solar panels work when it's sunny, but this one is also designed to be water-proof, I was trying to use the photographs to help tell that story. "Perhaps the owner of this solar panel was out hiking and got caught in a thunderstorm, but now it's sunny and he can charge up his GPS. Good thing he purchased the BADGER WATERPROOF USB SOLAR PANEL!"

That may sound cheesy, but I think the photographs with the spritz of water really do help tell the story.

I also took some photographs with the panel on a tree stump near the river. The sun was starting to set, and I was shooting in to the sun, which makes for a contrasty image, but it's rather attractive.

I also rolled up my pants and waded into the river for a video action shot of picking the product out of the water.

One the edge of the pond, I filmed my wife sitting at a park bench, using the product to charge her tablet. It was nice weather and the image of the pond once again reinforces the idea of waterproofness and perhaps a remote location where grid electricity isn't available.

All of that was once we finally had spring. Only a few weeks earlier, all the lakes were frozen over. On the last good weekend of ice fishing, I took the solar panel out with me on the lake. It was late in the day which gives a nice warm, orange light (magic hour!) I angled the solar panel towards the light and made sure to get some nice blue sky in the background. I dunked the solar panel under the ice water and then pulled it back out. Some of the water droplets just froze right to the panel. Nothing says water-proof and rugged quite like ICE frozen to the product! It may have been sunny, but it was COLD!!!

Step 5: Image Manipulation

It seems like most photos nowadays are edited, manipulated, or changed in at least SOME minor way.

Since I'm using a digital camera, the image is already in the world of computers.

I used Photoshop, but you can use any program you would like, from MS Paint to open source image manipulation programs.

At the most basic level, a photograph can be cropped or rotated. A little fancier than that, you can adjust the color and brightness. If you shoot still photos in the RAW format, you have quite a lot of options in adjusting the image, anything from exposure to levels to correction for lens distortion.

On most of the photos used, I only did some basic image correction - cropping and brightness. Because it is such a dark colored product I did sometimes use Photoshop to brighten up the dark color. In a couple of images, I used the rubber stamp tool to eliminate a spec of something floating in the water.

Cover Image:
One image that I put a bit of work in to was the one that would be used for the "Cover" image on the Kickstarter web page. That image will end up with a video play button superimposed over the middle area. It would also have a logo added.

So, to start with, I took a photo of the product with it all the way to the left side of the screen. This left plenty of "empty" space in the center and right. The product also "faces" to the right. Typically, products (and people) should have more space on the side of the screen that they are facing or looking in to. This is sometimes called "nose room".

I used selection tools in Photoshop to mask off the product and the rock that it was sitting on. Then, I selected a soft focus effect to generally blur the background grass and trees.

I added the logo in the upper right, and scaled it to what felt appropriate for the image.

The logo was still hard to read against the tree branches in the background, so I added another layer of blur on just the trees, this time using a Tilt-Shift blur, as I liked the effect it made on the tree branches. I also made just a few minor tweaks to color and brightness.

The finished image shows off the product and logo, and still has space in the middle for the PLAY button that Kickstarter will automatically add.

In all the "splash" photos that I took, there was no single image that really stood out to me as the best. So, I decided that I would try my hand at making a composite. I already had a still image of the product on a plain white background, and I had some images of the aquarium with the water waving, but no solar panel in it.

I combined the product shot, the aquarium background, and a wave to create a composite image of the panel in the water. I think it turned out pretty well. It's very stylized, and the solar panel almost looks like a graphic! On the other hand, it doesn't have the realism of the photos that I took of simply throwing the solar panel in the aquarium. Which do you prefer? The composite or the "live" photo?

Animated GIFs:
I also used Photoshop's timeline feature to create animated GIF files, including the one of bubbles coming from the deep sea diver helmet and a simple two-frame animation of a woman kayaking with the product.

Step 6: Another Use for an Aquarium

I didn't use this technique for THIS project, but if you are trying some underwater photography, why not put your camera INSIDE a small aquarium as an underwater housing!

Here's a sample video of what the footage can look like.

A small aquarium will keep water OUT just as well as it will hold water in.

Get a small aquarium, such as a 2.5 gallon model. Place your camera INSIDE the aquarium. Now, push the aquarium about half-way down into the river, lake, or ocean that you want to film in.

You get a great photo or video straight through the side of the aquarium. This technique lets you use whatever high quality camera you already have and gives you full access to controls. The only down-side is that you can only do photography near the surface of the water, although you can TILT the aquarium to get the surface of the water out of the shot.

This also works great in video as a moving shot. Start with the lens just above the water line and start recording. Then push the aquarium down until the lens is below the waterline. It's a really neat look.

Water weighs about eight pounds per gallon, so if you have a very small 2.5 gallon fish tank, it would take nearly twenty pounds of pressure to push the the aquarium down to it's rim. You can add a smaller dumb-bell weight to make the aquarium less buoyant. Something roughly one quarter the buoyancy of the tank seems to help quite a bit. It won't sink the aquarium, it just gives it a low center of gravity and makes it easier to handle.

I used this "glass bottom boat" technique in a fun little independent film a friend made. In it, a spy is running from the bad guys. He leaps into the lake, and then swims away underwater. In reality, the actor jumped off of a rock down on to a lower rock, hidden from camera, NOT into the lake. Then, we went to the hotel that he worked at, which happened to have an indoor pool. I placed the aquarium in the pool with the lens below the waterline as he jumped in, and then swam underwater. I also placed an amber filter on the camera to make the artificial blue of the swimming pool look more like the green of the lake. Guests at the hotel we curious as to why somebody was jumping in to the swimming pool in a tuxedo...

I also worked on a television commercial for a local health club. One of the features of the building was that they had an Olympic-style pool. They also had a cork-screw waterside for the kids. I used the "camera in a small aquarium" technique to film a professional swimmer doing the forward crawl AND I went down the waterside with the camera as a point of view (POV) shot. Both shots were the neatest thing in the advertisement.

For the health club video, I cut a piece of plexiglass to fit as a lid on the aquarium. I put the camera inside, turned it on, then put on the plexiglass along with a bead of silicon sealant. I then could start and stop the camera recording through the glass using the infrared remote control. This was all years before GoPro made underwater cameras.

This is by no means a new or original trick, but Digital Camera World had a nice little article about it a few years ago you might want to check out.

Step 7: Tips, Tricks, and Conclusion

While I've done some mock-ups of underwater photography before, I still learned quite a bit this time and would like to share some tips.

Aquarium Size:
If you want to create an abstract image - such as showing water, but NOT the aquarium itself, make sure to use the right size aquarium. I used a 45 gallon, which worked fine for this project. If you had a much smaller product (like a waterproof wrist-watch) you could use a much smaller aquarium with good results.

A 45 gallon (tall version) aquarium is about as tall as my arm is long. I was up to my armpits at some points just positioning the product for photography. However, part of this project included dropping the product in to water, so I was using more vertical space then if the product was simply placed in water.

Keep it clean:
For a close-up, the illusion of actually being underwater can be easily broken by drops of water on the glass. Make sure to keep a sponge/squeegee/towel handy to wipe away water marks. Let the water settle for a while (perhaps days) before using it to film in. If you have high-mineral content or other problems with your water, you may want to chemically treat it, or if you have a small aquarium, use filtered water or even purchase distilled water.

The aquarium had gravel in it already when I picked it up. I knew I would be getting at least one shot with the gravel, so I left it in there. If I was doing this again, for an abstract on white product shot, I would recommend NO gravel. It's just to easy to collect dirt and be hard to clean. Start with a nice clean aquarium with NO gravel in it. For another cool shot, if you have no gravel in the bottom, the bottom is clear glass as well. In an open frame stand, you can place the camera directly UNDER the aquarium pointed straight up!

Angle Matters:
When dealing with glass, camera angles matter. Know where your lights are to minimize reflections. Use black cloth to cover anything that can make a reflection (including the photographer.)
If you are shooting the product half in and half out of water, take a look at the angle of the camera to the waterline. Shooting straight on to the edge creates a crisp line - a clear separation of above and below the water, whereas a higher or lower angle lets you see the water surface, which looks pretty cool too!
Shooting a product both close-up and at a flat angle gives you very limited depth-of-field. This can make for a great image, especially with water beading off the product.

Especially if you are shooting video, whether or not the product is dry can make a difference. If you need multiple takes of the product going from dry to wet, make sure you have several of the product so you always have a dry one for the next take.
Even if it doesn't matter if the product is dry or not, you may not want it sopping wet! At several points in the video I shot, I wanted the surface of the water to be calm, which was difficult because of the wet solar panel dripping right down onto the surface of the water. Keep a towel handy and allow for extra time.

Gone Fishing?
At one point, I considered actually having real live goldfish in the aquarium while I was taking photos and shooting videos. Live fish would make it OBVIOUS that the product was underwater, and might even add a comic element. In the end, I decided AGAINST having goldfish. There's an old television adage against "Children and Animals" - as they are the two things you never have control over. I can position a solar panel underwater, but a goldfish will never go where I tell it. In addition, there may be people out there who consider throwing power banks into aquariums full of fish to be animal abuse. No reason to scare fish if we don't need to.

Shoot RAW:
If your camera supports it, use the RAW file format. Although it's a much larger file size, it is SO TOTALLY worth it! RAW files let you do things like change the color temperature AFTER you have taken the photo. You can also change exposure and do other image manipulations very similar to as if you were changing the settings on the camera before you took the photo. Since I was shooting a mostly BLACK product, it was nice to use some image tweaks on the RAW format to get the exposure right where I wanted it. If you camera doesn't support RAW, that's fine too, just use the best quality setting and format available to you otherwise.

Spray Bottles are your friends:
My favorite trick on this project was just to use a simple spray bottle. For the "out-of-water" photographs, I just gave the solar panel a little spritz of water. This let the water bead up on the surface of the solar panel to feature it's water-proofyness. Wet spots are darker, which lends great contrast to the photos.

Think about a bottle of beer on a television commercial. How often is it just a plain, dry bottle? Usually, the close-up features a bottle dripping wet with condensation, implying how cold and refreshing the beer is. In reality, a photographer or artist spritzed the product with a spray bottle. Sometimes they use glycerine or other materials that cling to the product, instead of quickly dripping away like water does. In my case, I was just happy to use plain water.

Allow Extra Time:
Everything about shooting wet and underwater takes more time. I PLANNED for it to take longer than I thought, and it took even longer than that! Make sure you have plenty of time to work on your underwater photography.

Remember that ground-fault interrupt. It's all fun and games until you are armpit deep in aquarium water and somebody knocks over a light stand!

As an amateur photographer, I enjoyed the challenge of trying to create meaningful images in an unusual situation. Frankly, I put far more time and effort into helping on this project for a friend than I ever would have if I was being paid to do the same thing. That said, if anyone wanted to hire me for some wet or underwater photography, I now have some more experience for it.

There are many ways to do underwater photography, and many techniques for product photography. I hope that my experience working on this project gave you some ideas of how you might take some great photos! Be sure to check out some of the other photography tutorials on Instructables. There are some interesting ones on using Arduinos and timers to build devices that automatically take a photo at just the right time. There's also some great projects showing how to build your own inexpensive waterproof camera housings.

If you want more information on the solar panel or see how the photos, videos, and animations were used in the real world, please take a look on the Kickstarter promotional page, and I'm sure my buddy would love it if you supported his fund-raising campaign as well.

Do you have some great underwater photography, or stories on how you got that perfect shot? Please feel free to share it!

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