…Or A Series Of Advice From A Benevolent Rusalka
Rusalka – a female water-dwelling demon, often the undead spirit of a drowned unmarried woman, normally malevolent. Not to be confused with mermaids, as a rusalka has more than enough legs to attract the attention of a male human without resorting to selling her voice.
During my latest seaside vacation taking place in August 2011, in a lovely small village in Croatia, I unexpectedly ended up having a photoshoot that included imagery of simply being by the sea, drowning and then appearing an undead monster from the depths. The idea of the photoshoot emerged from discussing the possible public reaction to Victorian Gothic behaviour on a sunny beach, up to and including going into water wearing a shirt and petticoat. Somewhere along the way, I decided that there was no better use for some of my somewhat goth-y clothing than to hold a photoshoot of my being drowned. The complete result of the photoshoot is On This Page.
I expect that the knowledge I now have to share won’t be anything new even for a skilled amateur photographer, let alone a professional, but I’ve learned a number of lessons from a single session. Moreover, I’ve seen examples of lovely water-involving photoshoots where the photographer and/or model have made some of the same mistakes as I. Based on this, I think that sharing my experiences can’t hurt. Some of the lessons I’ve learned are valid for any amateur photoshoot, and some are specific to a water environment.
Lesson Zero: Ze Hair
This is perhaps the most important lesson for anyone who wants to create a halfway realistic drowning/drowned picture. Believe it or not, drowned people have wet hair. Drowned undead coming out of the water has, strangely enough, wet hair. People who are meant to look still-alive-but-drowning also have wet hair, because one tends to flail around when drowning.
It sounds so obvious now that I say it, but I have seen so many pictures of drowning/drowned models displaying perfectly-styled and utterly dry bangs that it is very clearly not always obvious at the time of the shoot. It is a perfectly logical mistake, too, because the reasonable way to go about the shoot is to lie back on the water, which means that the hair at the front remains dry. I made this mistake myself, only rectifying it halfway through the shoot by splashing water in my face. And to be fair, that I did out of consideration for the makeup rather than the hair. Which brings us to…
Lesson One: Makeup
If you’re going full out with a corpse/undead appearance, with proper ghastly skin tone, eyeshadow, whatnot – then make sure your makeup is waterproof. If you’re going for the look of a regular drowned person, then make sure your makeup is NOT waterproof. A drowned corpse with perfect mascara is about as realistic as a rusalka with dry hair.
Hint for sea-based photoshoots: an easy way to get your makeup to run realistically is to splash water in your face. However, it is also an easy way to make your eyes hurt with all that salt – and you can’t rub them, either, since the natural runniness would be ruined. So either be careful and keep your eyes very tightly shut when ensuring the running mascara effect, or bring some regular water for your face.
Lesson Two: No Such Thing As Too Many Pictures
Seeing as I was both the concept creator and the model, I didn’t have that much time to look over the results as my mother took my pictures, and only examined them after we were done. Were I being a slightly more perfectionist about this shoot (and were we not leaving the next morning), I would’ve gone back to re-shoot a number of pictures. But as things were, relying on the ‘better more than less’ principle worked out for my benefit. We took 66 pictures during the shoot. Seeing as I posted the results to be used as photo stock, I ended up using just over half of that number. Were I to post them as a photoshoot collection, I would most likely use ten or fifteen.
Regardless, the fact remains – it is much easier to be able to choose from your principal photography than going back for pick-ups (to use filmmaking terms). So, if you’re the photographer – snap from every angle you can think of and play with settings; if you’re the model – change poses and expressions subtly within the same concept image; and either way – experiment plenty. You’re most likely using a digital camera, so spare no memory.
Lesson Four: Shadows
Something quite obvious if you think about it, but not necessarily obvious during the shooting – especially if the photographer is not the concept creator, but a proverbial hired hand that holds the camera. Police your/your photographer’s shadow diligently, as nothing ruins a concept picture quite as seeing the one who’s taking it. Same goes for reflections, whether in mirrors or in water.
In this shot, I had to edit my mother’s shadow out. Fortunately, the rocky texture made it easy.
Lesson Five: Perspective
Water really does provide for an amazing effect when it comes to perspective. As long as the camera is held overhead in relation to the model, everything appears to be much further down, and the water looks much deeper than it really is.
In this shot, I appear to be climbing up some high wall from some great depth, while the wall actually reaches just above my waist.
Whereas in this one, it almost seems that those rocks are at least a few meters underneath me, while in reality, the depth varies from knee- to waist-deep. Perspective magic!
Lesson Six: Flowing Shapes
I was expecting the long black skirt and reasonably flowy shirt to be sufficient, but it was the scarf taken as an afterthought that really did the trick. It was perfect for the creepy feel when one was required. Another thing I learned was that the clothing I was expecting to look flowing, well, didn’t. I found that a shirt that is slightly loose when dry will hug your figure completely when wet, so if you want to achieve any flowy-ness while partially submerged, choose something a few sizes too big. Also, the more lightweight the fabric, the better. If you don’t want to reveal too much skin, then layering can also be your friend, with a smaller top serving as a covering, and an open flowing overshirt providing for the visual effect.
Lesson Seven: Anything Underwater Stays Underwater
As it was a rocky shore, I went into water wearing swimming slippers and then threw them back to the shore, for the shots involving my feet. I had to wear them again for stand-up shots, but what I didn’t count on was them still being visible in the water. I originally thought I could edit them out – if not to make my feet appear bare, then at least turn their colour black instead of white. I did, however, very quickly find that editing the colour of something that is under an uneven water surface is a task best left to professional editors, a class I do not belong to. As a result, if you look at the following shot closely, you can see that the creepy undead creature so obviously coming to get you is doing so in white swimming slippers.
Lesson Eight: Setting
If you’re deciding on the concept in advance rather than using the first available setting like I did, take care to think it through. Match your character with your location. You can pull off a ‘washed-up corpse’ look just about everywhere. Same goes for the ‘undead monster’ option – if done properly, it will work well even in a bathtub, giving it that ‘The Ring’ feel. However, if you hope that a close-up of an ‘Ophelia’ with a shiny-blue background looks believable… It doesn’t. Not even if you scatter flowers around yourself. Ophelia did not drown in a swimming pool. But you can make a wicked impression of a murder victim in it.
Lesson Nine: Safety!
Remember you’re going to play around in a body of water. That already warrants caution. If said body of water is outdoors, freshwater (as opposed to stillwater), not very well-known to you, or a sea – be EXTRA careful. My two locations of choice was a pebble beach and a rocky beach. The sea was almost completely still, and yet while I was floating on top of the water with my eyes closed, I found myself being slowly yet surely being washed towards some rocks. Given the stillness of the sea, there was no danger of getting hurt, but even the smallest waves are much more formidable if you’re floating limply – which is what you’re supposed to be doing as a corpse.
I guess that sums up my experiences. I hope that at least some of the above has been useful. Once again, the full photoshoot is Over Here. Go have a look.