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On Assignment: Creating a Rippling Water Light Effect

Lindsay Adler hits the pool to capture a shimmering portrait
Photo of ripple effect image

Editor’s Note: Have you ever wondered how your favorite photographers capture the images they take? Digital Photo Pro’s monthly column “On Assignment” is where Canon Explorers of Light, past and present, share a backstage look at one of their favorite assignments and how they delivered the goods. This month we go On Assignment with portrait photographer Lindsay Adler.

As we near the end of the warmth of summer, it is time to take advantage of what summer light and weather is left! For this shot we will be using natural light, a pool, and one lens for eye-catching summer beauty shots.

The Challenge

The concept of this shoot was to capture the ripples of the water from the pool onto the subject. We’ve all seen the sun strike water and create beautiful glistening light that mirrors the rippling of the water. But how do you create that on-demand and capture it in a photograph?

Let’s take a look at the ingredients.

Photo of color and black and white ripple effect

The Lighting

To create this effect, you need three key ingredients: (1) direct sunlight, (2) your subject in shade, (3) slight movement to the water.

• Direct sunlight

Be sure that the sun is hitting the water directly. In other words, you’ve got to have a bright and sunny day. I personally prefer the light a bit earlier or later than noon because this makes it easier to catch the bounce of the light. At high noon the top-down effect is sometimes restrictive for compositions and catching the ripples.

• Subject in shade

In order to see the ripples of the light, your subject will need to be in the shade. In some cases, this may happen naturally, perhaps under an umbrella near to the poolside. In this instance, we held a reflector directly over the subject’s head. We are not using it to bounce light, but instead to block the sunlight. A piece of cardboard, black flag or other ‘light blocker’ will also work. Just be sure that whatever is casting the shade isn’t casting any weird color bounce on the subject. For example, a bright red and brown pizza box is probably not the best choice!

• Slight movement of water

Our bodies moving in the water was more than enough to create the rippling texture needed for the reflections.

The Camera Gear

For this shoot I utilized the Canon R5 and Canon RF 24-105mm f/4 lens. This is my go-to camera and lens combination because of its versatility. First of all, the Canon R5’s electronic viewfinder (with exposure simulation) allows me to preview in real time any changes in the light or adjustments in my camera settings. This makes sure I’m nailing my exposure every time.

Furthermore, the Canon R5’s face and eye tracking feature absolutely saves my life! It finds the eye closest to the camera, locks focus, and keeps my shot sharp in every frame. It’s incredible and such a time (and frame) saver.

Photo of Adler ripple effect 2

One of my biggest concerns for this shoot was that to really get the powerful angle I wanted, I needed to be at a lower angle. Of course, this is challenging when you are in the water. I hovered with my lens within a couple inches of the top of the water. Risky, yes. Worth it? Yes!

You can certainly get an underwater housing for your camera, and there are even inexpensive $40 bags that would provide some protection. I thought this was perhaps a bit of an overkill, so I was just very cautious of how low I was getting and made sure no one agitated the water beyond the ripples needed to create the effect.

Photo of Adler ripple effect 3

Camera Settings

• 1/400 sec

• f/4 and f/5

• ISO 400

Other Challenges and Considerations

In order to create a clean background and a more high-impact image, I hung a black piece of cloth behind my subject. The result is a cleaner composition that allows me to put emphasis on the light in the scene without having any distracting elements in the background.

For the lighting effect in this image, we put shade over the subject, making her appear darker. To compensate I had to allow more light into the exposure, and in doing so the background appeared too bright and distracting. My solution to simplifying and darkening the background was to utilize this black cloth.

Photo of Adler ripple effect 4

Other Effects

To create another layer of interest in this shot, I added a 4-point cross star filter to the front of the lens. My subject was wearing glittery makeup, and you can see that the light glistened off her face and created subtle starburst effects near her eyes. This, in my opinion, makes the results appear even dreamier.

Photo of Adler ripple effect 5


So many summer images are colorful, bright and sunny. I decided to go for a high contrast black and white image because it was a bit unexpected and really put emphasis onto the texture of light. I still enjoyed some color versions of the image, but the black and white was the most eye-catching result to me.

Photo of Adler black and white

You can learn more about Lindsay Adler on her Canon Explorers of Light page and her website. You can also follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

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