Illusions with Water


The optical properties of water allow me to play with reflections to create a surreal effect. Photograph/Brian Oglesbee

The optical properties of water allow me to play with reflections to create a surreal effect. Photograph/Brian Oglesbee

Brian Oglesbee experiments with water and reflections to create surreal visual metaphors—directly in the camera without any manipulation.

This story was originally published in July 2010.

My Assignment

  • Description: To play with the optical properties of water and create a surreal world of illusions.
  • Duration: The first image in this series was made in 1993. Since then, I have been experimenting with the concept and making my images more elaborate.
  • Notes: Water is actually transparent. The form it takes and the way we see it depends on the manner in which light interacts with it.

Photography has two distinct modes. In one, the photographer selects his subject and composes the image by deciding what to exclude—a ‘subtractive’ process. The other is to start with nothing and build an image. This ‘additive’ process represents the true spirit of my water series.

My Perspective
Water is essential for the very presence of life. It is a remarkably compelling subject, especially when combined with an equally powerful icon, the human form. I began this project as an attempt to see if I could mimic nature in the studio.
The key to this project is the fact that we do not really ‘see’ water. We only see the manner in which light interacts with it. Water acts like a mirror and a lens, so we can only see what is submerged in it, floating on it, or reflected in it.

The Process
The first image of this series was supposed to be a test to see if I could create a believable illusion. I created a sky by reflecting a bright light in the water. I used a fan to simulate wind and made a splash to generate ripples. At that time, it seemed surprisingly easy and the result was pleasingly realistic. I continued to shoot similar pictures—each image more elaborate than the previous one.
I use a sketchbook to record possibilities. A lot of time goes into thinking about what I am trying to do. Typically, an image needs at least three sittings, and anything from 10 to 60 negatives might be exposed before the elements in the frame strike the right balance. The pose is important—often, the model moves in a particular way and the picture suddenly comes together. The pose must either complement or create tension with the movement of the water.
My photographs are completely ‘straight’, that is, the camera records what is in front of it. They are one-time exposures and there is absolutely no manipulation— neither in the darkroom nor on Photoshop.
These images have been compiled into a book called Aquatique. In almost all images in this series, the subject is shot through water—the camera is on one side of the surface while the model is on the other. After all, this surface symbolises something that separates—and binds—the physical and the spiritual.

My Equipment: I used a large format camera to get great detail and also because it allows me to adjust the plane of focus precisely. The light is generated by electronic flash. Eventually, these images are more about the previsualisation and setup, so you can attempt them with a basic camera as well.

Create Illusions with Water

  • Observe Water Outdoors: Water can affect light in amazing ways. To explore this, start with small volumes of water or try working outdoors with real pools, creeks or ponds.
  • Understand the Laws of Optics: Understand how light travels, how it is refracted or even reflected. An appreciation of how these laws apply to water will help you achieve what you have previsualised.
  • Add Subtle Touches: Subtle nuances go a long way in making your photograph look realistic. You can add a splash by throwing an object into the water, create ripples or even waves.
  • Patience is Key: You are sitting in a studio and are in control of all the elements in your frame. If you do not get things right, do not give up. The perfect image may take hours, or even days.

For more of Brian’s magical illusions, visit

Tags: Composition, On Assignment, Water, july 2010, abstract, brian oglesbee