The Approach: How to Do Bath Tub Shoots with Models (NSFW)

The iconic bath tub shoot is one that photographers should try at least once.

For years the bathtub shoot has been a fantastical and magical idea for many photographers. Those of us who draw our ideas from cinema, the bathtub can come from lots of 90s movies including those like American Beauty. Then there were those of Marilyn Monroe amongst others. Doing these shoots of course requires planning, ideas, work, and figuring out things like spaces available. To me, these style of shoots are mostly a result of my restless mind and my endless urge to create something and improve my portraiture skills, like a fine art series or a short-term project but without an artist’s statement or intention. Most of these style of shoots are a collaboration between models, stylists, and myself so everyone has something to add to the shoot.

The approach when doing these types of shoots often comes with having an idea and then trying to find a way to run with it. In some cases, they come in casual conversation with models and in others there is a whole lot of intricate planning involved. First and foremost there needs to be respect for one another, the model and the photographer. There is a lot that goes into each scene and shot and these need to be truly appreciated.

While some shoots may have the idea to work in flowers or other colorful and cool elements, sometimes there are more playful things involved like milk and cookies. In situations like this, there is a lot more pre-planning. Logistically speaking, one needs to figure out how to ensure that the cookies don’t completely disappear and become mushy. One solution involves individually wrapping a bunch of cookies in plastic wrap and floating them into the milk. When some of them break, you need to take them out immediately.

Portrait & Fashion Photography

Of course, flowers don’t have these issues. We tried to do something with marshmallows and they didn’t last long, they started dissolving and blending in with the milk so we decided to quit before ruining the model’s hair. Originally we wanted to do something with Fruit Loops but cereal here in the U.K. is so dull and boring.

These shoots are often best done using lights too. In cities at least, bathrooms tend to run small, so the logistical approach then becomes trying to figure out where to put a light in the room, how to ensure that it doesn’t block the subject, etc.

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Also, wardrobe is a big consideration.

I spend too much time looking at photography books as well as being on Pinterest and Behance. I have tons of boards with inspiration for conceptual shoots that I want to do. I have all these ideas from my favorite portrait photographers like Avedon, Bailey, Newton, Leibovitz that I want to study and reproduce to find my style. I’m on my early stages of portraiture so it’s all about that learning curve and how I can take what they’ve done and make it my own.

Portrait & Fashion Photography

Portrait & Fashion Photography

Portrait & Fashion Photography

There are the usual cliches that everyone does like this milk bath that I want to do too but not necessarily replicate. Remember, “innovation without imitation is useless” so I end up doing my version of these cliches as well as doing something the model wants for her portfolio.

Combine all this with the ideas that come about involving childhood nostalgia and complete boredom and you’ll find things that can somehow or another mix really well when shaken and stirred just enough. But like every cocktail of ideas, you should go into it with a plan and with careful thought of each ingredient, lest the combination just end up with everyone feeling bitter.

Absolutely! In my case, what made the shoot happen was the planning of each frame we wanted to photograph. Improvising wasn’t an option especially since we didn’t have a trial session. We didn’t know what we were facing so we aimed at three hero shots per set-up.

Portrait & Fashion Photography

Portrait & Fashion Photography

Portrait & Fashion Photography

So how do we go about these shoots? This is something that in some ways we’re still learning and will always be perfecting but what I found the most helpful is creating a bond with the model as soon as possible. As you mentioned earlier, Chris, mutual respect. I tend to meet with the team before shooting just to see how well we connect. We talk about every aspect of the shoot, I ask what they would like to do, what they definitely don’t want to do, and then just have a casual conversation about our daily lives. The more natural and comfortable we are with each other, the “closer in” I feel we can get to each other without that tension in the body language. This is what fascinates me about portraiture and probably what is teaching me the most: the human side of it.

In some ways I feel like capturing intimacy is the same as in portraiture and street photography. One needs to capture a moment that is human and that feels/looks candid. Part of this comes with distracting the mind of a model via music and other things. Sometimes it’s just about what’s in the bathtub. Of course, the model still needs to have some sense of being in the moment though because of the fact that, well, they’re in a bathtub with milk or water sometimes.

In terms of setting up, I’ve often found the following to be true:

  • Bathtub curtains make for nice, large diffusers due to their design and as long as you’re using powerful lights or a higher ISO setting.
  • No, you don’t need to fill the whole bathtub with milk. Instead you can mix the water and milk. Sometimes with standard bathtubs all you’ll need is two gallons of milk and then mix in lukewarm water. Remember, you don’t want cold water because your model is otherwise going to shiver. In most cases, milk is also cold. Shoots like this can be taxing.
  • Your placement can be everything.
  • You’ll both need breaks.
  • Bring towels and paper towels and soap.

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve got all these boards with tons of ideas on Pinterest. When I find a model that fits the mood for an idea, I pitch and ask if they would be interested, and if they agree, we start exchanging ideas until we are ready to shoot. On this occasion we didn’t have much time to prepare, I just asked Gracie, “Hey are you up for a milk bath shoot, these are the ideas,” and straight away she said yes. It was pretty straightforward, we had different looks planned and then more ideas started happening during the shoot.

Yeah, that’s another story. The amount of research that goes into a conceptual shoot is ridiculous! I found out that for milk baths you can either buy gallons of milk, or add powdered milk to the water but it has a funny smell (that’s what we did and worked pretty well for us).
We got a florist on board as well and she was kind enough to give us a bunch of roses. Dealing with flower junk was a nightmare, the water was covered in these tiny specks of flower-matter so we had to push the roses to the side and with a colander clean the water as much as we could. The specks on the model’s skin were later retouched on Photoshop.

Most of the times I’d go for natural light mainly because I’m super comfortable working with it. I’d use a handheld flashgun or a reflector if I had to but I like to keep things as simple as possible. For this particular shoot we used the bathroom’s natural light. There was a north facing window right behind the tub so the light was pretty even.

Collaboration on this post was provided by EIC Chris Gampat.