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Sleek to psychedelic: a two-in-one milk bath photo session how-to

Suggested photographer skill level: intermediate


You don't need a sprawling, beautiful space to make stunning photos; take it from me and my apartment's 7' by 7' bathroom.

This recent session I created with Madison Vance and Helen Dawson garnered a significant amount of interest on social media and in photography groups, so I thought: "Why not put all the information in a tutorial?" Community over competition, always.

To keep this post concise, I'll be creating a couple separate blog posts regarding some of the more technical aspects of the shoot and link them to this post separately. This way, intermediate photographers can use this as a guide, and beginners can find additional resources as needed.


First, let's talk session design.


After booking a photo session, I like to call or video chat with my client about what they're looking for in their shoot. This includes location(s), outfit(s), the mood of the photos, any inspiration the client may have, etc. Those discussions, up until now, however, have pretty much been the extent of my pre-session design work.

Lately, I've been wanting to get more detailed about preparation for my shoots and how I document the process. So, when I saw Ally Green's mood boards, I was immediately inspired to make my own.

Soon after Maddie and I started talking, our visions meshed. We agreed on a milk bath, drawing inspiration from ethereal environments and fae. As soon as we felt our design was solid, I got to creating a template in Photoshop for the session design board and filled it out according to plan.

Creating this document gave me a deeper understanding of how I was going to attack the project, a clearer idea of what props and gear I would need, and was an extremely helpful reference when I worked the images in post-processing. It also helped Maddie by giving her a single document to review when choosing her wardrobe and helped Helen by giving her inspiration for her cosmetic work.

Seeing how the images from this shoot turned out, I'm never not going to make a design document before going into more complex sessions like this one.


Next, let's break down the location.

Despite mentioning my apartment's bathroom's dimensions above, I'm unsure of its actual size. However, it's visibly quite small and the available space has already been packed to the gills with utilities.

The lighting situation is also quite dull - three standard household lights around the color temperature of 3,000 Kelvin sit above the sink. That's it.

Creating images in this lighting environment would require a high ISO and low shutter speed, resulting in grainy, unintentionally blurry pictures. We also wouldn't have any control over the color temperature of the photos outside of in-camera white balance settings, which can be inconsistent as you move around, regardless of location.

This means we'll have to use synthetic light to create a better light environment for this session. My synthetic lights of choice are speedlites (off-camera flash) I can activate with a remote trigger attached to my camera body.

Assuming we will place our subject in the tub for the shoot, we can use one tripod/umbrella/speedlite setup in the open space between the sink and toilet. That single light set will work for the sleek images we're going to create, but the psychedelic ones will require two.

I'd like you to reference the image above and look for nooks and crannies that could hold that second speedlite (Just the speedlite! We don't have space for another full tripod and umbrella set!). Focus on efficient space use. Once you've found your spots, look below to see what I found:

  1. This space could be used for directional lighting.

  2. This space could help diffuse light by bouncing it off the background of the white tub.

Spots three and four are similar to the first, just mirrored.


I haven't included the closed toilet seat as an option for the simple speedlite setup because the light from the flash would be blocked by the edge of the tub at that angle. However, if you own a small tripod that would fit on your toilet seat, this might be the best option out of all five. I do not, so I chose option four. More on this later.

Normally, I finalize my lighting setup when my subject arrives or when I'm able to use a stand-in model to help me get an idea of how the light will fall on them. In the case of the setup that helped us execute the sleek images, I had my lovely partner, Jake, stand in for me.

Look at this beauty.

This lighting is soft, which means there aren't harsh lines in the shadows - if there are shadows at all. I achieved this by setting up the speedlite on a tripod, extending it to six and a half feet, and placing the accompanying umbrella at about 60 degrees so the speedlite would reflect into the tub. Because the tub is white, it bounces light. This helps soften shadows on the subject. For a clearer visual representation, see Figure 1.

Figure 1
Figure 2











With the second portion of the shoot, I used Maddie as my lighting model. I added another speedlite and placed it in the nook above the toilet in the bathroom and angled it around 35 degrees to the left. To add color, this speedlite got a purple gel while the main speedlite got a blue gel (Figure 2).

While Figure 1 is a pretty simple butterfly lighting setup, Figure 2 required a little more time in testing the two lights' strength and balance. At the end of testing, speedlite two was at about two-thirds the strength of the main. Here's what this setup looks like straight out-of-camera and after toning:

In the image straight out of camera, the color difference is subtle but having those colors to work with in the first place makes a huge difference in post-processing. The intentional blur was achieved through the shutter drag technique, which I will cover in another blog post.

Now we've talked location and lighting technique, let's get into putting props, makeup, and talent together.

Preparing the milk bath itself was the easiest item of business on the list. I simply filled the tub with water, added a few drops of blue food coloring, and added whole milk until I was satisfied with the color and opacity of the bath. Add dried flowers, and done!

Because food dye is, you know, dye, our styling options were restricted. Maddie brought some beautiful, pale-colored pieces to set we didn't want to risk ruining, so we decided to photograph her in the burnt orange lingerie she was already wearing.

While I fixed up the bath, Helen added glitter to Maddie's hands so we could get some texture in the portraits where her hands interact with her face. The gel Helen used to get the glitter to stay on Maddie's hands was water soluble, so once we finished those portraits and Maddie relaxed her hands into the bath, the glitter slowly seeped into the water, as well. It may not be incredibly noticeable in the final images, but it's there.

All these moving parts helped create the ethereal mood we wanted to capture. The contrast of soft colors made the strong, gold accents pop. This combination of blue and gold in the sleek portion follows the color theory rule of complementary colors, while the gels in the psychedelic portion ties into emotional color theory that connects purples and reds as mysterious and passionate, respectfully.

Of course, after we wrapped up the session, I went into post-processing in Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop to finalize the images, but walking through those techniques would add more word vomit to this tutorial than I would assume anyone wants right now. If there's significant interest, I'll make a video walkthrough of how I processed the images, but for now, this wraps up our tutorial!

If you use these techniques for your own sleek-to-psychedelic shoot, share your images on social media and tag me @QuinnKPhoto! I'm excited to see what you create!




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