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The Dangers of Shooting in Running Water

We brought the dangers of shooting with real sparklers and the dangers of shooting on train tracks to your attention, and we’re now continuing that safety series by talking about shooting with running water. This is not a case of warning you about turning the tap on – we’re talking about streams, rivers, waterfalls, and even lakes, and how dangerous they can be.

You may already have heard some of the stories about shoots that went wrong. Unfortunately, when you are dealing with water, the consequences can be very serious. There have even been reports of tragic deaths of models and brides who attempted to shoot around water. With the hope that you will think more carefully about safety in these situations, and prevent further accidents, we will recap here all of the dangers of using running water.



Being dragged under

This is the most common problem that you will hear about, and it can lead to huge problems. Trash the dress shoots are becoming more and more popular, but going into water with them is a very bad idea. The news of a Canadian bride who was pulled under the water by the weight of her dress in Quebec, and who drowned despite the efforts of those with her, went around the world.

30 year old Maria Pantazopoulos died just a few months after her wedding when she went to shoot with photographer Louis Pagakis. This tragedy was a disaster waiting to happen. The shoot team was very small, consisting of the photographer, his wife, and Pantazopoulos. Not even her new husband was there when she decided to go into the river and take some shots.

The quick tides of the river soaked the dress and made it unbearably heavy, sweeping the newlywed downstream rapidly. Although Pagakis tried to help her, he was also dragged underwater. Finally, he had to let go, and despite her best efforts, Pantazopoulos was not able to get her head back above water. Swimming at that location was in fact banned under local laws; a little research into the tides might have saved her from making the decision that led to her death.

Since then, despite this incident and the warning it provides, others have tried to mimic the same idea. Amy Zuno and her new husband Eric made headlines when she was only just saved from drowning in a similar incident. She jumped into the water beside her husband only to be immediately overwhelmed by her dress. In this case, it was the presence of friends and family and their quick actions which saved her life.


Getting swept away

Even if you are not wearing a voluminous wedding dress, water can be a dangerous environment. Water at the closest edge of a stream or river may be easy to stand up in, but as soon as you push away from the bank, you may find a different situation. Currents can be deceptively strong and fast, and your model could be heading down river before you know it.

Aside from the danger of being pulled underwater and drowning, there are other risks associated with getting swept away. You may be thrown into the path of sharp rocks or tree roots hanging into the water, with no way to stop yourself from colliding with them. Broken bones, cuts, and bruises can all result. From a practical point of view, the photoshoot wardrobe will also get damaged, which could result in financial implications if you had only agreed to get the clothes wet. If you are borrowing them from a brand, this could be quite serious.

You may also end up a long way away from where you started up. Those on shore will have a hard time keeping up with you, and you could be swept miles before being able to get to the bank and pull yourself out of the water. As you are pulled along, you will get weaker through trying to fight the current, and there are documented cases of people finally becoming so weak that they drowned or lost consciousness. Don’t underestimate the power of a rushing current, even in relatively shallow water.


Damage to equipment

Salt water, or any kind of water to a lower degree, is corrosive to electronics, which means that if it gets inside the case of your DSLR, you will be in trouble. Most damage caused by dropping a camera into a body of water will end up requiring replacement of whole components, which is likely to be more expensive than buying a new camera.

How might your equipment get wet? Cameras on tripods and lights balanced on rocks can easily slip over and into the water. Alternatively, you may end up rushing forward to save someone who has got into trouble. Simply making one small fumble with the camera in your hand can spell the end not only of the photoshoot, but potentially of your DSLR. This can be a very costly mistake.


Water-borne disease

There are plenty of diseases which can be carried in water, even in the US or Europe. Recreational Water Illnesses or RWIs are caused by having contact with water that has been contaminated. These can be in swimming pools, water parks, fountains, lakes, rivers, and of course the sea.

It is not just natural toxins that you have to look out for. Chemicals in water can also have a strong effect. Even if you are using a natural water source such as a river, you may not be aware of the chemical plant upstream which has had a spillage earlier in the day. As easy as that, you could be dealing with chemical burns, skin reactions, or other diseases.

The most common RWI is diarrhea, which can be caused by a number of germs found frequently in water. Even in swimming pools, this can be a problem, as chlorine levels need to be exactly right to kill off the germs that cause it. Shigellosis is also common in swimming pools, causing fever, nausea, vomiting, and cramps. Natural water sources may contain the urine of domestic or wild animals, which can lead to leptospirosis: fever, chills, myalgia, jaundice, rash, and hemorrhaging into the skin are the symptoms. Hepatitis A can be  a risk after heavy rainfall, which can cause local sewage systems to be overwhelmed.

We could go on – this list is just scratching the surface. If you have a client in water, make sure that they do not swallow any of it or allow it to get into their mouths. Be sure to check up on the status of water in your local area too, as it may be known to your local government that certain areas are contaminated.


Animal, fish, and other life

There are plenty of animals and fish living in free flowing waterways and lakes, and they will not be pleased to see you. Catfish have sharp spines which can penetrate human flesh, and though in most cases you will just end up with a sore cut, getting one in the wrong place could be very dangerous. Stings can also be toxic, making them itchy and sore for days.

Some species of fish also have sharp teeth, and while they may not be known for attacking humans, it might be easy for one of them to mistake a dangling finger or toe for a potential snack. Large species of birds can also be dangerous, particularly during nesting season; they may attack in order to defend their nest. Swans are a big example of this. They may charge at you, wings outstretched, if they feel you are threatening them. While you are not likely to suffer serious injuries in most cases, these birds can be big and heavy enough to cause some damage.

Big fish could even knock you over – leading to trouble like being swept away or held underwater by the weight of the current, as we discussed above.


All of this should not put you off from the idea of shooting in water – but you have to be responsible as a photographer and make sure that you are doing all that you can to prevent a dangerous situation. Check up on the water source first and any warnings that may exist in relation to it. Take along a larger shoot team so that you have some people on hand to rescue your model if they get swept under. Above all, avoid large and heavy wardrobe pieces if you can.

Do you have any other tips for safety in water based photoshoots? Let us know in the comments!

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