We’ve all seen them: crisp shots of jumping droplets and alien splashes, glistening ruby and sapphire or sculpted into twisted, poetic fluid forms. For many photographers out there, liquid or water droplets have become a pet project, a fun way to experiment with lighting and close-up shots that produces quality stock images or intriguing artistic shots. But how do you get your photos to make a splash, rather than landing dead in the water? In just eight easy steps, Resource will have you snapping and splashing with ease. Here’s how…
Step One: Gather Your Gear
Shooting droplets is a more technically involved process than your average shoot, and you’re going to have to do a bit of set-up before you can start. A craftsman is only as good as his tools, and in order to make the images you’ll want, there are a few things you’ll need.
• Flashgun (at least one)
• Flash cord (to extend flash movements)
• A light stand (not absolutely necessary, but it will make your life much easier)
• A flat surface (a table works well, as does the floor)
• A bowl (as smooth as possible, with a level rim)
• A camera (duh), which can shoot in manual mode
• A macro lens (again, not absolutely necessary, but it really does work best when you’re trying to capture action on this level)
And if you’re feeling really ambitious, you might also want some of these goodies.
• Color gels
• An extra flash unit
• Bouncers (depending on the liquid you’re using, these can be really handy to get the right lighting effect)
• A reflective surface, such as a piece of white sheet, for fill light if you’re only using one flash
• Milk or another white liquid
• Fruit (the more colorful the better—we’re talking berries here, not bananas)
Now that you’ve got your gear, you’re ready to set up! While you can shoot these images in studio, we at Resource are big fans of working from the comfort of your own home (that’s why so many of us are freelancers), so for this tutorial we’ll teach you how to shoot crazy-cool droplet shots anywhere, from a fancy-schmancy studio to your living room.
Step Two: Stake Your Territory
So, first things first: You need to figure out where you’re going to shoot. Like we said, shooting water droplets is not for the lazy. The set-up takes time, and you aren’t going to want to be moving it around a lot after it’s together or you’ll destroy all your careful prep work. So find a flat, stable surface and stick with it. The floor works fine, or you can use a table or counter—just make sure it you are using a table that it doesn’t wobble and that all four legs are on a level surface.
Once you have your stage, set up your bowl. It can be black or transparent, any shape or size. The main thing here is that it has a smooth and level rim. You can try out tinted or decorative glass if you’re feeling adventurous; the light reflected by the design can be distracting, but it can also give you some cool effects.
We find that a black or glass baking dish works well, too: the longer and wider the dish, the less visible the edges will be, allowing you to play with background reflections in the water by moving the background close to the dish and adjusting the angle of your lens to capture just the water’s surface.
Step Three: Lay the Scene
Next, you want to set up your backdrop. You can use a stand with arms to hang a background, or if you’re more the bare-bones type you can also use a ratchet bar clamp/spreader, as shown in these photos. If you want to experiment with different backgrounds, a calendar works well, since the spiral allows you to flip through pages and change the image without adjusting your set-up.
Step Four: Lights, Camera, Action! But really, just lights.
Lighting is key when creating these kinds of images. If you’re using a light stand, attach your flash to that and adjust your angle accordingly. You may also want to use a secondary flash, triggered by a master, so you can light from multiple angles simultaneously. Make sure you get the longest off-camera hot shoe sync (TTL) cable possible so you don’t get too much tension between your camera and the strobe—everybody needs to play nice here for the shoot to work.
Step Five: Ok, Now for the Camera
Camera time! Again, we highly recommend using a macro lens. You will also want a tripod for this set-up. If you don’t have one, you can use a flat surface, but you’ll have to be extra careful not to move the camera or the surface once you’ve got everything in place.
Step Six: Water, Water
Everywhere Just Where You Want It
That’s right, folks. If you want to shoot some water droplets, you’re going to need some water. Radical, we know.
Fill a plastic bag (gallon-size tends to work best) a little over halfway with water, and attach it to a bar or holder above your bowl. You can adjust the height based on the effects you’re hoping to get. A higher bar means your droplets will bounce higher and splash wider, while a lower bag will give you slower, smaller drops with less splash.
Next, fill your bowl with water all the way up to the tippy top.
Step Seven: Focus, People!
Before you can focus your camera, you need to have your drops ready. To do this, take a pin or needle and carefully (like, really carefully, otherwise you’ll find yourselves with a Niagara Falls type situation all over your equipment) poke a hole in the bottom of the bag. The water may drip slowly at first; if you want it to go faster, just wiggle the needle a bit in all directions to widen the hole a smidge. Leave the needle in the bag to avoid premature sprinkling. You can also cover the hole with a small piece of duct tape (it really does fix everything) until you’re ready to open up the waterworks.
As with the height of the bar, you can adjust the size of your hole to correspond with the images you’re hoping to get. In this case, a bigger needle will mean larger droplets for more dramatic, splashy shots, while a smaller needle will mean smaller, slower drops for a cleaner effect. Smaller drops are also more symmetrical and tend to make less of a mess around the bowl.
Now, this next step is the most important, so pay attention, kids. To focus the camera, you want to use a pen or other flat object (a ruler, a stick, you get the picture). Hold the pen over the middle of the bowl and adjust it so that a drop falling from the bag hits the edge of your pen closest to the camera lens. You then want to focus within the area where the drop touches the pen, or you can focus on the drop left on the pen, where the next new drop will fall.
Once you’ve got the focus in that sweet spot, make sure to switch your camera over to Manual (MF). You can also zoom in on your live view, if your camera allows, to check the sharpness of your image. Once you have your focus set, DON’T TOUCH ANYTHING! Any shaking, fiddling, or vibration to the camera can shift the tripod and mess up your focus, forcing you to start all over. So clompers, keep out, and shutterbugs, try your best to touch the camera as little as possible. We highly recommend using a timer remote in this situation to minimize disruption.
Step Eight: Go Crazy
It’s finally here, the moment you’ve all been waiting for. The stage is set, the focus is right—it’s time to start shooting! The best way to perfect your water droplet technique is, as the folks at Nike tell us, to just do it, playing around with lighting, settings, and other effects. This type of niche shooting can take time to perfect, so don’t be disappointed if your first forays into the droplet world produce more duds than keepers.
It’ll take some time to find the settings that work best for you, but in our experience slower shutter speed and lower flash power make for the crispest photos. The images in this article were shot with a Canon EOS 40D with an aperture of f/6.3 (any smaller and they get very blurry, very fast), a shutter speed of 1/6th to 2/5th sec and an ISO of 100, and with two flashguns set at 1/64 each.
Once you’ve gotten the hang of the technique, you can also try playing around with different backgrounds, dripping objects such as flowers or plants, or lighting effects. Colored gels work particularly well here, especially if you’re using a dark backdrop.
You can also do a lot with these photos in post-processing. Especially when you’re starting out, you’re not going to get many picture perfect stock photos in camera, so you’ll probably want to adjust the clarity and exposure, darken the background, and crop out the bowl rim if it’s visible using Lightroom or Photoshop.
The important thing here is to play around and have fun with it. Even if the set-up seems intense and the first results are frustrating, if you stick with it and follow our lovely tutorial, we guarantee you’ll be shooting crystal-clear, beautiful, unique images in no time.