I have been promising a detailed how to guide on water drop photography for a long time to many people, so I decided to actually start writing one. I will start with the simplest methods and end up explaining how to build a computerised water drop controller.
So what makes a nice water drop photo, and what do we need to tick all the boxes.
- The image has to be in focus
- Well lit
- Nice background.
These are all elements that we have full control over, and we should be able to set things up exactly as we want, providing we have the equipment. In addition to a camera, you are going to need a tripod, a flash gun, a bowl,a sandwich bag and a dark room to get some great shots. Oh, you may find you need about 5 hands too.
A macro lens is the lens of choice for water drops, as they are generally quite small and you want to fill your frame with the splash, so your lens needs to be able to focus fairly close to the subject. This said, most ‘kit lenses’ that come with your SLR will do an admirable job, you don’t have to have a dedicated macro lens.You don’t even need an SLR to be honest, any camera with a manual mode and manual focus will be fine.
The other essential bit of kit is a dedicated flash gun, or two, or three. These don’t have to be expensive TTL/iTTL models, cheap manual flash guns from China are fantastic for water drop photography. The only thing you want the flash to have is a variable power output. It is also very handy to be able to use them as ‘optical slaves’, basically this means when the ‘slave’ flash sees a flash fired by another source it fires itself.
You will need to find a way of suspending a sandwich bag full of water over your bowl of water. I started off with the bowl on the floor with the bag of water hanging off a broom handle between two kitchen chairs. If you get the bags with handles you can just slide the broom handle through them. You make a small pin hole in the bag to start the flow of water drops.
Now for some settings and other technical stuff, its not scary honest. Slap your camera on your tripod and frame up your bowl of water. Your camera must be in manual focus, and you need to focus exactly where your water drops are landing. An easy way of doing this is to stand something in the bowl directly under the drips, I use an old AA battery, then focus on that. That’s box 1 ticked. Once you are all focused up take the battery out and get ready to take some shots. You will need to set a fairly small aperture f11-f18, to get enough depth of field so that all of your splash is in focus , the closer you get to your subject the narrower your DoF will become and you need to use a higher f-number. Set your exposure to about 1 second, shorter if you don’t have a very dark room or longer if its black. Its easier to get started with longer exposures as you have more time to press buttons.
You want to set your flash gun to its lowest power level, as this will give you the fastest ‘shutter speed’, but I set it to 1 second? you are saying. We are effectively using the flash as the shutter, as we are in a dark room no light is hitting the sensor when the shutter on your camera opens, when we trigger the flash gun the duration of the flash is the shutter speed. Flashguns alter their power output by making the flash longer or shorter, so at 1/32 power a typical flash gun will fire for about 1/20,000th of a second, which is a wee bit faster than your camera’s fastest shutter speed. Lower power like 1/64th or 1/128th will be an even shorter flash and faster ‘shutter’. A fast shutter speed will give us a nice sharp image, and tick box 2.
The trouble with using the lowest power on your flashgun is that the image will be fairly dark unless you can get really close with the flash. You need to compromise shutter speed (flash duration), with how well illuminated your image is. You can push the ISO to brighten things up, but then you introduce noise. The ideal solution is to get more flash guns! This is where optical slaves are handy, you can have a master flash that you press the fire button on and have that fire a second, or third flash at the speed of light. Hopefully ticking box number 3.
The background is one of the hardest things to get looking great, you usually end up with bits of bowl, cupboard door or floor in the shot. You have a couple of options, go for the side on shot and use a glass or cup filled to the brim and use a piece of cardboard as your backdrop, with your camera level with the top of the glass. The second is to use a large tray instead of a bowl so you can frame up the drops without including and of the edges of the tray. Both are tricky to get just right, but the side on glass method is easier and tidier. Box 4, check!
OK this is getting a it long and we want to take photos! So the actual method. Get your bag, bowl, tripod, camera all set up as above, get the drips flowing and hit the lights. Fumble for your camera shutter button/cable release with one hand and have your flash in the other. Open the shutter, point the flash at the bowl and press the test button on the flash. Keep doing this until the bag runs out of water or you knock something over in the dark. I wont lie, you will have maybe 100 shots and 1 or 2 will be OK, if you have had fun so far want a better keeper rate we can improve on the one thing we cant have ‘complete’ control over, that is the water. You will find that the images you are recording on the camera are burnt onto your retina if you look at the splash, and you just know when you have a good shot.
Next I will discuss better methods of dripping drops of water and try to explain how to get the classic collision shots.