The Art of Water Drop Photography

Thoughts are like drops of water: with our thoughts, we can drown in a sea of negativity, or we can float on the ocean of life.

Water drop photography is an art I especially enjoy, albeit it can be daunting and time-consuming at first. My hope is to offer those interested in achieving these images guidance and advice that may help them in their pursuit of this niche photography.

My goal was to add some details I found lacking when I researched this technique. I aimed to make it less confusing and clarify specifics such as Speedlight settings, particular gear, minor details that I only learned after some time that I found very helpful. And with that, we will get started.

Basic Equipment

The equipment and detail involved can be a more simple setup to one involving multiple flashes and camera triggers. Good images can be achieved without elaborate setups and I will start with a minimum of things that you will need to capture your own stunning images.

At the minimum, you will require:

  1. A Camera with a Macro lens or as an alternative a lens and extension tubes (more about this later)
  2. A tripod
  3. Speedlight(s)

Speedlights

SPEEDLIGHTS“The flash freezes the drops, not the shutter speed.”

The above comment cannot be overstated and it will save you much frustration later on. Most of us use our shutter speed settings to freeze action, such as in sports, or children playing. In water drop photography it is the brief flash that will freeze the action. To do this requires an off-camera flash.

An inexpensive unit that will fire in manual mode is recommended such as the Altura Photo AP-N1001 (This is Nikon compatible and there are comparable flashes for Canon or other camera users). This retails for about 65 dollars in contrast to my Nikon SB 600 I paid several hundred dollars for a decade ago.

Full power is displayed on the speedlight’s control panel as 1/1. The power decreases in one stop settings as so: 1/1, ½, ¼, 1/8, 1/16, 1/32, 1/64 and, on some high-end flashes, 1/128. Once the power has been set, it is then possible to fine-tune the power in 1/3 increments.

To freeze water drops the speedlight needs to be placed in manual mode and the speed adjusted from 1/1 to 1/16 or even 1/32. We will discuss camera settings for your flash a bit later.

** For the additional 10 dollars or so, I recommend getting the Altura Pro kit with remote triggers. The triggers allow you to use off-camera flash without popping up the popup flash on your camera, which is needed to fire it off camera. We don’t want the popup flash contributing to your exposure.

For a single speedlight, the easiest solution and least expensive in my opinion is an inexpensive universal unit with triggers, like the Altura Pro, or similar manufacturers. To add another speedlight (s) it is very easy and you simply slave them to your branded or off-brand speedlight.

If you have a branded flash for your camera, like my Nikon SB 600 with the Nikon D750, it uses the CLS (wireless Creative lighting System) so no additional transmitters are needed, BUT it does require that the internal flash on my camera be in the pop-up position to fire my SB 600 when off camera. The solution here to avoid having the popup contributing to your exposure is to go under “Bracketing Flash” menu, select “Flash cntrl for built-in flash” then under the Mode for “built-in flash” enter “—“. This instructs the camera to not have the built-in flash as part of your exposure but still fire the SB 600. Other camera models have similar settings.

LENSES

Macro lenses that will reproduce the image 1:1 are ideal and may be in the focal length of 60-around 100 mm. Shorter focal lengths will likely constantly get the front of your lens wet, which is why I would suggest a lens with a focusing distance of about 12 inches or more. Most mid-range telephoto Macros will do the job.

I use a Nikon Mount Tokina AT-X 100mm f/2.8. Although a Macro lens will yield better images you can obtain excellent images by adding an extension tube to a non Macro prime or telephoto lens. Trial and error will be required to see what combination works for you.

The image above was shot with an older Nikon 28-200 mm 3.5-5.6 AF-D with a 20 mm XIT Extension Tube for Nikon. At less than 60 dollars for the Extension Tubes was a cost-saving alternative to a more expensive macro lens.

Effectively what an extension tube does is move your lens closer to the subject, however, it usually reduces your depth of field somewhat. Still, I think anyone starting out wanting to try water drop photography and doesn’t have a macro lens, this is a very affordable alternative that can produce some great results.

The key is to use different tubes (12, 20 or 36 mm) on different lenses to find the right focal length and depth of field. Focusing on water drops will be discussed later.

Extension Tube Set

SETUP MANUAL ACTIVATION OF CAMERA WITH CAMERA REMOTE

This type of setup does not need to be very complicated. The drip setup will be the only significant difference from using a device such as the Pluto Trigger to more consistently capture water drop collisions. I have another Blog dedicated to the review and use of this trigger with optional water valve kit.

To start a sandwich bag can be used and suspended about 18-24 inches above a bowl/dish of water.

The water bowl or dish should be a couple of inches deep at least. This is placed inside a second dish to accommodate overflow from the bowl/dish.

The primary bowl/dish that will hold the water will be filled just to overflowing with water. The reason is you are shooting very close to this dish and almost horizontal to that plane of water so that you don’t capture so much of the back side of the dish.

Filling it to the brim gives you a cleaner background with the lip of the dish not showing as much if at all. Experiment with different combinations of dishes, or other vessels to hold water and capture overflow.

Splash Art setup
*Note the height of the lip of the bowl to avoid having the dish shown in the background.

Now suspend a bag of water about 18-24 inches above the top of the bowl.

The easiest way I have found to securely fix it is by using a tripod and an Articulating Magic Arm . *Other methods work as well so be creative, but, make sure the bag holding the water is secure and does not leak other than where you intentionally put the hole for your water drops. After all, you have invested in delicate electronic equipment that needs to be protected.

After filling your water bowl that will collect the drops to the brim, place your off camera Speedlight off to the side of the bowl. Experiment with placement after setup.

Angling it so it illuminates and bounces off your backdrop usually creates a nice effect. Alternatively, place it to the side so it is perpendicular to the camera.

The backdrop is a few inches to 18 inches behind the edge of the bowl collecting your drops. Colored paper can add some interesting hues to your water. If you decide to add food coloring to your water (discussed later under “Liquids and Additives” I suggest a darker background for a lighter color such as yellow, and a lighter background for blue and black.

Completed Set up

Once you have set up your work area similar to as above and before you puncture a hole in your bag to start your photography session, we need to discuss camera setup and focusing your camera for your splashes. Camera settings you may use might vary a bit from mine

FLASH AND CAMERA SETTINGS

Flash Settings
Set the camera flash sync speed in settings to 1/200 or the fastest sync speed of your camera. Power down your speedlight in manual mode from full power (1/1) to 1/16.

Camera Settings
Manual Mode
Shutter Speed 1/200
ISO 400

FOCUSING

To focus on a water drop you need something fixed to mark the spot and focus on that object.

Some suggest the tip of a pen or a bolt in the water standing on its head. I found using a ruler and a small socket that you see included with socket wrenches works quite well.

I start by poking a hole in the bag of water to start a stream of drops.

Then I place a small ruler across the bowl where the drops are landing.

Now I take the small socket, I use a 12 mm (1/2 inch) and place it on the ruler where the drops are landing. I center the hole of the socket so the drops are landing center.

My camera on a tripod I now switch to manual focus and carefully focus on the socket near where it meets the water. Once I have focused, I remove the ruler and socket.

START CLICKING

With the room darkened, (it does not need to be pitch black), start taking pictures. Use a cabled or wireless remote as we don’t want to touch the shutter as any slight movement will likely move your drops out of focus.

Check your image preview and verify the first few drops are indeed focused, and if not, repeat the focusing step above.

One of the first images I produced with this set up
Blue food coloring was used and a small amount of milk was added to make a more opaque water drop.
Blue food coloring was used and a small amount of milk was added to make a more opaque water drop.

WATER DROP ADDITIVES AND COLORS

The nicest drops I have created have been from adding Xanthan Gum to water. It’s readily available online or natural food stores and maybe even your bigger grocery stores. Buy a small amount as a little goes a long way.

The trick is to get it dissolved in water to form those nice glistening, stringy drops. Use about 1/2 tsp per 2 cups of water. I find using hot water and mixing it in slowly helps.

Using a blender to thoroughly mix and then filter it through cheesecloth helps remove larger particles. Ladies nylon hose work very well for training (check with the wife first), and I think I like that method better.

I usually make a quart jar at a time and when I pour it into the jar I slip the nylon over the jar opening to create a pocket in the jar and slowly pour in my mixture. You shouldn’t see any large particles but you may have bubbles, but those go away upon standing within an hour or less.

The mixture should be very slightly cloudy and the consistency of Olive Oil. If it is too thick, add more water to achieve that consistency.

Xanthum Gum solutions with food coloring added

Food color adds interest and is available at most stores. Your drop color and bowl color can be different and will yield a mixed drop that can be quite nice.

To add more opacity to the water for your drop mixture consider adding a small amount of milk. This will increase the opacity and can look quite nice.

FLASH GELS

Flash gels are inexpensive and can add a hue to your drops and background. You can find these on Amazon but I decided to make my own and I was very satisfied with the results.

Homemade Flash Gels attached to Speedlight Heads
Homemade Flash Gels attached to Speedlight Heads

To make these I used a large ziplock bag and cut away all the edges leaving me with two sheets of plastic. I then used a foam craft brush and craft an acrylic paint found in most craft stores. I painted 3 coats of red and blue in a rectangle pattern that I knew would cover my flash head. After drying, I trimmed the excess and fit these to the heads of my speedlights with a rubber band.


That’s it! Have fun and don’t forget to subscribe! The next installment will discuss using a Pluto Trigger to capture water drop collisions.

The Art of Water Drop Photography

Jimmie

Welcome! My interest in photography spans 40 years and started with the purchase of my first SLR. Since then my passion has grown to landscapes, beach scenes, and travel photography primarily. Photography techniques I particularly enjoy are long exposures, and what I call splash art. You can see these on my gallery page if it interests you. Currently, I live on Amelia Island in Northeast Florida with my beautiful wife and our wonder dog, Fuji.