Photographing Water Splashes with Minimal Equipment
Utterly bored, I stared out at the blinding snow until my eyes began to ache. What was I going to do with myself? At sixteen and a half, I somehow felt a bit too grown-up to join my brothers’ sledding party. I am a passionate bug-lover with a camera, and the bleak December landscape was not my friend at the moment. I meandered to the kitchen for a drink of water, even though I wasn’t thirsty. I noticed the sink was dripping; a fitting was loose somewhere. Then inspiration fell on me like the shimmering drops that were leaking from the faucet in lazy succession…
I had been given some expert tips on photographing water splashes a few weeks before. Now was my chance to put them to use—but it looked impossible! I had very little equipment to work with—just a camera and lens. No auxiliary flashes or anything.
Then I thought, Who needs fancy artificial lighting when a brilliant winter sun is streaming in, daring me to defy convention?
The dripping water seemed to taunt me, “Catch us! Catch us! Catch us!”
“Why not?” I asked the faucet. “Challenge accepted!”
An hour or two (and quite a lot of experimentation and patience) later, I was capturing my dream shots—sharp, well-lit, colorful splashes of water—with very limited equipment.
• A bright location with plenty of natural light.
• A large clear “splash” container. A 9”x13” glass casserole pan works well.
• An overflow container considerably larger than your splash container.
• A small plastic “drip” container. You will poke a small hole into this, so keep that in mind.
• A macro lens with manual focus capability.
• ISO: 100
• Aperture: f/8
• Shutter speed: 1/200
• On-camera flash (Low power is generally best. I typically set mine to ½ power.)
A simple, hand-drawn diagram of my setup:
Choose your location. I used a south-facing kitchen window that sits directly above the countertop. By late morning in the winter months, the sun shines directly into this window, providing a good deal of natural, ambient light.
Position your splash container—centered in an overflow container and perpendicular to the direction of the sunlight.
Carefully poke a tiny hole in the bottom of your drip container, using a needle, safety pin, or other small pointed tool. Make your hole as small as possible first; you can always make it bigger. Hold the drip container over a sink, fill it partially with water, and check the drip rate. My preferred rate is about one drop per second.
Once your drip rate is as you want it, suspend your empty drip container above your splash container, high enough to not cast a shadow on your water. Position it to drip within 1-2 inches (2.5-5 cm) of the front edge of your splash container and around 1 foot (30 cm) above it. There are two reasons for this. First, the lateral location allows for maximum distance between the focal point (the splash) and the opposite end of your container, which you don’t want visible in your photos. Secondly, the height allows the drops to gain enough momentum to create a strong rebounding splash (the water that jumps up after the drop hits).
Create a backdrop for your splashes. There are many ways to do this—but I think you’ll agree that color is a tried-and-true showstopper! Brightly colored construction paper works great. Prop a large flat object (I use a large edgeless baking sheet) about 2½ feet (75 cm) behind your focal point. (Distance is important for a pleasing, blurred background.) Place the colored paper in front of it. You can use tape if necessary to hold your paper in place, but take care to avoid placing tape where it will appear in your frame.
Next, carefully fill your splash container with water until it begins to run over the edge. Due to the surface tension of the water, a tiny layer of water will sit just above the edge of your container, and you’ll avoid an unpleasant line cutting through your background.
Position your camera. A tripod is fine. I went ultra low-tech and propped my camera on folded dishrags atop a cutting board next to my splash container.
Some of my first shots were taken level with the water, and a blurry foreground ripple obscured the base of the splash (see top photo page 12). To remedy this, I raised my camera slightly and angled it down toward the water.
Now fill your suspended drip container with water and check that the drip rate is steady and the splashes are clean. If they are splattering everywhere, your drip container is too high. If the rebound is hardly noticeable, the drip container is too low. Adjust it until the rebounding splashes are clean, but strong.
Focus your lens. Switch to manual focus. (Live View is a great help.) Since focusing on the water itself is nearly impossible, place your finger or another textured object directly beneath the falling drops. Adjust your focus ring until your finger or that object is in perfect focus. You may have to re-focus several times throughout the shoot.
Now it’s time to let ‘er drip! Double-check your settings—and let the fun begin! With your finger ready to press the shutter button, take a few seconds to get into the rhythm of the drips; then release the shutter at the instant a drop hits the water. Why? Your physical reaction time will result in the shutter being released fractions of a second later than you intended. Water moves much faster than you do, and if you wait to release the shutter until your eyes detect the rebounding splash, chances are you won’t capture anything! Examine the first few shots right away to ensure your settings are where they need to be. Depending on lighting, you may need to adjust your flash power setting or ISO.
I find it effective to fire as many consecutive shots as my flash will allow before demanding a break to cool down. While it is cooling, I review my photos and assess them. Are they properly exposed? Are they sharp? Is there anything in my background that needs tweaking? And, most importantly, am I releasing the shutter at the right time?
Depending on the answer, I recheck my settings to determine what needs to change.
Yes, you will throw away hundreds of absolutely useless photos, if you are like me. On average, I take 200+ photos and keep perhaps a dozen, at most. Learning to edit objectively is a must, if you don’t already. Be ruthless—or you will soon end up with enough photos to make motivation itself shrink back in fear! My motto is “Snap lots, scrap lots!”
So you’ve gotten the hang of capturing sharp, well-lit water splashes—now it’s time to get creative with the environment! Color is a must; but what about combining different colors? Or perhaps a dazzling background filled with twinkling LEDs? There are countless ways to make your splashes extra-special!
A few examples:
I placed red construction paper in my splash container before adding water (a small rock sufficed to keep the paper from floating). Yellow paper in the background makes for an eye-catching, spicy contrast.
One of my favorite ideas involves placing a string of LED lights in front of my background paper. I bunch them together and adjust them until I am happy with the composition. Make sure they are far enough away from your focal point to appear as large, soft-focus circles instead of sharp points of light (2’-3’ works well). Adjust your settings to compensate for the extra light.
During post-processing, I can create many different colors using the color sliders or curves in my editing program. The original red/yellow combo might become green/pink, red/blue, orange/yellow, and even a creamy peach and purple. Play around with the sliders and create your own stunning color schemes!
Let those creative juices flow and find unique ways to really make splash with your splashes!
I encountered two small problems during this project. First, I discovered little streaks of light in my photos (ghosting), created as the water moved during the flash from the camera. Since I haven’t found a way to avoid them altogether with the setup I have, I always plan on removing them in post-processing using a clone stamp.
The other problem was just as easy to remedy. During the shoot, tiny bits of water splashed onto the front of my lens. If your water is hard like mine, this means you will find little spots of lime scale dried onto your glass. White vinegar works well to remove them. Just wet the tip of a lint-free cleaning cloth with vinegar to dissolve the scale, and then follow with a regular lens cleaning fluid. (Editor’s note. a UV filter can provide protection for the front element of a lens, while also eliminating the bluish cast in photos.)
For me, discovering the graceful, exquisite beauty of water in motion is reward enough for the trial-and-error that went into this process. Our magnificent Creator God has indeed made everything beautiful in its time.