Let’s face it, water droplets look awesome. They are relaxing and beautiful, but might seem like the impossible image to capture... I first started taking photos of them in my cramped little room at university, and was blown away by the results. The good news is that you don’t need an incredible studio, top of the range camera and advanced lighting system to make this work. Your main tools are patience and dedication, but it's a great way of improving your photography skills!
Here’s what you need to get going:
1) A Camera (duh!). This doesn’t necessarily have to be a DSLR, but you need one that is able to focus manually, and that allows you to control the shutter speed. When I started off I didn’t even own a camera! I borrowed a bog standard DSLR with a kit lens from a friend, so if you don’t have one then ask around, that’s what friends are for. A macro lens on a DSLR is your best bet however; I now use a Nikon D7000 with a Nikon AF Micro 60mm f/2.8D Lens.
2) A Flash. This can be the built-in one, or an external flash, but it's a critical piece of kit. Instead of you shutter speed, this is what will “freeze the motion” and capture the shot. (For underwater photographers like myself you may have a strobe lying around which can be used. Just don't let it heat up too much with a rapid succession of shots, but it should be fine.)
3) A Tripod. This doesn’t have to be the shiny, carbon fibre, space-grade model which will set you back a few hundred quid. I’ve taken all my photos on a basic (and actually broken) old tripod. Just get something suited to your camera size and weight. If your budget is mega tight, then improvise by propping the camera up on books etc. This is feasible, although much less stable and adjustable. A remote shutter release for your camera is worth its weight in gold, helping to avoid any camera shake (and they are pretty cheap).
4) A Water Recipient. This can be anything really: a saucepan, oven tray, bucket etc.. My advice is to find something with a reasonable depth (minimum 5cm), as to avoid seeing the bottom through the water. You also need something wide enough to provide a clean background of water in the image, making sure that the edge of the container isn’t visible.
5) A Water Dropper System. This can be as sophisticated as you want, but the general idea is to deliver a regular flow of water droplets from above, into your recipient below. When I started out, I filled a plastic water bottle and taped it to the shelf above my desk. I then pierced the bottle with a pin, creating a steady trickle of droplets into my saucepan below. I’ve since made the system pictured below which is less messy and more accurate. It involves a clear plastic tube (actually part of an old aquarium gravel cleaner), a flow regulator and some garden hose. Suspend this high up above your work area, and attach the end of the hose to something like a desk lamp, which you can move around to aim the water drops.
Setting the Scene
Fill your recipient with water (not to the brim as it could overflow later on) and do the same with the water dropper. I would advise setting the recipient upon a high table to avoid getting a bad back! Position it close the edge of the table and set up the water dropper high enough to create a constant flow of droplets, which should land 5-10cm away from the front edge of the container. Ideally you want a drop of water to impact every 2-3 seconds. If it’s too quick you won’t be able to time the shutter release correctly, and if it’s too slow you’ll get bored waiting!
Your camera is going to get splashed a bit, so keep a microfibre cloth handy to clean the lens every once in a while. The amount of splash actually depends how high the droplets fall from, so lower the dropper if it’s becoming too messy. Remember that the closer the dropper is to the water, the quicker you need to react with the shutter.
A good water droplet photo is actually taken after the moment of impact, not before. After the droplet hits the water it bounces back up, and this is the moment that you want to capture. If you take it before the impact there are no ripples in the water and the scene is quite boring. Check out this video to get an idea of how it works...
Pretty amazing right?!
Now, find a small object, and position it precisely where the droplets impact the surface of the water. The object should not protrude too much from the water. This will give you a reference point to initially set up your camera/tripod, and it will also help you focus.
Put your camera in manual focus. This is absolutely key; forget about autofocus, it just won’t work. Now manually focus onto whatever object you placed in the water, as this is roughly where the droplet will land.
As your camera is not completely parallel to the axis of falling water, your plane of focus is at a slight angle. This means that if you focus at the point of impact on the surface of the water (X on the diagram below), then when your water droplet bounces back into the air, it will be closer to the camera and therefore out of focus. In order to get the droplet into crisp you need to focus closer towards you.
Now that you are in roughly the right location, remove your object from the water. Through your viewfinder, try to guess the height that the droplet will bounce up to, and steadily hold a pin head at that location. You can then focus the camera manually on the pin and your droplet should be in focus. By doing this you are automatically shifting the focus towards the camera, like in the diagram above.
These depend on the camera, but when working with a DSLR I use manual mode. Start out with a high shutter speed and adjust your aperture and ISO accordingly for exposure. You will be using your flash to freeze the motion, and therefore you shutter speed will be limited. On my Nikon the highest shutter speed is 1/320th of a second whilst using the flash. This is perfectly fast enough. (You can also experiment later on with slower shutter speeds to create trails of light as the droplet moves.) Keep a narrow depth of field to blur out the background, but make sure you maintain the droplet in focus. This is trial and error, so keep reviewing your photos to see what the background looks like and how sharp the droplets are coming out. With a macro lens most of my shots are taken at f18 and above, but this will vary depending on what kit you use. Remember, a photo doesn't always have to be in focus to look interesting, so have a play around! Once you are set up, make the most of the digital age and keep snapping away until you find photos that you like.
My main advice is not to be disheartened if it takes a while to find the focus and get your timing right. It can be frustrating but when you get that final image, it is all worthwhile! You can then start experimenting with different liquids, colours and lights.. there are endless possibilities out there.
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