Updated on August 19th, 2020
For this photo shoot, the idea is to capture a water droplet splash in mid air. You can accomplish this by using flash in combination with a very fast shutter speed, along with good timing. There are many different techniques to photographing water droplets; the process I used below is relatively uncomplicated, yet yields very good results.
- clear plexiglass (approx. 12″ x 12″ or larger)
- small glass bowl
- eye dropper/glass of water
- colorful paper or fabric backdrop (approx 18″ x 12″)
- 2 speedlights that can be triggered off-camera
- remote shutter release cable
- camera with macro lens or telephoto lens with extension tube
- sharpened pencil (used to lock in focus)
Setting Up The Shot
I set the shot up by first going to my local craft store and picking up some pieces of colorful 12″ x 12″ paper and some pieces of colorful cloth (about 18″ x 22″). Alternatively, you can use whatever type of paper or fabric you have laying around for the backdrop—usually the more colorful the better. Different colors and patterns can yield very different results. I settled on the two backdrops below:
I placed the paper/cloth backdrops under a piece of clear plexiglass and propped up the back end into a nice seamless curve. The plexiglass is used to protect the backdrops from the inevitable splashing and to create a stable surface. A small bowl of water was placed on top of the plexi to catch the drops and create the splash effect. I placed two SB-900 speedlights on either side of the water bowl, about 6-8 inches to the left and right from the center of the bowl:
For the camera settings, I had my Nikon D7100 in Manual Mode. To cut down on shutter vibration, I put the camera in mirror-up position and used a remote shutter release. I would have normally used my 100mm macro lens for a shot like this but I wanted to get a little more distance between the glass and the splashing water; I opted instead for my 70-300mm lens with a 12mm extension tube. An aperture setting of f18 gave me enough depth-of-field for a clear, focused view of the subject.
As far as shutter speed goes, for a shot like this I normally prefer to use a flash sync speed of 1/250 sec to block out all ambient light and really freeze the motion. However, the Pocket Wizard PlusX’s I was using to trigger the flashes don’t sync well beyond 1/125 sec. Fortunately, a 1/125 sync speed was fast enough to get the desired results I was aiming for here.
For the flash settings, I always use Manual Mode; this gives me more aesthetic control over the final exposure. I usually start at 1/8 power as a default and raise or lower the power depending on the result I am looking for. In this case I chose a higher power for a brighter exposure to really bring out the backdrop colors.
Next, I put my camera in Manual Focus and held the end of a pencil in the frame to use as a point to focus on as a stand-in for the eventual water drops:
Creating The Splash
To create the water droplets, I used a water dropper I got at my local Walmart pharmacy. Holding the dropper about 6-8 inches above the bowl, I hit the shutter release to raise the mirror, then squeezed the dropper. I would then hit the shutter release again immediately after that to open the shutter and fire the flash. It takes some experimentation to get a feel for the timing of the splash. You can also alter the length of the splash tails by raising or lowering the height of the dropper; longer splash tails can be created by holding the dropper further away, shorter tails by holding it closer. Adjusting the timing slightly of the shutter release can also dramatically change the shape of the splash:
For post-processing, I cleaned the photo up in GIMP 2.10 by cloning/healing out any odd spots here-and-there and applying an unsharp mask to increase sharpness. Finally, I applied a slight crop to balance things out. Beyond that, what you see is pretty much how it looked right out of the camera. Note: As a general rule I shoot in RAW format in case I need to do more extensive pixel work, then export as a jpeg. Fortunately, for this image, things were pretty clean.
- Camera: Nikon D7100
- Lens: Nikkor 70-300mm @ 95mm with 12mm macro extension tube
- F-stop: f/18
- Exposure: 1/125 sec.
- Focal length: 95mm
- ISO: 200
- Camera Mode: Manual
- Flash: two Nikon SB900’s, each with a Pocket Wizard PlusX attached for wireless triggering
Capturing compelling macro images of a water droplet splash is a fun project that can yield rewarding results. With a little experimentation you can create your own unique version of this classic subject.
To see more images in this series, check out my Water Droplets gallery.