How to Photograph Water Drops with One Speedlight

Ever notice those cool water photos that drop into the Strobist Flickr Pool?

Water droplet photography is very easy to get started with, and you can get as complex as you want. There are three tricks to making beautiful, time-scultped water pictures with a single small flash: Light placement, timing and flash duration.

More, plus two videos, inside.

Water Photography Basics

(Very cool water drop photos by Andy W., top, and Steve P., both from the Strobist Flickr Group pool. Click the pic for bigger versions.)

First tip: You are not lighting the water. Since water is a specular object, you are lighting what the water reflects. So you light the area (most likely the backdrop) that you see reflected in the still water from your camera position

As for timing, that one is easy -- just take the junk mail approach. Lots of water drops, lots of repetition, and something cool and unpredictable will come back. This is part of the fun. Just make sure you get your technical stuff down pat first, so when that perfect moment happens, you'll have a winner.

Last, and speaking of technical stuff, you will want shoot in a (relatively) dark environment so the flash pulse can effectively be your shutter speed.

The first video below (a basic how-to) suggests a setting 1/16th power. That's a pretty fast pop -- about 1/11,000th of a second for an SB-800, for instance. But you can get even faster times if you drop the power further. And when freezing a drop of water, microseconds matter.

The tradeoff? Aperture vs. pulse length. You will need enough power to get you enough aperture to carry the depth of field you want. But don't overdo the power to get excess aperture, as that'll needlessly stretch the pulse length of your flash.

In lighting, everything is a tradeoff.

Check out this excellent "how-to" video below, by Gavin Hoey. (RSS and email readers may need to click on the post title to view the videos.)

See? Easy, fun and cheap if you can get that flash off-camera.

And these same techniques can be amped up to yield more amazing photos. Artist Martin Waugh has built a career out of making art from drops of water. If you are into this kind of stuff, make sure to check out his amazing gallery to get a glimpse of just what is possible.

Just below, a video featuring Waugh from a segment of the Discover Channel show, "Time Warp." These guys are filming in 10,000 frames per second, which is Chase Jarvis Kung Fu territory. At the end, they actually have drops colliding with splashes in mid-air.

This is worth the wait for full-screen HD. Especially at about the 5:50 mark. (And I see my same old Nikkor 55/2.8 macro on the high-speed camera.)

Other than the obvious cool factor, the takeaway for me from this video was a look into Waugh's lighting. Background gets one color, and the top light gets another. This way, you get multiple colors in the water depending on the angle of the water surface being reflected.

A very cool project for a rainy afternoon, IMO. Or even better -- offer to take the setup into you kid's science class at school and let them try their hand at stopping time to study how liquids behave.

If you decide to try it and upload to Flickr, be sure to tag your photos with the words, STROBIST, WATER and DROP and upload it to the Strobist group. That way, they will come up in this search and we can all see them. (Check it out -- there are already some killer shots there.)

Or if you would rather blog your water droplet lighting exploits for the whole world to see, make sure to include the intact phrase "strobist water drop" (no quotes) and we can all see it via this Google blog search.


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Anonymous David Tiede said...

To view some water drop collisions with real depth (stereo 3D), take a look at the following site.

May 28, 2009 11:57 PM  
Blogger Jeffrey Byrnes said...

The episode of Time Warp that featured the Water Droplet Photography was amazing. I think the people that have the patience to photograph water in this aspect deserve a lot of credit. Especially if they are using one speed light.

Great post...

May 29, 2009 12:12 AM  
Anonymous Matthew Hamilton said...

Wow those are some interesting pictures.

I will have to give this a shot.

May 29, 2009 12:26 AM  
Blogger Ori W. said...

Ah, so cool. I've tried these and have a few in my Flickr, but I just gelled the flash blue.

Didn't even think to use a different color paper.

That gives you a lot more options for colors and designs.


May 29, 2009 12:36 AM  
Anonymous Aki Korhonen said...

Be sure to check out fotoopa's water figures also, great stuff. There's also photos of the cool setup he uses for those in the highspeed photography set.

May 29, 2009 2:41 AM  
Blogger vanardenne said...

I noticed the video of Gavin Hoey recently and did try it two weeks ago. Awesome to try!

May 29, 2009 4:06 AM  
Anonymous GLENSCOLAN said...

So cool, i have looked for this post since few months !!!
thank you !!!

May 29, 2009 4:14 AM  
Anonymous Lustu said...

Wow ! I've tried to do this on my own few months ago, using cross-lighting. Quite happy with the result, sharp is there, but with these tricks on lighting and colors, I definitely have to setup it again and shot a thousand more photos ;-) Tks for sharing it.
Let me give you one : instead of making a pinhole in a plastic bag, just buy a medical hose at the drug store. Cheap and you can control the intervals of the drops.
Check out the little time lapse movie on falling drops I've did already :
Splash time-lapse

May 29, 2009 5:44 AM  
Blogger Charles Verghese said...

Wow...your (Andy, steve & Gavin) results are pretty cool. Will post some of mine that I had done about six months ago pretty soon on my blog (and on the Flickr stream).

Thanks for the techniques though...will revisit this project again with the methods in this post.


May 29, 2009 7:52 AM  
Blogger RoamingChile said...

WOW! Thanks for the videos... the how-to will certainly get me started. The Time Warp one was quite inspiring.

May 29, 2009 8:02 AM  
Blogger Help said...

Nice post. Especially liked the noob-friendly video!

May 29, 2009 8:21 AM  
Blogger Alberto Freire said...

I'm a big fan of water droplets here's my setup:


May 29, 2009 9:56 AM  
Blogger PresKuh said...

Way to go Andy!

May 29, 2009 10:03 AM  
Blogger Debbi_in_California said...

This is a fun post!
Thanks for something new to try in theis hot summer in California

May 29, 2009 10:03 AM  
Anonymous Brian said...

Guitar great Chet Atkins once said after seeing Jimi Hendrix perform, "I wish I could play like that. Then I never would."

That's how I feel about water droplet photography.

May 29, 2009 10:22 AM  
Blogger Frances said...

I know what I'm going to play with this weekend! WATER!


May 29, 2009 1:44 PM  
Blogger Joe said...

Awesome! I love Time Warp! As long as I've been shooting, I've never done this before. That's about to change.

Thanks for posting these.

May 29, 2009 2:22 PM  
Blogger Hexitex said...

Hit and miss, but cool none the less. David, I am saddened that you you didn't even grace my hardware design efforts with a nod even though I can get 100,s of hits without fail - internet non-chemistry no doubt.

May 29, 2009 3:12 PM  
Anonymous pierre said...

ah, martin waugh, one of my heroes..
I tageed 2 images I've got on flicker with the tags you suggest, but they won't show up in the search. I dunno what's wrong.

May 29, 2009 3:44 PM  
Blogger David said...


I missed your stuff, as much of it was not in the Strobist pool. This is a very nice set, tho.

I get the NXT thing, but honestly, it seems a little hardware overkill unless you are really, really into it.

Nice pix, tho!

May 29, 2009 3:48 PM  
Blogger only1platinum said...

Very good post! I actually did this about 6 months ago when I got my first camera. Only I didn't have an off camera flash.

So I just opened up my aperture wide and placed a bunch of lamps all over my kitchen counter. They turned out great.

I first used a plastic bag like in your first video but then built me a water drop machine the next week. :-D I used 2 pieces of 1/4" hose with a small ball valve between them with one end attached with an adapter to a 32oz. coke bottle. I filled it with water and could could then set the flow for how many drops per second came out. It worked like a champ if I don't say so myself. So for about 10 bucks at Lowes I came out with a completely reproducible environment.

So much Fun. Thanks again Dave for all your great posts. been reading for a few months now. and I have two flash and a set of wireless triggers on the way. to be here in about a week from Gadget Infinity. The new v4 ones. YAY! Looking forward to boot camp too!

Nick Sanders

May 29, 2009 4:08 PM  
Blogger John said...

Hi, I use a different technique, with a mix of strobes and florescent lights (sometimes positioned below the tank). I gel the florescent lights and shoot from 1/40 to 1/80 -- extremely slow versus the above mentioned technique, but quite sharp nonetheless. These shots are all macro in the 2-5X range. Examples at:

Water Drop Falling GalleryCheers, jk

May 29, 2009 4:20 PM  
Blogger Hexitex said...

Thanks David,

Although the video is out of date for the technology as there is soon to be a nxthotshoe. I wonder why you feel it is overkill, If I am am shooting for O2 wouldn't I want 99% assurance that I get at least 10 keepers?

What is the difference between a Sunbounce, a Pocket Wizard, a shot through umbrella or a Nxt Computer in terms of photographic technology?

Technology is just a tool, nor far from our cameras that enable us to get the shot. Yes you are correct, I am into the nxt device but only for the shots I can get that wouldn't be possible without it, being able to program a device without programming skills is worth so much - my next shoot is high impact shots using the UK's No 2 Taekwondo champion and I can be sure that every hit will be recorded without fail.

So I ask this, when does technology become too little or too much for you to consider it photographically acceptable?

May 29, 2009 4:59 PM  
Blogger shamanjp said...

Do not Publish,
I love my Strobist emails but lately they have been causing Outlook to freeze up then after a while it will work again. What's up with that? Only the Strobist emails do this. I hope I don't have to unsubscribe.. Thanks

May 29, 2009 4:59 PM  
Anonymous Matt Wynne said...

The video was well worth the wait. His technical knowledge is amazing and the photographs on his site are very inspiring.

May 29, 2009 5:30 PM  
Blogger David said...


I just feel that you do not need a $300 Lego Robotics kit to do this kind of stuff. Yeah, it's cool (we actually have an NXT in my house and it gets a LOT of use) but I am trying to present this technique in a slightly more accessible way for the majority of the people.

You have a very cool robotic interface. But you have to understand that would only apply to a very small percentage of the readers of the site.


May 29, 2009 5:46 PM  
Blogger Slaggie said...

Funny, I just saw that episode of Timewarp on TV the other day. Now I saw this post. Nice walk through. Tried some of my own. Had a good time!

May 29, 2009 6:30 PM  
Blogger Chuck said...

Good simple information, but I don't see shutter speed mentioned, or am I missing it?

May 29, 2009 6:50 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

I know what I'm going to be doing this weekend!

May 29, 2009 7:53 PM  
Anonymous MIKE_K said...

The Latest from Time warp on Water Droplets.

May 30, 2009 2:39 AM  
Blogger Drew Batchelor said...

For about $35 you can build a trigger based on a Arduino microcontroller and a laser light pen to make the trip wire:

It's fairly low budget, and has the strobist ethos of hack it together cheap at home! 2 benefits:
1 We were hitting a consistent 9 out of 10 good shots - because the timing is millisecond consistant.

2 You also have a lightning trigger for your camera (take pictures of lighting) and with a small mod, a sound trigger for your camera too.

Most of the details are here:
But I found I had heavily modified it, for nikon and to improve usability by the time it was finished.
Thanks for the great website, Drew.

May 30, 2009 6:06 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Everything in life is a tradeoff.

May 30, 2009 4:14 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Everything in life is a tradeoff.

May 30, 2009 4:15 PM  
Blogger Fianke fotografie said...

This can actually be shot with on camera flash. The position of the background is on the same axis as the camera. In case of a colored background (or in my case a portrait photo) you want even lighting on the background which is easiest achieved with a single flash from the same angle as the camera. In my case it was zoomed and snooted to prevent spill on the water. The picture was removed from the strobist pool because the flash was on camera. Strictly taken this is correct but than again your still lighting the background not the subject. With most other subjects this would make it necessary to take the flash of camera. I started of with off camera flash but found the on camera solution better in this case. This is the resulting photo:

May 30, 2009 5:22 PM  
Anonymous Jamie Willmott said...

wow, that's really cool.

May 30, 2009 5:54 PM  
Blogger Sean S. Photography said...

Wow, I think I'm going to have to head to the lab this afternoon and find a good sized crystallizing dish to play around with. Thank you so very much for posting :D

May 31, 2009 7:46 AM  
Blogger Ben Yew Photography said...

WOW!!.. i am going to set up this water drop shot right now!!.. :)

May 31, 2009 8:06 AM  
Anonymous said...

Awsome blog, i visit it daily to see if there are any new posts. And this post was absolutly stunning. I did some drops in my backyard by using this techniques. And i must say the results are nice !. Thanks, photo's will be soon at my website. Greetz

May 31, 2009 12:17 PM  
Blogger Travis said...

what lens did you have on your camera?

May 31, 2009 1:56 PM  
Blogger Sean S. Photography said...

Suggestion: experiment with liquids of different densities and indexes of refraction. Very interesting results!

May 31, 2009 4:38 PM  
OpenID onegoodphotographer said...

I am coming a little late to the party as it is now Sunday evening, but I am going to work on this tomorrow. The images in the slide show are beautiful. I tried this a while ago putting cream into a cup of coffee then food coloring into water. I got some interesting photos but this is what I wanted. Thank you very much for the "inside scoop!"
Bridget Casas

May 31, 2009 8:51 PM  
Blogger Beau Hause said...

Wow, I did this today and I am feeling great about it. Thanks David for the ideas, and the tips!

;Check out the results from my shoot!

June 01, 2009 12:41 AM  
Anonymous Drippy said...

If you like the water drops you may want to check out the Milk drops in strobist too.. Different properties to water (and opaque so different lighting) but just as spectacular. (Slightly biased as I'm doing a lot of these recently!!)

June 02, 2009 5:59 AM  
Blogger Curtis said...

I only have one speedlight so I though here is a something I can do! The way they set it all up worked pretty good, but I managed to improve the setup. I took the DIY macro lighting box which I learned about on strobist; and put it around my water tray and pointed my single speedlight into the box at the white background. The results were amazing! All you have to do is place your water tray into the DIY macro lighting box, cut a whole in the top to allow water to drop through, set up your speedlight and face it at the white backdrop thats inslide your light box, and start taking professional water drop photos. I even put some gels on my flash, and got some sweet color results with a blue gel. So go and try this trick out.

June 02, 2009 10:46 PM  
Blogger Son Of Vin said...

So I read this tutorial this afternoon and now I'm sitting on my couch watching the NBA Finals and during the break the commercials come on. I usually don't pay attention to the commercials, but a Budweiser commercial came on and it had drops of water in slow motion fall down and hit the water then shoot back up, just like in the tutorial... and then the Budweiser bottle falls and the water splashes up, and as it does so the water freezes in the shape of a crown, just like in the second video.
I wouldn't have understood that commercial if I didn't read this tutorial. I can't wait to take my own photos.

June 04, 2009 10:21 PM  
Anonymous Brian said...

Wow, very cool post. It's amazing how cool little things are in the world that many of us don't pay attention to. Now I have to go and play with some water droplets!

June 05, 2009 12:54 AM  
Blogger Shorbo said...

Very cool post!

I tried this out this weekend - here's my setup and some of the results.

June 07, 2009 8:15 PM  
Blogger Chaval ^^ said...

I control waterdrop splashes with electronics, piece of cake to get a collision, see my high-speed set:

June 07, 2009 11:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Loved that first video. Great walkthrough. As a bonus, check out the 3:27 point. A guy with a British accent telling you that a towel is your best friend... made me think of "Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy"".

July 02, 2009 10:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

....eeerr no - that is not a British accent. Australian probably, or maybe Kiwi.

August 09, 2009 12:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks! This site has enabled me to take a water droplet shot. See it here...

August 17, 2009 9:43 AM  
Blogger Geoff said...

Thank you very much for the tutorial. I was able to photograph drops of water for the subject of the month in my camera club. I walked away with the photo of the month to boot!

I found that the water was refracting the surface of the pan I was using, so I stuck a piece of black construction paper in the water and held it down until it was saturated. After that I couldn't see into the pan.

I also tried shooting rapid-fire for a while, just trying to see what I would get. It turned out that I got a lot more keepers when I slowed down the drips (bigger drops) and started trying to get into a rhythm of drip/shutter release.

I used the pencil trick to focus, but clamped the pencil and lined it up with the top of the splash rather than the drop. Using the live-view on the Canon 50D, I zoomed 10x on the pencil to nail the focus.

My gallery of photos is online here:

Thank you!

August 20, 2009 1:33 AM  
Blogger Jason Anderson said...

I know it's been "ages" (in a digital world) since you posted this, but yet another wave of creativity has been generated probably because of this post over at Science Blogs. Adding multiple colors and multiple fluids to the mix makes for some great results:

December 11, 2009 1:25 AM  
Blogger rienquepourlesyeux said...

I can speak on this post because I made a detector drops of water for SLR photography.
This small electronic circuitry detects a falling drops of water with an infrared barrier. It can detect extremely small objects but also transparent objects like drops of water.
The electric installation is very easy to achieve.
All details of installation, drawing, explanations and examples of photos are available on my website:

June 18, 2010 12:21 PM  
Blogger Nauris Zeltiņš said...

Hi nice post... this is how far i have got need some better lighting :)

February 25, 2011 9:21 AM  
Blogger O Schrock said...

Thanks for the directions!
Here's my try at it!

March 05, 2011 5:21 PM  
Blogger Rona Bali said...

thanks for sharing, amazing result, best tutorial

September 11, 2011 11:13 PM  
Blogger James Southall said...

Great blog loved all the hints and tips improved my water shots no end. I am still trying to get the shield just cant get the water to the right flow yet

November 08, 2011 4:14 PM  
Blogger umoharana said...

I have been learning from the web many aspects of water drop photography. I have been experimenting on this for quite some time now and being an engineer myself went on to develop a professional kit. Details and some photographs of the water drop that I have taken using the kit is posted in my website I am also experimenting on smoke art.
U. Moharana

December 01, 2011 12:20 AM  
Blogger umoharana said...

I have been learning from the web many aspects of water drop photography. I have been experimenting on this for quite some time now and being an engineer myself went on to develop a professional kit. Details and some photographs of the water drop that I have taken using the kit is posted in my website I am also experimenting on smoke art.
U. Moharana

December 01, 2011 12:20 AM  
Blogger AnAnD yrh said...

Wow, I have tried this many time but got blurred pics, now I have my new Canon 550D with 18 megapixel. This takes good amount of time and hundreds of shots to get one perfect picture. Let me try it out on this week end :)


December 28, 2011 8:08 AM  
Blogger AnAnD yrh said...

Wow, I have tried this many time but got blurred pics, now I have my new Canon 550D with 18 megapixel. This takes good amount of time and hundreds of shots to get one perfect picture. Let me try it out on this week end :)


December 28, 2011 8:08 AM  
OpenID c6fe53d0-5f64-11e2-85a0-000bcdca4d7a said...

Well, I don't know why my attempt went pear shaped, although I did get a result in the end.

I tried to use the same settings as Gavin Hoey in that first video ~

1/16 power on my SB700,
1/250 shutter speed

I just got a completely blown out image. I ended up with

1/64 power on my SB700
1/640 shutter speed (auto FP)

But not only that ~ I had to dial in -3 EV and -2 flash EV.

I had to do this to prevent the picture being blown out.

What went wrong? Why did I need completely different settings than Gavin?

I'm not that well up on photography so I'd love someone to explain what happened.

Here is one of the shots I took on my flickr page...

January 15, 2013 5:48 PM  
Blogger Krystle Crossman said...

Thank you so much for mentioning the flash speed. I had it at 1/2 and cranked my Fstop all the way to 29 but couldn't figure out why I wasn't getting a clear picture to save my life. After reading this and playing around tonight, I now have about 50 amazingly sharp photos. Thank you!!!!

February 22, 2013 1:09 AM  
Blogger Jessica Plott said...

So odd I stubbled upon this post tonight after doing some drop work today! When you were working with the color settings and the background, I was wondering if you had ever worked with food color before? Thats what I used and the shots turned out great, but I do want to know if a colorful background would create better color for it? Thanks for the wonderful tutorial and tips! I am really needing to get a remote flash now :)

April 18, 2013 11:35 PM  

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