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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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