UPDATE, JUNE 2024: Strobist was archived in 2021. Here is what I am up to now. -DH


Backsplash on a Budget: Jaroslav Wieczorkiewicz' Water Angel

The best compliment I can give to a photo is to think of it as a "stopper," meaning that it absolutely demands your full attention when you first see it.

A couple weeks ago I made a quick trip to London to serve as a lighting consultant on a very cool photo project (more on that later). While there, I worked alongside Polish photographer Jaroslav Wieczorkiewicz -- not even realizing at first that he had been the one who shot the last "stopper" I had seen.

And even better, he did it with a minimum of gear and buckets full of creativity.

Water Angel

Jarek has already earned a reputation as someone who is very comfortable photographing liquids frozen in mid-air. That said, he stresses that liquids are a technique rather than a genre.

His signature is conceptual photos, and he is generally willing to do and/or learn whatever he needs to pull a concept off. But it all begins with an idea.

He is always at work on one sort of personal project or another. "You are waking up one day, and you have this in your mind…" he said. But turning a vision into a photo, that is the trick.

"All my photos are starting with an idea, in your head or in your heart," he notes, "and then it works backwards from there."

To be sure, working backwards from his mental image of a water angel would give him (and his assistants) plenty of problems to solve. He had previously worked with milk, frozen in time and morphed into high fashion. But water is a different animal.

"It's always difficult when you work with liquid," he said. "Especially with water against a black backdrop."

Water acts as a lens, collecting and focusing the highlights. So the 'tail' of anything but the fastest flash duration will show up as pronounced streaks in the fast-moving drops.

To solve his flash duration problems, Jarek turned to the relatively inexpensive Paul Buff Einstein Monoblocs.The IGBT circuitry architecture of the Einsteins means it can be configured for insanely fast pulse durations. And from previous experience, Jarek knew he would need a pulse in the neighborhood of 1/10,000th of a second. So that became his first and most important variable.

Fortunately, one of the many layers of information the Einstein provides on the back of the flash is a display of the actual duration of the pulse at the current power setting. And at 1/16th power in "Action" mode, he could see that the Einstein would deliver a pop of 1/10,417 of a second.

As for the lighting, you can see how simple it was in the diagram above. He shot with two Einsteins, each in a large soft box. One was front camera right, the other back camera left.

The second variable was image quality. Jarek shot the photo with a Nikon 50/1.4 on a D300. So image quality from the aging, 12MP camera meant using the lowest possible ISO. By shooting it in sections, the pieces combined to make an image of 10,000 pixels on the long side.

It's like PhaseOne on the cheap. You gotta admire that.

The third variable was depth of field. On a 50, you need a little aperture to hold focus through the model and wings. Jarek considered himself to be cutting this one close at f/7. If he wanted f/8, he'd have to either power up the Einsteins (sacrificing pulse duration) or crank the ISO (sacrificing quality). In the end, f/7 gave him just enough depth of field.

As a bonus, most lenses are at their sharpest near the middle of the aperture ring. So Jarek also squeezed the last little bit of quality out of his normal prime.

Get It In-Camera

Jarek shot the photos in a darkened room, to keep the ambient from undoing all of the effort he had spent to avoid ghosting the water droplets with the flashes.

The splashes in the final image are surprisingly close to having been done in-camera. He tweaked the feathered edges with the appropriately named "Liquify filter" in Photoshop, but that's about it.

"Nothing is painted in Photoshop," he insists. "It is all photographs."

"If you can throw something very carefully," he said, "it is better to do that and work two hours more on the set rather than working in post production. Because you can always spot the fake."

All of the images were shot in the same studio setting, with the same lighting. So it was "pretty basic" to just layer them on top of each other in post, he noted.

Originally from Wloclawek, Poland, Jarek now works in London as an architect.

Dividing his time between photography and architecture works out very well, he says. Designing buildings is a long process, sometimes taking years between idea and creative payoff. Photography is relatively instant gratification, which keeps him inspired.

As if he needed more inspiration on this project, it was written -- or at least drawn -- on the wall. When he originally got the idea, he "quickly sketched this little angel onto the architectural drawing," he said. (See above.)

Later, while he was waiting on the Einsteins to arrive, Jarek took a trip to the flower market with his fiancee. He noticed where someone had drawn a set of wings on the wall, at a height where they could serve as a backdrop for a portrait.

"I said to my fiancee, 'I don't need any more signs!'" he remembers, "I just need to shoot that thing!"

Following the shoot and post production, the completed image went live on his blog on a Friday evening. It quickly made the rounds on photo message boards. By Monday morning he had already received an email from Paul Buff, saying that the photo was "very interesting" and that he would "like to chat."

It wasn't long before the photo was getting prominent display as a print ad for the Einstein flashes.

Prediction: If Paul Buff is smart (and Paul is very smart) this won't be the last time you see Jarek showing off the Einsteins in an advertisement.

You can see more of Jarek's amazing work at the ArumLight blog. The original BTS post on the Water Angel is here. But he is also up to some larger scale conceptual work [NSFW-nudity].

Lastly, if you are in Australia and would like to spend two days with Jarek in an intense, hands-on liquid-shooting workshop, you are in luck. He has two scheduled in November.


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