This article is intended for anyone who want to know how to photograph water drops. Most decent cameras are more than capable of taking these sort of pictures although for best results you will need a DSLR type camera, a tripod, an off camera flash and a remote shutter release (wired is fine). All water drop photographs on this site, except for the last one in this article, were taken with a Nikon D90, Nikkor 16mm-85mm lens or Sigma 150mm Macro lens and a single Nikon SB600 Speedlight. You don’t need a macro lens, this is technically not Macro photography, I just used the Sigma to give me a bit more distance to avoid splashing the lens. You can use on camera built in flash but results will not be great. You will also need other household items to create and catch the water drops, we’ll come to that later, first let’s look at the technical part.
Different ways to shoot water drops
First, the obvious one, use a high shutter speed. This has limitations for what we want to achieve here. You need plenty of light for a high shutter speed and if you are indoors, which you probably will be, you will need to use flash. Most DSLR cameras have a highest regular flash synchronisation (sync) speed of 1/200th to 1/250th second. This is because for flash to be effective, the camera shutter has to be entirely open at once. Due to the curtain like structure of the mechanical focal plane shutter in most DSLR cameras, this is only achieved at these relatively low shutter speeds.
At higher shutter speeds, the shutter effectively operates as a slit that travels across the sensor, as the second curtain starts to close before the first is fully open. Because flash duration is very short, around 1/1000th sec at full power, if you use flash at higher than your cameras highest flash sync shutter speed you will end up with dark bands on your images as only part of the sensor is properly exposed.
Some cameras such as the Nikon D70 and all compacts have an electronic shutter with potentially a much higher sync speed. Some high end medium format cameras have leaf shutters that also have higher sync speeds.
Many DSLR cameras have a setting called Auto FP (Nikon), high speed sync, or similar, for shooting with flash at shutter speeds higher than the standard flash sync speed. This works by forcing the flash to emit a series of short flashes as the shutter curtains pass across the sensor, exposing the whole sensor. On the Nikon D90 used for these shots, for example, that means a potential flash sync speed of 1/4000th sec, the cameras maximum shutter speed. Don’t be fooled by these very appealing apparent abilities. The truth is, the flash can only emit so much power in one go without recharging it’s capacitors. When in high speed sync mode, the flash divides it’s full charge across the series of ‘mini’ flashes as the ‘slit’ travels across the sensor therefore its effective power is very much reduced. To capture water drops you need to have the flash unit very close to the action and/or have several flash units. This image was captured using this method and one Nikon SB600 flash.
The second method is very simple. In a totally dark room using the ‘bulb’ setting on the camera. The flash guns are then fired independently from the camera when the droplet is hopefully in the right place. In the absence of some form of electronic triggering, this method has obvious limitations.
The third method is my preferred method as well as probably the most straightforward. In a room with subdued lighting you can trigger the camera manually which fires the flashgun(s). The camera shutter should be set to its fastest normal flash sync speed, this is typically 1/200 – 1/250 secs as mentioned above. With this method (and 2 for that matter) it is not the shutter speed that freezes the action but the flash duration. The sensor is only exposed for the duration of the flash output, provided ambient light is minimal. Trial and error is the key to success. You will see this method also referred to as strobist photography, the time of the flash or strobe pulse is effectively your shutter speed.
At this point, it is probably worth having a look at what is meant by flash power. Flash ‘power’ is actually a bit of a misnomer, and is not related to the intensity of the flash output as most people think. For all intents and purposes, the brightness or intensity of flash output is the same, regardless of the power setting. What changes is the duration of the flash output. For example, here are the Nikon Speedlight SB600 ‘power’ settings and the respective flash duration when setting manually:
Full Output = 1/900th sec
1/2 Output = 1/1,600th sec
1/4 Output = 1/3,400th sec
1/8 Output = 1/6,600th sec
1/16 Output = 1/11,100th sec
1/32 Output = 1/20,000th sec
1/64 Output = 1/25,000th sec
So we can see that setting the camera manually to 1/32 output effectively gives us a ‘shutter’ speed of 1/20,000th of a second. Obviously, the subject is exposed for much less time at this output level, so the flash needs to be much closer and in some cases you will need multiple flash units to achieve sufficient lighting.
Here is an image shot at 1/32 flash output, with the flash hand held on the right at 1/200th sec shutter speed with the Sigma 150mm Macro.
Simple Water Drop ‘Studio’
Enough of the theory, how do we set it all up. There are many ways to do this and it can be as complicated or a simple as you want. I went for the very simple option of a screw top plastic bottle on a table, a bit of blu-tac or similar stops it rolling off. This was aligned so the top of the bottle could be unscrewed varying amounst to allow water to drip into a clear baking dish below. The baking dish was prefilled with water almost to the top so that the edge of the dish did not obscure the splashes. I sat the baking dish on some coloured paper and ran this up as a backdrop over a chair. Obviously different colours wil create different effects and this paper is the only source of colour in these shots. I also placed a white notepad to the left just to try and reflect some of the flash back in towards the dish.
I found I had to drill a small hole in the bottle to let some air in to ensure a steady flow of drips. (yes, it’s a plastic vodka bottle, 1.75 litres no less!) Then with the camera set to manual focus, make sure the camera is focussed on the point at which the water drops hit the water. It may be easier to place a rule or similar in the water at this point to ensure accurate focussing. Set your camera to it’s highest normal flash sync speed and set the aperture to around f8-f11. Experiment with this depending on the depth of field you require. Don’t go higher than f16, most lenses don’t perform well due to defraction at smaller apertures than this. You can try the flash on manual setting at different outputs but also try it with TTL, as this will adjust the output anyway and may well produce good results. However, consistency will probably be achieved with manual, just try it and see how you get on. Make sure the room lighting is subdued. Daytime with decent curtains drawn is OK as is nightime with, say, a 40 watt lamp hidden away in a corner somewhere. You should still be able to see what you are doing.
Trial and Error
Getting good water drop photographs from this point is a lot of trial and error. Expect to take several hundred shots for a few good ones. You will soon get the hang of when to release the shutter as you see the drop leave the bottle. Try different heights for the bottle, different size water drops, different colour paper and backgrounds, even putting food colouring in the water or using milk.
If you want to create consistent water drop effects, including creating the dramatic effect of water drops colliding with with any reliabilty like this….
…..you will need to invest in purpose made kit, including solenoid water release valves and infra red triggers. This enables you to create water drops falling at specific time intervals and then release the camera shutter at a precise, predetermined instant. This sort of kit is not as expensive as you may think, one such system is the Stop Shot System from Cognisys. They can supply a special water drop kit as well as a variety of other specialist gear. This is probably only worth the investment if you are going to be shooting a lot of water drops or want to move onto to freezing the action of other fast moving subjects.
Anyway, hope you have fun giving it a go. I certainly did and it it taught me a lot about what both my camera and flash unit are capable of.
Please add any questions or comments below.