High Speed Water Droplet Photography on a Budget

Cylinder Splash

“Cylinder Splash” – One of the photos I took using my water droplet photography technique.

High-speed water droplet photography is a widely sought after photographic technique, and it is one that is surprisingly easy to accomplish, even on a budget. I attempted this technique as an experiment with my new Speedlite, and I was thrilled with the results.

I recently got my hands on my first Speedlite, a Yongnuo YN468-II. I absolutely love it. It has all the features and power of it’s Canon cousins, and at $99 it’s a fraction of the cost. The Yongnuo Speedlites are perfect if you’re looking to get into flash photography on a budget.

I decided to give water droplet photography a shot after seeing this great post over on Strobist. I highly recommend both that post and Gavin Hoey’s video tutorial if you’re interested in trying out the water droplet photography technique for yourself.

I figured this would be a great experiment to get familiar with my new flash, and to practice using the flash off camera. The process was a bit tedious, but overall I was happy with the way my final shots came out.

EQUIPMENT

I wanted to do this experiment as low budget as possible. The following is a list of equipment I used:

  • – Canon EOS Rebel T2i/550D
  • – Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 Lens
  • – Zeikos 58mm Closeup Filter (+1) ($12 on Amazon)
  • – Yongnuo YN468-II Speedlite
  • – Yongnuo RF-603C 2.4GHz Wireless Flash Triggers ($35 on Amazon)
  • – Mini Tripod
  • – Cooking Tray filled with water
  • – Colored Paper
  • – Bottle of contact solution
  • – A stick to use for focusing (for example, a pen, pencil, toothbrush, etc.)

I used the +1 Zeikos Closeup filter to turn the Canon telephoto lens into a sort of pseudo macro lens and allow me to position the lens closer to the water drops. I was a little worried the cheap filters would hurt the quality and sharpness of the final images, but they worked brilliantly. The final images were sharp and clear.

For the water drops themselves I used an old bottle of contact solution. At the time this was the only thing I had on hand that could create individual drips of liquid at a controlled rate. However, I found this was far from the most efficient method. I missed many, many shots because of errant drops that landed out of the plane of focus, or out of the frame entirely. Gavin Hoey suggests suspending a bag with a small hole above the tray to get more consistent drips in his video. T2iForum.com member, Doodle, takes this approach a step further, suggesting a medical feeding tube bag that allows you to control the rate of the drips. I highly recommend these more controlled approaches rather than trying to create the drops by hand, like I did, to save yourself some major headaches.

WATER DROPLET PHOTOGRAPHY SETUP

Water Droplet Setup

My budget water droplet photography setup

As you can see in the diagram above, my setup was extremely simple. To avoid a mess and make cleanup easier I set up on the tile on my bathroom floor. I set up the camera on a mini tripod on top of a metal box (A) a few feet away from the cooking tray filled with water (B). The Speedlite was set up wirelessly (C) next to the cooking tray and pointed at an angle at sheets of colored paper (D), propped up directly behind the cooking tray. Finally I used an old toothbrush (E) to mark where on the plane the camera was focused so I knew roughly where to drop the drips of contact solution.

PROCESS

Once everything was setup, I set the tip of the toothbrush in roughly the center of the cooking tray where I planned on the drops hitting the water and wanted the camera to focus. I adjusted the zoom and position of the camera until I had it framed on the toothbrush properly. I then used the camera’s autofocus to to focus on the tip of the toothbrush. Once the toothbrush was focused, I set the camera to manual focus to lock it in. I then set the toothbrush down next to the cooking tray, parallel to the camera’s focal point. (In the setup diagram above, point B represents the camera’s focal point and point D shows the position of the toothbrush).

I started with a shutter speed of 1/200 (the fastest shutter speed supported by the T2i when syncing with a flash) and an aperture of f/8, shooting on single shot mode. All of the shots were taken at an ISO of 100. I used manual mode on the Speedlite and started with 1/8 power.

I didn’t have my shutter release cable on me so shooting was a bit awkward. I positioned my self to the right side of the set-up and had to stretch to reach the shutter button on the camera with my left hand and hold the contact solution bottle above the cooking tray with my left.

I snapped individual shots at a steady rate as I squeezed drops out of the bottle. I took the shots as fast and steady as possible, while allowing enough time in-between shots for the flash to recharge (roughly 1-2 shots per second).

I tried to keep the bottle positioned so that the drips were landing in the target area, but it was extremely difficult and inefficient to do by hand. I took a few hundred shots, and I ended up with only 10 or 15 shots where the splash was in the frame and in focus.

From there it was simply trial and error. I took a few shots at a time and then adjusted my setup and settings based on the results. I experimented with various focal lengths, and I varied the aperture between f/8 and f/14. I also tried different flash positions and powers (most were between 1/8 and 1/64) as well as different colored backgrounds.

POST PRODUCTION

Editing the shots was very easy. It was simply a matter of deleting the few hundred useless shots and then making minor adjustments to ones left. The only major editing I did was cropping the photos to correct the framing of the splashes.

I made only very minor color corrections and bumped the sharpness slightly in post. The colors and contrast in the photos are a result of the flash reflecting off of the paper, not photo editing.

RESULTS

Below I’ve posted a few of my water droplet photos along with each photo’s camera settings.

High Contrast Water Drop

High Contrast Water Drop

Shutter Speed: 1/200
Aperture: f/14
Focal Length: 109mm

Sunset Water Drop

Sunset Water Drop

Shutter Speed: 1/200
Aperture: f/9
Focal Length: 79mm

Fluid Explosion

Fluid Explosion

Shutter Speed: 1/200
Aperture: f/14
Focal Length: 109mm

Clean Blue Water Crown

Clean Blue Water Crown

Shutter Speed: 1/200
Aperture: f/14
Focal Length: 135mm

Water Pillar

Water Pillar

Shutter Speed: 1/200
Aperture: f/14
Focal Length: 135mm

Cylinder Splash

Cylinder Splash

Shutter Speed: 1/200
Aperture: f/14
Focal Length: 135mm

In the end, I was pretty happy with how my final photos came out. The experiment was a great way to learn my way around my new flash, and I ended up with some cool pictures to boot. This is definitely something I will try again in the future.