Take a Dip into Water Drop Photography

There are a few phenomena in nature that the camera captures better than the human eye can truly appreciate. The flight of the hummingbird, the incredible agility of insects, and for me personally, the beauty of water drops.

To capture each requires the use of high speed flash and in the case of the first two examples even potentially specialised kit, but the last is not beyond a simple home setup using some props found in most households, or easily obtained.

What You Need
For the main images I used a glass oven dish as a container for the water, this needs to be at least an inch deep and preferably in the order of 8 by 10 inches, but as one image shows a large wine glass will suffice.

A pipette to dispense the water drops, or a syringe body without the needle attached. The sort that can be found in an inkjet refill kit is ideal.

A piece of white card to act as a reflector and one to place under the dish, and something which is tall and thin but heavy enough to stand in the pool of water. This last item, for which I use an expired AAA battery, is to act as a focussing aid.

A camera, macro lens, or normal lens with other aid to allow close focussing such as an extension tube or close-up filters, a flashgun and off-camera cord (optional, but recommended), remote release cable (optional) to minimise disruption of the camera during exposure.

Getting Started
Set the dish onto a flat table and fill at least three-quarters full with water. Make sure that the dish is clean as you will find that any small pieces of dust or other material will become annoying in the final image as they will require cloning out.

Now fix the pre-filled pipette into place above the dish, somewhere between 3 and 8 inches from the surface. Varying the height above the water varies the quality of the drop and resultant rebound. Depending on the aperture of your pipette you will need to adjust the height until you are happy with the drop.

Allow a couple of drops to vacate the pipette, and place the battery directly where the drops are falling.

You can now focus the camera on the battery, thus ensuring a greater degree of success. If you do not fix the pipette in some way then each drop may fall in a slightly different place and thus with the minimal depth of field possible the success rate of those captured in focus will be reduced.

The camera settings I use may be surprising, but why they work will become clear later. I set the camera to manual, 1/60th at f/16 to f/22. The aperture possible will be dependant on the power of your flashgun and the amount of light reflected from the white card. The easiest way to introduce colour is to use the white balance setting and choose either fluorescent or incandescent.

So how does 1/60th second freeze the action, well it does not. The settings on the flashgun are the key. I set my SB-800 to 1/64th power, some cameras allow you to do this by selecting the strobe option only. If this is the case then ensure that the repeat factor is set to 1. Either method reduces the duration of the flash to a point where the rebound is frozen.

Position the flashgun slightly in front of where the drop will fall, but at the side of the dish and directed at the white card placed to the rear of the dish, not directly at the focus point. This enables a reflection of the drop to be captured as well.

Now the rest, without enhancing the setup with triggers and photogates is very much down to timing and patience.

Release a drop from the pipette. For the first couple just watch and gauge the delay required to capture the peak of the action. Now try and co-ordinate the shutter release with the rebound. Failures will be many, but the successes satisfying.

Taking it Further
Now that the basics are mastered, there a few enhancements that will yield more interesting results. Introducing a second flashgun will give a better image as the two flashguns can be slightly offset to increase depth in the reflection.

A deeper tank, such as a small fish tank can make capturing the full reflection easier, though it is possible with the shallow oven dish.

Finally by creating a flow through the pipette, which I do with a gravity fed flow from a houseplant watering bag and some micro pipe from a garden watering system and a flow adjuster unit from the same system multiple drops can be released in sucession. When the gap between the drops is just right you will notice a strange occurrence, where a following drop collides with the previous one as it reaches the rebound peak. This creates a variety of shapes that are basically impossible to witness without the camera.

More Info
Basic photogates and schematics can be found at www.hiviz.com for those interested in automating the flashgun to coincide with the point of interest in the drop/rebound cycle.