Photographing splashes is always great fun, especially with coffee! They are dynamic, eye-catching and not so hard to shoot.
High-speed photography makes the perfect recipe to get stunning creative coffee splash images.
Now, let’s see how it’s done!
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Create a Story With Your Coffee Splashes
Even a simple image with coffee (or tea! or lemonade!) splash brings me joy. But I tried to make it a bit more interesting and thought if I could add some twist to it.
Let’s not only freeze liquid in motion but make it proper conceptual still life. Well, not literally still, but you got the idea.
Let’s create a story around it! Let it be about a stage magician who’s serving their friends coffee and balancing cups on the tip of their finger.
Props and Gear
I live in a small provincial town at the End of the World. I don’t have access to any fancy machinery or all the gear that can help in high-speed photography.
That’s why we’re going to work on a budget! We will create a dynamic image with balancing cups and flying coffee using the simplest gear and props. We’ll be using only two speedlights and a glue gun.
What you’ll need:
- a light source suitable for high-speed photography (speedlight or strobes with short flash duration),
- camera and a tripod,
- a transmitter or sync cable for your flashlight,
- still life items (coffee cups, saucers and maybe a tiny milk jug),
- a glue gun,
- supports for balancing cups (skewers or knitting needles),
- clamps (either professional clamps or handy household items),
- a dark background (preferably washable and waterproof).
Let’s look at these items one by one.
Light Source for High-Speed Photography
This is the most important thing we need. The magical thing that freezes water in motion is not short shutter speed. It is a short flash duration.
So the trick of high-speed photography is due to your light source, not your camera. The duration is exactly what it sounds like: the amount of time that the flash is actually on, emitting light.
You can use strobes or hot shoe flashes (speedlights). Anything that gives short enough impulse (about 1/4000s) will perform well. This is the speed that helps freeze liquid in motion with all the sharpness!
I use two SB-910 speedlights. They are affordable, easy to use and provide the impulse quick enough to give me the freezing effect I want.
The important thing to remember is to keep power settings reduced to 1/32 or 1/64 of full power. As power gets lower, the duration gets shorter and you can freeze motion better.
That results in low light, but that’s why I have two speedlights, not one. If you have only one light source, you can compensate for that by opening the aperture and increasing ISO.
Camera, Tripod, and Lens
Any decent camera that you can sync with a speedlight will do. It has to have manual focus and exposure control. But almost any camera these days has these options.
If you connect your camera to speedlights with wireless transmitters, perhaps you can use a spare one as a remote release. That’s not necessary, but it is convenient.
If you don’t have one, ask an assistant for help. Pouring coffee and trying to reach the camera to push the shutter button at the same time is quite tricky (and it can move the tripod accidentally).
Another thing to pay attention to is your lens. Any lens suitable for object photography will work. But opt for long focus ones if you have a choice.
For this scene, I used a 105 mm lens. It allows me to use a smaller background and also lets me stay farther away from the action, keeping my camera safe from accidental water drops.
And a tripod is an obvious thing to use since you want to take several photos in a row and combine the best iterations later in post-processing. It keeps your camera steady and frees your hands.
Still Life Items
Plan your still life photography in advance. Which cups are you going to use? How many? Do they look good together?
I like cups that are made from the same material but differ in form. So they combine pretty well together but don’t look boring.
Porcelain cups are better than glass ones. They are not transparent, so you won’t have to worry about all the stuff glued to them in order to keep them balancing on each other.
If you like, you can add something else to this balancing composition, say, a cookie, a marshmallow or a small tower of sugar cubes. Something that goes well with coffee.
A still life photographer’s best friend! It comes in handy where double-sided tape cannot cope. We’re going to use it to keep our balancing construction steady and immovable. The key element in shooting splashes is gaining as much control as possible.
It’s hard to archive precise control while pouring liquid. But at least we can keep the cups in place. So I borrowed a couple of knitting needles from my mum and glued them at the back of my cups.
If your cups are small and lightweight, one support will do a trick. But if they’re rather large, glue two unparalleled supports to each one.
This way the cup won’t rotate when you try to suspend it in the air.
Clamps and Supports
To hold our balancing construction in the air we can use professional clamps like Wimberley Plamp II. This is an articulating arm with a clip at the end. It’s designed to hold flowers and reflectors but can handle a small coffee cup too.
Or you can choose a clamp used for needlework and other crafts. These clamps are as steady as professional ones. They’re not as flexible, but a bit cheaper.
I use both types, clamping one end to my working table and holding cups with another, angling them to a perfect position.
Keep Your Gear Safe
It must go without saying, but keep your equipment safe. Don’t put anything electric in the way of splashes, and keep all the cables away.
Prepare a towel. And another towel. You may even want to cover the floor with plastic film. There shouldn’t be too much coffee reaching your camera. But have a stack of napkins handy to be on the safe side.
I would also suggest trying to keep your workplace clean. But that’s almost impossible while shooting splashes. It’s going to get out of control. It’s going to get messy and make the floor wet. So my suggestion is to stop worrying about it.
Embrace the mess! Let it unravel. You can clean up after shooting, and it’ll be a lot less stressful.
Plan the Composition for Splash Photography
Let’s get back to our coffee cups! First of all, make a sketch.
I can’t overestimate how helpful this is. You won’t waste your time recombining cups over and over again. You only arrange them in a neat stack at the right angles one after another.
I started with a bottom cup, leaving some space for a little milk jug and my hand.
Glue one end of your supports to a cup, and fix their other end with a clamp at a desirable place.
Then add another cup. Try to play with angles, and put cups in different positions. This will make your image more interesting to look at. Use saucers, teaspoons, sugar cubes!
Don’t worry if the supports are visible. But make sure they stay in the background and don’t overlap with the main objects in the scene.
A knitting needle on a smooth background is very easy to retouch. But the same needle going all the way along the surface of the curved saucer is a headache!
Fix everything with the glue gun. Literally glue the cups together. Don’t be afraid, you’ll be able to remove all the glue and use the cups again later. But now you really need the composition to be motionless.
Try not to make the glue visible, though. Keep it to the backside.
It’s like embroidery: as long as your top side looks good, it doesn’t matter what happens underneath.
Lighting and Camera Settings
You can use any lighting scheme you like. Check out our one light setup or natural light food photography posts for inspiration! I prefer one with a backlight as a key light. It makes the coffee look shiny and transparent.
I used two speedlights. The key one was inside a strip box on the right and slightly behind the scene. The fill one behind a large diffuser on the left side.
You may notice a sheet of paper at the bottom. That’s an improvised reflector needed to lit up my hand a bit.
Adjust your speedlights to the low power (from 1/16 up to 1/128 power will be enough to freeze the motion of liquid). Set your camera in burst mode (continuous high) to take a few shots in a row and focus manually.
Also, put your shutter speed to the flash sync speed (between 1/160 sec and 1/250 sec).
From there, take a test shot to establish what maximum aperture you can get without underexposing an image. That’s all, you’re ready to shoot!
Shoot Your Coffee Splash Photos
Before creating a coffee mess, take a „black canvas“ shot. You’ll need it later when the entire scene will be soaking in coffee.
With a clean shot you’ll be able to combine the splashes you like the best and take out the dirty background, cups or saucers.
Take a shot with a hand touching the construction from below. Don’t hold it, only lightly touch it. Like it’s weightless and you can balance it on the tip of your finger.
Now on to the most entertaining part! Fill a tiny glass with coffee (make sure you’ve let it cool to avoid any burns).
Quickly pour some liquid into the top coffee cup and take a sequence of shots. If you throw coffee at the right angle, it will bounce off the bottom of the cup and create a pretty natural splash.
Note that the form of a splash changes depending on your speed, the glass you use or the angle you splashed coffee at. Take your time practicing. Cups are fixed in place so you can make several tries without ruining the scene.
Try different amounts of liquid and different angles before you create a splash closest to an ideal one.
It’s time to choose the best splash and tweak it a bit. Get your clean shot, get the shot with your hand, and place shots with splashes you like best as separate layers above them. Use ‘Layer Mask’ to conceal parts that should be hidden.
Click on the ‘Add Layer Mask’ button in the layer window. Invert the mask by pressing Ctrl-I (Cmd-I for Mac) to hide the entire layer.
Select a large, soft brush, change the foreground colour to white and paint in the area you want to be visible. Or don’t invert the mask and paint the area you want to stay hidden with black.
Since our background is quite smooth, that should be nice and easy.
I combined two shots with the most beautiful splashes I got – a shot with my hand and a couple of shots with drops.
After that, I deleted all visible supports with Clone Stamp and Patch Tool, adjusted colours and contrast, and voila!
That’s it. Now it’s your turn, make this your own, experiment! Here are a few more examples I made with the same trick.
Splash photography is fun and offers various creative ideas. Create another setup with herbal tea or your favourite cocktail.
Shoot a falling martini glass. Catch a balancing smoothie jar. Add a cookie, add some fruits. Change cups to laboratory glasses and drown your studio in coloured water. Add some vintage labels and turn laboratory glassware into magical potions.
The possibilities are endless! But, most importantly, have fun!