As photographers, we know that contrasting elements make for great abstract photography opportunities. Dark vs light, warm vs cold, big vs small, old vs new – these are all elements that add emphasis and depth to a photograph.
On a chemical level, another interesting juxtaposition is oil and water, two substances that both repel and accentuate each other at the same time. For this project we will be using oil and water to produce detailed, abstracted imagery.
By taking advantage of the properties of the two, we can create an intricate landscape made up of bubbles and colour that can’t help but invite the viewer in for a closer look.
What You’ll Need
- A macro lens or extension tubes (I used my Kenko extension tubes)
- A set of chairs (milk crates are another good option)
- Sheet of glass
- Glass cleaner
- Paper towel or a rag
- Colourful materials
- Cooking oil (I use vegetable oil, but other types work just as well)
- A spoon or eyedropper
Before we get started, we have to get a few materials together. We want the background of our image to make a smooth gradient. So we need to create distance between our colourful materials and our oil and water. To do this we need to suspend our subject over the background with a transparent layer of glass.
I sourced my piece of glass from a large photo frame I found at a charity store. A glass bowl or even an unused fish tank will work too. Grab some glass cleaner and give your glass a good wipe-down. We don’t want any dust bunnies or fingerprints making an appearance in our photographs!
Next, we’ll need to find some interesting materials for the background of our image. I’ve found that the stronger the colour of the material the better. It adds a greater degree of contrast and depth to the image. Duller toned materials like brown or black won’t reflect light as readily. Aim for brighter colours to begin with.
Look for coloured cardboard paper or magazines, tea towels, coloured pieces of material, posters or scraps – anything with a bit of colour that won’t be missed if it gets a little oil on it. You could even try painting a few different coloured swatches onto sheets of paper.
Keep in mind that the background of your photograph with be blurred out. Don’t worry too much about picking out detailed patterns and shapes in your materials.
Oil can be a messy substance to work with so preparation is key. Where possible, try setting up your rig for this project outdoors on flat and even ground. Always have some paper towel or an old rag at the ready in case of any spills. And use a spoon or eyedropper to apply the oil to the water in small, even doses.
I also recommend placing a layer of newspaper beneath your worksite to protect the floor in case of any spills.
Next, it’s time to set up for your shoot. Grab your pair of chairs and place them a small distance apart from each other. Then set your piece of glass between the chairs, forming a small bridge. Take one or two pieces from your collection of colourful bits and pieces and place them on the ground beneath the sheet of glass.
Depending on the height of your chairs, you may need to elevate your coloured materials with something like a few books or bricks so that the coloured background fills the frame of the camera.
Setting up your camera can be a bit tricky here. Because macro lenses and extension tubes can reduce the amount of light that can reach your camera’s sensor, you may need to use a longer exposure. This is why I recommend using a tripod to keep your camera nice and steady while taking the shot. Using a tripod will also free your hands up for manipulating your oil and water mixture on the glass.
Lock your camera into your tripod and arrange it so the lens is nice and close to the glass, with the front element as parallel to the glass surface as possible. Focus your camera on an area directly in front of the lens and switch on Live View Mode.
Live View Mode will enable you to watch what is happening on the glass without hunching over as much, saving your back. Using Live View Mode will also minimise camera shake.
What to Do
Once you are all set up, its time for the fun part! Grab your water, oil and your rag or paper towel and have them close at hand. Use your eyedropper or spoon and apply a small amount of water or oil onto the sheet of glass, beneath your camera lens. Watch your LCD screen in Live View Mode to see what’s going on.
There are endless ways to shape your oil and water for unique results. You can build up layers of bubbles by alternating between droplets of water and oil on your sheet of glass, or you could use a spoon and swirl the concoction together for a mixture of smaller and larger bubbles and shapes.
Different ratios of water to oil create completely different effects. Once you have exhausted a particular batch of oil and water, mop up the mixture with some paper towel and start all over again!
And while you’re experimenting, don’t forget to change up your background too. Layer up different materials to get interesting gradients or focus on a single colour for a striking profile.
Juxtaposition is a powerful photographic tool that highlights the similarities and differences in an image. Similarities bring the image together and differences add breathing space and contrast.
If you have some time on your hands and a few simple ingredients around the house, why not take the time to experiment with some oil and water photography? The results may surprise you!
For more creative tips check our article on using shadows in abstract photography! We have a great one on creating cool glitch art photos too!