The idea behind this series of tutorials is to walk you through the steps a photographer takes to reach their final shot and the thought process behind them.
There’s always a long learning curve when taking photos you’ve never attempted before and this tutorial is all about helping you cut out the time it takes to reach that perfect shot.
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What You’ll Need
- A lens with a long focal length, preferably over 70mm.
- An off camera flash.
- A transmitter or sync cable for that flash (ideally).
- A black or dark coloured board or background.
- Some fairy lights or other creative lighting.
- A tripod for your camera and, preferably, another for your flash if you have a spare.
- A bowl of water and lots of small objects to drop into it (I used 10p coins).
What To Look Out For
- Water on the lens – keep a UV filter on to protect it and have a microfiber cloth handy to clean it with.
- Water on the camera – there shouldn’t be too much reaching your camera but keep a towel handy to dry any incidental splashes. The seal on the camera should be enough to prevent damage.
- Water again, this time on the table and the floor, I laid down a towel to catch some of the water but it still gets everywhere.
The Set Up
Half of the work to obtain this shot occurs during the set up; if you can get this right, it’s just a game of trial and error through lots of photos after that.
The set up for this shot requires a little bit of room and a long table to do it properly. Place the black board at the end of the table with fairy lights draped over the top of it, trying to space them out so that they aren’t bunched up in one place.
Next, take a large bowl of water and place it about 2/5 of the way down the table and place the camera tripod at the very beginning of the table.
If you’re using a wireless flash and have the ability to mount it on a separate tripod, place that alongside the bowl of water with the flash pointing down onto it. Here’s a photo of the exact set up I used.Next, set up your flash to focus directly on to the splash itself, not the splash and all of the area surrounding it.
To do this, you need to manually zoom your flash. This is really easy to do and pretty self-explanatory if you can’t find your manual.
You may not have noticed the difference this makes if you use the flash on your camera on auto mode, so here’s a little example of the difference zooming can make:
The photos below were set at these zooms, respectively: 14mm, 24mm, 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 70mm, 80mm, 105mm.
You might look at my set up and think it looks too complicated but it doesn’t have to be that hard, particularly when it comes to finding somewhere for the flash.
I wasted a fair bit of time on test shots that were lighting up my background too much. This turned out to be because I wasn’t actually firing the flash on to any water, causing the light to be absorbed and the camera meters accordingly.
If you’re firing test shots, make sure you’re actually taking photos of water splashes, otherwise the results can be a bit misleading, displayed in the photo below.
My flash was set to 105mm and kept there for the duration of the shoot.
I used this setting because I didn’t want any ambient light in the background which would ruin the photo I was going for.
The only other thing I knew about the photo before I started shooting was that my aperture was going to have to be completely open because of the bokeh effect produced at different apertures.
If you’ve read my tutorial on bokeh, you’ll know exactly what happens but, for the sake of this tutorial, I’ve included a little demonstration comparing the aperture wide open with it stepped down one stop.
To make this colourful background as effective as possible, set the aperture as wide as you can (in my case f/2.8) and have the background as far away as possible.
Because I was using a 24-70mm lens, I was able to have my background positioned quite far away without losing any detail – this made the bokeh bigger and the change in perspective forced the background to remain exactly where I needed it.
Ok, now that everything is set up, it’s time to start experimenting. The first thing I did was to start dropping coins into my bowl, setting the camera off to take photos as quickly as I could.
Even though the camera was firing at over 6 frames per second, the height of the splashes were going out of the frame – it was clear to begin with that I needed to change my orientation.
As I adjusted my camera and reviewed my images, I noticed that the colours of the fairy lights appeared dull and at first I couldn’t tell why.
The problem lay mainly with the ISO, set to just 400, and the shutter speed, set to 1/400 of a second. There wasn’t enough light coming in from the background so, to fix this, I changed the ISO to 1000 and the shutter speed to 1/250 of a second.
Depending on the camera, you may or may not be able to set your shutter speed this high while using a flash. To fix this, set your flash to high speed sync mode by pressing the button that looks like a lightning bolt with an ‘h’ beside it.
The boost in ISO didn’t create any more noticeable noise in the colours and 1/250 was fast enough to capture the movement without blurring.
Water splashed onto my camera at least 10 times when I was shooting. It’s really important to get to remove water this from your lens as quickly as possible, not just to prevent breaking it but because of the difference it makes to the bokeh.
Drops of water towards the center of the lens will appear as black marks on the bokeh in the background which, in my opinion, completely ruins the shot.
The main reason for so much trial and error in this little photo shoot was because of the unpredictable nature of the direction of the water, making it hard to focus on.
I set my camera to manually focus on the centre of the bowl where I would aim to drop the coins but often the water went wherever it pleased.
The main problem is that you’re shooting with your aperture wide open which invariably means a very shallow depth of field; any splashes that go too far off course won’t appear sharp.
If you have a look at the photo below, you’ll notice that the water is sharp in the middle of the photo, going out of focus towards the top. This is because the water is moving away from the camera.
This looks a little unusual because the splash tower still appears straight. This is due to the long focal length compressing the photo, making it appear closer together.
If you can’t take your flash off your camera, you can still try this effect with just as interesting results.
For the photo below, I left my flash on my camera, bouncing it towards the ceiling to light up the room a little bit.
I really like the photo that this produced and was torn between which lighting I preferred. I finally decided that the photos with the flash directly on the water make it stand out much more.
You may disagree – have a go for yourself.
Once you have all of these directions under control, it’s a game of trial and error to create the best looking photo splash possible. I personally shot over 800 photos in an effort to create 2 or 3 really good ones; in the modern world of digital cameras, this isn’t a problem.
Here are a couple of examples of some of the photos I took. If you’d like to see more, check out our Facebook page.
Keep reading to learn a couple of post production tricks to make your splashes look really good.
I’m not really one for too much post production but, in a photo like this, I encourage it; the photographic environment is foreign to most viewers.
I only changed 2 settings on my photos.
The first setting to alter was the contrast, which I turned up to make the black a little darker and to hide any extra little splashes.
The second thing was to turn up the saturation, giving more intense colour and a more interesting background. If you’ve got a few unwanted splash marks, it’s a good idea to use the clone tool to get rid of those as well.
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
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