Water Droplet Photography: A Unique Way to View a Common Subject

Photo of a water droplet frozen after it hits the water showing ripples spreading outward on the surface and a round splash going up.  Water droplet © Dale E. A. Lewis
Water droplet © Dale E. A. Lewis

By Dale E. A. Lewis

Next to the sun, water is probably the most photographed subject in nature. It can convey power and strength as a magnificent crashing wave or serenity and calmness as a gentle babbling brook. With a fast shutter speed, you can freeze it in time to see every detail or use a slow shutter speed to render it as an ethereal mist. Of course, let’s not forget its beautiful reflective properties. No wonder that water is a fascinating subject to photograph! In fact, it’s so fascinating that even a solitary droplet can elicit feelings of awe and wonder. And that takes us to water droplet photography, a specialized type of photography that takes a lot of trial and error to successfully accomplish. The stunning results make it well worth the effort.

From the Editor: In the middle of winter, in the middle of a pandemic, many photographers find themselves at home, looking for creative outlets for their photography. In this article, Dale E. A. Lewis describes how he does water droplet photography, a challenging but rewarding art form that can be done at home with a relatively small investment. It’s not exactly nature photography, but it can scratch that creative itch and, who knows, next time you’re out in the field you might just have an entirely different approach to droplets of ice melting, spring rain, the dripping condensation from a plant on a foggy morning. After a couple of hours shooting water droplets inside I don’t think I’ll ever again dismiss the exciting artistic potential of the mundane, quotidian water drop.

Amazing Water Droplets

Water droplet photography involves capturing the movement of water droplets, or the freezing of the collision of two or more droplets in mid-air. It’s classified as “high-speed photography,” but not in the traditional sense. When most people think of high-speed photography, they probably think of using a fast shutter speed to freeze the motion of fast-moving subjects. Water droplets might not be one of the first subjects that come to mind. This is because water droplets are frozen, not by a fast shutter speed, but by a flash. For best results, the ambient light should be reduced as much as possible so that the flash is your only light source to illuminate the droplets. If done correctly, you should be able to capture some truly unique liquid sculptures. Below are typical examples of this type of photography.

A triptych showing various effects possible with water droplet photography © Dale E. A. Lewis
Various effects possible with water droplet photography © Dale E. A. Lewis

Water Droplets Cycle

Materials

It is important to understand the process of creating water droplet sculptures. This requires the release of two droplets from an eyedropper, almost simultaneously. The first droplet is released and falls into the receiving liquid in a catch tray directly below, forming a cavity (or crown splash) as it descends below the surface. The surrounding areas of the cavity collapse and shoot a jet (Worthington Jet) of water upward. (The Worthington Jet was named after Arthur Worthington, who first described the phenomena in 1882.) The second water droplet, released a few milliseconds later, collides with the upward-rising jet, creating an amazing sculpture. The mystery and excitement of water droplets photography is much like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates: “You never know what you’re gonna get!” Each droplet is as different as a snowflake. The photo sequences below illustrate this process. In this article, I will discuss the materials and techniques that I use to create these images. Other photographers may use different equipment and/or set-ups, but the results are basically the same.

Sequence of photos showing how the first droplet falls (left) and creates a crown splash (right). © Dale E. A. Lewis
The first droplet falls (left) and creates a crown splash (right). © Dale E. A. Lewis
The second sequence  of photos shows the Worthington Jet forming (left), the second drop falling, a liquid sculpture forming and then collapsing. © Dale E. A. Lewis
The second sequence shows the Worthington Jet forming (left), the second drop falling, a liquid sculpture forming and then collapsing. © Dale E. A. Lewis

Liquids

Obviously, water is needed. However, the density of plain water is too thin and will cause the droplets to spread out too far – yielding inconsistent and unsatisfactory results. Substances such glycerin, corn starch syrup or xanthan gum may be added to the water to increase its density and to make the droplets a little more cohesive. These substances are easily obtained from most supermarkets and drug stores at a reasonable price. Most photographers prefer to use xanthan gum since it produces the best results. It comes in powder form, and it must first be dissolved in water. Add about 1 gram (0.04 ounce) of xanthan gum to 1.5 – 2 liters (0.4 – 0.53 gallon) of lukewarm water.  then mix it in a blender. If you add too much xanthan gum, the mixture will be too thick and clumpy – requiring the solution to be strained to remove the undissolved bits. The next step is to dilute it before it can be used in an eyedropper. Combine equal amounts of the solution with water and milk. Adding milk helps to get a better-formed droplet. Also, since milk is opaque, it helps reflect light from the flash – illuminating the milky droplet. If the solution is too thick to fall easily out of the dropper, simply adjust the ratio of the xanthan gum solution to the water/milk solution. For better effects, you can also add a few drops of Nature Clean All-Purpose cleaning lotion to the liquid in the dropper. This lowers the surface tension of the water – creating unique structures in the resulting splash. The effect of this technique can be seen in the photos below.

Three photos showing how droplets with Nature Clean All-Purpose cleaning lotion in the dropper result in looser, thinner splashes and liquid sculptures. © Dale E. A. Lewis
Droplets with Nature Clean All-Purpose cleaning lotion in the dropper. © Dale E. A. Lewis

The disadvantage of using the lotion is that it will generate bubbles in the tray. I use a long stick to remove them, but they can also be removed in post-editing of the photos.

Coloring Water Droplets

To maximize the “wow” factor, try coloring the droplets. You can have one color in the eyedropper and a different color in the catch tray. Also, if you combine primary colors, the color of the resulting splash will be a totally new color! Remember, red and yellow create orange, red and blue create purple and blue and yellow create green. So, for example, if you color the liquid in the dropper red and the liquid in the tray yellow, the splash will be a mixture of red, yellow, and orange. Try experimenting with many different colors (see photos below). To color the liquids, you can use food color dyes, printer inks or acrylic/tempera paints. However, it may be more difficult to get a homogeneous solution with paints. I use a small blender to mix the paint with water or xanthan gum, and it works fine. You can also use colored flash gels to color the droplets

Two photos showing the effects of water droplets and splashes  colored by red, yellow, and blue color flash gels. © Dale E. A. Lewis
White droplets colored by red, yellow, and blue color flash gels. © Dale E. A. Lewis

Containers

Whether you use a drinking glass, a cup, or a bowl as your catch tray, it’s important to fill it to the top and let the extra liquid overflow the lip (see photos below). This will give you a better view of the action, as opposed to having to shoot down into the “well” of the container. To avoid a mess, place an overflow tray underneath the catch tray to catch any spills.

Two photos showing the splash of a water droplet in a glass (left) and water droplet in a teacup (right). © Dale E. A. Lewis
Water droplet in a glass (left) and water droplet in a teacup (right). © Dale E. A. Lewis

Also, if the liquid is clear, and you want to capture the reflection of the splash, you need to use a tray large enough to do so without getting the edge of the tray in the shot (see images below). In addition, you should use a circular polarizing filter (CPL) on your lens. To maximize your ability to see the reflection of the water droplet, you should use a focusing aid as above and rotate the ring of the CPL to see the reflection of the focusing aid in the water – then, remove the aid.

Three photos showing examples of images with reflections. © Dale E. A. Lewis
Examples of images with reflections. © Dale E. A. Lewis

Backdrop

Your backdrop should suit your creative vision. I typically use a black, white, blue, or red vinyl material. You should place it about 24 inches (61 centimeters) away from the drop zone. This will protect it from getting splashed and removing all the spots would create a lot more work in post-editing.

Camera Setup

Whether you use a full frame or crop sensor camera, it must be able to be set to bulb mode (I’ll explain why shortly). Use a lens with a focal length of about 100 mm and focus manually. To get the sharpest possible images, use mirror lockup to prevent camera shake as the mirror rises and falls during the exposure. Your aperture should be around f/16, and your ISO should be set between 200-400. A sturdy tripod is a must because your shutter speed will be generally slow, at around 1/10 sec. I prefer to use a vertical composition (camera vertical) because I never know how high the droplet will rise. You will need at least 2 flashes on light stands positioned to either side of the droplet. Their outputs should be considerably reduced to avoid overexposing the droplet (1/64). I generally use three Godox AP 200 Pro flashes with a Flashpoint R2 Mark II transmitter. These flashes have four magnetic color gels, which attach directly to the flash head. Diffusers can also be used to soften and dilute the light.

Focusing Aid

The distance between the nozzle of the dropper and the catch tray should be somewhere between 8 inches (20 centimeters) and 30 inches (76 centimeters). Keep in mind that the bigger the distance, the higher the height of the droplet, and the higher the force of the droplet. As I mentioned earlier, you need to focus manually. You can release a droplet from the dropper to get an idea of the drop zone, but for more accurate result, you need to use some sort of focusing aid. If you have an assistant, you can have him/her hold a pencil or stick in the drop zone for which to focus on. If you don’t have an assistant, you will have to use some sort of free-standing device, such as an extension socket wrench. Once the focus is set, do not move the camera or the catch tray, else you will have to repeat the focusing procedure.

Diagram of water droplet photography setup. © Dale E. A. Lewis
Diagram of water droplet photography setup. © Dale E. A. Lewis

MIOPS Splash Water Drop Kit

The most important piece of equipment you will need is a device to trigger the water droplets. There are many different devices on the market, but I use a MIOPS Splash Water Drop Kit. Retailing for about $150, it connects to your camera by a cable. The reason you need to set your camera to the bulb setting is because this device will control the shutter speed. Actually, it controls the entire operation – including the precise moment when your camera will fire. After downloading the device’s app to your phone, you will also be able to control the size of the first and second drops and the delay between them. I created the images below by adjusting only one value at a time while keeping the other two values constant.

Four photos showing the control image (left) and examples of increasing the size of the first drop. © Dale E. A. Lewis
Control image (left) and examples of increasing the size of the first drop. © Dale E. A. Lewis
Two examples of changing the delay between 1st and 2nd drops. © Dale E. A. Lewis
Examples of changing the delay between 1st and 2nd drops. © Dale E. A. Lewis

Water Droplets Within a Bubble

It is fun to see children blowing bubbles in the playground. Similarly, it is exciting to blow a large bubble over the container and create a droplet inside the bubble. Glycerin is added to the solution to help strengthen the bubble. However, creating the bubble is not exactly child’s play. I have to hold the bubble wand at the base of the bowl and carefully blow at a specific angle. Initially, it takes a lot of attempts to get a perfectly shaped bubble over the top of the container, but it does get easier with practice. What’s most amazing about this technique is that the bubble doesn’t immediately pop as the water droplets fall through it. I’m usually able to get three or four truly unique images before it finally bursts.

Three examples of creating water droplet sculptures within a bubble. © Dale E. A. Lewis
Examples of creating water droplet sculptures within a bubble. © Dale E. A. Lewis

Splash Art

Splash art is another method for creating amazing, colorful effects. This is done by releasing the water droplet mixture from a dropper onto black plexiglass containing a mixture of paint, milk, and ink. The black color is the perfect background to highlight the vibrant colors of the splash. You will be amazed at the different colors and patterns that result.

Three examples of splash art, with colors mixing in the liquid base and splash. © Dale E. A. Lewis
Examples of splash art. © Dale E. A. Lewis

Now you are ready to have some fun. By adjusting any number of the variables I’ve mentioned, you will be able to create some amazing water droplet sculptures. I am still learning and improving my techniques. It takes a lot of patience, but the end results are truly amazing! If you’re interested in learning more about this type of photography, The Ultimate Guide to Water Drop Photography, by Corrine White is an excellent resource.

Clearly, you can’t use all of these techniques in the field. However, you can incorporate a lot of them as you’re out in the natural environment with your camera. Regular water won’t give you as consistent and as richly structured results, but can still provide pleasing photos. Instead of flash, you can use a constant light source, whether that’s a reflector or flashlight or small light, such as a Lume Cube, with or without a gel. And you can use a piece of black or colored cardboard or foam core as a backdrop. The possibilities are endless.

Headshot of Dale Lewis.Dale E. A. Lewis has been a member of the NIH Camera Club since 2015, when he joined the group in the advanced category. He’s won several awards in the NIH In-Focus Photo Contest from 2011 – 2015 and was awarded “people choice awards” at Mid Atlantic Photo Expo (formally, Nature Visions Photo Expo). Many of his photos were selected by the Expo for display. He has photographed weddings, wedding showers, engagements, anniversary celebrations, banquets, baby showers, graduations, funerals, sporting events, and scientific conferences. Lewis enjoys night, long-exposure, nature, macro and high-speed photography. “I am often asked when I started taking photos. I have owned cameras for a long time, but it was not until my sons were born that I put more effort in photography to capture images of them daily,” he says.