How to Photograph Water Droplets :: Digital Photo Secrets

How to Photograph Water Droplets

by David Peterson 4 comments

Cameras are excellent at capturing moments in time. But besides just capturing babies in their full, unbridled cuteness, cameras can also capture moments in time that we don't even notice. One example is whisps of smoke just before they vanish into the air. Another is falling drops of water.

[ Top image Flying Milk by Flickr user Chaval Brasil]

I know you've seen those remarkable images - a single drop of water strikes a still pool and creates this amazing, frozen-in-time plume of liquid. If you're like many beginning photographers, you've probably looked at those images and dismissed them as something that's outside your ability. The good news is that your gut feeling was wrong - with the right setup, you can photograph drops of water that look just as cool as the ones you've seen on Flickr.

  • Canon EOS 30D
  • 100
  • f/5.6
  • 0.017 sec (1/60)
  • 52 mm

Peak by Flickr user -Kevong-

What You Need

Water droplet photography is going to work best with a good DSLR, a tripod and a macro lens. You will also need a Speedlite - preferably two, but while you're still experimenting you can probably get by with one. Most importantly, you will need a system for creating the water droplets themselves. That's where things get a bit tricky.

If you're just getting started with this type of photography, you can hack your drip system pretty easily with a medicine dropper affixed to some kind of sturdy support system, such as a tripod or a specially-built wooden rack mounted over a bowl of water. The support system you choose should be easy to vertically adjust - the distance between your dropper and the water below will dictate the shape of the drops and the way they impact the surface of the water. The depth of the bowl the water drips into will also affect the impact droplet's shape, and the size of the bowl will be important too - in most cases you'll want to avoid including its edge in the shot so it will need to be reasonably large.

The downside to having a manual system, of course, is that you'll have to squeeze the dropper yourself and then time your shot in such a way as to capture that drop at the moment of impact. To simplify this process a little, you can try filling a plastic bag with water and poking a very small hole in it--this should give you a pretty regular drip that you won't have to manually control. As you may have already guessed, this type of setup requires some trial and error. Your camera's continuous mode may help your camera to take multiple shots around the time the drop hits the water. But it might be more of a hindrance if the speed of your continuous mode shots aren't that high.

  • Canon EOS 7D
  • 100
  • f/5.6
  • 0.004 sec (1/250)
  • 85 mm

Single egg shaped water droplet by Flickr user Luke Peterson Photography

Once you've fallen in love with droplet photography, you can go high-tech by getting a "drip kit". Yes, there is such a thing: Bmumford has a good drip kit. This kind of unit gives you more control over your water droplets - you can vary their size, for example, and the intervals at which they fall, without having to muck around with a manual dropper. The company that manufactures the drip kit I've linked to above also has a product called a "Time Machine," which is a programmable unit that will automatically trip your camera's shutter in response to an event, such as a water droplet. This is a good investment for anyone who wants to do water droplet photography, or similar macro shots that require very precise timing.

Your Studio Set Up

You will need some sort of indoor studio set-up for shooting water droplets, with a good, diffuse backdrop such as a piece of frosted glass.

You will also need at least one Speedlite flash unit, preferably two. Your flash units should be set at lower power - start with 1/16th. Low power gives you a quick burst of light, and the light burst is what will freeze that water droplet mid-splash. Where you position your flash units depends on the results you are looking for, but in general terms you will want them positioned behind the water droplet in such a way that they will illuminate the water bowl where the collision between drop and surface will occur.

Also keep in mind that your studio should be very dimly lit, since you want those Speedlites to be your main source of illumination.

  • Canon PowerShot A550
  • 100
  • f/7.1
  • 0.017 sec (1/60)
  • 5.8 mm

ink & water by Flickr user gagstreet

Camera Settings

As with most types of macro photography, you want your ISO to be pretty low, at least 200 but preferably 100. It may actually surprise you to hear that you don't need a super-fast shutter speed to capture water droplets, because your flash is going to do most of that work for you. You will need to have a pretty small aperture - f/14 is a good place to start - since you want your water droplet and as much of the surface of the water as possible to be in sharp focus.

Focus can be challenging with this type of photography because of the accuracy you need to capture that tiny drop of water. Manual focus is a must, and you will need to pre-focus, shoot, and then adjust as necessary. To do this, first determine exactly where the drops are falling in your bowl of water, then place a ruler or another long, thin object across the bowl in exactly that position. Pre-focus on the ruler, then take a test shot and readjust if necessary.

Creative Tweaks

Once you're starting to get the hang of droplet photography, try adding some simple food coloring to the water, or using different kinds of liquids such as milk. You can also change the viscosity of the liquid by adding some dish soap to it, or glycerin. Using a different color in the drop than you do in the surface water will give you some interesting effects. You can also use colored flash gels to change the color of the light itself.

Changing the position of the camera can give you a different sort of image - try placing the camera level with the surface of the water, and compare that to a shot from slightly above.

  • Canon EOS 40D
  • 100
  • f/22.0
  • 2
  • 100 mm

Title? by Flickr user Chaval Brasil

Water droplet photography is one of those seems-intimidating activities that may surprise you. A little bit of tweaking and experimenting may produce results that you didn't expect, even if you don't have all the fancy equipment that other more serious droplet-photographers have. At the very least, playing around with these techniques and getting a few good shots will give you some extra confidence to go forth and try new things. After all, if you can capture a tiny water droplet, frozen in time, think of all the other moments you can capture and keep forever in those little digital files.

[Also take a look at some spectacular examples of Water Droplet Photography]

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  1. Robert Erasmus says:

    A very informative article. A good place do get a drip set is your local hospital where used sets are disposed. You can refill it with any liquid and set the number of drops per minute!

    David lets it sound very easy, but my experience is that it is one of the most difficult photographic adventures I have embarked on. But, practice will make it perfect.

    Once again thank you, David.

  2. Udhaya Kumar K says:

    Thank, David! Once I tried capturing water droplet and failed. Now I understand the necessary setups. :)

  3. Richard Sheridan says:

    Hi David, I liked your tutorial, it has given me the inspiration to try it. Thank you

  4. clive alexander says:

    Most interesting David, thank you!

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.