Ophrys Photography

Wildlife photography by John Devries, Kent UK. Inspirational images from nature.
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Wildlife and nature photography hints and tips


Photographing water droplets

Have you seen some of those wonderful images of drops of liquid splashing up and making incredible sculptures as they do so ? You could be forgiven for thinking that is must be extremely difficult, and very expensive multiple high-speed flash guns are necessary to achieve these results.

In actual fact, all you need is a macro lens or short telephoto (ideally fitted with an extension tube)and a single modern TTL or ETTL flashgun. Although I haven't tried it, it might even be possible to use the on-board flash on some cameras if this is all that you have. A more powerful external flash will certainly provide a shorter duration flash sufficient to both freeze the motion and achieve correct exposure at very small apertures.

I had never attempted this before, but was very pleased with a couple of hours work that I did over the kitchen sink. So - I can definitely say this is not difficult.

This is my favourite image from the series:

 

So how is it done?

With the camera mounted on a tripod, fit a short telephoto lens plus extension tube, or better still - use your longest macro lens. I actually used a Canon 180mm macro, and also experimented with a 1.4x converter fitted too. The reason for this, is because I was trying to blur the background as much as I could - to keep as much of the kitchen sink out of the picture as possible!

Next, fill the sink to near the brim ( I plugged the overflow hole to get it really high). It might be an idea to try this when your significant other is not around to witness the occasional mopping-up !

Adjust the tripod until it is low enough to have as low a viewpoint as possible, but high enough not to see too much background. Place a coloured card (blue in my case) as the background and try to position it so it reflects into the water a little. As my tap was too close to the background, I made the water run down a strip of bent metal before it dripped into the water. You will need to experiment a bit here by trial and error.

Now set the camera up as follows:

Set the camera to ISO 400, use RAW file format, set the mode to "M" - manual exposure, and use manual focus (switch AF off). Set the aperture to f/11 to begin with and the shutter speed to the flash synchronisation speed of your camera (if you don't know what this is, it will be in your camera instruction manual). I used 1/250th of a second on my Canon IDII camera. It is imperative to exclude natural light from the image or blurred pictures will result, so don't have the room too bright. Only light from the flashgun is of sufficiently short duration to freeze the motion of the water droplets. Fit the flashgun - I used both a normal Canon 420 EX speedlight flashgun mounted directly on the camera and I also tried an MT24 EX twinflash setup - both to good effect.

Focus

Next turn the tap on until you have a continuous slight trickle of water emerging. This is what you are going to focus on. Manually focus on the water stream.This is a bit tricky as you are viewing through the camera at maximum aperture - a lamp or torch may help you to see the stream better. Leave a little space around the drops for splashes to develop in, you can crop later in post-processing. You can experiment with landscape or portrait format, and although not essential I found that a remote cable release came in handy, so that I could watch the drips and press the shutter when I felt the moment was right.

Set the tap to provide a regular flow of drips - open it just enough to get a drop every second or so. I started off with slow drips and chose my moment carefully to depress the shutter button, but after a while I found this was not necessary - I ended up setting the tap to a near-continuous drip and randomly took pictures.

Exposure

The TTL or ETTL flashgun will take care of exposure for you, but take a look at the camera's histogram after your first shot and apply flash exposure compensation (FEC) up or down until the histogram is looking good i.e. you have captured all the pixels and the graph is shifted as far to the right of the display box as possible without clipping the highlights (seen as a sharp spike to the right hand side of the histogram). Don't try to change the exposure with the aperture or shutter speed dials - use the FEC button to do this.

Fire away !

Now, you simply have to take a lot of shots hoping to strike lucky! I was obtaining an interesting image about every 10 or so shots and an in-focus interesting image about every 20 or so. The water droplets don't always go straight up and down, so they are not always in focus. If your shots are not sharp, try readjusting your focus or increasing the depth of field by reducing the camera aperture setting down to f14 or f16. However, you can only do the latter if your flashgun is sufficiently powerful to achieve the correct exposure at this tiny aperture. You don't need to touch the shutter speed - leave this to the flash-sync speed.

Post-processing

The benefit of shooting the image in RAW format is that it is possible to alter the colour balance and hue settings to achieve the final colour/look of preference. I slid the colour balance sliders towards the blue end of the adjustment and set the hue to what I considered to be a nice shade of blue. Not strictly natural for sure - but this is a studio shot - not a true wildlife image, so anything goes !

Finally, I opened the image in Photoshop, adjusted the levels and hue/saturation and unsharp mask until it looked good. As the icing on the cake I applied a little noise reduction with "Neat Image" to get a smooth grainless look.

Future ideas

I have it in mind to try getting coloured reflections in the droplets by using coloured tinfoil near the water, and will perhaps even try some different liquids. Perhaps a more viscous liquid such as an oil will create some different sculptures ? Only one way to find out......

You can view some more of my water droplets here.