February 2013

Drop Collision Photography, Paddling About in the Water of…

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The Machinery for Drop Collision Photography

Drop Collision Photography

Splash Art Kit Mk II

First off, I was alerted to this new drop-image possibility by a review in Amateur Photographer (January 26th edition). The kit in question is the SplashArt Kit Mark II, manufactured by High Speed photography Ltd, 31 Roebuck Lane, Buckhurst Hill, Essex IG9 5QN. Their website is www.phototrigger.co.uk. Tel: 07905 836280. My pal Geoff was similarly taken and, without further ado, purchased said item and brought it round for a test shoot for which I supplied the set and the lighting.

There are 4 dials on the control box, with line markers but no scale markings or labeling,  so it all seems like guesswork to start with. From left to right (and top to bottom) the dials control; the size of the first drop, the time delay between drops, the size of the second drop and the camera delay adjustment. There is a small micro-switch that  controls the mode (1 drop, 2 drops or 3) and is responsible for firing off a round of drops and triggering your camera. As others before me have said, the apparatus is reminiscent of the retort stands we used to have in school chemistry lessons with an additional gizmo attachment at the end. The drop container looks like a small sandwich box of the type popular in supermarkets now, though this does not impede its functionality. Un-clipping the top to add colourants to the drop mixture will move the retort stand however, so you will need to refocus if you do.

For lighting the drop collision photography I used 2-3 SB900 strobes set to 1/128 power fired through a translucent (clear) plastic A4 ring binder cover (with the ring binder removed) to backlight the drops. I would have liked to use a translucent plastic sheet similar to those used on light-boxes or x-ray viewers, but I did not have time to source this for our shoot. I angled both strobes at 45 degrees, to begin with, both at the same height. I quickly realized that a diagonal spread of light would be better so moved one of the lights onto a light stand.

The Technique

Drop Collision Photography

Setting up the Focus Point

In order to start our drop collision photography, we set the SplashArt kit to 1 drop mode to find the focusing point. First time out I used the knife-edge method, but I have now found a better way. I used the dual threaded spigot that comes with my flash brackets. It has a thread each end and is shaped like a small metal reel. It is reversible so that it can be attached to two sizes of thread and then acts as the spigot that you clamp your bracket onto in the same way that you would use the top of a formal light-stand. I placed this in the drip tray and fired off a series of drops adjusting the position each time until the drops fell inside the small threaded end. This works much better because you don’t need a second person to hold it still whilst you focus and can get a more accurate result. When using a macro lens it is quite difficult to get the whole splash in focus, and this way you know where the front and back of the drip will fall, so you can focus on the front edge, back edge or in between according to what you prefer to be most sharp. As you can see, this drop was slightly to the right of the threaded hole at this point (greater splash to the right). It was also a 2 drop scenario because we hadn’t yet switched the SplashArt kit to single drop mode. You will notice that the drop is red colored. We didn’t start off this way, we began with clear water in the tray and the dropper, but this shot from later on in the shoot was necessary to reposition the camera focus following moving the drip container in the process of putting pink food colouring into the top and stirring it.

The next logical step was get a feel for where the drops fell in the two drop mode and how much camera delay would be required to get a pit, crown, or a pole.

Drop Collision Photography


Drop Collision Photography


Drop Collision Photography











Once this is done, the next step is to control the spacing between drops so that there is a collision. The size of the drops that collide seems important and I think that similar settings on the dials for the first and second drops (first and third dials) helped me get a satisfactory result with the SplashArt Kit. The sign that you are approaching the correct timing between the drops is when you start to see some action at the tip of the pole, for example:

Drop Collision Photography

Finding the Collision Point

Drop Collision Photography


Once this point is reached a smaller further closing of the gap between drops may be necessary, and thereafter just plenty of trials, until you get some attractive results. All the shots you see here in the slide show were made first time out with the SplashArt Kit Mark II. One session of 4 hours or so got us all these shots (minus a coffee and brief lunch break of course). There is a lot of variability between shots. I don’t know whether this is because the timer cannot perfectly control the drip valve, or whether there are timing issues with the flash. My SB900 strobes, as usual, were fired using my trusty Flex Mini TT1 with AC3 controller and TT5 trigger combination. This gives on-camera control of the distant flash which makes for less walking round the studio (kitchen) and speeds things up a little. I suspect that there is no particular issue with the flash timings (but can’t completely rule it out) as at no point do I see a double drop image which means that both flashes trigger at the same time. Not bad when the flash duration is 1/38500 of a second!!

More on the Lighting

As you can see from the slide show, and the production images, I have used a selection of coloured gels on the strobes along with changing up the position of the strobes relative to the translucent plastic background. I must admit that my selection of gels is a bit limited, but the combinations were:

  • White on White
  • CTO (orange) on White
  • CTO on Blue
  • CTO on Red

I have also got green gels (to colour match for flourescent lights) which might also have looked good but I didn’t think to try. Needless to say there are a couple of approaches to white balance settings in this situation. You can use tungsten or cloudy settings for, instance, to produce a uniform rich yellow or blue colour. Alternatively, as I did here, you can use the preset flash white balance to produce an overal neutral result but then gel the flashes to produce the colours. This is my preferred approach because, although it requires multiple strobes, you do get greater flexibility.

It would be possible to set up a single coloured, or patterned multicoloured (perhaps printed out on a home inkjet printer), background, and reverse light that to get similar results to the multi-strobe effect.

For water drop collision images you do really need to backlight. For milk images you can front light, and for the closeups you see in the slide show this was really necessary to counter some of the shadows produced by side lighting. In fact I ended up using three strobes. A single backlight and two front lights. The front lights were camera right at 45 degrees and camera left at 45 degrees but much higher up to light into the extensive crowns. We might have been ok with a single front strobe placed centrally and above the camera in order to throw the shadows behind the splash.

More on the Fluids

Since my first attempt at drop collision photography, I have been reading Corrie White’s Comprehensive Water Drop Photography Guide. You will find a lot more detail on what you might do to water to thicken it, and some further tips on lighting milk etc. What I have realized is that it is easier to get spectacular crowns, and some really interesting graphic shapes, using the thicker substrate of milk, than it is with water. In fact, as Corrie points out, there are some things that you just can’t do with water alone. Clearly thickening water with sugar or guar gum also has side-effects to the look of the resulting solutions, so sticking with plain water is probably best. Nevertheless the old school physics fact that water is densest at 4 degrees centigrade is worth knowing and using here. So next time I will definitely try using very cold water and placing some ice cubes in the drip dispenser and into the drip tray.


We only had red food colouring at our disposal this time out. Clearly there are many others that you could purchase fairly cheaply. I have heard that some people use printer inks, but this may be quite expensive. Red looks great in contrast to the white milk. One tip for the milk shots using coloured drops, you need to stir the drip tray in between trials to whiten up the milk again. You could also put colouring into the drip tray and experiment with the two colours mixing together in the drip stem. I really do think that you are limited only by your creativity.

Things to Try

  • I really fancy having a go at splashes inside bubbles. Wow. Can’t wait.
  • Splashes where the drip container is a crystal glass, or similar, and can be seen in the shot.
  • Odd looking colour combinations.
  • Several splashes composited into the same shot.

Until next time,


(Dipping my Toe in the) Water Drop Photography


Water Drop Photography

A Single Drop…

I’ve seen a lot of fantastic drop collision photographs recently, both on the net and in magazines. It seems clear that there are at least two levels of water drop photography, the random ‘hit and hope’ style of droplet photography (without the collisions) and the more engineered droplet collision photographs made with the assistance of some complicated electronic hydraulic systems. Markus Reugals is perhaps the grand  father of the more technical approach, and another fine water drop artist is Corrie White.

Having read a little about water drop photography, I decided to have a go at the hit and hope style which is much less technically demanding but more reliant on good timing and good luck. A little research indicated that I didn’t need too much equipment and if I was prepared to be patient I could still get some good results. All I needed was a plastic bag, some water, a drip tray, a small strobe, camera and tripod and I would be good to go. If I could throw in a coloured background in addition then the world was my oyster. The set-up would prove to be a little Heath-Robinson, but nonetheless effective for that. I knew that those nicknacks would come in helpful at some point, and if I was to consider purchasing some mechanical drop making machinary, I at least needed to know what other technical issues might arise.


Here’s how I went about it.

  • Firstly I set up a turkey basting tray on the surface in the kitchen.
  • Next I filled this with water and suspended a resealable sandwich bag filled with tap water about 35cm above.
  • I placed a pin hole in one of the sandwich bag corners, and let it drip into the basting tray at a steady rate.
  • Next I set up my flash heads. You need these to be very close to the water-drops to get good exposure because you want to use the lowest possible manual flash setting that your guns will provide. I used 3 Nikon SB900s on a Joe McNally Lastolite TriFlash, set to 1/128 power, though I could have got good results with just one flash head, albeit at a higher ISO. This gives me approximately 1/38500 of a second.
  • Then I set an A2 sheet of coloured cardboard against the wall behind the tray and aimed the flashes towards it. In this way the droplets were both side and backlit both by direct flash and a coloured wash of light from behind. Ideally you would shoot through an opaque perspex to both soften and spread the light. Coloured gels can then be used to create interesting colour wash in the background and on the water surface.
  • Finally I set up my D4 on a tripod with a 105mm Micro NikKor and focussed on the drops as they hit the water. To get better accuracy I placed a sharp knife blade in the exact position of the falling water droplets and focussed on that. You need to attach a remote release, and depending on the camera body and system you are using you may use the built-in light control or perhaps radio triggers. In this instance I used Flex tt5 radio triggers as the D4 does not have a built-in commander flash. Alternatively I could have used a separate flash gun to provide the remote control.


Water Drop Photography

Splash and Drop…

Then all you have to do to start your water drop photography is watch the drips fall, and fire a few test shots to get the correct exposure. Obviously you need to obliterate the ambient light with the combination of shutter and aperture (I was using 1/250th second and f11) in order to avoid any ghosting. Watch out for your highlights. There is a tension between too much specular highlight and detail in the drops and the general brightness of the pool. After an initial trial I found that I was having to shoot downwards at too steep an angle. To counter this I needed to shoot from further back so I hooked up my 2x teleconvertor to the 105mm and this gave an effective focal length of 210mm and a greater distance from the droplet.There is a further issue with the positioning of the water droplets. I found it more convenient to have drops fall towards the front of the drip tray in order to have the frame filled to the top by the pool in the background. Otherwise the edge of the tray might be visible. I wasn’t brave enough to shoot into a pool with a meniscus!! Secondly there is considerable variation in the exact landing spot of the drops wich can easily vary by 5mm or more front to back, making critical focus a bit of a lottery. The higher the water in the tray, the flatter you are able to keep your lens. There needs to be some angle to ensure that the background does not include the edge of the tray (unless you have a 6 foot drip tray that is). Nevertheless the variation in focus drop to drop is countered by taking a lot of shots. Once you get your eye in, you can improve your success rate substantially. I did end up taking 765 shots in all, but there was quite a lot of experimentation to get my final set up.

Photoshop Embellishments…

Water Drop Photography

Embellished Drop and Splash…

As lovely as this image was fresh out of the camera, it was crying out for that something extra to really make it pop. Looking carefully at the top of the splash column I could see that there was a specular flare highlight at the top. If I had used f16 or f22 this might have been substantial enough on its own, but in this instance it required a helping hand.I have used a few techniques here. First of all I created a starburst in Photoshop (white on a black background), and then I sized and placed it into position on a separate layer. Change the blend mode to screen to drop the blacks out and Robert is very definitely your mother’s brother!! Photoshop has a lens flare feature (Filter | Render | Lens flare) but how do you get this into your image? Again the trick is to create a new layer. Fill it with black. Create your lens flare on the black layer (I used the flare for a 105mm prime). Change the blend mode to screen, reposition and set the opacity to taste to finish.

Sharpening is another interesting issue. If your droplet shot lacks that critical crispness, and quite a few will do, one way to counter this is to use octave sharpening. I first learned about this technique in a book by Lee Varis called Skin. The edition of the book that I have was published by Sybex in 2006. The book claims to be the complete guide to digitally lighting, photographing and retouching faces and bodies, and it really does do a good job at this. There are a few useful sharpening techniques that I would recommend you check for yourselves but the octave sharpening routine has general applicability above and beyond portraiture. The point of the technique is that you use multiple sharpening layers (4 in this case) to minimize the visibility of wide halos. Unsharp mask values are set, in order, at radius 0.5px, 1.0px, 2.0px and 4.0px all at an amount of 500%. Each layer has a luminosity blend mode, and the opacity is set at 100%, 50%, 25% and 13% respectively.

Water Drop Photography


There are plenty of online tutorials on how to make a starburst. The basic technique is to start with a white line on a black background. Apply motion blur to the line to get a lovely fade effect on the ends, then copy, rotate and resize the line to get the final effect. If you save your creation you can use it again at any point where a convincing starburst is required. If you create a large starburst, you can reduce the size without loss of quality.Over the last few days I have been experimenting with an electro-mechanical dropper and can confirm that there will be a part 2 to this article. Wow!! Here’s a taster, until next time…


And For Next Time…

Water Drop Photography

Something for the Future…











Cheers for now,



I Like to Snap…

My Love of Photography

Have you ever thought much about why you like photography? Or indeed why you take the pictures you do? No? Well nor me, until earlier this week. A few events have made me reflect on what it is to take differing types of pictures, in different ways and at different times. I’m still thinking so bear with me, this is difficult.

Like many men, I suspect, I get a thrill from handling my camera and using it to photograph, but recently I’ve become aware that this is by no means a constant in my picture-taking. More on this aspect later. For me there are three main image making scenarios. Firstly, I’m setting out to take pictures, and I’ve got something specific in mind. Perhaps I’ve planned a trip or perhaps I’ve been thinking about a particular picture I can take at home, either way there is planning involved and the end point is to produce some images that I am pleased with. The better they can be, fresh out of the camera, the more satisfied I am. Secondly, I’m in a social situation, but I have taken my camera along to record the event. Here there is no planning involved and actually, depending on the precise circumstances, I may or may not take any photographs. I think that this depends on how sociable the act of engaging in the process of photography is likely to be for the people I’m with, because human contact, not image making, is the primary purpose. Mind you if it is a large gathering and I feel anxious, I do sometimes hide behind the camera to give a purpose to my social interactions. Thirdly there are situations where planning to go somewhere socially with others, where photographs may be expected to be taken, happen and these are somewhere in between the first two scenarios given above. So where is this preamble leading?

I like to Snap!!

It seems to me that there is a lot of pretentious nonsense spoken about photography. Some image makers espouse a notion that every image has to be carefully considered, of high technical quality whilst also having a competent and pleasing aesthetic. Photographs must tell a complicated story, requiring the viewer to have superior imagination and narrative understanding. Photographs must involve an ordeal to achieve, either through the hoops that must be got through just to be there, perhaps at sunrise or after dark, or perhaps involving a hike up a mountain or travel in dangerous settings, in order to have enduring value as an image. I hear things said like “If you snooze you lose” and “You don’t take a picture, you make a picture”. And yet, on the flip-side, many people are much more concerned with gathering mementos of their everyday lives, often using a mobile phone camera these days, to share with their friends of Facebook or other social networking sites. Many of these pictures have little aesthetic merit but huge sentimental value and there is nothing wrong with that. Well, what is best? Who is correct?

An old friend of mine, now pardon my rudeness, once said “Eat shit.., 10,000 flies can’t be wrong”. We were adolescent at the time, and I think the comment was more for its intrinsic shock value than about making an important point, but this phrase has stayed with me because there are many trends, fads and innovations out there that lead to huge numbers of people doing something a little unusual that is initially disparaged. The advent of colour television, mobile phones and Betamax video all spring to mind as technologies that initially led to criticism for the early adopters. For flies, eating excrement is a natural and purposeful enterprise. They are able to extract nutrients that sustain them, from the copious waste that humans cannot use. Not an obvious pastime, but not at all crazy once you are in possession of the full facts. I’m not seeking to draw a parallel with the many photographs that get taken on mobile phones, for these images  do also sustain, at least the spirit if not the physical health and can be a vehicle to greater technical proficiency. Put another way, 10,000 people taking poor quality i_snaps can’t be wrong. And they are not, they are purposeful, and the images meaningful to them. Of course there is a severe limit to how much you can learn from photography with a camera phone, as they have few controls and little precision, though I expect that to change in years to come as manual controls sneak in to camera phones, or phones sneak in to better cameras. After all, the very best camera is the one that you have with you and several successful books have been published on the back of this (for instance the excellent “The Best Camera is the One That’s with You: iPhone Photography” by Chase Jarvis).

So what is a Snap to Me?

In my old Collins Gem English Dictionary from 1998, in a very different time, a snapshot is an informal photograph, whereas a photograph is a picture made by the chemical action of light on a film (my how that has changed!) and an image is something altogether more general and complex. It’s a mental picture of someone or something, an impression that people have of a person or organization, a representation of a person or thing in a work of art, an optical reproduction or even a metaphor. We can see right away that the pretentious crowd are using the correct word for their impression of the way photographs should be made, but what about the happy snappers? Looks like they are correct too, with an emphasis on informal. And this, at its crux, is why I like snapping. It’s the informality of it all. To be in situations where others are comfortable with your taking pictures. To not have to worry too much about the quality or purpose of a picture. To make it just because you can. To create and keep memories of events and people for when you are old (or gone). To be accepted for what and who you are, to be at peace with yourself, enjoying the moment. This is the time I take pleasure in my camera. This is what I enjoy. It is not that I don’t enjoy my more technical photography, it’s just that it is different. That is a much more professional endeavour. It is do-or-die. The stakes are immense. You have to get things right. The camera is a tool to be wielded with skill and accuracy. Like computer programming, there are no half measures, no in-between. It works or it doesn’t. You have a moment, if you are lucky a few moments, but you have to be on time and on task. The rewards are high but so are the costs, in that the perfectionists are correct at least.

Is it really this Black and White?

As with many things in life, however, there are situations in-between the extremes. Grey areas exist, betwixt these poles, in which people have options. A third way if you will. A more personal way or style if you like. Once you have the technical skills to take successful photographs, you don’t lose them, or fail to implement them, just because you are in an informal social situation. These skills do contribute to the less formal pictures you take, making them better timed, technically proficient, better framed, more interesting with better background narrative. The informality of the situation helps you concentrate on your technique and encourages you to play more. Try things you might otherwise not have done in a more formal setting, where failure is not an option. Your missed opportunities will be fewer if you have good technique, your personal memories will better reflect how you felt at the time (remember the camera looks both ways) and there is a chance that your pictures will hold the attention of others for more than a microsecond.


Realize that picture-making settings vary considerably, and be comfortable with that. Learn what you can, through rigorous image making opportunities, but use these skills to take personal pictures that have meaning for you. Be snap-happy, and proud.

Cheers, till next time,



It’s About Time I Updated my Picture

Relaxing at home...

Relaxing at home…

Another Year Older..

Both the Doctor’s Images, and the Doctor himself, are another year older. It has bugged me for some time that my current photo has me with such long hair. Did I ever tell you that story? I really dislike having my hair cut. Just always have done. I only go to have it cut with my family, to places I’m used to. Once happy with a hairdresser I would always go there, even on my own. My spouse, on the other hand, is very fussy. Hairstyle is a business issue as well as a personal one. Picky doesn’t come into it. And she changes hairdresser quite often, which leaves me high and dry. Can’t go back. Too embarrassing to explain why my wife has changed. Nightmare. Several months will go by, and then another few, whilst the new stylist proves themselves and then I can join in. Meanwhile I turn into 60’s man. Work colleagues recognize this pattern. Anyway, we are back where we need to be with Sam again, and my hair is a reasonable length. So time for another picture.

Choosing a Setting

Actually, I quite like the relaxing at home in the library look (although, as you will see, the reality is somewhat different), so I will go with a repeat of that. I thought briefly about a plain black or grey or white background, but then thought something less clinical would be better. I thought about a 2 strobe setup, and whether to employ the same methodology as previously described in The Making of a Self Portrait, but decided against it. Instead, as can be seen from the production shot below, I used a softbox and a grid-spot this time.

_DSC4558-EditThis was no ordinary softbox, but a Lastolite Ezybox 30 inch from their Jo McNally range. As you can see I’m using part of my lounge with a single bookcase, which through careful positioning, and by using a 70-200mm f2.8 zoom, has been made to look like a whole library. As you can also see from the production shot I am using my famous home-made grid spot, the ones made of black straws and cardboard, for the hair light rather than using window light.

Finding the Focus

This was not as easy as it might have been because I was doing this as a self-portrait. Our weekends are very busy and no helper was available. I had a remote release in play and used manual focus via trial and error to find my focus point. I started out using f2.8 to blur the bookcase as much as possible, but this just made critical focus impossible to find on my own, so I moved out to f5.6 which gave sufficient depth of field. My radio flash triggers worked well but I was having a problem with my remote release. If not pressed firmly and precisely downwards, the button caused only one flash to fire, and at first this seemed to weird to be true. This gave an interesting and very dramatic effect (because it was the grid spot) but this was not to be too arty. Common sense would indicate that it must be a flash trigger problem, though this didn’t seem to be the case and after a while I was able to choose one or both flash to fire at will based on how I pressed the button on my remote trigger. So what about the outcome? Well I have chosen 2 shots below as possible to use, and by the time you read this one will be posted in my About page.

_DSC2459-Edit_DSC2322-EditThe images were relatively straight forward to edit, but I did use the opportunity to play with onOne Software’s Perfect Portrait 2 which is now much faster and easier to use than previously. There are many things to like, particularly the way in which it uses Bezier curves to select the mouth and eyes. This is so much faster than the previous method which used a mask. Skin smoothing is a real doddle and it is possible to get a really nice skin tone and texture even if the original is quite red for instance. Perfect Portrait 2 comes as part of Perfect Photo Suite 7 which again is worth a look. Comparing these images with last year’s picture, the background blur is much less at f5.6 than that achieved with my 85mm at f1.4, but this is to be expected given that I was much closer in on the previous image. Background blur varies with both the camera to subject distance (a shorter distance gives more background blur) and subject to background distance (a longer distance gives more background blur). So in essence self-portraits, with a lot of background blur, are better taken by someone else!! Well at least focussed by someone else. I have decided to use the more casual looking photo for my about page, and to blur the background a little more in Photoshop using CS6 field blur from the blur gallery.

Blurring the Background in Photoshop

_DSC2459-Edit-EditThis is trickier than most people think by the way. If you blur the image substantially, for instance to remove most of the texture from the books, you will end up creating a large halo around the figure on the background layer. So when it comes to mask out the blur over the person, so that they remain sharp, what happens is there is still the halo blur of the figure in the blurred background. You can’t get rid of it, so what do you do? The trick is this:

Copy the layer that you are going to blur, prior to applying the blur, twice. Now, turn off the upper layer and apply the blur to the background layer beneath it, leaving the bottom most layer unblurred and untouched, until it appears satisfactory (in fact go a bit further than you think you need to, you can always fade it back later on). On the background layer (the middle of the 3), use the clone stamp tool to carefully clone appropriate background detail into the halo around the figure, effectively losing the outer rim of the blurred figure. Clone-in until the entire halo has been removed. Now turn off this layer and turn on the top layer. Mask out the figure using whatever technique you normally use. These days I use the quick selection brush to create the selection and then finesse in refine edge to create the mask. This creates a sharp-edged cut out that can then sit in the blurred background. Turn on both the blurred and the untouched background layers and select the blurred layer. Dial down the opacity to taste and you’re done.

In the interests of full disclosure, I have also darkened the background a little too.