An introduction to waterdrop photography

Not long ago, I started experimenting with waterdrop photography. It was the perfect way to create some fun and unique photos, all in the comfort of my home.

In this article, I'll be discussing the main method I use, which is using a simple and affordable one-valve and trigger setup from PlutoTrigger. You can also create a very basic waterdrop setup using a plastic bag filled with water, which I show near the end of the article.

Camera, trigger, and lighting

High-speed waterdrop photography requires some essential photography gear to make it work. You need a fast light setup (such as a strobe or flash) that can "freeze" the water drops in place as they are hitting the water and/or colliding with each other. Along with your camera, you may also want to use a macro lens to get a good close-up shot, and you will also need a sturdy tripod to keep your camera secure.

Camera: My camera of choice is the Fujifilm X-T3, but you can use any DSLR or mirrorless camera for this setup.

Lens: An interchangeable and manual-focus lens is crucial for this setup. I personally have found that a macro lens is best for these images. It allows me to get a beautiful close-up of the waterdrops.

Tripod: Any tripod will work, so long as it keeps the camera steady and can easily be adjusted for a good composition. I also use macro focusing rails to help with fine-tuning my camera's position, but they are not required.

Cable release: With my setup, I need to make sure that I am not adding any unwanted camera shake. A cable release allows me to press the shutter without touching the camera directly.

Lighting: High-speed strobes or flashes are ideal. They need to be fast enough to freeze the drops as they hit the water. I also prefer to set mine up as off-camera lights, which gives me more flexibility with my lighting and also allows met to trigger the flash separate from the camera.

Reflector or foamboard: I typically use a one-light setup, with the main light source hitting the background, which then reflects and back-lights the waterdrop. To help balance the light across the entire scene, I will place a large piece of white foam board opposite the light.

Trigger and valve: I use the PlutoTrigger trigger and valve. They also have an app that can be used to trigger the valve from your smartphone.

Stand for your valve: The valve will need to be positioned above the container you use to collect the water, so you may need to get creative. I use a studio stand that I have had for years and also add a Manfrotto Magic Arm to it for maneuverability. Normally I use this in place of a tripod when photographing food or still life, but it works well for this setup. Any type of stand setup that allows you to position a valve above your bowl and not be visible in the frame will work just fine.

Exposure settings: For my setups, I typically keep my settings with a narrow aperture (ƒ/11),a long shutter speed (2 seconds),and I adjust the exposure by adjusting the ISO and/or the flash settings.

Background and other materials

The background and composition of your waterdrop photos can make or break your shot. I prefer clean, simple, and minimalistic setups, and I enjoy playing with color through the use of backgrounds and food coloring. Here are some tips and ideas for your own setups.

Black bowl, filled with water:  One thing to keep in mind is that water in this setup will reflect anything and everything. I have discovered that the best type of bowl to use is a large black shiny plastic bowl with no texture, pattern, or design on the interior. The black color lets the background's color reflect beautifully, and having a smooth interior prevents anything under the surface from showing through the water in the photograph.

Tray or bin to catch overflow water: This tray will not be visible in the photo, but it does help with cleanup! I use a simple foil roasting pan, which helps catch the water as it overflows slightly through the photo-shoot.

Background: The backgrounds I've had the most success with are simple and smooth pieces of colored foam. I get them at the craft store. It's also important to keep your backdrops from being folded or bent, as any type of imperfection in the background will be visible ten-fold in the water's reflection.

Liquid and thickening agent: I primarily use water for all of my waterdrop photos. The bowl is filled to the brim with tap water, and I use a thickened water liquid for the water in the valve. I will often add a small amount of xanthan gum plus a splash of cream or milk to the valve, which helps make the color of the waterdrops more opaque.

Food coloring: Colorful waterdrops look beautiful! You can get a good setup online or at a store with baking equipment. I find that the kits with several different colors are the most fun to work with. This is the kit that I currently work with.

Focusing aid: You will need to pre-focus your lens manually, which can be tricky with waterdrops. My method is to use an architect's ruler that I place across the bowl, and trigger the valve and position the ruler so that the water drops directly on top of it. Once it is in the position, I pre-focus the lens manually on the spot where the water dropped on the ruler.

  1. White foam board (reflector)
  2. Background (colored foam)
  3. PlutoTrigger Valve
  4. Studio stand with Manfrotto Magic Arm
  5. Off-camera flash
  6. Bowl filled with water
  7. Fujifilm X-T3 with tripod and macro focusing rails
  8. Architect ruler (manual focusing aid)

PlutoTrigger setup

To get the most impressive water drops, a trigger and droplet valve is ideal. I use a simple one-valve setup, which is affordable and fairly easy to use.

Step 1: First, set up your light, camera, trigger, a bowl of water, background, reflector, and valve. Connect the trigger to the flash and make sure you have the PlutoTrigger smartphone app installed and ready to go.

Step 2: Next, you'll need to position where the drop will fall in the bowl so that it is centered in your frame. It may take some time to move things around to get the water to drop in the right place. You can do this either by repositioning the valve or moving your camera setup.

Step 3: Next, pre-focus your lens on the spot where the drop will fall.

Step 4: Turn out all lights and make sure the room is completely dark, or dark enough to not add any light with a 2-second exposure without any added flash or strobe light. Set your camera for a 2-second exposure and press the shutter. The resulting image should be completely black. 

Step 5: Expose another frame, but this time trigger the light during the exposure. The light from the flash or strobe is what will be exposing the frame. Now is a good time to make adjustments to your light, exposure settings, and background setup.

Step 6: Now, it's time to play with the trigger! Make sure you've read the manual, so you know how it works. I use the PlutoTrigger app, which controls the strobe and drop timing. The first part of this is to get the first drop to form a peak. This is all about timing, each drop you release will create this peak, so it's up to you to experiment and photograph the exact moment that it gets to this position.

Step 7: Next, introduce the second drop. You'll keep photographing when the first drop creates a peak, and change the second drop's timing until it finally hits the peak. This is where the magic happens! Keep experimenting until you've created some fun and unique photos.

  1. The first step is to form a peak with one drop. You don't want to have two drops going at the same time during this setup phase.
  2. Then, introduce a second drop. In this frame, the drop is still falling and is slightly above the peak. This tells me that I need to adjust my settings to get the timing so that the second drop hits the peak of the first drop at the exact moment the flash is triggered.
  3. Once you get your timing right, you'll start getting collisions in your images.

Simple setup

If you don't have a trigger and valve to work with, but have the other equipment (flash, camera, etc.),you can still have fun with water drops! Basically, you set up the light and backdrop, position the bag of water with a very small pin-hole in it until it has a rhythmic drop, and take a bunch of photos. You are unlikely to get the same collision effect as you can with a trigger, but it's still a fun way to experiment with photographing waterdrops.

  1. White foam board (reflector)
  2. A bag filled with water
  3. Backdrop
  4. Manfrotto Magic Arm
  5. Off-camera flash with PocketWizard
  6. On-camera PocketWizard
  7. Fujifilm X-T3 and tripod
  8. Water basin

General Tips and tricks

If you're up for a challenge, this can be an enjoyable way to create some images! But there are a lot of factors that go into 

It's very experimental. One thing to keep in mind that this type of photography is the experimental nature behind it. Unless you have a laboratory and completely controlled conditions, each time you set things up, you will end up with different results. The temperature of the water and air, the thickness of the water, the size of the waterdrops, distance from the valve to the water, how much water is in the bowl, the depth of your container, and so many more factors will alter your results. But, if you're like me, all of these changes can make it that much more enjoyable! It's exciting to finally get the collisions working and seeing the results pop up on the back of the camera.

Keep the water valve mostly full. When using a valve, you may notice that the splashes and collisions start to change in shape as time goes by. I've found that as the water in the valve gets lower, it changes how the drops come out of it. Keeping it full will ensure more consistent results once you have things running well.

Level your bowl and table. Make sure that the bowl and table are as level as possible in all directions to keep your composition straight. I tend to show the back rim of the bowl in many of my shots.  I want the water to be flush to the edge and almost overflowing. If the bowl or table is not level, then it's very apparent in the image.

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