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Basic drop photography.  A short tutorial on how I used to do drop collision photos using a cheap setup.

I initially started the drop photography by using an eye dropper and using flash. I’ll have to confess to getting a speedlight that made it much easier to do.  However I’ll go through some options about that shortly.  I started with a canon 550d plus an 18-55mm lens.  You’ve got cheaper options than going for a macro lens – in the form of close up filters and extension tubes.  I chose to go for a close up filter +4 at the time.

Required gear

  • Camera with flash (preferably a DSLR)
  • Stable shooting platform like a tripod
  • Drop system
  • Liquid tray – like a baking dish or a cup

Recommended

  • Speedlight
  • Off camera flash
  • Macro lens – or close up filter – or extension tubes
  • Liquid additive
  • Cable release

Drop System

You need some form of delivery system for the drops.  I find it best to attach the drop system to something like a tripod or chair or horse (hardware horse, not the one that goes “neigh”).  Initially I started off with just an eye dropper.  I note that it’s not easy to use an eye dropper to get a collision :P.  I’ve heard of some people getting some success with using a plastic bag with a hole punched in it.  However I feel that the level of control is limited to get the parameters running the same each time.  I made a “cheap” pump system – from a small fountain pump purchased from a hardware store (could also perhaps use a small aquarium pump).  I then connected it with some plastic tubing to a reticulation valve.  The reason why I had a reticulation valve was to be able to control the drop flow in order to achieve the right rate increase the probability of a collision.

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You can see in this picture one of my earlier setups

  • You can see the tube being held in position above a drop tank by a tripod – I usually have this around 30-50cm above.
  • The pump in this instance is placed within another container (reservoir) with enough liquid to amply cover the pump – remembering that the liquid will be pumped out.
  • The receiving container (tray) – I tend to fill to a depth of about 1″.  There can be some slight differences to the drop bounce due to the depth.  Note also that this is an early image and I since changed it to a much longer and broader baking try.
  • In terms of positioning the camera – since this image – I usually have a shallower angle of the camera.  This is because the liquid will bounce off the surface of the tray water and angle can affect the focus due to depth of field.
  • Please ignore the reflector and the foam-board – not really necessary.
  • I’ve placed a speed light off to the side with a wired trigger.
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  • Haven’t got a speed light?  it’s not ideal, but you can use the on camera flash.  The problems being the recycle time is painfully slow (and chews up your battery) and also direct flash will reflect back.  I made a quick system which I tested that can deal with shifting the flash off camera using mirrors 😉
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  • I use some building blocks and place in the tank to align the drop system.  Activating the pump with a slow flow and shifting the tripod/drop system so that it lands on the tip of the blocks – and then focus on the tip.  Anything else can be used for focus.
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The liquid – I typically use water with additives.  Typically in reservoir, I may have around a litre of water.  To this I often just have a few drops/quick squirt of dishwasher rinse aid.  This helps it spread.  Too much will result in the water becoming soapy.  Other additives you can do are some food colouring for colour (or you can use flash gels).  I’ve also used milk with a lot of success.  With milk – it naturally spreads quite nicely, so might only add food colouring.

Other liquids I’ve used include a water/guar gum mixture and glycerine – all that change the consistency of the liquid that may cause it to bounce higher or spread more once it hits.  I also note that temperature of the liquid can also affect, however I just don’t do it on a hot day because otherwise the temperature changes and changes the variables – causing the water to flow faster/slower or  drop heavier etc.

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Turn on the power for the pump and vary the valve drop flow.  It should look very fast – but not a constant stream.  The rate as an estimate is around 20 drops per second.  I make minor changes to the valve and can actually see maybe 1 in 5 drops being a collision.

Taking the image – I use a fairly narrow aperture – say F11 for crop and F16 for full frame to allow for a wide enough depth of field.  The shutter in this instance I keep close to the shutter sync speed – so 1/180-200 with a dimly lit environment so that flash is the only source of light.  It’s the flash that freezes the action, so the shutter speed is only used to make the ambient light black.  I use a black cup (doesn’t have to be black, but some of the stuff later on as options – you need a dark colour) to stop the flow of drops.  When the water in the tank is calm, I move the cup away – letting several drops flow and press the shutter (this is where having a cable release is really appreciated).  The water being calm means that there is a greater chance of a drop collision – it bounces more vertically as opposed to unsettled water causing a change of angle.  I would guess that  without stopping the flow, I’d have maybe a 2-5% of getting a drop collision captured, whereas with practice I got up to around 15% capturing a drop collision.

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Other things to try:

Use bubble mix and use a straw to blow a bubble onto the water in the tank.  Because it’s liquid, the drops go straight through the bubble.  I’ve heard adding something like glycerine to the bubble mix can help with it’s longevity.  The problem with bubble mix is after awhile, the water will start to get foam.  This is where it gets a bit painful, because I use the straw to drag the bubble back into position.  On the rare occasion, you’ll also capture a bubble bursting at the same time as you have a drop collision.

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Another easy thing to do is use a different background.  In the following image – I’ve used just a reflective gold car sunshade with a bubble texture.  The flash reflects off the surface and also off the water in the tank.

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I note that this is just the cheap way that I’ve used to do it.  Since the above images – I’ve migrated to using a camera axe.  There are many different semi-automated systems where you can change the drop sizes and timings so that you can increase the success rate from maybe 5% to 90-95% of having a drop collision.  It’s somewhat more expensive having one of these triggers, but provides opportunity for more creative compositions that would be difficult to do otherwise.

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