Making Drop Tank Photos

I’ve been showing you some interesting images of very close-up coloured drops for a while now, and I’ve been promising to tell you more about how I’m making them.   Well…  the time has come for a basic tutorial (sans video – sorry) on how I’m making this happen.  It’s been a series of different setups, and a variety of equipment tested, so I’ll share a few tips along the way as to what works, and what doesn’t, but don’t let my experiences hinder your own creative ways to make the attempt.

camera and overhead light setupFirst over all else, you need a camera, lens and lights.  I’m using a Canon 1D Mark III DSLR, and while I’ve tried a couple of different lenses, I’m working mainly with the 70-200 f4.0 L lens, and a set of Kenko extension tubes to get in as close as I can to the ‘action’.  You can use pretty much any combination you have as long as you can get fast exposures, just keep in mind that you may have to do some serious cropping if you don’t get close enough to the target to begin with.

My first attempts were made using a coloured plastic bowl, and dropping water, coffee, cola, wine, and other liquids of varied viscosity and colour into the bowl of water.  For dropping, I started using syringes to create consistent drops and for light a simple speed-light setup worked to produce the results.  Over time, I picked up a few small bottles at a craft store that have dropper style caps of various sizes, allowing me to create different sized drops and to control the drops a little better.

acrylic paint and dropper bottlesSo…  I acquired a very cheap aquarium, put a few inches of water in it and added a little bit of glycerin to the water.  The glycerin helps to ‘thicken’ the water a little, creating more surface tension and more interesting results than just plain water.  The local dollar store offered a $2 package of acrylic paints which, when mixed with water, produced some good fluid for dropping.  Varying the amount of water also varies the consistency and colour intensity of the drops.  Experimentation is the key here, as there’s no ‘perfect formula’ for the mixture.  Find what works for you and have a little fun mixing colours as well.   Just remember that you need a good contrast between the drops and any colour your dropping them into.

behind the tank - red gel and diffuser My setup is now using two studio strobes, but you can achieve similar results with speed-lights.  Two lights are pretty much required…  one behind the target with some sort of diffusion material and/or coloured gels between the light and the target tank to supply colour to the water, and one above the target area to illuminate the drop on impact.  One small note here is that the flash you’re using in front needs to have a VERY short flash duration.  Speed-lights are great for this!  The shorter flash duration will ensure that your drops are frozen in time.  They move surprisingly fast, and with most cameras only supporting a 250th of a second flash sync speed, a flash with a longer duration will actually not freeze the motion properly, and will result in some blurring.

For diffusion material behind your tank, I found the dollar store carries a range of cheap plastic table cloths that work quite well.  They are thin enough to pass light well, and brightly coloured.  They also provide a great ‘drop cloth’ around your splash zone.  With the studio strobes and fish tank I’m using now, I have a portable diffusion panel behind the tank and a red gel on the flash to provide the background colour.  You can also work with coloured dishes as I did in my early experiments.  Any of these work well!

camera settingsWith everything setup and ready, you’ll find a remote shutter release a good tool as you prepare to make some drops.  Focus your camera on the target area with a stick, or something that can float in the water and remain in one place.  You’ll see that I use a very small aperture to maximize depth of field, but I’m also using some VERY powerful lights.  If you’re using speed-lights, go as small as you can, with f11 or even f16 being about the smallest I’d recommend.  Of course, the lens you’re using may allow you to get away with a larger aperture, so again experiment with your setup to see what gives you the best results.

drops awayGrab your dropper bottle/syringe, position above the target area, and gently press until a drop is made.  As the drop falls, release the shutter!  You’ll learn quickly that your timing needs to be fairly precise, and you’ll test your ability to determine when to actually press that button.  If you get it all right, you’ll start to see a variety of unique drop images taking form as you release new drops and hit the button at slightly different times in the time it takes for the drop to hit, bounce, splash and fall back into the target area.  It’s rather amazing how much actually goes on during that brief moment!  And it’s really fun to see the variety of drops, splashes and bounces.

As with any photographic endeavour, it takes patience, experimentation and a little luck to get it all right.  Don’t get frustrated by minor setbacks, and keep pushing forward.  The more you play with this, the better your results will be.  I welcome questions, comments, even samples of your own results, so please share your efforts.

The Results!If there’s interest, I may still work on a video tutorial or two and see where that goes.  Meanwhile…  get to the dollar store and start playing!!  Excluding the camera and lights – which of course I had – I made my experimental drop tank by spending less than $40.  My first experiments cost me less than $10!  I’ll be playing and posting more soon, with some better dropping methods as I figure them out.  You can invest in a timer system that creates the drops and fires the camera for you, but that’s too easy!  And expensive!

I hope that this has enabled you to explore drop photographs and that you’ll make time to have some fun with coloured liquid and your camera!