Photographing a Water Splash

Pure, clean water is not as challenging to freeze in time as one might think. Once you understand how light is captured by your camera the process of capturing motionless objects becomes less challenging. In this short tutorial I will attempt to explain how the shot below was obtained using a SONY SLT A55V with SONY SAM 28-75 f/2.8 lens. Though I used a “fast lens” it is not a requirement since you will be stopping down quite a bit. But first the example photo:

Water Splash into Glass

The settings used for the above image:

Aperture: f/14
Shutter: 1/13
ISO: 200

Now the first question many will ask is whether I the shutter speed of 1/13th is a typo, but no, that is correct. But this is the simple secret many professional photographers will not share with you because it is a trick they figured out and hold on to. Here is how and why:

You will need a darkened room where, when you set up the settings as above and take a shot, you get a black photo. At ISO 200 a room needs to be pretty dark to produce an image which will be black at f/14 and 1/13 shutter, but it will not be so dark that you cannot see anything.

So how do we freeze the image?

The simple answer is, with light!

You obviously need at least 1 speedlight/flash which you can remotely fire from your camera. Since I use SONY equipment, I used 3 SONY flashes, a HVL-F42AM to light up the background (focused to 105mm to get the spot effect) and 2 HVL-F43AM flash units to light the splash. These units can be remotely (wirelessly) triggered by most of the Sony Alpha series cameras. The short burst of light from the flash unit is what stops the motion of the water, not the speed of the shutter!

The Secret Trick of Flash units!

Another rarely known fact of flash units (or speedlights or strobes) is that to produce higher power they produce a longer burst of light, not more power. At full power (1/1) a flash unit produces a longer pulse of light, not really a stronger light as many people believe. This is important to know as using your flash at full power will cause motion blurring as the pulse is long enough for motion to be captured and causing blur. At 1/16th power your flash produces a much shorter pulse of light which gives you less light to work with, but it happens so quick that motion is now almost non-existent! In the above case I fired the flash units at just 1/16th power to freeze the action. At 1/16th you are getting a burst of light equivalent to 1/8000th of a second or faster (which is faster than most camera shutters can be set to!).

Though I cannot vouch that this will work with other manufacturers, SONY owners can set up their scene with even just one, but preferably 2 flash units to the sides of the splash, wait for the drop and snap the shot. It does take some practice and perhaps a number of failed attempts, but once you get that one shot you will be amazed. The settings of aperture and ISO may need to be varied from camera to camera, but the principle remains the same. Remember that when you take a shot with no flash your resulting photo needs to be black.

Leave A Reply