Never Say Never

High speed flash photography challenge

Something different! At my photographic society, we run a few challenges each year to persuade members out of their comfort zone. The challenge begins with a lecture on the subject, tutorial or demonstration, usually by one of our own members. A few weeks later, members present their examples at a meeting, where they are discussed and enjoyed in a non-competitive atmosphere.

This high speed flash photography is the first challenge, over many years, when I have said “I won’t be doing that…not interested…can’t be bothered” and so on. Now I have to say “Never say never”, because I was one of only six members (plus our demonstrator, Mike Lawrence), who actually did have a go.

A tiny bit of theory

Basically, it’s the flash that freezes the movement of your subject, so it isn’t about using an ultra-fast shutter speed with “high speed synchronisation” (like you would use, for example, in bright sunlight outdoors to use fill flash and reduce shadows)…it’s a very different technique where the duration of the flash is set to be very short…the shorter the duration of the flash the better, to be sure of freezing the movement of the subject. The trick then is to capture something interesting with the camera.

To set a short flash duration, set the flashgun on manual and turn down its power e.g. to 1/64th or 1/128th power…just as examples, the flash duration of my own Canon 580EX flashgun, set at 1/64th power, is around 1/14,000th of a second and at 1/128th power the flash lasts only 1/20,000th of a sec…both plenty fast enough to stop a splash of water. The Nikon SB700 flash duration at 1/128th power is 1/40,000th sec. Studio flashes can be even faster.

The shutter speed can be anything from flash synchronisation speed to working in the dark with the shutter open on “bulb”…and the ISO whatever you need but try not to let it go too high or your image will be noisy.

The physics of water dropping onto a surface is complex. When a droplet impacts onto the surface of a pool, it does different things, depending on the properties of the droplet, its size and velocity and the properties of the pool…either it bounces back, it coalesces (becomes incorporated into the pool) or it splashes and forms a crown shape around a crater, rebounding as a column (called a Worthington Jet) which can then break up into two or three smaller droplets before falling back into the pool…during this process, the column can collide with another droplet that is still on its way down, forming beautiful photographic art forms. Each drop and collision is over in about half a second.

Simples? Sounds easy? Have a go!

Special water splash photography kit

There are lots of tutorials on the web – many of which describe the use of a special water splash photography kit.

Before you spend lots of cash on an electronic machine that is the magic solution to getting perfect water drops, make sure you are really into this “art” long term and it isn’t just a passing fad. Such kits made by MIOPS, Pluto or Cognisys, for example, allow you to control the frequency and size of the water drops with great precision, sense the drop cutting an invisible beam and trigger both camera and flash automatically. Being able to control everything like this enables the capture of some fantastic shapes of water drops colliding with others.

Since I don’t have one of those special kits, I’m just going to concentrate on essentials and how I did it.

Essential kit

  • Camera and lens
  • Tripod
  • Flashgun (Speedlite) or studio lights
  • Background – can be simply coloured card
  • Container to hold the water pool (preferably inside a larger tray to catch overspill)
  • Something to drip liquid from

Useful additions

  • Remote Flash Trigger or cable to allow off camera flash
  • Reflector – can be as simple as kitchen foil or white card
  • Xanthan gum to thicken the water (can be bought from a supermarket or health food shop)
  • Macro lens

My First Attempt

As I mentioned above, just in case you skipped reading that bit, I did not have any special water splash control and trigger kit. I also had no Xanthan gum and nothing else to add to the water to thicken or colour it, no coloured gels for my flashgun either.

What I did have was a plastic bag with a tap on it, but the water ran out around the spout, came out sideways and landed unpredictably, so I used gaffer tape to attach a “number 1 piping nozzle” (from an icing set) to the tap on the bag. Maybe just a small plastic freezer bag with a pinhole would have been just as good. The only advantage of the tap was to be able to turn off the drips from time to time and to try to control the frequency of the drops rather crudely.

The camera was attached to a sturdy tripod, exposure set manually. For my background, I used a plain mid-blue cloth the size of a tablecloth, clipped to my IKEA pan rack in the kitchen. I supported the water bag from another tripod, set up on the kitchen worktop and placed under it a colourless transparent glass dish, filled with water, to catch the splashes. I fired the flash with a cable from my camera, directing the flash to the side of the subject…then placed a small gold Lastolite reflector opposite the flashgun, to reflect some yellow light back.

To manually focus where the splashes would fall, I placed a fine knitting needle across the bowl exactly where the drops landed and manually focussed the camera on the needle before removing it. I used a smallish aperture, f/11 to f/13….flashgun on manual set at 1/64th power.

I didn’t work completely in the dark but did pull down the kitchen blinds to exclude most light and it was a very dull day anyway.


This method is very hit and miss at first, but after a while it is possible to capture a few collisions. I was able to vary the background colour a bit and I also put a yellow mat under the glass dish to increase the amount of yellow picked up. Of course you can change these colours in post if you want to.

Gallery – a few more splashes

Would I try again?

Well, I’m not in a great hurry! I think it will be nigh on impossible to achieve some of the fantastic shapes, caused by multiple collisions, using just my basic kit. But I must say, in lockdown, I had the time to play and it did present a new challenge so, on balance, I’m pleased I had a try. I like to properly get to grips with any new technique that I learn, so it’s possible that I will have another session sometime soon and build on my first experience. I did learn a lot in fact and it was a change from birds!

Variations to try if I do it again

What might I do to vary and improve the pictures in future?

  • Add some milk to the water
  • Add xanthan gum or guar gum (the night before) to thicken the drops
  • Use food colours
  • Add a little detergent to the splash tray – to reduce the surface tension of the water and the Worthington Jet can become much taller and thinner
  • Capture sprayed water
  • Place black plastic in base of dish to improve reflections
  • Make a Mariotte bottle to control the size and thickness of drops
  • Drop other small objects, e.g. fruit, into a glass
  • Vary the background colours
  • Try different camera angles
  • Be more adventurous!

There’s a good guide at this link.
Equipment ideas

error: © Christine Widdall - Kirklees Cousins