Photographing Water Droplets

by Al Peter

Numerous examples of water droplet photography exist on the net.  All of us have observed water drops visually, but the details of these events really required high-speed photography to brign out what is happening.  The 1/60 sec. of our visual imaging is far too slow to capture the rapidly occuring event of a drop hitting the still surface of a pan of water.  Using high-speed electronic flash provides an easy way to stop motion and view the sequence of events.

The following shows a simple way to capture some of these images. Using two flash units off-camera and a water drop source, most of the aspects of water drop photography can be duplicated.  Only items most photographers ordinarily have are required.

The basic setup is shown in the accompanying photos.


The elements used are as follows:

  • Nikon D300 with macro lens 105mm f/2.8
  • Tripod
  • Remote shutter release
  • Two external, remotely controlled flash units with colored gels (R1C1 system)
  • Water droplet source – plastic bag with small hole
  • Large black pan to catch drops
  • White or colored background

The main flash unit with colored gel is aimed at the background.  The second unit should have a contrasting color and be aimed toward the water drop zone or other portions of the background.  Both flash units should be set to manual at a 1/16th power level.  The low power will reduce the flash duration from its normal 1/1000 sec to perhaps 1/10,000 sec allowing all motion to be stopped.  The flash units shown are from the Nikon R1C1 system, but any remotely controlled units such as the SB900,SB800, or SB600 can be used.

Camera settings are as follows:

  • Manual focus
  • Manual exposure – f/8 or smaller, 1/250th sec or highest sync speed
  • ISO high enough to get a good exposure

Start with a very small hole in the water source bag, with a drop per second or so.  The key is to make sure that the ripples from a previous drop have damped out prior to the next drop so a flat surface is present for the drop image.  A faster drop rate will yield an interesting variation, with multiple drops imaged at the same time.  Lots of different combinations are possible.

Manually focus on an object temporarily placed by the drop location.  Adjust the f/stop and ISO to get a good exposure.

The key to getting images throughout the drop cycle is timing and taking lots of shots.  The accompanying movie shows a sequence of typical stages of a single drop.  (Click on image to play movie). The movie was compiled from a large group of separate drop instances.  It was necessary to take several hundred images to get all of the stages.


Water Drop Movie


To get each part of the sequence, try concentrating on different portions of the drop path when releasing the shutter.  There is a significan lag in your response to seeing the drop as well as the camera response lag.  Trial and error will yield the best way to release the shutter.  It is possible to obtain automatic drop sensing flash trigger with variable timing, but the setup is quite expensive and complex.  With a bit of work and lots of images, good results can be obtained with a simple and inexpensive setup.  Examples of results are shown in the accompanying gallery.

In summary, very satisfactory results can be obtained with a simple setup and lots of patience.