Oil and water photography or oil bubble photography.
A tutorial on how to take photos of oil bubbles or oil droplets floating on water, in a glass container.
This is a fun photography project which uses items that are already in most homes. Part of the fun is experimenting and finding out what works for you – these are just suggestions. There are of course many YouTube videos where you can get more ideas.
Even a smart phone camera can be used, but the best results are usually obtained with a DSLR camera, a macro lens, and good lighting. If you use a smart phone or a compact camera with a small sensor to take photos, then I would recommend that you use some of the backgrounds provided at the bottom of the page which I have made blurry so that you can get a bokeh effect. I think the combination of a blurred background and oil drops in sharp focus is aesthetically pleasing.
I use a full frame Nikon D750 SLR camera and a Tamron 90 mm macro lens, and sometimes a Kenko extension tube. If you do not have a macro lens, close up lenses/filters and extension tubes are cheaper. A tripod is also helpful.
For lighting I use Manfrotto Lumimuse lights (battery powered lighting is safer than electricity if you are working with water), and for colourful backgrounds, acrylic pour paintings by my sister (Laya Clode), my mother (Sian Butler), my own abstract paintings, or some of the wonderful photos and artworks very generously supplied copy right free by the incredibly talented artists and photographers on Unsplash.com.
While it is worth going to some trouble with setting up and experimenting with settings in manual on the camera, you may get good photos in “P” mode (program mode).
I also rely on the “spray and pray” approach, where I take a lot of photos in the hope that at least a few will be good.
Good focus across the photo is essential and I find a small spirit level to be helpful.
I use Adobe Photoshop Elements 14 for editing the photos, but any editing program will help.
What you will need:
- two boxes, piles of books, or a glass table, on which to place a glass container,
- a glass baking dish or small fish tank,
- a suitable work area where it does not matter if you spill water and oil,
- clean clear water,
- olive oil or other oil,
- camera gear – camera, appropriate lens or lenses, optional extension tube, tripod (preferably with a horizontal arm), charged camera battery and extra battery, spare camera SDHC card or similar, remote,
- lights such as clip on or desk lights, but preferably battery powered such as torches/flash lights, or Manfrotto Lumimuse lights or similar, if possible use lights that have a temperature similar to that of daylight (but you could also adjust the temperature settings of your white balance, or adjust this during editing), or more professional photographic lighting if you have it, or coloured light placed beneath the glass container,
- possibly two pieces of timber on which to rest the glass container between the boxes to provide more room to move the camera around,
- colourful backgrounds such as garments like tie-dye T-shirts, abstract paintings, colour photocopies of something such as an abstract painting, coloured lights pointing upward, wallpaper on a tablet (personally I wouldn’t place a tablet below a heavy container of water) or whatever you can think of,
- spoon or eye dropper,
- stirring implement,
- optional spirit level,
- optional few drops of dish washing detergent/soap in the water,
- optional but definitely preferable – a computer with an editing program,
- time, patience and persistence,
- lots of good luck,
- photo editing program,
- hope and pray that Murphy is having a day off when you do this!
Place the boxes or supports so that the glass baking dish or fish tank can sit on them. I use white polystyrene boxes because the white will reflect even more light. I also use two pieces of timber between the boxes so I can move the tripod around to try to get a good composition (if you move the water and oil to get a better composition, you will have to wait for the oil and water to stop moving again).
Add clean clear water to the glass container until it is about five to ten centimetres or one to two inches deep (or more). You can also add a couple of drops of dish washing soap/detergent to the water, and gently mix in.
Add drops of oil (olive oil is usually used but other cooking oils should be fine – canola would be cheaper), using a spoon or eye dropper. Gently stir with a kebab stick, straw or similar. Wait till everything stops moving or at least moves slowly before taking the photos.
Set up the camera and tripod, being careful to make sure that the camera is properly attached to the tripod, or your camera may fall into the water – you do not want that!
I use a remote but you could set the timer on the camera to a short delay.
Place your colourful background on the floor beneath the glass container. Note – unique backgrounds will give you unique photos.
Set up your lights so that one light points down onto the colourful background (so that it reflects back up through the water and oil), and one light to the side of the glass container (this tends to give highlights and shadows on the sides of the discs or bubbles, giving a more three dimensional look). Move them around until it seems to be working well. I hand hold a third light, moving it around trying all sorts of angles until it looks good. Move the background around until you find something you like. Generally speaking, the more light the better because then you have the options of using a smaller aperture (higher number F-stop) for greater depth of field if you want that, and/or a faster shutter speed, and a lower ISO setting. I have the Active D-lighting on extra high. Make the environment dark by closing curtains and turning off overhead lights.
Make sure the camera lens is at right angles to the surface of the water to ensure that everything is equally in focus – I use a small spirit level to help with this.
I use manual focus, and remember to turn off the vibration reduction/optical stabilisation or whatever it is called on your lens, if you are using a tripod.
Make a cup of tea or coffee to enjoy while you wait for the oil and water to stop moving or at least only move slowly.
Play with settings and take a few photos to get an idea of which settings to use. I find it easier to use the screen rather than the view finder, and also to magnify the screen image so that I can check focus more easily. I prefer to have the colourful background out of focus so that you get a nice bokeh effect. I find that getting sharp focus of the bubbles and discs across the whole photo is critical. I suggest that you try an ISO of 100 to 800, but ideally 100 to 400, and no higher than 800 to avoid excessive noise. I generally use a mid range aperture, but it depends on what you want to achieve. I use a fairly fast shutter speed that still gives a good exposure because the oil seems to move much of the time, even if you leave it for a while. You may need to do some experimenting to get a good balance of these variables.
Move the colourful background around, move the camera around, to get totally different images and compositions, change the background, stir the oil again, change camera settings again…and have fun!
Take lots of photos remembering that there is a major element of luck. What artists call “happy accidents”.
Clean up – the job is not finished until you have cleaned up.
Have fun imaginatively editing the best photos. Deciding what looks good is a matter of personal taste, but you may wish to adjust white balance, brightness, try filters, adjust contrast, clarity, colours, levels, sharpness, do some cropping, etc., and you also may need to spend quite some time using the heal tool to remove dust etc.
Enjoy the process,
enjoy the results,
and spread the joy by sharing your photos.
Some more examples of oil and water photos:
In the photo above and the next two photos I used a painting of mine which I call “Mediterranean Gold”. The colours are inspired by colours that you might see in Mediterranean countries, and the colours of the garments of the priesthood in Old Testament times (scarlet, gold, blue, purple and white linen). Using olive oil in this context seems appropriate.
Some of these free to download and print photos are available in larger file sizes on Unsplash.com which makes them suitable for printing onto large stretched canvases.
The background for this photo above was a portion of one of my paintings titled “Joy”
For the background in the two photos above I used one of my abstract paintings which I call “Asian Gold” where I used two reds, two golds, and black, scumbled over the top of each other with coarse brushes. Red, gold and black are a popular colour combination in China, Vietnam, and some other East Asian countries.
I think oil bubble photos can work well if they are:
bold and colourful,
or pale and subtle pastel tints,
or dark and moody.
These colourful backgrounds are free (and copy right free) for you to download, print or colour photocopy and use: kindly supplied by my sister Laya Clode, my mother Sian Butler, gifted photographers and artists on Unsplash, and myself.
The blurred images can be used with any camera, including smart phones and compact cameras. You can get colour photocopies made, preferably A3 size or larger, to use in your photography projects.
They could also be used as backgrounds for macro photography of flowers, insects, and for product photography.
I hope you enjoyed this and that you will give it a try yourself. After all, what looks good is really just about personal taste.
Aside from having fun doing this, I think what I like most is that each and every photo is unique.
Thanks for visiting, and hopefully there is more to come.
where you are,
with what you have,
make something of it,
and never be satisfied”.
Quote by George Washington Carver.