Risk. Danger. Anticipation. And nerves of steel. These are the thrills and spills of photographing water droplets. There is a constant threat of danger as they dangle, so close to the edge, hanging on until the last second…then splat. Gone.
We love photographing water droplets. They are lenses within your lens, offering a new perspective on the world around us. Like tiny fish-eye lenses, they shrink down the scene and give it a circular distortion, smoothing the edges on a harsh, sharp world.
Water droplets form from rain and condensation. In nature, they tend to cling to the fine hairs and fibers of plants. They line up in rows along spider webs. They stay for a short time in the early morning of summer before the heat blasts them away for the day. In winter, they can freeze into icicles, creating long daggers off the edges of anything that stays still long enough.
Photographing water droplets is all about timing and perspective. The key is to photograph the droplet before it drops, and not to do anything to encourage it to drop. It sounds much simpler than you might think.
Any wind or motion around or against your subject will usually knock the water droplet off. The heat of your body can cause wind on cool days, shaking the water droplet. This is especially true when photographing delicate dew-covered spider webs. As the heat of the day rises with the sun, a slight breeze can make a mess of your water droplet covered subject.
Keep a good working distance from your subject by using a long lens with a zoom on a tripod. This stabilizes the camera for the often low light situations, allows longer exposures to maximize depth of field, and keeps you back a bit from your subject to ensure you don’t bump it.
Water droplets are found hanging from edges and nestled in leaves and flowers, held there like water storage tanks for as long as possible, feeding and cooling the plant at the same time.
Photographing them may involve bending over your subject and photographing down upon it, or getting low to the ground so you are at “eye level” with the water droplets hanging from grasses, flowers stems, branches, or on spider webs. Be sure and wear water proof gear if you are working within a lot of wet and damp. At least bring a plastic sheet and/or kneeling pad so you don’t get too wet.
As you look through a water droplet, the subjects behind it are reduced down to fit within the small globe. Move slightly to the right or left, up or down, and the view changes, depending upon how close the background subject is.
There are two ways of photographing a water droplet. You can photograph it as part of an overall scene, such as the water droplets on the grasses in the photograph at the top of this article. The water droplets are part of the story of the grasses right after the rain. They look like jewelry, glittering along the grass stem.
The other method is to photograph the view through the water droplet. The water droplet shrinks the background so we see it clearly, though slightly distorted. It isn’t necessary that we see the whole background since it is inside of the droplet, but it helps to see just enough of an echo of the background to add to the sensation that we are viewing the world beyond through a secondary lens beyond our camera.
If the water droplet is the focus, then keep your camera’s focus on the water droplet, not the background, a challenge with some of today’s auto focus cameras which may fight for a subject to focus on. With the camera on the tripod, focus on the water droplet in the center area of your viewfinder, then turn off the auto focus to position the water drop in your frame as desired. Or switch to manual focus and focus it accordingly.
Fill as much of the frame with the droplet to capture the image inside. Carefully choose how much of the background you want within the picture’s frame, but keep the water droplet on center stage. Remember, the subject is what is seen inside the water drop, not just the water drop. Not all views through a droplet work. Choose your background scene carefully. As with all photographs, keep the scene simple and free from unnecessary distractions.
Determining the aperture and depth of field for the photograph of a water droplet is a challenge. The focus is on the water droplet. What is in focus in front or beyond is part of your creative decisions. If the background is too much in focus, you might lose the water droplet in the picture. If it is too much out of focus, the echo of the background in your image might distract more than echo. A good background perspective choice is to echo the view inside of the water drop, not overwhelm it.
In the two comparison photographs here, you see that one has more depth of field, so the grasses are visible as lines even though they are still out of focus. The other, vertical image, has a much more narrow depth of field, so the background grasses blur into a soft color behind. We know they are grasses, so it doesn’t matter that we can’t clearly see them. We see them in the water droplets, and get the “impression” they are grasses, so our mind fills in the blank.
Generally, a low to middle range apertures will work best. Bracket your aperture to experiment with the various depth of field perspectives to find the one you like best.
Water Droplets in the Studio
Photographing water droplets is not limited to outdoors in nature. If the weather or lifestyle isn’t cooperating, you can create your own droplets in a studio, be it your kitchen, living room, or photography studio.
Using the natural light coming in from the sliding glass doors of our living room, we photographed these water droplets on the stem of a flower, with the flower behind it echoing the image inside of the water droplets.
The stem was held in place with the weight of a lamp in front of the camera on its tripod. We spritzed water onto the stem until we formed a good looking water droplet. You can also use clear glycerin to fake a water droplet. The thick liquid will stay longer and have less chance of falling, too.
The flower behind it was set in a vase, positioned to maximize the image in the droplet and far enough away so our depth of field would still allow for enough recognizable focus to create an image echo.
We used a gold reflector to brighten up and warm the image and balance the side light from the windows, and took a variety of bracketed photographs to make sure we got the effect we wanted.
As we worked, Brent noticed that the process of spraying the water on the stem caused water droplets to sit in the window screen next to the camera, forming many water droplets reflecting the view of the backyard inside of them. He moved the flower behind the window screen and instantly saw dozens of flowers in the water droplets. He played with fill flash and natural light and bracketed across apertures to get the final image here.
Experiment with water droplets to see what you may see. A whole new world inside of a drop of water.
Most water droplet photography requires some familiarity with closeup photography, as well as closeup or macro photography equipment. This includes extension tubes, teleconverters, and close focusing techniques that also keep a wide working distance. For more information on closeup photography, see our online book I Long to Be Close to You: Closeups in Nature Photography, and take time to also look at our online book Bows and Flows of Angel Hair: Patterns in Nature Photography.