with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Photographing Water Droplets

Water droplets on grass-vertical, photograph copyrighted Brent VanFossenRisk. 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 droplet on Huckleberry, photograph copyrighted Brent VanFossenWater 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.

Dew on sheet spider web, photograph copyrighted Brent VanFossenAny 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.

Early morning dew on high alpine lupine, Mt Rainier, photograph copyrighted Brent VanFossenWater 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.

Water droplets on grass in series, photograph copyrighted Brent VanFossenThe 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.

Water droplets on grasses, photograph copyrighted Brent VanFossenDetermining 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.

Water droplets on grass in series, photograph copyrighted Brent VanFossenIn 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.

Water droplets on flower stem, photograph copyrighted Brent VanFossenUsing 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.

Water droplets on flower stem photographed in a studio situation, photograph copyrighted Brent VanFossenThe 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.

Water droplet on window screen with flower in behind, photograph copyrighted Brent VanFossenAs 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.

6 Comments

  • Alisha
    Posted August 24, 2006 at 18:17 | Permalink

    Is it possible to photograph a single droplet of water in mid-air creating the droplet look?

  • Posted August 24, 2006 at 19:41 | Permalink

    Yes, but very hard to do. Timing is everything.

    With enough light and an exposure that is 500th of a second or faster, and faster is better. Anything slower and your droplet will be a blur. Put something that drips water above the lens’ view. Put a ruler or some subject even with the path of the droplet to set the focus of the camera, and then turn off auto focus so the camera will not focus when the shutter is set. The camera should be on a tripod and you need a cable shutter release so you are not touching the camera when you take the picture.

    Start taking pictures BEFORE the drop actually leaves. You will probably hit 25-50 pictures before you actually capture the droplet in the frame, and even then, it might be cut off or out of focus. It is simply trial and error.

    Just as with any water droplet or closeup subject, make sure the background is as blank as possible, and in an interesting color when out of focus because that is ALL you will see in and around the water drop, if you happen to catch the water drop.

    This is one of the greatest challenges for photographers. Few succeed well.

  • Posted April 27, 2007 at 8:32 | Permalink

    Hi, just want to add in doing doplets that if you can’t get the timing quick enough you can raise the droplet higher above that can give you more reaction time. I use a remote shutter or cable release and stand back and focus my eyes above the lens area a bit, so when I see the drop falling at above th camera lens it give you time to hit the shutter release. If you don’t have one you can do the timer and time your beep beep beeps snap, and work on that. The other main thing is hopefully you will do this with a digital camera.

    Thomas..

  • Diana
    Posted March 25, 2008 at 22:24 | Permalink

    Cameras with built in motion capture or continuous shot work wonders for these types of pictures! I have a samsung point and shoot and have been able to catch lots of different water shots in mid air

  • Toan Nguyen
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 7:09 | Permalink

    Hello,
    I am trying to shoot, in a photo studio environment, a mug of beer accompanied by a bottle of beer in the background. The two items had to be covered with water droplets on them (to simulate cold. Try as I might, by the time I get the right amount of foam (head) on the beer, the water droplets had somewhat evaporated from the bottle (or vice versa) under the studio floodlights. Anything I can do to have more control on the droplets (mix with some chemicals? work faster? etc…).
    Thank you

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