Paint splashes, colourful milk crowns and water droplets – the variations of this tutorial can keep you ‘playing’ for hours. Beginners can try this really simple set-up using only one flash, but if you want to crank it up a gear for more complex and consistent splashes you could use a MIOPS Splash Water Drop kit. This nifty piece of equipment, costing around £130, allows you to control the size, speed and number of drops as well as co-ordinate the trigger of the flash and shutter for a more slick operation – all from your smartphone. Whilst the beginner mode is fiddly, as you trip the shutter and release the drops simultaneously, it’s cheap and relatively easy still – albeit with a lower hit-to-miss ratio.
Here you’ll learn how to capture a split-second splash using one flashgun, but you can get more dynamic results by adding a second flashgun, by mixing colours or even dropping objects such as berries into the mix to make a bigger splash. You’ll also get very different results whether you use water, paint or milk due to the viscosity – so give all three a go to find your favourite.
Although the technique is often referred to as high-speed flash, you don’t actually need a high-speed flash facility to make it work. Using your camera’s flash sync speed and a flashgun at low power should be enough to capture the action, so don’t fret if you’ve only a basic flashgun and trigger.
Shots like these look great high-key and done on a reflective surface to create balance to the composition, so find a space that you can set up a mini studio and contain the mess. You could use two large white tiles for a seamless backdrop, a sheet of A3 paper/card with a pane of Perspex or glass for a base (be prepared to replace the paper frequently) or, better still, a plastic still-life table.
Attach your camera to a tripod and add a remote release. You may want a close-up lens or attachment for magnified results; the more distance you put between your splash and your lens the cleaner your kit will come away from the shoot. Here I’ve used a Nikon 60mm macro lens, which is the shortest I’d suggest. A zoom lens, such as the 70-300mm, will also work and give you flexibility.
2. Flash & camera settings
Position your flashgun off-camera, pointing at the white background. You may want to add a flash gel for an overall colour or keep it white but dye your liquid. Experiment with different liquids and viscosities such as cream, milk and coloured water. Set your flash to manual and dial in a low power such as 1/16; the lower the power the faster the flash duration and the recycling time.
In manual mode, set your camera’s flash sync speed or slightly slower if you want to also include ambient light – here I’ve set 1/250sec (check your camera’s manual as it can vary per model). You’ll need ample depth-of-field so set f/11 to f/16 (adjust as necessary after a few test shots) and start with your ISO rating set to a low setting such as ISO 200 and tweak to get the optimal exposure.
3. Make your drop
Place a small pool of liquid on to your waterproof surface. You’ll want to pre-focus on an area in your ‘splash zone’ and then switch to manual focus – I did this by focusing on the syringe. For added accuracy, secure the syringe or pipette above your area of focus. The higher you drop from, the bigger the splash. You’ll need to fire the shutter release and a drop from the pipette almost simultaneously.
Shooting in continuous burst mode will help your chances of capturing the split-second splash but do expect to get shots where the flash doesn’t fire as it won’t always recycle quick enough. If you’re freehanding, the ratio of hits to misses will be low but keep trying, adjust your angle and liquid combinations for varying results – and keep a cloth handy to clean up the mess!