Home Photography Ideas: Abstract Oil and Water Photography

Watch Video: Home Photography Ideas – Abstract Oil and Water Photography

Water and oil cannot mix, but they can create unique photographs. With a few household items, a flash (or a strong lamp), and the right camera settings, we can create bold and vibrant abstract images.

The key here is to customize our light source. By placing a colored material or a custom shape in front of the light, we can turn it into our own light box. This light will then reflect in oil and water to create our abstract art.

Every little bubble and drop of oil is highly reflective, so at right angles they reflect light from our source back to the camera. The result is a seemingly endless array of bubbles – some on the surface of the water, others drifting to the depths below – each containing the shapes and colors of our light source in miniature form.

(Image credit: James Paterson/Digital Camera World)

We used a colored Union Jack flag for one of our oily highlights, but you can use any semi-translucent material. Or, if you prefer arts and crafts, you can fashion your own creation using cardboard, scissors, and tracing paper or colored acetate. Any bold shape will do, but it adds to the effect if the colors and shapes are familiar and recognizable.

We first used a small studio softbox to light our oil and water. If you don’t have this type of equipment, you can achieve similar results with different types of light-emitting devices, including a computer monitor!

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Oil and Water Photography Installation

(Image credit: James Paterson/Digital Camera World)

01 Luminous Template
For this to work you will need a colored material to place on top of your light. Any shape, pattern or color will work – we used a Union Jack flag. You will also need to create a cardboard template large enough to fit over your light source.

02 Light source
We used a studio flash and a softbox. If you don’t have one, you can make your own light box. cut out one side of a box and attach your flag or colored material to it. Then shine a lamp or fast light through a hole in the opposite side of the box.

03 Oil on water
For this effect, you will need a wide, dark container, such as a baking sheet. Then fill it with water and add a few drops of cooking oil. Each drop will create beautiful highlights, so get ready to start shooting. If the oil starts to clump, shake it quickly.

04 Macro lens
A macro lens allows us to get closer to the surface of the water. If you don’t have one, don’t worry – any lens that lets you zoom in with a short minimum focus distance will do. Try using manual focus to get sharp photos.

Step by step

(Image credit: James Paterson/Digital Camera World)

01 Flash settings

A great set of stock settings for indoor flash is: manual mode, 1/200s, f/11, ISO100. After that, we can adjust the strength of the light to ideally suit our exposure. Position the camera directly in front of the light source and at a similar height, so it can capture the wide range of color highlights.

(Image credit: James Paterson/Digital Camera World)

02 Intelligent use of light

A studio flash head means we can use low ISO for maximum image quality and high f-number for increased depth of field. The modeling light is also very handy for focusing. If you don’t have a studio flash, you can use a fast light, an LED, a powerful household lamp, or possibly even your smartphone.

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(Image credit: James Paterson/Digital Camera World)

03 Ripples in the water

If you want, you can try adding ripples and drops to the water. Simply place a spoon or similar utensil in the water and concentrate on the base of it. Lift it out of the water, taking care to hold it directly above the focus point. Then capture the moment when the drops fall from the spoon and hit the water. A tripod is useful here, as it frees up your hands to focus the lens and hold the spoon.

Alternate setups

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(Image credit: James Paterson/Digital Camera World)
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(Image credit: James Paterson/Digital Camera World)

Colorful oily abstracts

You can use all kinds of light sources for this, even a computer screen or a tablet screen. We positioned the oil and water in front of a monitor, then created a simple circular gradient in Photoshop. Of course, even with maximum brightness, a monitor screen is not as powerful as a flash, so we needed a high ISO and a large aperture. As for shutter speed, you can go down to maybe 1/8 sec and use a tripod. But be sure to wait until the water is calm and use a self-timer so you don’t disturb the camera when you press the shutter button.

Kit needed: Oil and water, monitor or any other digital screen, tripod
Exposure: 1/8 sec, f/5, ISO4000

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(Image credit: James Paterson/Digital Camera World)
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(Image credit: James Paterson/Digital Camera World)

X marks the spot

In addition to colored materials, we could also try cutting out a shape to fit our light source. We made an X-shaped hole in a piece of cardboard, then fitted it snugly over our softbox, making sure no light could escape around the edges. It’s worth experimenting with the angle of the light source and the height of your camera. If we raise the light higher, we can raise our camera for a steeper viewing angle on the container. This brings us more directly to the surface of the water, which means that more oil drops on the surface are brought into focus.

Kit needed: Flash, cardboard, scissors, tape
Exposure: 1/200 sec, f/11, ISO100

Read more:

The best macro lenses: get closer to your subjects like never before!
The best photo lighting kits: for studio, outdoor and video
The best lighting kits for the home studio or outdoor photography

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