How to do Creative Water Splash Photography with Off-Camera Flash

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Photography gives us the unique opportunity to freeze time. Moments that normally can’t be seen because they occur in the blink of an eye can suddenly be captured by a camera with incredible precision. This gives us the opportunity to discover fascinating and unique opportunities for photography that showcase and celebrate the wonder of the world around us. It can also be an extremely fun and creative style of photography, and a way to practice your skills with off-camera flash.

A toy car dropped into water, photographed with off-camera flash

Chances are you’ve come across a photo of a water droplet or water splash before. The intricate and mesmerizing patterns of water droplets in flight make for excellent abstract art.

But how can you take a picture fast enough? How does it work to freeze each individual droplet in midair?

A water droplet frozen in midair with off-camera flash photography

Lightning Fast Photography

Most modern cameras can take a picture as fast as 1/8000th of a second. You’ve probably noticed, however, that lightning fast shutter speeds typically require a lot of light.

If you are walking around outdoors on a bright and sunny, you will be able to get your camera up to 1/8000th, and you can capture a water fight or the splash of a water fountain. However, there often isn’t enough light to take a good image indoors or under cloudy lighting conditions.

Water droplets splashing into a jar, photographed with off-camera flash

Furthermore, taking a picture under sunny lighting conditions won’t hide the background. The intricacies of the water will be lost against the background.

That’s why the trick to creating a truly amazing water image is to use off-camera flash.

How it works

Cameras only record what they see. This means that a picture taken in a dark room will result in a pitch black picture.

When you use flash in a dark room, your subject will be illuminated for the duration of the flash of light – which means that your new “shutter speed” will be the speed at which your flash fires (flash duration).

Depending on the model and power, a flash can fire as quickly as 1/10,000th of a second. This new shutter speed of 1/10,000th of a second is easily fast enough to freeze a water droplet in midair.

A water droplet, frozen in midair with off-camera flash

This shot was taken using the settings 1/250, f/5,6, ISO 250. Even with the “slow” shutter speed, the flash stops the water droplet in mid-flight.

The neat thing here is that as long as the room is dark, the shutter speed on your camera doesn’t actually even matter anymore. With the right setting, your camera can take an image that lasts for a full second long, but the final shot will only be recorded in the blazing fast burst of light from the flash.

Setting up your shot

To try this out for yourself, you will need to set up in a fairly dark room – dark enough so that you can use your in-camera settings to take a completely black picture. You’ll need to get off Auto mode in order to do this.

Remember that the aperture and ISO that you select will affect your flash power. Selecting either a wider aperture or a higher ISO will make your camera more sensitive to light, including the light from your flash. This makes your flash more powerful, in a way.

For this purpose, I used the following setup:

A behind the scenes shot of the setup for water splash photography

Note the towel. A towel just might be the most important piece of equipment to remember when you try water splash photography!

Even though there is still some light in the room, I was able to create a dark background by setting my camera to 1/250, f/5, ISO 250.

Get the flash off-camera

The key is to use the flashes off-camera. Having the light come in at an angle is more in line with how we experience light in the real world, so it produces a more naturally lit image.

But you don’t need to have multiple flashes to try this out – experiment with one flash and see what happens!

More importantly, by bringing the light in from an angle and preventing it from shining on the walls or objects behind your subject, you can create a dark background. This really makes each droplet shimmer and shine in contrast.

Two tomatoes splashing into water, shot with off-camera flash

A toy car splashing into water, photography with off-camera flash

Two common ways of triggering a flash off-camera are to use either a radio transmitter or a sync cord that connects your camera’s hotshoe to the flash itself. Your camera may also be able to fire your off-camera flash optically using the built-in pop-up flash. You may need to check your camera’s manual to see if your system has that functionality.

The exact power settings you will need to use on your flash will vary depending on the type of flash, the setup, and the distance between your flash and the splash you are photographing.

Remember: Digital is cheap! Experiment and watch your camera’s LCD screen after every shot. If it is too dark, simply turn up the flash power or consider moving your lights a bit closer to the subject.

Getting the timing right

Once you have everything set up, it’s simply a matter of trial and error! Even with a fancy setup, perfecting your timing in order to capture a splash at the right moment is tough.

Unless you have a high end strobe unit, you won’t be able to take pictures quickly – the batteries will need a moment to recharge every time they fire. This means you’ve only got one shot for every splash!

A man photographed with off-camera flash as he is hit by water in the face

If you get tired of using toy cars as a model, why not ask a friend to step in?

Every camera has a very slight delay after you press the shutter button (before it actually takes the picture). You’ll want to work on your timing so that you can make the most of every shot – especially if you ask a friend to stand in as a target for a water splash picture!

Shooting digital allows you to experiment until you have a good sense of the timing. After a bit of practice, you will have some incredible and creative water splashes to show for your effort!

A man being photographed splashing water while on a black background

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Frank Myrland

is an avid photographer from Toronto, Canada. Many years ago he picked up a camera on a whim, and he’s been hooked ever since. As an active and independent learner, Frank likes to continuously explore ways to make his images worth a second look. You can see more of his work by visiting his website, or by connecting with him on Instagram and Facebook.

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