Making the Shot: Your Guide to Creating Stunning High-Speed Splash Photos Without Flash

Making the Shot: Your Guide to Creating Stunning High-Speed Splash Photos Without Flash

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1 - High-Speed Splash Photos Without Flash - Rick Ohnsman

The making of one of my most successful shots started with a little photo play on a hot summer day, and a try at some high-speed splash photography.

The image above, “Red Bell Splashdown,” went on to win first place in the Corel International Food Photography Contest.

Let’s take a look at the “making of” methods used to create the shot so that you too can have fun with this quite simple technique.

Freezing motion

There are essentially two ways to freeze motion with a camera:

  1. Use a Fast Shutter Speed such that the “sliver of time” you are capturing is very short and the object being captured moves very little, if at all, during the extremely short duration the shutter is open, or
  2. Use the very Short Duration of a Flash so that the object you are photographing gets illuminated for a very small sliver of time. The duration time of an electronic flash can be extremely short. For example, a Speedlight like the Canon 580EXII at 1/128 power is less than 1/19,000th of a second!

I’ve used the flash method, and indeed it can produce some dramatic results. I will perhaps show that process and the results in a future article. For my splash photos, however, I wanted to keep it simple and do it outdoors where water splashes wouldn’t require any clean-up or endanger my photo gear. When I did these shots, I was using my Canon 50D which has a maximum shutter speed of 1/8000th of a second. I figured this should be enough to get the job done.

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Let the sun shine in

Obviously, getting a proper exposure with a very high shutter speed would involve several possibilities:

  1. Use a fast lens with a wide aperture – I was shooting with a Canon 50mm f/1.8 prime lens, so a wide aperture was possible. However, I still needed a decent depth of field, so opening it up all the way wasn’t a good option.
  2. Use a high ISO – Cranking up the ISO can aid in getting a fast shutter speed but at the penalty of more image noise. I didn’t want that if I could avoid it.
  3. Shoot in very bright light. Normally, shooting under mid-day summer sun would not be something a photographer would do, but in this case, blazing sunlight (and lots of it) was the perfect solution.

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The set-up

I wanted to use colorful subjects for the shoot. Bell peppers – easily found at the supermarket in red, yellow and green – seemed a good choice. I also picked up some other colorful fruits – strawberries and limes. To accommodate the size of the objects and also give me a flat glass “window” to shoot through, a 10-gallon aquarium was just right.

Wanting to get light not just from above but from below as well, I put a large 5-in-1 reflector on the table where I wanted to shoot, silver side up. I placed the aquarium on top of that out in the bright noon sun. I filled the tank with water about halfway and allowed the bubbles to settle out while I set up the rest of the equipment.

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I put a pepper in the water and let it float while I took a look through the camera to frame the shot. I could see I would need a plain and preferably dark background, so I put a piece of black paper behind the tank. The paper was still too bright with the direct sun on it, so I used another reflector, black side down, at the back to the tank to shade the paper backdrop. I had my camera on a tripod and moved it to get as much of the front of the tank in the frame as I could, being sure I could focus that close.

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To be able to drop my subjects into the tank and also trigger the shutter, I rigged up a Youngnuo RF-602C radio trigger so that I’d be able to fire the camera remotely. A wired remote with a long enough cord could have also worked.

Camera settings

I put the camera in Manual Mode. To get a good combination of the fast shutter speed needed, decent depth of field, and not too high an ISO, I found that shooting at ISO 400, F/6.3 and the key – fast shutter speeds between 1/2000 and 1/3200th of a second was about right. Letting a pepper float in the tank where I anticipated it to be when dropped, I set the focus and then locked it in manual. I also put the shutter in high-speed continuous mode so for each drop I’d get a burst of about 5 shots.

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Splash-down!

So, good to go, I dropped the peppers, strawberries, and limes, trying to fire the bursts in synchronization with my drops. My wife Kathy came out to join in the fun and did some of the drops. We quickly found it was necessary to squeegee and wipe the front of the glass between shots to clean the drops off the front of the glass from the previous shot. So it went: drop, shoot, squeegee and repeat. For each drop, one frame of the 5-shot burst might be good, but often not. Timing is crucial. With practice, while we gained some skill, luck was still a huge element. There was lots of shooting to get the keepers. We tried it with the peppers and fruits in different combinations too. I easily made over 200 shots that afternoon.

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Cleaning up your act!

Straight out of the camera, the raw shots were less than impressive. Of course, Raw files look flat, and so I knew they’d improve greatly with a basic Raw edit. There were also more drops, splashes, bubbles and other particles in the water than I wanted. However, the important thing – the action – was properly frozen and sharp!

My Red Bell Splashdown image used settings of ISO 400, f/4.0, 1/3200th sec. The rest was using editing tools to adjust the exposure, get good rich color and deep blacks, and eliminate distractions. My editing tool of choice is usually Adobe Lightroom. With the Adjustment Brush and the Spot Removal Tool, I was able to clean up the image to create the impact I was after.

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Other considerations and possibilities

With any photo shoot, it’s always a good idea to critique your work and consider, “What might I have done better? Differently? What variations might I want to try?”

Seeing I had used a shutter speed of 1/3200th for my splash shots, I was curious how much difference there might be at the maximum shutter speed of my Canon 50D which is 1/8000th. I didn’t want to set up the fish tank and all of that for this second experiment, so I tried something simpler.

This time, I poured liquid into glasses in the bright summer sun. This process was simple enough. I clamped the glasses in a stand, put up a black backdrop behind them, set up the camera in a similar fashion to the previous splash shots, and did the pours. This time my settings were ISO 400, f/3.5, 1/8000th of a second.

When checking the shots afterward, it was apparent that the freezing effect was even more pronounced. However, at such a wide aperture, my depth of field was much more shallow.

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What might I try next time?

I’d like to give different color backgrounds a try. Using black made editing much easier, and when cleaning up the shots, it was simple to “black out” any distracting elements. I’m not so sure that would be as easily achieved with a color background. Trying it with a white background for a high-key look might also look interesting.

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Of course, using different objects for the splash photos is also fun. In fact, we did do that when during the splash photo session my Mini-Schnauzer, Schatzi, wanted to play and decided to bring us her favorite ball. Looking at the “face” on the ball, I thought it might be fun to try it in a splash drop as we’d done with the peppers. When seeing the result – which looked like the “creature” was exhaling bubbles during a dive – it made me laugh.

11- High-Speed Splash Photos Without Flash - Rick Ohnsman

So, give this high-speed shutter technique a try. Take it outside in the bright sun, crank up the shutter speed as high as you can and have some fun. It’s a great way to improve your camera skills, learn the relationships between ISO, Aperture, and Shutter Speed, and then test your editing skills when tuning up your shots. I’m confident you’ll get some images of which you’ll be proud.

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Rick Ohnsman Photography isn't just a hobby, it's an adventure! Photography is about sharing my personal vision. From the '70s, with a film SLR and a garage darkroom, college work with 4x5 view cameras, Kodachrome slides and into the digital age, I've pursued photography for over 45 years. An enthusiastic member of the Boise Camera Club, I share this common passion and enjoy teaching new members. See my work here - on 500px and on instagram.