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Set yourself a high-speed challenge: Capture a bursting bubble
I have always loved the idea of photography as being a way of taking an instant out of time, and preserving that moment forever. By freezing time in this way, a photograph can show something that may not normally be seen in day-to-day life, and can make an ordinary subject extraordinary.
So, when going through a bit of a creative lull a couple of years ago, I felt that I needed to set myself a challenge to restore my motivation. I decided that I was going to capture the exact moment of a bubble being burst. After some internet research, I came to the conclusion pretty quickly that I did not have the necessary budget for a super slow-motion camera to achieve this. I did, however, become determined to capture a bubble in mid-burst using only equipment I already owned – my DSLR, various lenses and a flashgun (speedlight).
The challenge was lengthy and often frustrating, but when I did successfully take a photograph of a bursting bubble, it was incredibly satisfying. By freezing a moment, the photograph showed something that could not normally be seen by the human eye – a soap bubble with one half completely intact and the other half made up of separate swirls of liquid. The bubble was collapsing in on itself in mid-air. Friends and family who saw the photograph showed surprise and commented that they, like me, had assumed that a bubble just disappeared when popped. A photograph had changed their view of the world simply by freezing a single moment of time and I was reminded just how powerful photography can be.
With my motivation fully restored, I progressed further and attempted to capture a sequence of shots to show the entire process of a bubble collapsing. One of the shots has even been included in an international exhibition for scientific images. I have included some of these shots here but there are many more on my website at the link shown below in my bio.
I would definitely recommend this challenge to anyone, particularly if you may be in need of a creative boost or maybe need to rediscover your passion for photography. If you do decide to take up this high-speed challenge, here are some things that I learned along the way. I hope that they will be of help to you when capturing a bursting bubble.
Larger soap bubbles will be easier for you to focus on than small bubbles, and they will also be easier to burst. Additionally, the composition of your shot can really benefit from using larger bubbles – you should be able to get a frame-filling shot of a bubble bursting without the need to crop.
I have previously used a kids’ bubble toy set (purchased for around £1) that came with a bubble wand of around 5cm (2 inches) in diameter. I found this to be ideal for blowing one or two medium-to-large size bubbles, that stayed in the air long enough to capture them being burst. Smaller wands tended to produce streams of little bubbles which were (a) difficult to burst and (b) cluttered up the final shot.
You are probably going to need somebody else to help you with this project unless you have superhuman reaction times! Blowing the bubble, bursting the bubble, and setting up the shot was just too much for me to complete on my own. Having someone to blow and burst the bubble for you, allows you to compose and focus your shot without distraction.
If possible, shoot indoors so that you can limit the movement of the bubble. I have taken a number of shots outdoors, but any slight breeze will cause the bubbles to fly away pretty quickly, making it much harder to set up your shot.
I have found it very useful to shoot in front of a floor-to-ceiling window facing onto a garden. This provides lots of natural light and some pleasing, natural colours for the backdrop, which was the look I was after. Just remember to leave some space between the bubbles and the window to reduce any reflections or glare that you may get from the glass.
Even when shooting indoors, the movement of the bubbles will still be somewhat unpredictable. For this reason, I have found it useful to use a zoom lens when shooting bubbles, so that I can adjust the focal length as necessary to focus and compose the shot while the bubble is in mid-air. I have usually taken the bursting bubble images with a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 lens set to between 100-150mm. A further advantage of using this lens is that it helps to create some pleasing bokeh (blurry out-of-focus highlights) in the background while keeping the bubble details sharp when the focal length is increased.
Shooting in full manual mode will give you the control over the settings that you will need to get good results. Firstly, you will need to set as fast a shutter speed as you can get away with, depending on the available light. The action of a bubble bursting is extremely fast and so you will need to set your camera to a shutter speed of 1/1000 second or faster to freeze the action – the faster the better.
With such fast shutter speeds, you will need to use a wider aperture (lower f-number) or a higher ISO setting. However, given the unpredictability of the bubble’s movements, you do not want to have such a wide aperture (and, therefore, shallow depth of field) that you end up with most of the bubble out-of-focus. For this reason, I prefer to increase the ISO setting before dialling in a wider aperture as some additional noise to the image is easier to manage (and can be corrected to a certain extent during post-processing) than an image where the bubble is largely out-of-focus.
If the available natural light is not sufficient to allow fast shutter speeds, a flash can be used to help to freeze the action. However, I would recommend using a diffuser or reflector with any flash, particularly if shooting indoors in front of a window.
I have tried to capture bursting bubbles with and without the use of autofocus. My preference is definitely without. My best results have been when I focused manually on the bubble floating in mid-air and pressed the shutter release button as soon as the bubble was to be burst. On several occasions, the autofocus was too slow and I missed the shot as the camera struggled to find focus. If nothing else, this project will give you a lot of practice in manual focusing!
The speed at which the bubble bursts means that you will probably have to try this many times to get the timing exactly right. Patience is key. Don’t give up on the challenge. Accept that it is going to be slightly frustrating but know that, when you get the timing spot-on, your final image will be much more satisfying.