How to Capture Crystal Clear Splash Photography

When trying out new splash photography techniques, the lighting all depends on if you’re photographing something solid or transparent. With solid objects, you’re going to need to light from both back and front so you don’t end up with a silhouette like you would with just back light. But with transparent objects, like an ice cube in a fishbowl, the best lighting is from the back, as Gavin Hoey shows us here:

This is a very simple back-lit splash photography technique. Hoey chose a clear plastic fishbowl so it doesn’t crack if he misses the mark, but you can choose any clear container you like.

What You Need:

  • Fishbowl
  • Glossy black tile to place the objects on
  • Large trays to catch the splashing water and make for easy clean up
  • Towel
  • Ordinary tap water
  • Fake glass ice cube
  • Fake fish (or whatever you want your object to be)
  • Tracing paper
  • Camera
  • Tripod
  • Remote trigger
  • Back light

Splash Photography Setup

  • Flashpoint StreakLight 360 for back light. This is a powerful flash so it will freeze the water nicely. Hoey turns the flash power down low so he gets a shorter flash duration, which really stops the water mid-air.
  • Tracing paper between back light and subject. Hoey uses tracing paper because it is semi-translucent so the light will come through nicely, plus it is disposable so it can get wet and be thrown out.
  • Glossy black tile set over two large trays to catch the water
  • Olympus E-M5 II camera on tripod

back light setup photo

Hoey works in manual mode because he’s using flash and working at the camera’s flash sync speed of one 1/200 of a second for the shutter speed. He wants a wider depth of field to capture the fishbowl plus a bit of extra room to get big splashes, so he uses 200 ISO.

Since the Olympus is a micro four thirds camera, he gets a bit more depth of field so he uses f/11. With a full-frame camera, you probably want to go with f/16 or even smaller to maintain a good depth of field. He sets the flash to 1/32nd of its full power but the exposure is too bright, so he brings it down to 1/28, which gives a nice arc around the fishbowl. Now it’s time to start splashing.

Hoey uses glass fake ice cubes to drop in the fishbowl of water. The cubes are translucent so the light can pass through them, but if you are adding a solid object, he shows you how to photograph that separately and combine the images in Photoshop later. You don’t want to just photograph the solid object with just the back light because you’ll end up with a silhouette.

back lit silhouette photo

To capture a really good, high splash, the trick is to snap the shutter just after the cube hits the water. Not just as it’s hitting, as that won’t allow enough time for the splash to actually form, but just a split second after. Keep dropping the cube and take a few shots to get the perfect splash image that you’ll want to use.

photographing splashes

Now, when shooting the solid object, you’re going to need to add a second light. Hoey sets up another Adorama StreakLight 360 just in front of the fishbowl and sets it at 1/32nd so it doesn’t contaminate the background too much. This will maintain the background and put a little light on the fish so he can capture some shots of it.

Combining the Images in Photoshop

The reason you’re dropping the ice cube in to capture the splash first is because the lighter weight fish won’t make such an impact, plus it will end up looking distorted in the image.

So, take separate shots of your splash and of the fish, then you can add the images together in post production.

splash photo composite

In Photoshop, Hoey takes the image of the splash he likes best and one of the fish facing downward. On the fish photo, he goes to Select All, Edit and Copy, then goes to the splash photo and pastes it there. When you paste you automatically get a brand new layer.

Then he goes to Layer >Layer Mask > Hide All. He chooses a white paintbrush since the layer mask is black and begins to paint over the photo where he wants the fish to be visible.

merging images photoshop

If you make a mistake when painting, just press X on the keyboard and paint back the areas you want to fix.

You can change the color of the water in post, as well. Flatten the image, then go to Filter > Camera Raw Filter and from here you can tweak the white balance. Hoey gives his image a slightly bluish feel. You can also adjust the vibrance here.

splash photography techniques

These are just a few tips to get you started. Find an object you like, a story you want to tell and use these lighting and setup techniques to shoot clear, perfect splash photography.

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