Creative colour with oil & water

This is an ultra-simple way to use a mixture of oil and water to get some wow photos, writes Andrew James. You won’t need any extra lighting other than your iPhone and a normal torch, but to be honest, you don’t even need the torch if you don’t have one handy. It’s an indoor project so perfect for a rainy day!

The important items here are a macro lens, some oil, washing-up liquid, and a glass tumbler full of water. A tripod is also a good idea to help get everything set up, but it is possible to do this handheld at very high ISOs. It’s as simple as it can get, and you’ll amaze your non-photographer friends with your alien galaxies! Here’s me messing about this week in my studio!

Other than a small handheld torch for some shots, I used no other lighting beyond ambient window light and the light coming up from my iPhone positioned beneath the glass tumbler but protected from water and scratches by a clear sheet of plastic. Apologies for my messy studio in the background.


1 Add oil to your water
To start, add a small drop of washing up liquid into a tumbler of water and give it a stir, then leave it until it settles and clears. Add a few drops of olive oil (or any other kind) and it will clump into droplets on the surface. I used a bottle with a pointed end to make adding the droplets of oil easier and a bit more precise, but it’s not absolutely necessary.

Add some oil to the water.

2 Pick a colour base
You can just place a few sheets of coloured paper under the tumbler, but for a more modern solution, I searched for a colourful background online using my iPhone, then displayed the image large on the screen. I placed a sheet of clear plastic over the phone to protect it, and then placed the glass on top. The oil drops will act like a lens and the colours will form your background. You can also shine a torch from different angles to boost the contrast and saturation.

WARNING: As you all know – oil, water and expensive smartphones can be a dodgy combination! So only use your phone or iPad if you are comfortable doing so. The management take no responsibility if your phone isn’t waterproof and things go wrong!!!

This is one of the backdrops I used on my phone. There are thousands out there!

3 Shoot macro
Fit a macro lens and set up your camera on a tripod, pointing straight down at the glass. Focus on a small area using Manual Focus and LiveView, or if you prefer, just look through the viewfinder. Shoot in Aperture Priority mode and move the torch beam for different effects and try different backgrounds.

You still need a reasonably high ISO even though you are on a tripod, because the oil moves about a bit. You need to shoot at f/2.8 or f/4 to diffuse the coloured background so that will help with shutter speed, but aim for nothing less than 1/60sec. Do wait though, until the oil droplets are quite still before firing the shutter.

4 Processing
When you open your images in Lightroom/ACR/Whatever you may find that bits of dust or hair that are floating around in the atmosphere have landed in your oil and water soup. The longer you take to get your pictures, the worse this is likely to be. To be honest, there is not much you can do about this other than use the Clone Tool to clean up any bad bits in your shot.

Published in Camera Skills

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