Water Drop Refraction
If you love shooting macro images as much as I do you have
probably shot just about everything interesting inside and outside your house by
now. I want to share another creative technique that you can use to rediscover
some of the things you have already shot and even some you probably haven’t
thought of yet!
It’s called “Water Drop Refraction”. (I won’t bore you with
the science behind this phenomenon but you can easily look it up if you are as
much of a science geek as I am.) Basically you are placing a subject behind a
drop of water and then using your macro lens to capture the refracted subject
inside the drop.
You can easily shoot these inside or if the conditions
are right and you don’t mind laying in the wet grass, you can shoot them outside
as well. I personally prefer to work in the comfort of my home while doing this
kind of work but I’ll leave that decision up to you. The setup will be the same
either way so if you are shooting outside, you will want to have a tripod that
will work at ground level or some other sort of camera support like a Bean Bag or Ground Pod or something similar.
When shooting inside, I use a Gitzo 2541EX tripod with a Geared Head and Macro Rail for precise focusing.
You will need a true macro lens that is capable of 1:1 reproduction and some extension tubes if you want to get even higher
magnification. I use a Canon MPE-65mm lens that allows for up to 5:1 or “5 times life size” reproduction ratios which allows me to just
about completely fill the frame with a single drop of water.
You can use natural light but it’s much easier with an off camera flash. A flash will allow for a much faster shutter speed which prevents
motion blur and it also gives you much better control over unwanted highlights and reflections in the water drop. You
will need a way to hold your flash off camera and there are hundreds of Brackets
available for this or you can even use the stand that comes with your speedlite if you can find a good place to set it.
My favorite set up for this is to use one of the heads of the MT-24EX macro twin light on a
long adjustable flash arm extended out above and to the side of the subject.
MT-24EX flash withdiffuser on a bracket. Only 1 flash head being used.
MT-24EX flash with diffuser on a bracket. Only 1 flash head being used.
You can also use a regular speedlite with this setup and fire it with an off camera shoe cord, a wireless transmitter, or if your
camera has built in wireless, that will work too. I use the ST-E2 wireless transmitter like in the image below.
Speedlite with diffuser on bracket
I diffuse whichever type of flash I am using for softer light and no harsh glare on the water drop. There are plenty of other setups that will
work and every camera manufacturer will have equivalents to the lighting I am using here.
Once you have your camera and lighting all set up, you need to find a subject, some grass, and some water or glycerin for the drop. Flowers work wonderfully for this but don’t limit yourself to just one type of subject! A leaf, fruits, vegetables, or just about anything else that is small and colorful will work great.
I have a bowl of fake grass that works fantastic for this but it’s just as easy to go out in the yard and pick some long blades of real grass
and hold them up with a “McClamp” or something similar.
Once you have your grass in position, you can carefully place a drop right where you need it by using a syringe. I really prefer using
glycerin over water because it is thicker and will stay in place a lot longer.
Syringe used to place a drop of glycerin on blade of grass
If you don’t have a syringe, try using a toothpick or straightened out paper clip to place the drop with. If you have a steady hand,
you can even get the drop to stick on top of the grass sometimes for a different look.
The last thing to do is to place your subject about an inch behind the drop and you are ready to start shooting.
Focus is critical when working at these magnifications as DOF will only be 1-2 millimeters. A focusing rail really helps as does magnified live view if your camera has it.
I prefer to shoot in Manual mode at f/8 or f/11 and 1/250sec. Check the synch speed of your camera model for correct shutter speed.
I always use a shutter release and mirror lock up for macro work. The built in timer also works if you don’t have a release.
I then take a test shot with my flash at 1/2 power and adjust accordingly from there. I use a piece of white foam core board as a reflector when needed.
Miniature pumpkin at 1X life size, MPE-65mm, f/8, 1/250sec
Dahlia at 3X life size, MPE-65mm, f/11, 1/250sec
Petunia at 2X life size, MPE-65mm, f/8, 1/250sec
Dahlia in 2 drops at 2X life size, MPE-65mm, f/11, 1/250sec
Petunia at 3X life size, MPE-65mm, f/8, 1/250sec
Maple Leaf at 4X life size, MPE-65mm, f/8, 1/250sec
In this last shot, I
used a light spray of water on my grass and then placed it in the freezer until
there was “frost” on the tip.
With a quick search around the house or at the store, you can come up with lots of different subjects that will all work with this technique.
As Winter approaches, this is a great way to keep shooting when it’s just too cold, windy, or wet outside as well!