Tips Feature

11 Tips for Creating Abstract Oil and Water Images

with Dan Power

Oil and water photography can give you incredible painterly images. Dan Power shows you how

'Oil and Water in Green' by Allan Copson, Olympus E-M5 Mark II, 60mm, 1/160sec at f/7.1, ISO 100

1. Make sure your images are colourful, full of visual interest and bright

For any oil and water image to be successful, you have you keep in mind three key factors. First, your image should be vibrantly colourful. The canvas can be either one colour or several colours working together in harmony or perhaps even contrasting against one another.

Second, your image needs to consist of a series of nice sharp oil circles while also ensuring there are enough oil shapes present within the frame to keep the viewer interested in the image. That doesn’t mean you have to go crazy and fill your frame (I tend to like a bit of negative space), but you should aim to have a nice number in there so your viewer’s eye is free to travel around the image.

Third, ensure your images are bright. Back in November, I ran a contest where I asked Photocrowd users to upload their best oil and water images. There were some truly beautiful images, but the unfortunate fact is some of them were just too dark. That meant the colour and vibrancy of these images was lost. It was the bright ones that kept my attention and if you look back at that competition I’m sure you’ll agree.

'Magnetic Attraction' by Damian Hadjiyvanov, Canon EOS 5D Mark III, 135mm, 1/200sec at f/13, ISO 100

2. Collect together a few basic items to prepare your oil and water images

If you ask any photographer of oil and water abstracts, they’ll likely have one or two items that differ from mine. However, for me, these are my go-to objects to use:

• A glass bowl or dish, large enough for the oil to spread around and not get too congested. I personally use one that is 20cm deep. The width and length is entirely up to you, though the larger the bowl, the larger the canvas. That will give you more bubbles and areas to photograph. A good option could be a glass casserole bowl, for example.

• Some form of backdrop.

• A low table so you can get the camera angled in such a way that it is able to shoot down onto its surface

• A macro lens. Alternatively, macro filters or extension tubes

• A tripod

• Olive oil

• Washing-up liquid

• Flash heads

'Study in Oil and Water' by Elize Heymans, Canon EOS 70D, 100mm, 1/500sec at f/5.6, ISO 100

3. A bright and bold background will enhance your images

The backdrop will give your image a nice visual base from which to build up. You can use this as a striking visual layer that will sit beneath the oil droplets and, hopefully, enhance them.

You can use all sorts of things for your backdrop. Your options are pretty limitless. It could be that you have access to coloured paper, posters or fabric – absolutely anything can be used. In fact, the brighter the better.

For many of my backdrops, I use off-cuts of Cath Kidston fabric. These fabrics have some great patterns and colours, In the past, I’ve also used wrapping paper, which is a good choice as they come in all sorts of designs and colours.

'Oil and Water' by Alan Ranger, Sony A700, 100mm, 1/200sec at f/7.1, ISO 200

4. Set up your workspace

Thankfully, the process of setting up your little workspace couldn’t be simpler. Considering the insane number of images you’ll be able to achieve with this kind of work, it seems ridiculous how basic the whole initial process is.

Get your small table, lay your backdrop on it, and place the glass bowl on top of the backdrop. You can then fill the bowl with water.

As I tend to use a 20cm deep bowl, this means I have a vessel that can hold a good amount of water. Make sure you fill the bowl near to the top, which will create a nice distance between the surface of the water and the backdrop beneath the bowl.

You can then add your oil. The ratio of oil to water is very much a personal preference. Personally, I use a dash of oil so I have some nice negative space around the oil droplets. If you’d like to make your image appear busier then you can always use more oil. However, I tend to think that less oil makes much nicer shapes.

'Oily 2' by Dan Power, Canon EOS 5D Mark III, 105mm, 1/250sec at f/2.8, ISO 100

5. Be aware that the amount of water you use will affect the outcome

Believe it or not, the amount of water you use does make a difference to your final image.When I first began making my oil and water images, I was only using a small amount of water. However, that meant that much of the image was made up of the texture of the glass bowl. This was largely due to the fact I was using a macro lens (which we’ll get on to). The lens was tightly focussed on the oil and bowl, meaning that unwanted glass details, such as the manufacturer’s logo and dirt on the underside of the bowl, were showing up in the final image. Some photographers like this aesthetic, but I prefer the nice smooth finish that results from using more water in a deeper bowl. Just remember – the more water you use, the less glass texture will appear in your image.

'Water and Oil Bubble Cluster' by Irene Carson, Nikon D90, 150mm, 1/8sec at f/8, ISO 200

6. Add washing-up liquid to emphasise the oil droplets

Using washing-up liquid with your oil is a good way of making your oil droplets appear more vibrant. Add the water to the bowl first, then add the washing-up liquid and finally the oil.

The washing-up liquid adds relief to the edges of the oil droplets, so the oil droplets look thicker. Take a look at some of these images and you’ll see that many of them have a nice three-dimensional quality. Of course, you can still take an oil and water photo without washing-up liquid but you’ll find that the oil droplets appear quite flat.

It’s a bit of a balancing act working out how much washing-up liquid to use. There's no real science to it – it's all trial and error, as much of this technique tends to be.

'Bubbling Over,' by Dianne Kaye G, Canon EOS 5D Mark II, 65mm, 1/200sec at f/16, ISO 100

7. Use a macro lens to get good and close to your oil and water abstracts

For my own shots, I use a Sigma 105mm macro lens. For this type of photography, a macro lens will just make life a hell of a lot easier. You want to be able to get really close to your subject. You can use standard lenses – some of the images in the oil and water contest I mentioned earlier didn't use a macro and they looked pretty good – but if you wanted to crop your image and cut it down to a particular area of interest, your final image might not be big enough.

If you don’t fancy shelling out the cash for a macro lens, there are bits of kit out there that turn normal lenses into macro lenses, such as extension tubes and reversing rings. These can be nice cheap options while you decide if investing in a macro lens is the right move for you.

'Oil & Water' by That Macro Guy, Canon EOS 7D, 100mm, 1/125sec at f/2.8, ISO 100

8. Use a tripod to angle your camera down towards the bowl

Set up your camera so that it is facing downwards towards the table. I use a Vanguard Alta Pro tripod. These models have a middle stem, which can be pulled out and set at a right angle to the rest. Because I use a low table I can easily position the table beneath the tripod and between the legs.

9. Be careful of motion blur and adjust your camera settings accordingly

I always set my camera to manual mode with a shutter of 1/250sec, an aperture of f/2.8 and ISO 100.

Because of the proximity of the lens to the oil, this exposure gives me a nice overall sharpness which falls away a little at the edges. In an ideal world, the aperture would actually be between f/8-16 to get more of the image nice and sharp. However, you’ll tend to find that the oil moves around more than you’d expect, which can, of course, lead to motion blur. Again, this may differ slightly for you, but just be aware that the oil doesn’t tend to behave itself when you want.

'Water and Oil – Bubbles on the Dark Side' by Irene Carson, Nikon D90, 150mm, 1/8sec at f/9.5, ISO 200

10. Use a combination of natural light and flash

I’m fortunate in that I have a conservatory that gives me lots of natural light but also means I can apply artificial light if I need to. With my images, I use a single Speedlite set to manual mode. I then point it slightly away from the bowl of water and take a series of test shots until the balance of light is just right.

'Water and Oil' by Rick Tremblay, Canon EOS 600D, 100mm, 1/500sec at f/2.8, ISO 100

11. Enhance the clarity, contrast and saturation in post-processing

Everything I shoot is in raw as this retains a great deal of information in the file. Once I have my image, I import it into Photoshop’s camera raw software. I can then push up the clarity and boost the saturation. I can also either increase or decrease the contrast to see if adjusted shadows and exposure can add anything dramatic to the shot.

How much you do this will depend entirely on what works best for the image – I just keep going until I’m satisfied with the result. I tend to go for bold, bright and punchy images.

Once I’m finished in raw, I’ll take the image into Photoshop and apply an unsharp mask with a radius of around 20 and the threshold set to somewhere around 40 or 50.

Finally, I take a good long look at the final image and clone out any imperfections, such as dust that may have settled, get rid of those little blurry oil droplets that have invaded the image. And there we have it – an oil and water abstract!

'Oil and Water' by Alison, Canon EOS 1000D, 1sec at f/11, ISO 100

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