Oil On Water

How to create interesting abstract patterns with oil

11/01/2013 - 00:00

If you're stuck inside due to poor weather or illness and want something new to photograph grab a few drops of olive oil from the kitchen and you could be on the way to creating space like images.

Olive oil doesn't dissolve in water, instead it creates different sized droplets on the surface. These can be photographed with ease.

All you need is a shallow see through plate or dish. It can be glass or plastic but watch that the plastic isn't scratched. I used the lid of a space jar. You also need some way to suspend it so you can get a light behind it shining up towards the camera. I use a McClamp, but you could use books or vases either side if the tray is wide enough. The light can be any form. I'm lucky enough to have a studio light so I use that, but any portable flash or household reading light etc can be used. Your camera should ideally mounted on a tripod and needs to have a close focus facility to ensure a tight crop on the oil bubbles. I'm using a Pentax DSLR with a 100mm macro lens. The tripod is a Vanguard Pro 263 model with a horizontal centre column that allows me to position the camera over the top of the dish.

My set up is shown below.
Pentax cameras in position to photograph oil on water

In my set up I also have a small sheet of polarising material placed behind the dish with a cd case to hold it flat. I also have a polarising filter on the camera lens. This is to add some colour to the background, using the cross polarisation technique, so the droplets stand out. You can also use colourful material or paper behind the dish and light it from the side rather than directly from behind.

To prepare the oil, add some water to your dish then a few drops of oil. Stir the solution so bubbles form at different sizes. Then position this below the camera, making sure the camera sensor is parallel to the surface of the dish so you get even sharpness across the frame.

Switch on your backlight. Then using the auto setting of your camera take a photo and check the result to see if the exposure is right. You can also check for focus issues, background colour and back light angle. If you're using a film camera take shots at settings above and below correct exposure and make notes so you can repeat the results next time.

Here are a few I took. The hairs show why you need to have clean equipment! You can clone out any odd drops/dust/marks later. This one is oil on water using the set up above.

Oil on water using cross polarisation

This one is a similar set up, but the polarising filter has been adjusted for maximum colour, and I've focused closer to home in on one main bubble.

Oil on water using cross polarisation

Here I placed a water drop on a cd case, again used the polarising filter at max strength for the rich cross polarised colours.

Water drop on CD case

Well I hope that was a helpful technique...now I'm off to spend some time getting grid of those dust marks! Note to self: must clean my camera sensor!



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