Splash photography — How to photograph liquid splashes

Splash photography is exciting, fast-paced, messy and creative — what’s not to love?

If you've never tried splash photography before or if you're looking for a few useful tips or new ideas, then this is the place to be. I explain the equipment, lighting, important photographic concepts and also share a few creative ideas for you to try.

Wine splash and smashing glass photograph by Karl Taylor
© Karl Taylor

Splash photography is a technique that can add a certain degree of professionalism to your portfolio. Yes it requires some patience and practice, but the most basic of splash shots can be achieved with little more than your camera, a speedlite and some diffusion material. However, you can also go much, much further with it. You can find a number of splash photography tutorials on our site, including our recent Clinique product shoot, but I’ve put together the most important techniques and tips here to get you started.

Splash photography kit

Whether you’re photographing a simple splash shot or something more advanced, the equipment you’ll need is roughly the same.

Essential equipment:

  • Tripod
  • Light — Speedlite or studio lights
  • Diffusion material — Diffusion roll or acrylic
  • Protective plastic for your camera
  • Micro-fibre cloths or paper towels

Extra equipment

  • Trigger device — Infrared or sound trigger
    Clinique advert incorporating clear water splash as part of the creative brief. Photo by Karl Taylor
    © Karl Taylor

    I wouldn’t recommend shooting splash photography hand held, not unless you want the added difficulty of movement, so a good tripod is essential. Having your camera in a fixed position means you can set everything up, pre-focus and just shoot. If you don’t have an assistant, you’ll need both hands — one for creating your splash and one for pressing the shutter.

    Fast flash duration is the most important thing when it comes to your lighting (I discuss this more later in this article). If you don’t have studio lights with fast flash duration, speedlites can work (I used speedlites for a lot of my early splash photography with paint). However, they do need to be used at lower power settings to get a fast flash duration. At 1/16th power you can get a t 0.1 measurement of approximately 1/6000 flash duration. But using them at a low power does mean you may need to cluster a few together to get sufficient light, which is why it’s of course easier to use more powerful studio lights that have fast flash durations.

    Diffusion material
    Diffusion material, whether it be diffusion paper or a piece of acrylic, is useful to have on hand for a few reasons. Both can be used either as a background for your shot or to diffuse the light to create more pleasing reflections on liquids like paint or to create better gradations in transparent liquids.

    Protective plastic for your camera
    Splash photography can get messy so it’s worth protecting your camera (especially if you’re working with paint!). I often use clear polythene sheeting which, although thin, does a great job of protecting against the odd splash of water. Depending on how crazy your shoot is, it can be double layered or also used for covering any exposed electrical points or lights.

    Micro-fibre cloths or paper towels
    Things can get messy! I often keep these on hand when photographing liquids, as you’ll see in many of our tutorials involving liquids. They can be used for wiping down surfaces or cleaning glass. If you’re shooting in a tank a squeegee is another useful piece of kit to quickly remove water droplets from glass. If you’re going crazy then dustpans, mops and even wet and dry vacuums make a big difference to the clean up operation!

    Trigger device
    Timing is key for splash shots and although I’ve done many of my shots just by eye, there are times when a triggering device such as a sound or motion trigger can be very beneficial. This can also free you up if you are working on your own and need to throw objects to create the splash.

      Liquid splash shot.
      © Karl Taylor

      How to capture a splash photo

      Before doing anything, I’d recommend creating your own pre-visual for the shot you want to achieve. This will really help you with planning and allow you to work out some important factors, like where the splash is going to happen, what shape is it going to be and how are you going to make that liquid end up where you want it to be. It will also get you thinking about how much liquid you need, how much mess there might be, whether you have covered your camera and moved electric cables out of the way before you start shooting.

      Remember, the process does takes time as there are many variables that can happen with liquid. Although this is what makes it exciting, it does mean you'll need patience as well as a little bit of luck, which is why pre-visualising it all will give you the best chance of success.

      Once you've carefully planned your shot, there are a few techniques you can use that will also improve your chances of getting a good shot. These include using a fast flash duration and mirror lock up mode, choosing the right camera settings and pre-focusing.

      Fast flash duration

      One of the key things for capturing high-speed, fast-flying liquids is fast flash duration. A common mistake that people make when photographing splash shots is focusing too much on what shutter speed they use. In actual fact, it is the speed and duration of the burst of flash that freezes motion, not shutter speed. The shutter speed is barely relevant at all in a darkened studio and only needs to be set to fast to cut out bright ambient surroundings.

      Flash duration is the length of time of the burst of light emitted from a studio light (or speedlite). This can vary depending on the type of light and even from brand to brand. The faster the flash duration the better.

        Diagram explaining t 0.5 and t 0.1 flash duration.

        Diagram explaining t 0.5 and t 0.1 flash duration.

        Flash duration is often measured in two ways: t 0.5 and t 0.1. The former is the one most commonly displayed by manufacturers as it generally sounds more impressive. However, t0.5 does not measure all the light relevant for complete shooting — approximately 40 per cent of the flash burst is unaccounted for in these readings. Because of this, t 0.5 measurements portray a much faster (but false) impression of the real usable flash burst. T 0.1 readings, on the other hand, account for nearly the entire flash burst.

        As an example, if a flash has a t 0.1 reading of 1/5000 then this would be very fast and would be equivalent to 1/15000 t 0.5). So don’t be fooled when comparing flash duration speed, always check if you are comparing like for like such as t0.5 or t0,1 measurements.

        To learn more about flash duration and t 0.1 and t 0.5 measurements, visit our Lighting Theory & Equipment section, where you’ll find a class dedicated to this particular section: ‘Understanding flash duration’.

          An explanation of shutter speed vs flash duration

          Shutter speed vs flash duration.

          Mirror Lock-Up mode

          Many of you may be familiar with using the Mirror Lock-Up feature on DSLR cameras to increase sharpness during long exposures (this is to actually stop the flipping up of the mirror from causing unnecessary vibrations). But this feature can also be used to reduce delay time when taking a photo. This is a useful technique when photographing splash shots, especially if you’re not using any sort of trigger, because things happen so quickly that the less delay in activating the shutter the better.

          Mirror Lock-Up flips the mirror up before the shutter opens, which means when you press the shutter, you immediately capture the photo, rather than having the delay of waiting for the mirror to get out of the way.

          However, enabling Mirror Lock-Up means, because the mirror is already up, you are unable to see anything when you look through the viewfinder, because what you normally see is a reflection off of the mirror going through the prism to your eye. When that mirror is locked up then of course there is no view possible unless you have ability to activate live view to the preview screen on the back of the camera. This is another reason why having your camera on a tripod for splash photography is a good idea and why you should pre-focus if you can.

            Where to find mirror lock-up mode on a Canon

            Mirror lock-up mode.

            Camera settings

            As with any genre of photography, there are no universal camera settings that will result in a great photo. However, there are a few key points that you should keep in mind when choosing your camera settings.

            I touched on shutter speed earlier, so you already know that it isn’t the shutter speed that freezes the movement. However, that doesn’t mean you should be shooting at 1/10. Ideally you want the highest sync speed your camera will allow (medium format cameras can sync at any speed but for 35mm cameras, this is generally around 1/200).

            What is important though is that your shutter speed is fast enough to cut out any ambient light, such as natural light. To do this, take a shot without the flash. The result should be a black image. If you see any light in the photo, you’ll need to increase your shutter speed or turn off the modeling lights (along with any other additional ambient lighting).

            For your aperture I’d recommend shooting around f11 to f16 as you want to ensure that you have sufficient depth of field to allow the entirety of your water splash to be in focus.

            The ISO should be fairly low, I try to keep mine at 100 wherever I can. However, as you’re shooting at lower flash powers, you may need to increase this. You’ll have to judge this as you shoot, but most modern cameras can yield low noise even at 400 and 800 ISO these days.

              Where to focus

              Where to focus in the image, especially if you’ve got the mirror locked up, is a question that I get asked a lot. For splash photography it’s best to pre-focus where you anticipate the action to be and then switch to manual focus and leave it set there. Remember, you should already have the camera on a tripod, so the only thing that can change is where is the splash going to happen. As you will never have time to focus on the splash as it happens, don’t even try. Rather save yourself a lot of headaches and pre-focus.

              You can do this by placing an item temporarily where you expect the action to happen, or I get my assistant to hold their hand roughly in position. If you don’t have an assistant, use a lighting stand, a chair or anything you like that will help you lock that focus.

                Chanel product photography incorporating a water splash as part of the creative brief.
                © Karl Taylor

                Splash photography ideas

                If you’re looking for splash photography ideas, take a look at work by liquid specialists such as Barry Makariou and David Lund (both of whom were guests on our live talk show). Jonathan Knowles, who will be joining us for a live talk show later this year, also produces some great work, and you can also look at further examples of my own work on my portfolio. Look online, find images that you like and try put your own creative spin on them. I’ve also included a few videos for shots that I’ve done to help you with ideas.

                Easy splash shot

                  One light speedlite splash shot

                  Smashing glasses splash shot

                    Smashing whisky glasses using fast flash duration studio lights

                    There is also a number of classes available on Visual Education, where I show you exactly how to photograph splashes. You can find these throughout our Product section, as well as in our Live Show replays.

                    Remember, you can get as creative as you like with splash photography — flying wine glasses, elegant water splashes, even models throwing paint. The sky is your limit!

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                      To learn more about splash photography, make sure to visit our Product section, where you'll find a variety of classes. Below are also some of our more popular that you may enjoy.

                      If you’re looking to grow your lighting skills, you will also find the following classes useful. Here I cover some of the fundamental knowledge of studio lighting and show you how you can take complete control. Whether you’re unsure about different modifiers, flash duration or how to measure and correctly expose your shot, you’ll find all you need to know in these informative modules.


                      1. Hi Karl.

                        Another interesting article. Long wanted to try splash photography but our strobes are Elinchrom ELC HDs. Read somewhere you used their kit in your early days. Do you think they are up to the job?

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