Home photography ideas: Flash & splash with water balloon portraits

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A water balloon can be a wonderful prop for action portraiture. Inspired by the portraits of photographer Tim Tadder, the exploding balloons look almost like wigs or hats of water when frozen mid-blast. 

Aside from all the watery fun, though, this project is also an exercise in lighting. In order to freeze the fast action of the water, we need to go beyond what our shutter speed can achieve and instead make use of flash duration. 

Put simply, this is the length of time that the burst of flash takes – and, with the right lights and settings, we can make it as fast as 1/10,000 sec or more. As long as there is no other light influencing our exposure, the flash duration effectively becomes our shutter speed, enabling us to freeze the splash in crystal clear clarity.

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(Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

However, that last part about ‘other light’ poses a problem. It means that we need to shoot in near pitch-darkness – otherwise, the ambient light would illuminate our scene at moments outside the flash duration and cause motion blur over the fast-moving water. 

Timing is another challenge. We need our flashes to fire at the exact moment that the water balloon bursts – and this isn’t the kind of shoot where we can just press and hope. 

Instead, we’ll make use of a sound trigger to fire our flashes. So there’s lots to think about – the timing of the shot, the lighting, the posing, the practicalities of shooting in the dark… it’s a slippery challenge in more ways than one, but that’s all part of the fun of a project like this!

Sound and vision

(Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

Many sound-activated triggers, like the hähnel Captur Pro sound trigger, not only enable us control the sensitivity of the device to sound (so that it can either fire on detecting a faint noise or a heavier sound) but can also add in a delay. So we can set it to go off a couple of hundredths of a second after the sound, or whichever moment best captures the splash. 

We attached Hähnel Captur Pro receivers to both of our speed lights. These sync wirelessly with the sound trigger; once the sound trigger is activated we can open the shutter on the camera and drop the balloon. As we’re in darkness, when the shot is taken, only the flash registers.

Make a splash

(Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

01 Fill the balloons

Our balloons are a mixture of the normal bomb-like variety and the longer type used to make animal shapes for kids – not strictly speaking meant for water, but fine. We used warm water and a paddling pool beneath the subject to catch the splashes.

(Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

02 Set manual exposure

Set your camera to manual mode and use a shutter speed long enough to give you time to drop the balloon – 2-3 secs should suffice, as our camera is at 2 secs, f/5.6, ISO100. The long shutter speed means the shot needs to be taken in total darkness.

(Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

03 Control the lighting

Two speed lights are used to illuminate our subject. The first is placed to the left of the camera and angled to light the subject's face, while the second flash is placed behind and used to light the backdrop. .

(Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

04 Use a lower power

On a typical speed light the flash duration is around 1/400 sec at full 1/1 power, but speeds up to 1/20,000 sec at the lowest power. So a low power is better for freezing action, but this means that you may need to open the aperture or increase the ISO to compensate.

(Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

05 Diffuse the light

The speed light angled towards the subject’s face is fitted with an umbrella. This softens and diffuses the light, which is more flattering for faces. A white reflector placed opposite the flash to the right of camera bounces sidelight back into the shadows on the subject's face.

(Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

06 Gel the backdrop

The flash aimed at the backdrop has been fitted with a colored gel, which spills over our white background roll and turns it blue. When gelling a backdrop like this, experiment with the power and distance of the flash, as this will have an impact on the vibrancy and brightness.

(Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

07 Capture the splash

Turn off any ambient light, use a head torch to get into position, turn the torch off, start the sound trigger, press the shutter button then you have two seconds to drop the balloon from overhead (or, if using a modeling balloon, to burst it carefully with a pin on a stick)!

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