How to create colourful oily art

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Water and oil may not mix, but they can create unique photos. With a few household items, a flash (or powerful lamp) and the right camera settings, we can create bold, vibrant abstract pictures.

The mission

The mission: Create vibrant abstract art by making reflections in oil and water

Time: One hour

Skill level: Intermediate

Kit needed: Flash or strong lamp, macro lens (optional), tripod (optional)

The key here is in customising our light source. By placing a colourful material in front of the light we can transform it into our own light box. This light will then be reflected into the oil and the water to create our abstract art.

Every little bubble and drop of oil is highly reflective, so at the right angle they reflect the light from our source towards the camera. The result is a seemingly endless array of bubbles – some on the surface of the water, others drifting in the depths below – and each containing the shapes and colours of our light source in miniature form.

We’ve used a colourful Union Jack flag for our oily reflection, but you could use any semi-translucent material. Or if you prefer arts and craft you could fashion your own with cardboard, scissors and tracing paper or coloured acetate. Any bold shape will do, but it adds to the effect if the colours and shapes are familiar and recognisable. 

We used a small studio softbox to light our oil and water. If you don’t have this kind of gear you can get similar results with various types of light-emitting devices, as you’ll see.

How to set up your shot

Light source 

For this to work, you’ll need a colourful material to place over the top of your light. Any shape, pattern or colour will work – we used a Union Jack flag. You’ll also need to create a cardboard template that’s big enough to fit over your light source.

Light template

We’ve used a studio flash and softbox. If you don’t have one you can craft your own light box. Cut out one side of a box and attach your flag or colourful material. Next, shine a lamp or flashgun through a hole in the opposite side of the box.

Oil on the water 

For this effect you’ll want a wide dark container, like a baking tray. Next, fill it with water and add a few drops of cooking oil. Each drop will create beautiful reflections, so be ready to start shooting. If the oil starts to clump give it a quick swirl.

Macro lens

A macro lens enables us to get close to the surface of the water. If you don’t have one, don’t worry – any lens that enables you to zoom in with a short minimum focusing distance will be fine. Try using manual focus to get sharp shots.

Exposure and flash settings

A great set of stock settings for flash indoors is: Manual mode, 1/200 sec, f/11, ISO 100. After this we can tweak the strength of the light to ideally suit our exposure. Position the camera directly opposite the light source and at a similar height so that it can pick up the colourful and vast array of reflections. 

A studio flash head means we can use a low ISO for maximum image quality and a high f-number for increased depth of field. The modelling light is also very convenient for focusing. If you don’t have a studio flash you could use a flashgun, an LED, a powerful household lamp, or potentially even your smartphone.

Setup 1: Colourful, oily abstracts

Ripples in the water

If you like you can try adding ripples and drops to the water. Simply place a spoon or similar utensil in the water and focus on the base of it. Lift it out of the water, being careful to hold it directly above the focus point. Then capture the moment as drops fall from the spoon and hit the water. A tripod comes in handy here as it frees your hands to focus the lens and hold onto the spoon.

Use your monitor

You can use all kinds of light sources for this, even a monitor or tablet screen. We positioned the oil and water in front of a monitor then made a simple circular gradient in Photoshop. Of course, even with brightness turned to the maximum a monitor screen isn’t nearly as powerful as a flash so we needed a high ISO and a wide aperture. As for shutter speed, we can go down to perhaps 1/8 sec and use a tripod. But be sure to wait until the water is still, and use a self timer so as not to disturb the camera when pressing the shutter button.

Kit needed: Oil and water, monitor or any other digital screen, tripod

Exposure: 1/8 sec, f/5, ISO4000

Setup 2: X marks the spot

Shape a template

As well as coloured materials like our flag image overleaf we could also try cutting out a shape to fit over our light source. We made an X-shaped hole in a piece of cardboard then fitted it snugly over our softbox, making sure the light couldn’t escape around the edges. It’s worth experimenting with the angle of the light source and your camera height. If we lift the light higher we can raise our camera for a steeper angle of view on the container. This brings us more straight-on to the surface of the water, meaning that more of the oil drops on the surface come into focus.

Kit needed: Flash, cardboard, scissors, tape

Exposure: 1/200 sec, f/11, ISO100

Read more: How to create light spheres