Skip to main content

How to photograph paint in water

Think about the images we’ve seen from the Hubble Space Telescope where nebulae, distant stellar nurseries, form new stars in the universe. Well, those same laws of motion can be seen here on earth. 

The mission

Capture paint as it unfurls in water for out-of-this-world abstract images

Time needed: Two hours

Skill level: Intermediate

Kit needed: Fish tank, acrylic paint, flashguns and triggers, kitchen towel, squeegee

When making a cup of tea, you’ll surely have noticed the wonderful swirling patterns created as the milk’s poured in. But what if our cup was made of glass? We could watch the milk unfurl below the surface instead. Well, switch that cup for a glass fish tank, and change the milk to paint, and we suddenly have a very photogenic subject. 

Once lit, we can freeze this flow of paint mid-motion with our Canon DSLR and capture a slice of time. All it takes is a little patience and a lot of water. In fact, we only need a few basic things to get started. We have a glass fish tank and we’re using acrylic paint. Because it’s oil-based it won’t instantly mix with the water. Instead, it’ll hold together as it drifts through the tank creating more sculpture-like shapes. 

In terms of camera gear we have a couple of flashguns, and we’re using Canon Speedlites. If you only have one, that’s fine, but you’ll get better results with two. We’ve plugged a wireless trigger into each flashgun, and a transmitter into the hotshoe of our Canon DSLR. Use hotshoe footplates to stand the flashguns on the table, or use stands for them if you’re using a smaller table setup than we’ve used. 

Read more: How to create colourful oily art

We’re using an EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens to get in close to the paint-drop action and fill the frame, but you could just as easily use a standard zoom or telephoto zoom lens. However, you’d have to position the camera further away from the tank because the minimum focusing distance of a non-macro telephoto lens will be farther away.

This photo project is all about the preparation as it takes around 15 minutes to clean out and refill the tank ready to shoot each time. But it takes just a few seconds to nail the shot. 

Preparing the shoot

1. Table and backdrop 

You need a sturdy table that isn’t going to tip over when the filled fish tank is placed on top, together with a white paper background. This could be a photo paper roll background, or it could just be some A3 paper taped to your wall. Although the price difference is obvious, both will produce the same result.

Quick tip

As well as knocking out the bubbles from inside the tank, you may find splashes on the outside, so wipe down the glass with kitchen towel or lint-free tissue.

2. Fill the tank

Fill the fish tank part of the way with water and place it on the table. You may find a hose or a jug useful for this bit, and to top it up once in place. You’ll have to empty it between each paint pouring – and as it’s heavy when full up, take care to avoid any accidents. It might help to set up near a sink, or a bath.

3. Wipe away the bubbles

As the water settles you’ll see lots of air bubbles on the glass of the tank, so knock out the air bubbles that accumulate with a wooden spoon. Also wipe the exterior of the tank clean, and then use a squeegee to remove any small air bubbles stuck to the inner sides of the glass tank.

Quick tip

Use oil-based paint so it separates from the water, but mix a little paint with hot water to create a more pourable consistency.

4. Acrylic paint mix

We used oil-based acrylic paint in a variety of colours. The richer the colours, the more striking the images. When mixing the paint with hot water, it’s the consistency that makes it look good. Mix one part paint to five parts water and stir. It won’t mix perfectly, but it’ll be good enough to photograph. 

Batteries at full power

Fresh batteries will minimise the recycle times of the flashguns as much as possible. Not only that, but you’ll be able to shoot for longer before having to change batteries. If you notice your flashgun struggling to recycle quickly enough each time you press the shutter button, check your batteries!

Aligned with the centre of the tank, the tripod keeps our Canon still and secure for sharper shots. Plus it means our camera is ready for a perfect composition and focusing with each image.

We used two Canon Speedlites (580 EX and 600 EX) on either side of the tank to light up the paint as it passed through the water. They were positioned about two feet from each side of the tank and sat on hotshoe footplates and were angled at 45-degrees.

Our glass fish tank was on a stable desktop with plenty of space around it, marked with Blu-tack for exact positioning/repositioning each time we emptied and filled it. You could use a plastic fish tank, but this will degrade the image clarity and quality.

Taking the shot

1. Set up your camera

Set continuous drive on your Canon to allow multiple photos to be taken while the shutter release button is depressed. This means you get a few bites of the cherry before the water becomes a murky mess.

2. Manual mode for flash

We want enough depth of field to make the paint shapes sharp, and as we’re shooting closely, we used f/11 to do this. We set the shutter speed to 1/200 sec (the max flash sync speed of most DSLRs).

3. Which lens is best? 

Put your Canon on a tripod and centre your DSLR with the tank. No special lens is required, but try your best to fill the frame with the tank. We used an EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM macro lens, but you can use a telephoto zoom. 

4. Pre-focus before shooting

Take the wooden spoon and hold it in the middle of the tank. Then pre-focus on it and switch to manual focus to lock off the focus point. Now your focus will be maintained at this point throughout the shoot.

5. Flashguns ready

Turn on two flashguns and attach wireless triggers to each of them. Then put a hotshoe footplate on each and place them on either side of the fish tank. We set them to 1/16 power to speed up the recycle times.

Too watery?

Be careful not to water down your paint mixture too much, or not water it down enough – if you get the mixture wrong you’ll find the paint won't create any interesting shapes.

6. Wireless triggers

We’re using the Godox wireless flash triggers, that operate via radio frequency, but infrared triggers will work fine as the two flashes are set close together on the table top, in line of sight of the camera.

7. Pouring the paint

When pouring the paint into the water, pour very close to the surface. When dropped from a height, the paint falls faster and impacts the water harder, creating air bubbles as it sinks. Also, the paint unfolds more photogenically when poured from just above the surface.

8. Taking the shot

You could use a remote shutter release if doing this on your own and shoot/pour the paint simultaneously. But it’s easier getting a friend to pour the paint while you take the photos, because the pourer can concentrate on getting the technique right, and you focus on getting the shot!

9. Fill her up

Once you’ve got the initial few photos of the paint pouring in, you sometimes get another chance for a second pour. But more often than not, the initial paint pour will have made the water too full of paint swirls for any real shooting, so it’s time to rinse and repeat.

Top tips

One flash is OK... 

One flash is fine, too. Don’t panic if you only have one flash, because the results can still be just as beautiful. One flash, brought closer to the front of the tank, means deeper, richer shadows in the paint as it unfurls through the water.

... but bubbles are bad

Avoid leaving any bubbles in the water before you pour in your paint. The flash light will show up all the bubbles if there are any left because it’s side-lit – and side light enhances these small bubbles as distracting shadows.

Enjoyed this article? Subscribe to PhotoPlus today