A fascinating feature of water droplets is their ability to refract images. Like tiny crystal balls, a spherical water droplet can create a focused image of whatever happens to be directly behind it. Understanding the physics is simple, but using it to create beautiful artwork can be a bit more challenging.
The first challenge is getting perfectly spherical water droplets. Some natural surfaces will allow water to bead up exactly the way we need, but not all. A few good choices include ornamental grasses like Blue Fescue or plants like Eucalyptus. For this image, I am using wildflower seeds from “Prairie Smoke” and possibly some related flowers. The tiny hairs on these seeds catch droplets beautifully, and many wildflower seeds have this property.
A simple misting spray bottle is used to drench the seed in droplets, and a daisy is placed in behind. The distance of the daisy is relative to the size of the droplet and the size of the flower, but a few inches is a great starting point. The flower must be centered directly behind the droplets for the angle that the camera will be shooting from. If the flower is misaligned, the refracted image will also be off center.
In a general sense, these images hold a certain fascination factor that is easy to accomplish – water droplets, wildflower seed, and flower, all arranged in the proper way. I’ve shot many arrangements of these ingredients, but for the image “Essence of Reverie” I decided to add an extra element: the surface of water.
The process to create the final image involves abundant experimentation. The above image was one of my first experiments, shooting with the entire seed held above the water with the clamps of a “Third Hand” tool. These tools are extremely helpful to precisely position the various elements of the image, and are very inexpensive (less than $10). The purpose of the water was to create an extra dimension to the image within the surface reflection, and roughly three hours of various experiments took place to find the right combination of elements.
Finally, I decided that the seed would be held from underneath the water with the Third Hand tool submerged, allowing the seed to break the surface and be covered with droplets.
Once this setup was established, the experimentation continued with camera and off-camera flash angles. In this initial shot (above), I noticed that the clamp holding the seed was too visible which would require a shift in the angles of the flash and the camera to hide the clamp underneath a stronger surface reflection.
These adjustments all happen quickly, with the camera and flash handheld. While the stability of a tripod with focusing rails could certainly be helpful, I’ve had hundreds of hours of practice photographing snowflakes with handheld techniques, and the same process can apply to any extreme macro work.
With the proper subject composition, camera and flash angles all decided on, there is one more challenge to overcome: depth of field. The amount of focus when shooting this image is very shallow. This partly due to the nature of extreme macro work, as depth of field is affected by the distance from your subject, but I’m also purposefully shooting at a relatively wide aperture. This allows me to keep the flower in the background softly out of focus, but this results in not nearly enough focus in the foreground:
The solution is to photograph the scene at multiple focal points without deviating greatly from the cameras current framing. This is done by slowly moving the entire camera forward and backward, shooting continuously as the focal plane passes through every needed part of the seed and droplets.
In total, 38 separate images were used to gather all of the detail needed for crisp focus everywhere it was required, while maintaining soft and smooth details in the background. A lengthy editing process is required to combine these images together perfectly, but the effort is worth the reward.