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Image composition with photographer Paul Hollingworth

We commissioned photographer Paul Hollingworth to create a photographic composition using paint, a skull and a tank of oil. Paul talks us through his process of creating such a striking piece of photographic art…

We first saw Paul’s awesome work on Instagram where he shared an illustration he created with Affinity Designer. On discovering his primary job was a photographer we knew we had to ask him to give Affinity Photo a whirl! I think you’ll agree the results are truly stunning! We spoke to Paul afterwards to get the low down on how he created such a complex photo composition and what he thought to his first time using Affinity Photo.

A video showing parts of Paul’s editing process.
What camera equipment was used?

The camera was a Nikon D850. This was locked down on a tripod and triggered remotely. To light the liquid and capture it at super high speed I used two Bowens XMT500 wireless studio lights. These can sync with the camera shutter up to 8000th of a second. This is quick enough to really freeze the dropping liquid. Soft boxes and large photographic scrims were used with the lights to ensure the highlights were diffused and didn’t appear too harsh.    

How did you set up the objects in studio—what was used to capture the image? 

  There were really two shoots required to create the image. The first was capturing pigments being poured over a skull (not real of course!). The skull was clamped to the end of a boom arm and photographed whilst numerous water-based paints were poured over it.

  The second shoot was to capture the abstract pigments themselves. First a large glass tank was part-filled with clear mineral oil. Then coloured paints were dropped into the tank and captured using a very short shutter speed. When paint interacts with mineral oil it doesn’t disperse like in water. Instead it appears quite solid and globular. The effects can be pretty interesting!

A behind the scenes look at the tank used to drop paint into.
Unedited photographs of the paint dropped in oil that Paul will use as part of his composition.
Two different photos of the paint dropped into oil.
How long did the shoot take?

In total the shoot took just over a day to capture. Aside from the initial setting up of the lights, a lot of the time is spent capturing the right moment when the paint interacts with the oil in the tank. This is very tricky to get the timing right.  

What considerations did you give to lighting, how was it set up?

Things can get messy when you’re dealing with liquids in photography. So, some thought was given to protecting surfaces and equipment. It’s also tricky shooting something so small. Some of these liquid structures are only 10-15 cm in length. A lot of test shots needed to be taken to ensure the camera was set to the correct focal plane. This ensured everything captured was in focus.


A sketch showing the photography set up used to photograph the oil in the tank.

How do you go about compositing the different images together and is there anything you take into consideration when shooting to make the editing process easier?

When dealing with liquids such as these it’s difficult to control the outcome of each shot. To give myself enough flexibility when compositing the images, I try to capture batches of similar image types. For example, I may shoot a set whereby black is the primary colour dropped into the tank. Then followed by magenta. Or I may try a series of subtle pours first, followed by larger quantities afterwards.

Another thing to take into consideration is that small specs of each pigment can begin to fill the tank over time. These can be pretty time consuming to remove in post afterwards. For this reason, it is best to leave the tank to settle between shoots.   Once captured I generally run through the images first, rating each one. Once I feel I have an interesting and varied batch I then begin colour adjusting and lightly retouching the shots ready to start building the image.   In terms of compositing the image I usually either sketch or roughly plan out the composition before diving straight in. However, even with planning it often takes some time to find the right images for the right spot within the image.  

The unedited photo of the skull with pink paint dripped over it,
The unedited photo of the skull with black paint dripped over it.


How long does your editing/compositing process take?

I can’t recall exactly how long it took for this particular image. However, it often takes at least a few full days in total to pull together a complex image such as this. Sometimes longer depending on how many things you decide to change each time you revisit the image.  

This was your first time using Affinity Photo, how was your experience? What was your favourite tool in Affinity?

When I heard Affinity had created image editing/compositing software to use on the iPad Pro I was very interested indeed. I love the idea of being able to import, edit and composite complex imagery from absolutely anywhere. Affinity Photo did not disappoint. The interface, tools and filters are very intuitive to use, especially for those who may be familiar with other professional image editing software on the market.  

“I love the idea of being able to import, edit and composite complex imagery from absolutely anywhere.”

I’m still in the early stages of exploring Affinity so am not aware of every tool/function Affinity has to offer. That said, the things I like the most relate directly to being able to work on the iPad Pro. For example, painting or plotting a mask onto a layer feels so much more natural and fluid working with a pen directly onto an image on the screen. Granted, I know this has always been the case when using screen tablets and pens linked to desktop machines, but the iPad Pro is way more mobile. Retouching imagery is also great for exactly the same reason.  

Would you use it again?

Yes! I’ll most certainly be integrating it into my day-to-day working method. I’ve also been exploring Affinity Designer which also offers a very powerful illustration tool for designers/illustrators. The two work very well together.  

The final image.

About the photographer

Paul Hollingworth’s fascination for photography was born out of his love of design. Photography started as a means to capture material for his graphic design work but soon became a medium of exploration for all things weird and wonderful. From skulls dripped in paint to wild landscapes and almost abstract macros.

Check out more of Paul’s work on his website, buy art prints of Paul’s work at Curioos and follow him on Instagram.

Artist relations

Charlotte is an illustrator and arts lecturer who is passionate about the creative industries and is now part of our artist relations team. Her interests include mid 20th century inspired design, comic books, board games, movie memorabilia, baking cakes, feminism and yoga. She shares her 1960’s home with her graphic designer husband and her toddler son who likes to hide her iPad. Get in touch with Charlotte if you have work you have made in Affinity apps to share with us, or tag your work with #madeinaffinity in the usual places.

Credits & Footnotes

All images are copyright of Paul Hollingworth and used with permission.