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Summer vibes: how to create a refreshing water splash photo composition

Talented still life photographer Dina Belenko shares her process for creating a refreshing water splash photo composition with flying fruit. Let’s dive in!

Adding some dynamism to food photography is always a great idea! It’s an even better idea when shooting refreshing summer scenes with an enticing glass of cold lemonade. But we can do even better than that. Let’s try to wrap delicious fruits in a water splash, like a summer bouquet!

A behind the scenes look at the set up and editing of the Summer Splash photograph.

1. Pick Your Props

First of all, we need to gather fruits. Lemons, limes and oranges work best because they are rather sturdy and can manage a bit of rough handling. Pears and apples work great too, just make sure to apply some lemon juice to their cut surface, so it won’t get dark and unappetising. Peaches and apricots are fine as long as they are not too soft. Kiwi fruits and mangoes may be a headache, they are not hard enough and can be really messy when you try to levitate them. Choose wisely.

Second, we need a simple kitchen funnel. It will help us to shape our splash giving us some amount of control. And finally, some means to fix the funnel and the fruits in the air. In my case, it’s masking tape for the funnel and long needles as well as knitting needles or wooden skewers for fruits. Also, I used a couple of clamps normally used in embroidery and DIY projects, but they are perfect for levitation and cost way less than professional equipment.

Dina’s props for the shoot

2. Prepare to freeze the motion

The gear we are going to need here is very simple, basically, a camera and a tripod. But the lighting is a little bit tricky. The lighting is what makes the splash sharp and clear.

The magical thing that freezes water in motion is not a short shutter speed, but a short flash duration. So the trick of high-speed photography is done by your light source, not by your camera. The duration is exactly that—the amount of time that the flash is actually on, emitting light.

“The magical thing that freezes water in motion is not a short shutter speed, but a short flash duration. So the trick of high-speed photography is done by your light source, not by your camera.”

For high-speed photography, you can use strobes or hot shoe flashes (speedlights). Basically, anything that gives short enough impulse (about 1/4000 s or even shorter) will be perfect. This is the speed that helps freeze liquid in motion with all the sharpness!

I use two speedlights SB-910. They are affordable, easy to use and provide the impulse quick enough to give the freezing effect I want. The important thing to remember is to keep power settings reduced to 1/32 or 1/64 of full power. Because as the power gets lower, the duration gets shorter and has a better ability to freeze motion. That results in low light, but that’s why I have two speedlights, not one. If you have only one light source, you can compensate for that by opening the aperture and increasing ISO.

3. Experiment with the shape of the splash

Splashes are extremely hard to control. I wish I could use special robots to get splashes with exact forms I want, but I have to make do with much cheaper solutions. One of which is a mundane kitchen funnel.

I wanted to create a splash that can wrap my subject like paper wraps a bouquet of flowers. And after some experiments with cups and plates, I found out that pouring water on the outer surface of the funnel gives me exactly the splash I need! It’s not precise, but it’s still better than pouring liquids by hand hoping for a lucky shot.

Dina taking a test shot of the water.

So, before you start pouring water over a carefully put together arrangement of fruits, take test shots to find an angle to pour the liquid and the cup you like to use. Try different amounts of liquid and different angles. Note how cups of different volumes can affect the shape of the splash. And pay attention to the distribution of liquid. If you pour too much liquid on the front side of the funnel, it would simply cover your main object making it invisible.

So, take some time to practice just to get the feel of the motion you need to do in order to get the ideal splash.

4. Keep your gear safe

The greatest advantage of this trick is that it creates less mess than other ways to shoot splashes. Just place a large container right below the funnel to collect most of the falling water, and voila! You’ll only get a couple of stray drops on the floor. But still, take some time to protect your gear from the water just to be on the safe side.

Try to place your camera as far from the scene as possible. If you can’t do it, cover it with a plastic bag leaving a hole for the lens.

5. Prepare the scene

Time to get back to our main heroes. Cut your fruit and create a simple arrangement with them overlapping and balancing on top of each other. Use long needles or pieces of wire to keep the slices together. Note, that we are going to turn this arrangement upside down later, so keep this in mind when you plan your composition.

Dina securing the orange pieces with long needles attached to a clamp.

Don’t worry if your needles and supports are visible, just make sure they don’t overlap with something of a complicated texture. For example, you can see two needles in the slice of grapefruit. I put them in a white, untextured part of the slice. They are visible, yes, but they are just two dark dots I can easily delete later in post-processing.

After you have fixed the fruit arrangement nice and steady, fix the kitchen funnel right above it. I simply taped it to an arm of my usual reflector holder, which is pretty stable.

Dina getting the fruit in place and securing the funnel.

6. Set up the lights

As long as you’re working with a light that provides a short duration, you can use any lighting scheme you like. My favourite one is this: one speedlight in a small a stripbox on the right and slightly behind the scene (the key light), another speedlight behind a large diffuser on the left side (the fill light). Both of them are set on low power (from 1/16 up to 1/128) because it shortens the flash duration allowing us to freeze the motion of the water. Set your camera in a burst mode (continuous high) to take a few shots in a row.

I also added a black flag near the stripbox to cut some light from the background and make it darker. Furthermore, it’s better to focus manually. Sometimes autofocus doesn’t work well, especially in continuous mode — it slows things down and tends to make mistakes. One more thing to do and you’re ready to shoot!

Dina’s lighting set up.

7. Take a shot!

Is it steady? Good! Take a ‘black canvas’ shot with just fruits. You’ll need it later when a leaf or an unlucky slice falls off. Now, we’re ready for the most fun part!

Finally, pour some water on an outer side of the funnel taking a sequence of shots. Rinse and repeat. Since your tripod allows you to keep your camera steady, you can make as many tries as you like.

The water making different shapes as it is poured over the oranges.

I also took a couple of shots with leaves I held with tweezers near the fruit. You could just scatter them, but I needed them ‘falling’ in particular places and that was the easiest way to do it.

The best shot rotated upside down ready for post-processing.

8. Tweak it in post-processing

Now you can just pick the best shot, turn it upside down, delete all visible supports for the fruit with Clone Stamp or Patch Tool and be done with it. Or you can merge different takes into one excellent image.

Dina’s stages of post-processing.

Pick the best shots, place them on separate layers, one above another, like a sandwich. Create a Layer Mask and use a large, soft brush to conceal the area you don’t want to be visible. Since our background is quite smooth, that should be nice and easy. After that, all that’s left is to adjust the colours and contrast. And voila! Your perfect summer splash photo is ready!

The final image.

9. Try it again!

This trick may find a lot of use in creative food photography. I strongly suggest trying it with chocolate, milk, orange juice or coffee. Say, create a ‘bouquet’ of tropical fruits with a juice splash. Or shoot an ice cream with a dynamic splash of milk.

Chocolate and coffee splashes captured by Dina.

And if you’re more into cool still life images, try it with water and flowers. Here is another example to get your imagination running.

A still life image with splashing water captured by Dina.

Sure, high-speed liquid photography can be messy and requires some patience, but in the end, the resulting image is totally worth the effort. Capturing an action that’s too fast for a human eye makes the perfect recipe to get stunning images. So, best of luck with your experiments! Stay inspired!

About the creator

Dina Belenko is a still life photographer and 500px Brand Ambassador. She tells magical stories behind everyday inanimate objects. When she isn’t busy shooting conceptual still life and food on commission, she writes photography and photo editing tutorials.

Check out her tutorial on creating floating food compositions and flaming creatures on Affinity Spotlight.

You can also see more of Dina’s amazing work on 500px, Instagram, Twitter and her website.