Aquatopiary: The Photo Trick that Sculpts Water into Shapes

Extra photos for bloggers: 1, 2, 3

Bored of photographing plain old water?

Try an Aquatopiary, the incredible photo trick that sculpts water into shapes. (If you can splash around in a tub, you can make an Aquatopiary.)

All you need is something glass or plastic, a bucket of good old H20, and some digital jiggery-pokery.

Soon enough, magical shape-shifting splashes will become a swan, an elephant, a train, a face.

Bending water and reality? All in a day’s work for a photo wizard like you.

How to Make Aquatopiary

p.s. We’re hiring in San Francisco! Must write sharp copy, know how to spread ideas, and eat social media for breakfast. info…

p.p.s. Thanks to returning sponsor New York Institute of Photography for supporting Photojojo. Grab a free course catalog!

What You’ll Need

  • Very bright lights (or a sunny day)
  • Access to water
  • A black garbage bag
  • A clear glass or plastic object
  • A white backdrop for the object
  • A measuring cup
  • Packaging or duct tape
  • A mic or light stand
  • A tripod
  • Photoshop or a free alternative

Step One: Catch Some Rays

Your first task is to get outside and find someplace sunny! Plan your shoot in a location with easy access to sun, water, and drainage. A driveway or lawn works well.

You’ll also need very bright light — like, direct-sun bright — so you can set your shutter speed to at least 1/2000 second. Even better: 1/4000. It’s hard to get that much light indoors without a professional setup, so you’ll either need some really bright lights or a nice bright sunny day.

Step Two: Set up Surroundings

Once you have a good spot staked out, start by attaching your clear glass or plastic object firmly to a mic or light stand. The less it’s able to move, the better.

You’ll need a completely blank white backdrop for this shoot, smooth and free of wrinkles. We used one of those large sticky presentation-pads of paper. Tape it behind the clear object, and make sure it can’t move too much — slight changes in its position could affect how bright it looks.

You’ll get nicer contrast in your photos if there are big black shapes just off to the side. Tape black plastic garbage bags all around your subject on all sides so that the splashes reflect dark contours — but make sure they don’t cast a shadow on your object or backdrop.

Step Three: Camera Settings

Set your camera up on a tripod, and lock it tight — don’t let it move around, even a little bit! The same goes for the lens: set the the focus to manual so that it doesn’t change.

Set your shutter speed to at least 1/2000 — the faster, the better. And set your ISO to the lowest speed possible. We’ll be doing some post-processing, so it’s important to have as little grain as possible. Aim for ISO 100 or 200.

Your whitebalance and aperture will depend on your specific lighting conditions. The whitebalance should look as close to neutral white as possible; and your aperture should be set to produce an image that has a bright white background and strong contrast in the black reflections from the plastic bags. Aim for a mid to high aperture — in the f/8 or f/16 range — because that’ll help keep the splashes in focus.

The important thing it to configure your camera once, before you start shooting, and to keep those settings consistent — focus, zoom, ISO, shutter, whitebalance — so your photos will match up later on.

Step Four: Splash!

Now’s the fun part: start splashing water over your object, snapping a shot just as the splash hits.

If your camera allows you to take multiple shots in rapid succession by holding down the shutter button, use that. It’ll make it much easier to capture just the right moment of splashing.

Get a shot of a good sharp splash on every angle and contour of your object. We’ll be stitching them all together later; for now, your goal should be to show water pouring over every inch of your subject. That’ll require lots and lots of photos — we wound up taking about 400.

Step Five: Stitching

When you’re satisfied that you have enough photos, bring ‘em on in to your computer and pick your best ones. Look for shots that show subtle ripples over the surface of the object.

Once you have a couple that you like, open them up in Photoshop and paste each one into a single document as its own layer. On each layer, click Layer | Layer Mask | Reveal All. Then use the brush set to the color black to paint out everything but the areas of each layer that you like.

As you go layer by layer, gradually your subject will emerge in little patchworks of splashes. It took us about ten different layers to get the whole object to appear. (Extra credit: try creating adjustment layers that tweak the color of your splash to look like a watery blue — click on the half-and-half circle at the bottom of the layers palette to set one of those up.)

As you paint in all of the little bits of each photo that you like, you should be eventually see your object emerge, now all aswirl in watery waves and spray. Well done, water-bender! You have commanded the seas to your whims. Or at least, a measuring cup of tap water to your whims.

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