It is said that boys don’t grow up, but that their toys just get more and more expensive. There’s one addition to my photo toy bag that goes against the grain: A set of brightly coloured pieces of plastic, each measuring about 5x15cm. In total, they cost as much as a pint or two down the pub. And just like some say that a few pints will make any member of the opposite sex look attractive, these small pieces of plastic also smarten things up. The idea being, that if you put a piece of coloured plastic in front of your flash, then the light from the flash will appear coloured rather than white.

It’s the same idea as the pretty coloured lights on a West End stage show – they are also created by putting a piece of coloured plastic – or gels as they are known as – in front of the spotlights.

I had read about how various theatrical outfits would happily give away sample “books” (as in a small batch) of these gels, but after emailing several suppliers and receiving polite “sorry, but we don’t do that anymore” replies, I eventually decided on buying a set. I guess the free samples are meant for people in the industry who might eventually place a large order. So I had to cough up a fiver for a box full of small pieces of coloured plastic.

Now I only needed to figure out what to do with them. What subject could I snap a picture of, with colourful flash-light added? After much deliberation, I decided on throwing a strawberry into a martini glass filled with water (what? Am I the only person who regularly throws berries in water instead of eating them?) and use the gels to add a colourful background.

Strawberry splash on blue background

Strawberry splash on blue background

The trick to photographing water splashes is to use a flash to “freeze” the water drops in mid air. A typical flash duration is between 1/2,000 sec and 1/16,000 sec. So if shutter/aperture is set so that the ambient light in the room (such as electric light and/or sunlight coming in through the windows) doesn’t register on the picture at all, then the only exposure will be caused by the ultra quick flash light.

The initial setup was quite simple. A piece of white paper taped to the bathroom wall, a chair standing in the bath to support the glass and a flash with a fancy new piece of blue plastic aimed at the background. I picked an aperture of f/16 and shutter of 1/200 sec which served two purposes: It ensured water drops in front of or behind the glass would still be sharp, and it ensured that the ambient light didn’t contribute at all to the picture.

The first test shot showed a nice blue background, and a murky dark strawberry. With the flash being aimed at the background and being reflected from here, the side of the strawberry facing away from the camera was (I’m guessing here) nicely illuminated by the reflected blue light. But the side of the berry facing the camera did not receive any direct light, and hence showed up almost as a silhouette.

Water suspended in mid air

Water suspended in mid air

This was easily solved by adding a flash in front of and to the side of the glass which illuminated glass and berry. To also get some light on the other side of the strawberry, I put a piece of white foam board up next to the glass to act as a reflector.

There was maybe 10” from glass to background. Even a small strawberry dropped in shallow water makes quite a splash, so it didn’t take long until my backdrop had water running down over it. To avoid that, I moved the chair with the glass out into the middle of the bathroom. Taking it out of the bath also lowered it, so I had to put our largest saucepan upside-down on the chair and the glass on top of that to get the glass back up so it was higher than the bath. I’m sure people who do this kind of thing on a regular basis must have invented a proper martini-glass-and-water-drop-support system, but this ghetto-setup worked fine for me.

To spice things up a little, I added my last flash with a green gel aimed at the background but from camera right. This gave a nice blue/green gradient tone to the background.

With the light sorted, it was now just a matter of letting a strawberry drop into the water and try to press the shutter button on the remote at the appropriate time. Getting the timing right was surprisingly easy after a few tests.

When I got tired of the cool blue/green background, it was a 30 seconds job to swap the gels for a red and yellow one and get a nice, warm background.

The last refinement was to take a piece of black foam core, put it on the sauce pan and put an old glass shelf on top of it and then stand the glass on this. A sheet of glass with black underneath makes an excellent mirror.

As an added bonus, there was water all over the bathroom floor once I had finished snapping these photos. So not only did I get to play with my camera, I also got to wash the bathroom!