Oil and water

In the present lockdown situation, there has been the opportunity to take up different photographic projects that due to a busy lifestyle you would not normally have the time to complete.  My photography revolves around my job which is travelling to conferences, my daily commute into Birmingham and the growing family.  I have tried my hand at other forms of photography but not really had the time to look at it in detail.  I belong to a photographic group which is part of the BritshTechNetwork and the convenor Ewen Rankin, a professional photographer has been setting us photographic tasks (https://www.britishtechnetwork.com/category/photo).  These have been included water droplets and colourful reflections on the top of bubbles. 

The one that I found fascinating was oil on water.  I have revisited the technique a couple of times and I was very pleased that one of my pictures was selected in the Top 4 of a recent #ShareMondays2020 competition on Twitter.  I therefore decided to write up how I obtained the colourful picture and show you how straightforward the technique can be.  If done well it does produce very striking colourful abstract photographs.


The set-up is fairly simple.  You need a sturdy tripod with a horizontal arm that can help position the camera over the water.  A good deep bowl is needed, here a glass Pyrex water jug is used.  I have a small raised table that I use for my laptop work.  The jug is placed on a colourful background on the table.  In this case I have used a well-known children’s book and there is a patchwork of different colours that will provide an interesting background.  A strong light source is needed and I have placed this to lean into the jug.  Please be careful as there is a mix of electrical wires and water so do take the necessary precautions.  The continuous light was provided by a Rotolight NEO2 set at an angle.  My work table has some grooves which allowed the light to be stabilised at the base.

What is needed – Tripod, washing up liquid, Camera with macro lens, NEO2, Olive Oil, Colour background, teaspoon and water jug and small table to place jug on.
Positioning the light against the jug of water placed on the background


A small amount of Olive oil is placed in a teaspoon and dropped onto the surface of the water.  It is often difficult to make out the oil on the water so it is with careful trial and error that the macro lens is positioned to focus on the water surface and the oil.  The teaspoon is also used to gently stir the water although later we agitate the surface more vigorously.  

Camera settings

The camera used was a Canon D5 with a 100mm macro lens.  The focus was set at f/2 which throws the background out of focus.  I used a fast shutter speed (s/250) as the oil droplets will circulate quickly as it gets stirred up more and more.  Using live view assists with the focussing.  I upped the ISO to 800 so that I got a clear image on the back of the camera. I adjusted the set up so that I could bring a chair up close in order to sit comfortably and just concentrate on the photography.  Manual focus was used throughout to ensure sharp pictures. 

Advanced technique

After the oil is photographed then the next steps include adding washing up liquid to the water.  This changes the surface tension of the water and introduces more shapes.  It also creates more bubbles which can once again be guided by the teaspoon.  Changing the firing mode to continuous shooting allows you to capture different combinations as the water moves around following stirring/agitation.  Also remember to move, position or change the background to get different colour effects.


The pictures are uploaded into Lightroom for processing and you are free to follow your normal preferred settings.  There may be a need for creative cropping to get the best abstract picture.  I like looking at the shapes and the symmetry or just letting my artistic decisions rule my cropping.  Two tips for oil and water pictures.  Increase your saturation levels to a much higher setting than normal.  The water absorbs the light and your pictures will initially look dull.  Increasing the saturation compensates for this and gives pleasing results.  I also move the picture into Photoshop where I apply an unsharp mask and adjust the levels to give the best exposure.  

The saturation is increased to around 40 in Lightroom


This technique is straightforward and produces some stunning abstract photography that you will be proud to display on your monitor or on your wall.  It is easy to set up and is a useful introduction into macro photography.  Have fun and enjoy taking the photographs.

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4 years ago

Great write up Dammo and congrats on the shortlisting. Hats off to Bubbleman. At the end there!

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