Things You Can’t See (High-speed photography)

obic_water-9545Here’s a way to photograph things you can’t usually see – with ‘high-speed’ photography – using a fast shutter speed to ‘freeze’ motion and reveal patterns, shapes and formations that happen so quickly that they eye doesn’t have time to register them.

These things happen all the time in nature – think of the speed of the wings of a humming bird, a flash of lightning or even snowflakes landing on glass before they melt.

Unfortunately, is isn’t always possible to recreate these marvels of nature in a way that we can control – but there are things you can do.

For our November night of practical experimentation, we approached this with water: it is accessible, controllable and repeatable – a great subject to practise with – and the advantage is that once you’ve grasped the concept, you can use it on many other subjects. How much does a tennis ball compress and change its shape when it hits the ground? How does a drop of paint spread the moment it hits a hard surface? Give it a try!

This exercise isn’t about showing motion, it’s about stopping it and capturing a precise moment in time.

What’s a ‘fast’ shutter speed?

The simple answer is, it varies! Your shutter speed needs to be fast enough to freeze whatever motion you are trying to stop.

For this exercise, if you are using flash, you are limited to either 1/200th or 1/250th, depending on your camera (you can’t use standard speedlights with a faster shutter speed otherwise you’ll get black areas across your image). Fortunately, the flash also freezes the motion so it doesn’t matter too much.

But if you try this outdoors on a fairly bright day you may be able to use an even faster shutter speed, depending on how much available light there is.

What you need

Keep it simple!
  • Tank/container and water
  • Fruit
  • Camera – with telephoto or macro lens
  • Tripod
  • Speedlight (flashgun)/Natural light
  • Remote release (optional)
  • Good timing
  • Patience!

This was a really simple set-up: a flat-sided vase containing water, camera on a tripod, an 85mm lens, a white background, a remote release and a speedlight.

The remote release is optional, but you need one hand to drop the fruit and one hand to fire the camera – if you’re arms are long enough you can manage without the release. You can get remote releases (such as Vivitar or Qumox) for around £15 (many are also an intervalometer, so they’re great for star trials and time lapse).

You can use your camera’s small built-in flash to trigger the speedlight, set as a slave (on manual), and with its power and distance from the subject adjusted to give the right amount of light.

Try an aperture of around f5.6 to start with to give enough depth of field so that wherever you drop the fruit it should be in focus. Try an ISO setting of 200 and set you flash to 1/32 power.

Give your camera something to focus on
Give your camera something to focus on

Next, put something in the water to give the camera something solid to focus on and then switch to manual focus to lock it in place.

So then it is simply a case of timing the ‘drop’ and the releasing the shutter so that you catch the fruit just below the surface of the water. This takes a little practise and patience!

Finally, a little tweak in Lightroom or Photoshop to increase contrast, clarity and vibrance… and voila! See the final image below..

So now, over to you… what motion can you ‘freeze’ that our eyes don’t normally see?

For inspiration, check these links:

We look forward to seeing your results!

(Dave King)

The final image
The final image