Monday, May 21, 2018

Fun With Photography: Abstract Art Using Ink Drops in Water

If you're looking for a cheap and easy (and low waste) fun photo project to try at home, it's hard to beat playing with ink drops (food colouring in my case) in water to create your own abstract photo art.  No special supplies or materials are needed other than a few basic household items.  Here's the scoop and some tips/tricks for creating your own.

To stage the ink drops in water, you will need water and water soluble ink (food colouring is safe, easy, and inexpensive). Tips: Cold water has slightly slower dye movement so more opportunity for shooting, but things still move quickly and the water will become muddy.  Full carefully to minimise air, and allow your water to settle out any bubbles from filling before you start shooting.  Have a dump bucket and a jug of replacement water and/or extra prepped containers ready to swap out.  For visibility of the drops moving in the water, you will need a clear container with flat sides, at least on your shooting side to avoid distortion. Tips: Flat glass is usually optically clearer, but plastic works fine for photo fun and most folks are more likely to have a few suitable plastic containers around the house than flat glass. Check carefully to ensure that it is clean and clear of imperfections or scratches that may affect your image.  Narrow containers will constrain the swirls if you want more control over movement and mixing. 

Set your work area up with a mess-safe surface (just in  case!) and keep a rag/towel handy in case it is needed. Bright but diffuse ambient light at the front/sides is helpful for shooting and the drops are clearest against bright white backdrop I shot these (old) photos outside as I can be a bit clumsy and thus can't be trusted with vats of inky water indoors. As such, I was without electricity and  reluctant to get anything nice messy, so experimented with both white paper and my iPad on blank white bright. Not bad, but the iPad was limited (size, position, angles...) and a bigger brighter plain white backing would have been even better. 

In addition to a digital camera, a tripod is helpful for steady bright sharp shots. You can hand hold (although focus is also tricky - see tips below) or support the camera on another stable surface for stability if a tripod isn't an option.  Tips: Since the movement of the drops can make autofocus difficult, it can help to switch to manual (if your camera is capable) and pre-set your focal point using a temporary place marker in the water before you start dropping ink.  If you are using this method and your camera is capable, you can also use a remote or continuous shooting to maximise your captured image options.

From there, it's all about experimenting and having fun! Drop one or two drops of a single colour, multi drop, layer, your imagination is the limit! Even in cold water, the food colouring will move, spread, and mix quickly so work fast!  Fortunately, these are inexpensive sacrificial supplies so you can keep on trying different things.  When the water muddies, enjoy a few extra inky images (you never know what magic you may find) and then swap it for a fresh base.

In addition to different ink drops and combinations, experiment with different camera settings during change overs and see the different effects that positioning and/or depth have on the style of the images you are creating. Tips: Your camera settings play a role the look and feel of your captured droplets. At minimum, you need to shoot fast enough to freeze the moving target clearly, but depth is a matter of taste. I decided that I rather liked ethereal abstract drops, so was happy to sacrifice some depth, but if you want clarity through a wider depth of filed, you'll want to use a higher F-stop which requires either a slower shot or higher ISO for the same exposure levels.  


  1. Whoa, your photos are so cool! Such a great idea. I wonder if you could add something to the water to make it more viscous (maybe gelatine sheets?), so the dye moves even slower? I might give this a go - thanks for the idea!

    The Crafty Gentleman | DIY and Crafts

    1. Thanks, Mike! I'm not sure about additives for shoot-through pictures most things I can think of would affect the natural dye flow and/or water clarity.

      If you were shooting the movement from outside, like macro droplet splashes, additives are an option. Some folks use additives like rinse aid for surface viscosity or glycerine (or other sugar/syrup) for thickener, or opt to swap water for a naturally thicker splash medium, like milk or cream.

      Hope that helps! :)

  2. Wow! This looks like so much fun! I will have to try this, just to take some cool pictures! Thank you!


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