How to Photograph Food Coloring or Dye Dropped in Water

A picture of dye dropped in water
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Not all "fancy" photographs come from hours upon hours of boring light setups and expensive locales. Sometimes the most mundane things create the most spectacular results. Food coloring dropped into water is one of these things that produce limitless variations of intricate details for a photographer. While certain equipment may make the shot easier, almost anyone with a basic pocket digital camera can easily get great results with this fun photo subject.

Supplies Needed

  • Digital Camera - You can do this with film, but a digital camera will make it much simpler to get your exposure right.
  • Glass Container - Unlike our fruit falling through water tutorial, for this technique, the quality of the glass container does matter. Because we'll be working with very small objects, imperfections in the glass will show easily. Pick a container with straight sides and good quality glass. A small rectangular fish tank or thin square vase works well. You can also make your glass container by using 5x7 picture frame glass and aquarium silicone if you cannot find a suitable container.
  • Food Coloring - Food coloring is cheap and easy to find at your local grocery store. You can also experiment with paint, cream, and other liquids.
  • Bright Light/White Background - You don't need to have studio lighting although it helps. Some options for the light you'll need are:
    • Your computer screen with a white page open and the brightness turned all the way up
    • A work light from the hardware store and a white sheet (higher the thread count the better)
    • Remote trigger flash with White Foamcore Board
    • Continuous lighting in a softbox
  • Sturdy Surface for Your Camera - A tripod, a beanbag pillow, or even a stack of books will work for this project.
  • Camera Remote - This is not required, but it will make this move much quicker for you when you are just getting started. If you don't have a remote for your camera, don't worry, I'll tell you how to get around that.

Setting up the Light/Background

The light source for this project is behind the subject. If you were to attempt a flash from the front of the tank, you would get awful glare and lose much of the depth of the shapes. The object is to have an overexposed white background behind the food color with the light shining through the colors. The exact setup varies a bit depending on your light situation.

  • Computer Screen - If you are using your computer screen for the background, set your computer wallpaper to a blank white screen and hid the icons. Or open a blank word processing file and fill the screen with that. Then turn the brightness on your computer all the way up.
  • Remote Trigger Flash w/White Foamcore Board - If you have stands, clamp the foam core board to the stand at the height your water tank will be. Otherwise, you can brace the board in a chair, tape it to the wall, or prop it up with books or other objects behind it. Set up your remote flash(es) to light up the board so that the light bounces back into the tank.
  • Work Light and White Sheet - Hang up a work light (or several) and hang a white sheet in front of the lights (please be careful not to let the sheets get too close as work lights are very hot). You may need to iron the sheet first to get the wrinkles out. If the work light creates a central bright spot rather than spreading roughly even across the area the size of your tank you can fold the sheet to make it thicker and diffuse the light a bit more.
  • Continuous Lighting in a Softbox - Set up the softbox behind where the water tank will be and turn on the lights.
Empty photographic studio
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Setting up the Tank

Setting up the tank is very simple. Just set it in front of your white background and leave yourself enough room in front of your camera. You can set it on a table, on the floor, or raise the tank with books if necessary to level it with your white background. Make sure the tank is parallel to the background. Fill the tank with water but leave the room at the top for splashes, so you don't risk getting food color everywhere. When filling the tank, use cold water to cut down on visible minerals in the water. Also, wipe off any air bubbles/water drops with a lint-free cloth.

Setting up the Camera

There are two options for setting up your camera. You can set the camera on a sturdy surface, or you can hand hold the camera. It is suggested that you hand hold the camera only if 1. Your camera does not have manual focus capability or 2. You do not have a remote release.

Whichever method you use, remember to turn off any flash that would hit the front of the water tank and keep your camera pointed straight at the front of the tank. Align the top of the frame with the waterline and make sure the camera is level with the waterline. Put the camera as close to the front of the tank as possible and still focus on the contents of the tank. Remember that 2/3 of your depth of field is behind your focus point and only 1/3 is in front of your focus point so don't plan your focus based on the center of the tank.

As a starting point, you must set the shutter speed to 1/500 of a second and the aperture to F10. Use whatever film speed is necessary to get a slightly overexposed background. Remember, you want to see the light coming through the color. If you can not get the exposure, you need these settings you can try a slightly slower shutter speed or smaller F-Stop. The narrower your water tank is, the less depth of field you'll need to capture the color in the water. The slower your shutter speed, the less crisp the shapes will be due to the motion of the color.

For Remote Release Cameras

  • Remember to turn off the image stabilization
  • Set the camera remote options for one frame per click of the remote without a timer delay
  • Set the manual focus using a chopstick or straw 1/3 of the way from the front of the tank as a focus guide.

Getting the Shot

Carefully so you don't drip on your camera or shake the water tank, add several drops of food color to the water in a plus shape. Take several photographs and double check your focus/exposure. Continue shooting until the color no longer looks interesting to you. Don't panic over the speed of starting the photographs; the color dye moves rather slowly so you'll have plenty of time to get great shots. Start with one color at a time until you get comfortable with the process. Then you can begin to mix and blend your colors.

Drinking glasses with colored dye
Grove Pashley / Getty Images

Post Processing

When working on your photos in your digital editing program like Photoshop Elements, Pixelmator, or ACDSee 10 the most common edits you'll need to make are to increase the color saturation slightly and use levels to increase the brightness of the scene. Also, try flipping the image vertically for a completely different composition.