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Photographing Oil & Water Abstracts

Updated on July 7, 2014
CC BY-ND 2.0
CC BY-ND 2.0 | Source

Wonder why oil & water don't mix?

"All About Polarity...

Water is a polar molecule and this is a key reason why water and oil do not mix. Wondering what polarity is? Polarity is when one end is positively charged while the other end is negatively charged. Each water molecule is made of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. But the atoms are not arranged in a line. The two hydrogen atoms cling to one side of the oxygen atom making the molecule look something like a Mickey Mouse head. The electrons in the molecule spend more time on the oxygen side of the molecule, giving this side a negative charge and the hydrogen side a positive charge. Only other polar molecules can dissolve in water because polar molecules dissolve only in polar solvents and non-polar molecules dissolve only in non-polar solvents.

Oil and water don't mix because oil is made up of non-polar molecules while water molecules are polar in nature. Because water molecules are electrically charged, they get attracted to other water molecules and exclude the oil molecules. This eventually causes the oil molecules, or lipids, to clump together."

There are several home photographic projects for when you feel like staying indoors, doing some studio work or the weather is not on your side.

However, one of the easiest ones to do involves a few simple ingredients and does not cost you anything except a few minutes to set up.

All that is really required is a bowl or small container with a few inches of water, a few drops of vegetable or olive oil and some colorful backgrounds which are nothing more than some colored paper sheets or index cards, even some cloth.

You may try to use a square baking pan that does not have a logo right in the center of it since it may show in the final images, but if you do not have one a simple glass bowl will do.

Among the gear that you will also need is a macro flash/ring flash or a regular flash unit set above the setup and fitted with a diffuser which can be as simple as a white cloth placed in front of the flash.

A tripod and a mechanical or electronic shutter release do come in handy too in order to minimize the chances of capturing camera shake.

Also make sure to clean and dry the container with a lint free rag or you risk the chance of including floating fibers in your shots.

CC BY-SA 2.0
CC BY-SA 2.0 | Source

Think this is a fun, easy project to try at home?

See results

The best set up is to get the glass container where you will put the water and the drops of oil and raise it above the surface of the table with a couple of books or CD cases; in other words, you need to raise it by the ends so that you can place the colored paper,cards or cloth right underneath the center.

A great surface is a coffee table with a glass center or you can use the glass cover of a photo frame and raise it by its four corners.

This creates the "backdrop". Now set up your camera on the tripod and aim it at the center of the container. You will need a lens that lets you get in close and focus closely on the water surface. make sure the flash or light source is aimed also at the center of this set up and from above it.

Remember you are doing this from above the set up so your tripod needs to have a head that lets you swivel and pan up and down.

Drop a few drops of the oil, wait for the oil to settle and after focusing on a specific "oil" drop or several, depending on your lens, start taking the photographs.

A good variation besides the colored "backdrop" is to add a few drops of food coloring of your choice to the water and mix it before you add the oil.

If everything goes well, you should now see perfectly round circles floating atop the water's surface. The purpose of using a colored backdrop is to enhance the view of the oil circles since they are mostly transparent.

So practice with various colors to judge for yourself which produces a better effect.

CC BY 2.0
CC BY 2.0 | Source
CC BY 2.0
CC BY 2.0 | Source

Practice by letting the camera select the settings and by using the manual mode, using various f-stops and shutter speeds.

Do not forget to set the controls of the camera to accept or rather recognize that you are using a flash. In most cameras this is usually the shutter speed indicated for flash photography and in older models, a speed of 60.

Another good variation is to use colored translucent plastic sheets like the ones sold at office supply stores for protecting documents and use this instead of a colored paper, or cloth.

If going this route, place another light source below the setup and illuminate it up from below. You will need a clear surface table for this or alternatively, raise the glass container high enough of the surface to allow it.

This video really explains the set up well

This project is not a new one so these types of images are plentiful, but you can always use your finished product in any photo related publication, an eBook or as unique works of art prints.

Since you have the bowl, water and your gear set up you may also conduct a separate abstract project but instead of using oil you now use dish soap or any other liquid that creates an iridescent quality once it mixes with the water. For this project try not to mix the liquid with the water. It is better to add a few drops and let it sit.

Research which liquids are best for this before you start. Good results can be achieved using mica powder. A good one is Pearl Ex Powdered Pigment or Sepp Leaf Mica Powder which are fine grained mica powders available at many craft stores. Most small jars can run about $22.00 and the beauty of these products is that they have many other arts/crafts applications.

Anyway it will keep you shooting even if the weather does not plus you get to use your macro lenses and close up gear one more time.

Another cool thing is that no two images are alike. They may look exactly alike, but they are not really the exact same. Just though you should know that.

© 2014 Luis E Gonzalez


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    • LuisEGonzalez profile imageAUTHOR

      Luis E Gonzalez 

      5 years ago from Miami, Florida

      AliciaC; Thank you. Hope you have fun doing it!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 

      5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This project looks like great fun! I love the results. Thanks for sharing the instructions.

    • LuisEGonzalez profile imageAUTHOR

      Luis E Gonzalez 

      5 years ago from Miami, Florida

      tirelesstraveler: Thanks. Hope you enjoy it

    • tirelesstraveler profile image

      Judy Specht 

      5 years ago from California

      Looks fun. Will put it on my list of things to do.

    • LuisEGonzalez profile imageAUTHOR

      Luis E Gonzalez 

      5 years ago from Miami, Florida

      alancaster149; you are correct, although this project involves oil bubbles in water, visiting any of the places you mentioned provides for an added alternative. I will see what's near me.

    • LuisEGonzalez profile imageAUTHOR

      Luis E Gonzalez 

      5 years ago from Miami, Florida

      Sallybea; Thank you so much

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 

      5 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Hello Luis, me again.

      Best places to see the results of water and oil not mixing is in old industrial sites, garages or depots (as long as you don't get in the way of working), even lock-up garage sites. These days, with many industrial concerns going to the wall, and before the developers get their fencing sorted to keep out those who do not belong (like thee and me), get around with your camera.

      Broken glass in windows where juveniles with bricks have already been, oil slicks and puddles between corrugated iron structures - keep away from asbestos-lagged buildings - is always good for images (you can tell I come from an area of industrial decline).

      Old mine sites (plenty of them in the north of most countries, UK, US, Germany, Italy, France) give lots of opportunities for photography with regards to artificial/industrial waste fluids, with lots of erratic patterns.

      Give it a try - I'm sure there must be that sort of thing even in sunny Fla.

    • sallybea profile image

      Sally Gulbrandsen 

      5 years ago from Norfolk


      Love this idea and it is something I have been meaning to experiment with for sometime. I have bookmarked this one so that I can come back as soon as I have a few minutes to spare.

      Thanks so much for sharing this.



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