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Photography: Oil And Water

Updated on August 15, 2014

Slow Motion Beauty of Oil On Water

Anyone new to photography will want to try the technique of shooting oil and water. As every single image will be different, the possibility of a capturing a few beautiful shots is good. One of the earliest photo tutorials I read about encouraged me to set up a photoshoot in my kitchen, using just water, ordinary cooking oil and a few household objects.

The fact that oil and water don't mix makes every image so different from the one before, and depending on how often you wish to change the background, you can shoot away until you have a wide range of images on the theme.

It becomes rather mesmerising after a while as you watch the slow movement of the oil globules as they glide their way over the water - what better way to relax!

The object of the exercise is to improve the quality of your photography and learn how to shoot using the Manual modes rather than always relying on Auto.

Take a look at some other abstract images here

OR click below for more general images:

Photo: © Rob Hemphill

How To Set Up Your Camera And Accessories

From your kitchen!

What you will need

Camera with lens - a macro lens works best, but it's probably not in everyone's kitbag, although for this exercise any telephoto lens that gives good zoom could be used. The closer detail you can see, the better.

Tripod - Vital for stability to avoiding camera shake.

Pyrex bowl - A clear water container.

Cooking oil - Only a few drops will be required.

Colored image - or material to be placed under the bowl.

Useful Photography Books - Help to improve your technique

What To Do Next

Setting up your shoot

  1. The pyrex bowl with water will need to be placed about 3-4" above the table top, then a light source can be shone from underneath. Get 2 lengths of 3"x2" pieces of wood, set them onto the table so they'll be able to support the bowl and image card at each side.
  2. Slide a piece of multicolored card, or other such brightly colored image, immediately under the bowl and also resting on the timbers.
  3. With the camera on a tripod beside the table, set it up it directly over the bowl (about 10-12" focal distance - depending on what type of lens you're using) facing down.
  4. Find a good light source, like a desk lamp or remote flash unit, and place under the image and bowl.
  5. Drip a small quantity of oil onto the water, and mix around a little.
  6. Take care to focus accurately on the oil and shoot away. To avoid camera shake, shoot using the timer or remote cable release - have fun, and I'll bet you'll get some great images

Rainbow Warrior

oil and water
oil and water

Buy from

ISO400, f5.6, 1/30

Shooting this was challenging to get the vivid colors to show through the main drop. I had to place a light under the bright colored backing image, and hope that a droplet would float over the exact point where the camera was pre-focused (on the surface of the water) where the light was brightest.

Photo: © Rob Hemphill

Oil and Water Don't Mix - Or Do They?

Oil and water don't mix - the mantra is familiar to every schoolchild. You have to shake them to overcome the forces that hold the oil together.

But If you were able to first remove any gas that's dissolved in the water, it will mix spontaneously and even stay that way indefinitely, according to chemist Ric Pashley of the Australian National University in Canberra.

If confirmed, the finding could provide clues to one of chemistry's most puzzling phenomena. This is the so-called long-range hydrophobic force, which causes oil surfaces to attract one another over what to chemists are remarkably long distances.

Read more here...

from NewScientist

Image by Rob Hemphill

What Flash Do I Use?

You mustn't use the on-camera flash for this project as all you'll get is the reflected glare back from the water surface.

The recommended way to photograph the oil, is by shining the light up from underneath, projecting the beam upwards through the water and oil, thus giving nice bright colors. The simplest way is just to shine a torch or desk lamp, however, if you want to get creative, use an off-camera flash unit such as a Speedlight. These can be used on camera or placed remotely, to receive a wireless signal, from the camera. Different color materials can be hung over the unit to change the base color scheme.

See Speedlights and Pocket Wizards on Amazon, and read useful reviews by clicking links below:

Mother Nature

oil and water
oil and water

Buy from

ISO200, f5.3, 1/60

This image shows a bubble caught in motion. The large bubble on the right has just bumped into the big bubble underneath, but as the shutter speed was set at 1/60 sec, it is in sharp focus.

Photo: © Rob Hemphill

Nikon D90 and macro lens
Nikon D90 and macro lens

The Best Macro Lens To Use

I have used a 105mm micro lens from Nikkor for all these images. As I have found this to be such an amazing close-up lens, I have written about it in detail outlining its technical specifications, with a gallery of images taken specifically with this macro.

The best Nikon macro lens has loads of information, and where to get the best deals for this lens.

Photo: © Rob Hemphill

All Things Oil And Water - Differences require tolerance

Engine Oil on a Water Puddle

oil on water
oil on water

ISO200, f11, 0.8

Shooting this was challenging, in order to get the vivid colors to show through the main drop. I had to place a light under the bright colored backing image, and hope that a droplet would float over the exact point where the camera was pre-focused (on the surface of the water), where the light was concentrated.

Photo: © Rob Hemphill

Oil on Water in Mirissa Harbor

Buy at

Oil Droplets Suspended on Surface of Water

Buy at

Oil and Water Photo Gallery

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Warm effect oil bubbles on waterNo flash used, just directional sunlightEngine oil dripped into water puddleAir bubbles surround the oilEngine oil with plenty of lens flareBlurry effectIntentional camera movement to create blurred motionBubble in hiding!Engine oil with purple cardCooking oil on water with tiny air bubbles as well
Warm effect oil bubbles on water
Warm effect oil bubbles on water
No flash used, just directional sunlight
No flash used, just directional sunlight
Engine oil dripped into water puddle
Engine oil dripped into water puddle
Air bubbles surround the oil
Air bubbles surround the oil
Engine oil with plenty of lens flare
Engine oil with plenty of lens flare
Blurry effect
Blurry effect
Intentional camera movement to create blurred motion
Intentional camera movement to create blurred motion
Bubble in hiding!
Bubble in hiding!
Engine oil with purple card
Engine oil with purple card
Cooking oil on water with tiny air bubbles as well
Cooking oil on water with tiny air bubbles as well

Do let me know whether you have tried this or any other similar technique to help further your photography skills.

Macro Comments In A Bubble, Please

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    • Merrci profile image

      Merry Citarella 4 years ago from Oregon's Southern Coast

      Amazing! Wonderful photos and so nice of you to show us how. I love the look. Never would have thought to photograph it. Thanks!

    • profile image

      dellgirl 4 years ago

      Wow, this is so beautiful and very interesting. Thanks for sharing these tips.

    • Wednesday-Elf profile image

      Wednesday-Elf 4 years ago from Savannah, Georgia

      Outstanding photos!

    • Diana Wenzel profile image

      Renaissance Woman 4 years ago from Colorado

      I love your images. Never thought to experiment with oil and water. Now I most definitely will try this. I use the same lens, a Nikkor 105mm, for macro photography. Truly an amazing piece of glass. Thanks for a very stimulating photo tutorial. Beautifully presented.

    • Sylvestermouse profile image

      Cynthia Sylvestermouse 4 years ago from United States

      Wow! These are fabulous photos! This will be a really fun exercise is refining my own photography skills. Thanks for the awesome lesson!!!

    • rob-hemphill profile image

      Rob Hemphill 4 years ago from Ireland

      @ZenandChic: I didn't have a glass table, just a glass bowl situated above the table allowing for a light to be shone from underneath, that is between the table top and the bowl.

    • ZenandChic profile image

      Patricia 4 years ago

      What if you don't have a glass table? It seems light underneathe won't shine through wood.

    • mbgphoto profile image

      Mary Beth Granger 4 years ago from O'Fallon, Missouri, USA

      This is fascinating. I will definitely give it a try.

    • JohnCumbow profile image

      JohnCumbow 4 years ago

      Interesting exercise. I'll have to try it out.

    • RoadMonkey profile image

      RoadMonkey 4 years ago

      This is a very interesting technique to try to with pyrex bowls and cooking oil, I already have all the tools I need. As it's a rainy afternoon, might just try this. Thanks very much for a great idea for getting my own individual colourful backgrounds. :)

    • steadytracker lm profile image

      steadytracker lm 4 years ago

      Fantastic photos you have shared. This is definitely a great lens

    • Socialpro54 LM profile image

      Socialpro54 LM 4 years ago

      Amazing, nice lens

    • lesliesinclair profile image

      lesliesinclair 5 years ago

      Nice and gorgeous idea. Thanks for sharing your experiment.

    • profile image

      purelightphoto 5 years ago

      Great looking Lens! Cool tips this is helpful for photography addicts like me, Thanks!

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I haven't tried this but I think I might. Very interesting lens.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Amazing. I will try this out.

    • profile image

      lionmom100 5 years ago

      Wow. These are beautiful shots. A macro lens is on it's way to me. I will try this when it gets here.

    • profile image

      FashionMommy 5 years ago

      Cool lens. Thank you for sharing this.

    • profile image

      RinchenChodron 5 years ago

      What a fun technique - I'm on a low budget but am going to try it with my point and shoot and see what happens. I love how yours turned out. I have just joined Fine Art America, but have no photos there yet. Give me a couple of weeks (have a new roommate moving in soon and am very busy right now).

    • profile image

      hmommers 5 years ago

      I haven't tried this yet, but I am going to. Thanks!

    • hntrssthmpsn profile image

      hntrssthmpsn 5 years ago

      Your engine oil on a puddle photo is awesome! I'm a first-steps beginner photographer, and struggling frequently to find new ideas... eager to try this one!

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      yes, oil and water don't mix.

    • internetsuc6 profile image

      internetsuc6 5 years ago

      great images here...

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I am also thinking of adding liquid oil based food coloring to the water.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      This is going to be my next experimentation with my cameras since it's getting too cold to enjoy being outdoors. Thanks for the instructions.

    • profile image

      AlexBPearl 5 years ago

      Stunningly beautiful images. Best, AP

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Your oil & water lens is fantastic- I love the concept!

    • BLemley profile image

      Beverly Lemley 5 years ago from Raleigh, NC

      Very, very cool! I'll feature this on my Water Drops lens ~ Squid Angel blessed! B: )

    • stevel58 profile image

      stevel58 5 years ago

      Will have to give this one a go. Thanks

    • Joy Neasley profile image

      Joy Neasley 5 years ago from Nashville, TN

      This looks like fun. I am gonna give a try.

    • WriterJanis2 profile image

      WriterJanis2 5 years ago

      Never saw the art in this until this lens. Great job!

    • profile image

      Wellman1 5 years ago

      Just amazing...!

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Nice photography, Nikon is the best.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      @SteveKaye: Sure did! :)

    • caffimages profile image

      caffimages 6 years ago

      This is something I must try now I've read your work. Great stuff, thanks!

    • indigoj profile image

      Indigo Janson 6 years ago from UK

      Oh I definitely want to try this. It creates some wonderful abstracts.

    • glenbrook profile image

      glenbrook 6 years ago

      Cool idea. Love the pictures:)

    • ZenandChic profile image

      Patricia 6 years ago

      I don't have a macro lens but I do shoot my flowers in either macro or I set the aperture to a low setting.

    • profile image

      SteveKaye 6 years ago

      You have shown another way to expand creativity. Great ideas.

    • Edwardjames81 profile image

      Edwardjames81 6 years ago

      Do you have a photo of the setup? I would love to see how this is done. Thanks

    • profile image

      Spikey64 6 years ago

      Thanks for the great idea. I am going to try this technique and can't wait to see the results.

    • profile image

      julieannbrady 6 years ago

      Ah, what an excellent suggestion ... looking for the art in oil and water. Love it.


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