Blue White and Water - Behind the Scenes

April 01, 2014  •  Leave a Comment


I believe Art is not necessarily defined by the finished product, but rather the process that it takes to create it. The photo above has been on Exhibit recently and I've been asked many times how "Blue White and Water" was created. The TABC Photography Club had the benefit of experiencing the behind the scenes for many parts as they unfolded. I'm happy to share the challenges and solutions I came across during the creative process. The beauty of photography is that it merges the technical with the artistic. A successful photo must contain both. I'll explain my thought process and tools used to create the photograph below.

To begin with, the concept of the shot was to convey that no matter where a Jew is located in the world, (just as rain falls throughout the world) - Israel is always reflected within our hearts. I thought it would be interesting to have water droplets reflecting the Israeli flag just as you may see dew drops reflect flowers in nature oriented shots. The initial questions were - How to set this up? How big does the flag need to be to get a reflection size that works? Where to place the flag? How to get large size drops that stay put? Which lens to use? How to light it? How to get everything in focus? How to get the drops in a heart shape? How to make just the heart shape drops reflect the flag? How to draw more focus to the heart shape so it is noticeable? 

The setup entailed an acrylic sheet over a tray holding a wallet size photo of the flag. To get the large droplets and avoid the water beading off, I recalled an old trick in food photography. Adding glycerin to water helps the water molecules bond together. I used a roll of Gaffers tape to raise the sheet until I had the right angle at approximately 1.5 inches distance between the acrylic and paper.

Yet another use of Gaffers tape

As a photographer, I understood lens selection would be critical. I would need to use a Macro lens in order to get in close enough to see the flag reflection clearly.  Though I usually shoot with the Nikon D600 which is a full frame camera, I decided to shoot with my D7000 and the 85mm Macro. The reason is the APS sensor has a 1.5x crop factor, essentially turning the 85mm into 128mm lens. This exceeds the Nikon full frame Macro lens of only 105mm. So the camera and lens are now decided.

The challenge using a macro lens very close to a subject is that the depth of field becomes extremely shallow. For example, focusing on one water droplet within the frame will assure that plane of focus is sharp but the rest literally goes to blur. See below.

Notice the slice on the top portion is in focus. The rest a blur.

To solve this problem, the picture needed to be focus stacked. Shooting on a tripod with the camera locked in position, several images needed to be taken one slice at a time. Each slice in focus and then later combined. To get the entire frame in focus it took 7 photos. To combine these into one complete focused image in Photoshop you do the following: File>Automate>Photomerge which stacks photos in separate layers and aligns the images. Then with all layers selected go to Edit>Auto Blend Layers. That creates near perfect masks which reveal only the focused area within each layer. 

Next was how to light. Though not as powerful as a strobe, using an always on light would be helpful to see the the lighting pattern as I moved it around. Since I was using a tripod, blur caused by slowing down the shutter speed to allow more light in would not be an issue. A quick decision was made to not use a ring light as the reflection of the ring in the droplets was very noticeable and distracting.  

Distracting ring reflections

Once the photos were stacked into one complete focused image, The next challenge was how to make the heart shape. I did not have an eye dropper or syringe which would have made it easier to place the water drops. However, I preferred to keep it more random as water falls randomly.

After changing the light source to a large softbox with 6 CFL bulbs within, I re-sprayed the acrylic until I could visualize an area that resembled a heart shape. After shooting the 7 exposures with different focal planes, I again combined the images through focus stacking and then began to work on the image itself. 

Now came the task of having just the drops in the heart shape reflect the flag. All others were to be clear - no reflection. As you can see from the photo above, in reality that is impossible. Notice every single drop has the reflection. To get just the heart shape to reflect the flags I needed to have a separate photo that contained all those drops in the same position but did not have the picture beneath them. That would give me a completely clear picture as below.

I then added the clear non-flag photo as a layer with a mask over my working photo which hid my working photo completely. By painting with black over the layer mask, I was able to reveal the portions of that layer I wanted showing through on my photo. So drop by drop I replaced clear drops with flag reflected drops only painting in areas that formed the heart shape. Some drops were moved, removed or re-shaped to get the correct shape. I always kept the integrity of the reflection angle given the drop position and lighting. Using curves and level adjustments I was able to darken and lighten areas to get the heart to stand out. Again, the final image:

Blue White and Water


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