How I Do What I Do – Overview

I often get requests for information about techniques. Here is the “stock reply” that I have been using to save me some time. Now I can just point people to this post!


I don’t use special cameras or lenses, really. I am currently using a Canon 5D and a 180mm macro lens, but other equipment works, too.

High-Speed Tricks

I use fairly typical high-speed photography techniques.

I leave the shutter open for a relatively long time (in a darkened room) and use a flash to illuminate the splash. The flash needs to be of a fairly short duration to stop the motion well. I use something like a 50 microsecond flash. “Speedlite” flashes (as opposed to studio strobes), control the amount light output by varying the flash duration. Not surprisingly, the shorter the duration, the less light (many studio strobes are the opposite!). So, you can get a short duration by setting the flash for low power (1/16 or 1/64). I get this by modifying the photo sensor circuit on Vivitar 285HV flash (a bit more detail) .

Timing the flash is done with a photogate and electronic timer. has techniques, equipment diagrams, and kits.

I have built my own timing and triggering devices (a few different ones, as I learned how to do it better.) My advice is: if you want an electronics project that will take a lot of your time (unless you’re already an EE), then design and build your own. If you want to take pictures instead, purchase the equipment. Here are some vendor choices:,,, and And Make magazine has a kit: and

The Light

It’s hard to give a single formula for lighting, since different situations lend themselves to different approaches, however, using an on-camera flash is not an arrangement that I prefer, especially for the clear liquids. Rather, I use remote flashes in various locations. In the end, lighting these shots is no different from any other similar material. The only difference is that I use a flash with a short duration to stop the motion. So, for clear liquids I use the same techniques as I would for glass, since they behave optically much the same. For an opaque liquid, like milk, I light it as I would for a white bowl (except smaller, of course.) A good book on lighting is “Light: Science and Magic”.

You will wrestle with depth of field issues. There are a few things you can do to help, but they all have their downsides.

The Liquids

The photography is in many ways the easier part of what I do. Handling the fluids is what takes the creativity and patience.

I have developed a fairly complex system of computer programs and hardware and mechanics that I use to create drops and do the timing. Still, I take a lot pictures and make a lot of mistakes. I have a post that goes into more detail on this, too.

Other resources

A simple setup is described in


North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics

Andrew Davidhazy, at the Rochester Institute of Technology, has good information on high-speed techniques, as well as other fascinating types of photography. has some creative techniques.

Harold “Doc” Edgerton, of course, is the father of the xenon flash tube and high-speed photography. Search for his books on

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17 Responses to How I Do What I Do – Overview

  1. Vicky says:

    your work is beautiful 🙂

  2. Martin- Thanks for all your insight and willingness to share. I saw your video on Srobist and thought I’d try my hand at my first “drop session” After reading some of what’s on your blog I will try again and fine tune a bit.

    I looked at your drops after I looked at mine today and you made my jaw drop! simply beautiful!


  3. martinw says:

    Thanks, Jonathan. I’ll try to keep adding more info.


  4. Rick says:

    Gracias por toda la informacion y tu técnica con tus explicaciones hicieron que realice mi tutorial para habla hispana.

    De nuevo: GRACIAS!!! y sanamente envidio tus increíbles y bellas tomas


  5. martinw says:


    De nada. El gusto es mío. Buena suerte con su trabajo.


  6. Nigel Cooke says:

    Martin – stunning video, especially that very last drop collision. You inspired me to try it myself ..

    I actually love the technical aspect of this, that is thinking about

    – different lighting
    – different liquids
    – control of the water drop

    I think I’m going to enjoy this.

    Many thanks for your inspiration.


  7. Sophie Webb says:


    Am still studying you & your work, have come a long way with my own photography and am really impressed with some of the images i have captured.

    Quick question – On average, to get an astonishing picture, how many do you take in one go?

    Kind Regards

    Sophie Webb

  8. martinw says:


    Well, it all depends and the shot I’m looking for, but I guess on average it’s probably 300 or 400 shots. Another way to think about it is that I have taken around 150,000 shots of drops. I have 100 images on my website and maybe another 100 that will make their way to it. So the average is closer to 1000 shots per keeper. But, that includes a lot of shots just for testing a new setting on the flashes or new gels or new mechanics. It’s hard to separate the time spent learning from the time spent “trying” to get a good shot.

    On the other hand, I may spend a thousand shots getting things all set up for a particular type of shot, and once I have things nailed down, I can click off a few dozen nice shots. But they are similar enough that I can really only use one.

    I’m not sure this is the answer you were looking for.


  9. Austin says:

    Wow, your work really is an inspiration to a young aspiring photographer like myself. I was first interested it water drop photography after seeing you on Time Warp, and here is one of my first attempts:

    Not nearly as good as your work, and the setup was nothing close to high-tech, but hey, it works for now! I would love some tips on how to improve. Also I would love to know what camera you generally use!

  10. martinw says:


    I’m glad you’re having fun with water – it’s always full of surprises.

    I an currently using the Canon 5D, but I’ll upgrade soon, no doubt. I may start using the 7D since the smaller sensor gives better depth of field.

  11. David Hunter says:

    Recently a friend & I decided to try shooting something different and we settled on what he’s calling a ‘splash shoot’, dropping items into various colored liquids. Today’s the day we’ve decided to work on it. I’ve just seen your gorgeous and inspiring work. Thanks for sharing it. I have the feeling that what we hope to accomplish will be great fun and hopefully some interesting photos.

  12. Pingback: Martin Waugh: liquid sculptures |

  13. Thomas C. Stapel says:

    I am just strarting thr process of deciding a purchaseand have look at the systems you mnetion here. My camera is a Nikon D700 that allows wireless flash control using IR. Will this system alllow me use multiple flashed without the extract purcgase of the triggering connectionss?

  14. martinw says:


    I’m afraid I’m not familiar with Nikon’s IR flash control system. However, high-speed photography typically uses separate control of the shutter and the flash (open the shutter for a “long” time, and activate the flash at the right moment.) I presume that the IR flash control is driven by the camera, in which case the exact timing of the flash is dependent on the shutter lag, which is not necessarily exactly reproducible (that is, one shot it may be 55 ms, the next it may be 57 ms, and the next 54 ms). I would find that inexactness frustrating. Report back what you find out.

    Best of luck,


  15. Joanne says:

    Could I ask you why d on some of your photos you put a red film on top of the light, becauase I was watching your time warp show and I was interested on why the colour red and blue?
    I’m also studying photography at the moment and I need some advice on water droplet photography and came across you.

  16. martinw says:


    I use different colored gels in different locations because different parts of the ripple reflect light from different directions. If you think of the water surface as being a warped mirror, you can make a “map” of what part of the environment the camera sees reflected in in each part of the ripples. Then you can plan where to put flashes/gels to light each part of the splash. Does that make sense?

  17. Tom says:

    Martin, I am currently studying photography and have chosen to research into you and all of your work.

    I am a huge fan and admire your work a great deal. I was hoping you could give me a few tips on how I could create something in the style of your work, without high technical equipment as I am only a beginnner and can not currently afford this sort of equipment.

    Many Regards

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