Ink Drops in Water, with the Grim Reaper!

Here comes the reaper
Shutter: 1/125, Aperture: ƒ/10.0, ISO: 640, Lens: 18-35mm

I’ve always wanted to try photographing ink drops in a tank, and a recent photography club challenge seemed to be a good motivator. We were challenged with the single word “black,” and this was my answer. It was tricky in that I wanted to get this image without using photoshop to composite the elements. Check out my set-up for getting this image below, as well as some tips when attempting your own.

Studio for ink drops
Final set-up in my studio

At first I wanted to grab the perfect ink drop and then photoshop in the reaper, but we agreed that a composite wasn’t in the spirit of the competition. So I decided to include the reaper in the shot, so I could get this mostly in-camera. I hot-glued the reaper to an overturned plastic tub, and then hot glued that to the underside of the aquarium tank lid. I had two shop lights aimed at the white background, and a third spot light aimed at the reaper, but coming from the side. One, I wanted to reduce the glare on the front of the aquarium, and two to give a bit more dramatic definition to the skull face. The eye sockets aren’t all that deep, so you lose some details when the lighting is straight on. I had experimented a bit by using an off-camera flash, but I was getting the results I wanted without it. Plus I had more success when I did rapid-fire (Canon 7D has 8 fps) and could go through frame by frame and pick the perfect ink swirl. My flash would not keep up at 8 fps, and half the shots would be too dark if I was exposed for flash.


It’s probably due to the washroom basin I was using in my basement to fill the aquarium, but tiny bubbles were a huge problem. First the water would start off cloudy, but be clear within a few minutes. But then there would be tiny bubbles all over walls of the tank. I left the water to sit overnight, and then all the bubbles were on my grim reaper. Nothing defrocks Death like tons of tiny bubbles. The first time I let it sit even longer, but it seemed like nothing would help. (We’re talking 4 days). A friend of mine recommended using a turkey baster to blast the bubbles off. I ended up using a bendy straw, as I could blow a lot more bubbles at specific angles, especially on bubbles that got caught in his cloak.

Shutter: 1/800, Aperture: ƒ/3.5, ISO: 1000, Lens: 18-35mm

I thought an open aperture would be a good place to start, however with the narrow depth of field, the ink is out of focus, and it looks like the reaper could have been added on in photoshop. Which would defeat all the effort of getting him into the tank in the first place. After lots of experimentation, I used f/10 aperture, to make sure the ink in front and behind the skeleton would be in focus. I had to use the openings that were on the lid to stick the ink dropper, and those were about 8 inches apart.

Shutter: 1/100, Aperture: ƒ/10.0, ISO: 500, Lens: 18-35mm, External flash

Here he is with all the bubbles. This was also the shot where I decided I need to have some ink behind him as well, so he looked surrounded by the smoke. Between the flash and ISO, I also don’t like how grainy this turned out. However my ISO was 640 for the final shot, and this is only 500. I have a lot more to learn about off camera flash placement.

Shutter: 1/100, Aperture: ƒ/10.0, ISO: 500, Lens: 18-35mm, External Flash

After the initial drops, this is what the ink would do, and it would move slowly. I figured I’d shoot a few times to see if I liked the effect. It’s cool and all, but nowhere near what I was looking for. The problem was, that this is what the tank looked like about twenty seconds after the first drops. So if you’ve been doing the math, it takes a day (give or take) to get the water ready, and then after twenty seconds, you’re done until you repeat the process. I wonder if boiling the water ahead of time could cut down on bubbles? (I’ve heard if you want to make ice cubes with no bubbles, use water that you boiled first.) So this was very labor intensive, to get the shot I wanted. I found that you really don’t need an off camera flash if you have enough lighting. I wanted the white background to be very well lit with no shadows, as to allow the black ink to stand out. And my camera speed wasn’t all that snappy. I was shooting at full 8 fps, just so I’d have more photos to choose from, but the ink actually moved pretty slow. After a break, I’m going to experiment a bit more with colored inks and different lighting, and perhaps longer shutter speeds to get trails. Have you ever seen Alberto Seveso amazing ink shots? But for now I’m happy with this, and not doing water for awhile.

Here comes the reaper
Shutter: 1/125, Aperture: ƒ/10.0, ISO: 640, Lens: 18-35mm

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