Improve Your Photographic Vision – Add Oil, Water, and Imagination!

Most of us, even non-photographers can see the beauty in a mountain landscape, a sunset, a flower, a beautiful child.  These are the kinds of subjects that make us reach for our camera.  But when you begin to see and are able to capture in a unique way subjects and beauty in places others might miss, then you bring vision and art to your photography.  I like the way photographer Elliott Erwitt put it:

“To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”

That’s a good part of the reason I want to introduce you to a subject you may never have thought to photograph.  Simple drops of oil floating on the surface of the water with colorful backgrounds can provide the opportunity for amazing abstract photos.  If you’ve typically photographed literal subjects, a dive into a subject that is totally abstract and about light, shape, form, and color will stretch you.  Here are a few other quotes to consider:

  • Canon 6D with Tamron SP 90 f/2.8 Di Macro and Canon EF 25 II extension tube, 1/125 @ f/5 ISO 400 – Photo by Rick Ohnsman
  • “Beauty can be seen in all things, seeing and composing the beauty is what separates the snapshot from the photograph.”— Matt Hardy

  • “Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.” Jonathan Swift

  • “In order to be a successful Photographer, you must possess both Vision and Focus neither of which have anything to do with your eyes.” – Kevin Russo

 …or your camera, to add to Russo’s thought.  That is part of the beauty of the technique I’m about to show you. You need not have a great camera, special lenses, fancy lights, or expensive props.  A glass dish, a little water, some cooking oil and some colorful objects of any kind will work.  You can work inside with some simple lighting or go outside and use daylight for your shots.  If you live where February is a cold and miserable time to be outside, work indoors.  If perhaps you’re in the southern hemisphere and February is summertime, take it outside.

As seen from above, the camera looks down through a glass dish extended over the edge of a counter. The dish has about an inch of water and a tablespoon or so of olive oil. Some colorful blocks are on a stool about a foot below the counter and lighted with a clamp lamp (bottom left). Limited depth-of-field makes the blocks simply a colorful blur. Canon 6D with Tamron 90mm macro and Canon EF 25 II extention tube.

So here’s how you do it:

  • Find a shallow glass or plastic dish, pie plate, tray, or what you can. It’s best if it’s clear with no color.  Often things like pie plates may have a logo centered in the glass, but depending on the lens you use and your focus distance, you may be able to work around that.
  • Canon 6D with Tamron SP 90 f/2.8 Di Macro and Canon EF 25 II extention tube, 1/125 @ f/5 ISO 400 – Photo by Rick Ohnsman

    Find a means to support the dish a foot or two above the ground or work surface. You will want to be able to focus on the surface of the water (once you add it, not yet..!) but throw the background out of focus.

  • It’s probably easier to work with a tripod so that you can point the camera straight down at the dish, but if you have sufficient light to keep your shutter speed up, you may get away with going handheld.
  • Have some colorful objects to put behind the dish. (See the photo above  for setup). An old magazine with colorful photos which you can tear out works well, but your imagination is the limit here.  Whatever you choose, it will be out of focus so it’s more about the colors you want.
  • This usually looks best when the colorful objects below the dish are what is lit, not the top of the dish or the oil/water mix. You’re going for backlighting here so the light bounces off the objects and back up through the water/oil.
  • Canon 50D with Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 XR Di II 1/400 @ f/2.8 ISO 400 – Photo by Rick Ohnsman

    Most lenses will work for this technique. A macro will allow you to focus closer to the forms you see, but even a 50mm prime lens or standard “kit lens zoom” will work, you'll just need to get further from the dish and perhaps crop more later.

  • When you have all in position, fill the dish with an inch or two of water. Then drip a few drops of cooking oil, (olive oil works well) on the surface of the water.  Because the oil will float on the water, you should see circles of oil of various sizes.  Gently stir the oil if you need to vary the sizes and shapes of the circles.  Add the water and oil after you have everything in place.  It's too easy to knock the plate, spill the mixture and make a mess while you're setting up.  (Don't ask why I know this.)
  • I prefer to have the control of full manual mode for this kind of work, but other settings could work too if you are a new photographer still learning your camera. You will definitely want to manually focus however so you can keep the focus on the surface of the oil.  Like any other photography, keep your ISO as low as possible for the least noise.  If you’re on a tripod, shutter speed isn’t critical with a static subject.  Of course, if you’re handheld, you’ll need to practice the “reciprocal rule” – 1 / focal length is the slowest speed you can use to be sharp (so, for example, using a 50mm
    Canon 6D with Tamron SP 90 f/2.8 Di Macro and Canon EF 25 II extension tube, 1/125 @ f/5 ISO 400 – Photo by Rick Ohnsman

    you’d want to be at 1/60th sec or faster.

  • Aperture choice will be your most crucial setting here as you want fairly minimal depth of field, enough to keep the top layer of water/oil sharp but the background as blurred as possible. Look at the examples here for some ideas, but depending on your lens, distance to the water surface and distance to the background you will need to adjust the f/stop accordingly.
  • If you’re comfortable shooting in Raw mode, of course, do that for all the reasons you’d normally shoot Raw, but if as a new photographer and you’re still shooting .jpg, there’s no reason that can’t work here.
  • Editing your photos is optional, but will give you more creative places to go with what you capture. You may want to crop in tighter for better composition or to isolate specific forms in your shot.  Playing with exposure, contrast, white balance, and color effects can yield good results.
Canon 6D with Tamron SP 90 f/2.8 Di Macro and Canon EF 25 II extension tube, 1/125 @ f/5 ISO 400 – Photo by Rick Ohnsman

The ultimate point of this kind of photography is there is no right or wrong.  This is your chance to play, have fun, and create something pleasing to you.  Expect that when you show your creation to others, (particularly more literal, less artistic, non-photographers), they may ask, “What is that!!??”  That’s to be expected with abstract art.  Here are a few other quotes you can toss their way:

  • Canon 50D with Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 XR Di II 1/125 @ f/2.8 ISO 400 – Photo by Rick Ohnsman

    “I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn’t photograph them.”   –  Diane Arbus

  •  The question is not what you look at, but what you see – Henry Thoreau

  • “The two most engaging powers of a photograph are to make new things familiar and familiar things new.” – William Thackeray

  • “The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”   – B. Yeats

  • “Always seeing something, never seeing nothing, being photographer” – Walter De Mulder


7 thoughts on “Improve Your Photographic Vision – Add Oil, Water, and Imagination!”

  1. Another great article, Rick! I’m going to try this!

    Surface tension — it’s wonderful thing.


  2. Bonnie Filipkowski

    Thank you. I feel stuck in a rut, especially with it being winter and often being home alone with a baby that I don’t want to take out into the elements. This is a great indoor project!

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top