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Oil and Water: An Abstract Photography Experiment


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Do you ever get in a photography rut? While there are many ways to break out of one, I find photographing objects around the house particularly helpful.  It’s easy to do, and you can get fun results. We’ve shown you how to use plastic wrap and even a crystal ball in your photography.  Now it’s time for oil and water.

The Oil and Water Experiment

Many years back we had a challenge called Project 52.  It has since been replaced with MCP Photo a Day. One of the themes was “something in your house.”  As I walked around my house looking for the perfect object, I got an idea…  Water.  To make this idea more interested and to give it an abstract look, I grabbed some food coloring from the kitchen and baby oil from the bathroom. BINGO!


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Do you see where this going?

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I filled my sink with water … And then…

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I added a few drops of food coloring into the water and splashed in a few drops of baby oil.

The photography

Once the sink was full, I took my camera, at the time a Canon 5D MKII with a 100mm macro lens attached, and went to work.

I shot in manual mode with an aperture of 2.8 on this lens. My ISO was 800 as the bathroom was not super well lit. Since there wasn’t a lot of contrast, I used manual focusing for sharp focus directly on the oil spots I wanted to emphasize. I did not use flash, though I am sure that would have made things even more interesting.  Since this water was still, versus trying to capture a moving droplet, flash wasn’t essential.

You can see the lights from my bathroom reflect in the oil droplets. To get new looks, I would also stir the oil.  To mix things up even more, I’d mix in other colors of food coloring.  Warning: a little goes a long way. Here are some of the abstract photos I took.


This one reminds me of lemons and limes, or maybe Sprite, 7-Up or Sierra Mist:

This one reminds me of one of my favorite TV shows, Dexter… Could be LOVE red or blood red… Oh and does anyone see what appears to be a “pig face” smiling at me on the bottom right large droplet? Hmmm…

And this next one, it’s all about color. Look how rich and almost metallic this one appears:


This one reminds me of the water color of the ocean in the Caribbean. Anyone else ready for a vacation?

Want some liquid gold? I just love this color of yellow.  By the way, the non circular shape is hard to get. You have to mess with the oil droplet and quickly snap the shot. If you are not fast, it goes back into a circular shape before you take the picture. I assume a science major could explain this better.


If you lack the patience of have a favorite image that you wish were a different color, there is an easy fix in Photoshop and Elements.  Just use the Color Changer action in Inspire OR use Hue/Saturation and play around with various hues.

I hope you enjoyed the pictures of my science experiment/cooking lesson/photography tutorial. If you are looking to “mix up” your photography, make sure to think outside the box and join us for our Photo a Day challenges.


I originally wrote a similar post for Pioneer Woman, many years ago. Since she no longer has an active photography area on her site, I wanted to make sure you had access to this post.


No Comments

  1. jJim on July 28, 2014 at 2:22 pm

    I am pretty sure you were not around in ths sixties but just this past weekend, I was reading Bill Graham’s biography (BG of Rock/Filmore fame. There was a quote by Joshua White in which he described how they put the famous light shows together. It is very similar to what you’ve displayed here. Can’t wait to give it a try! They will make perfect backdrops for slide shows or announcements!

  2. GG on July 28, 2014 at 9:10 pm

    I tried this a little differently last year. I mixed oil and water in a clear container and put colorful fabric about 18 inches away.

  3. Loretta on July 29, 2014 at 11:03 pm

    This looks fun to try. Thanks for the suggestion. I was one of those who did (and completed) Project 52. That was a very helpful year for me in trying new things and being oh-so very challenged. I learned a lot and appreciate all you share to help us be better photographers!

  4. Amelia on July 30, 2014 at 7:03 am

    Those are great looking photos, I’m going to have to try to try the baby oil trick.

  5. Terrance on August 18, 2014 at 10:34 pm

    Great shots. I’ve got a similar technique I use with no bubbles, but create abstract colourful pieces of art. Using liquid and food colours, I blend them together to get shots like below. More info at my site, but it’s really pretty simple. Food colouring, liquid, a bowl or container, and your pretty much there.

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