Monday, December 26, 2011

High Speed Drop Photography–Getting Started by Joseph Calev

There are many things in photography that if given enough time and financial resources, I’d probably try out. However the reality of my life is that I don’t have enough time or money to do cool things like High Speed Drop Photography. As a result, my friend Joseph Calev is here to guest blog again to tell you about his experience getting into this cool new world.

NOTE: The content that follows is Joe’s opinion. I have not made edits beyond fixing typos or sizing.


Enjoy and Happy Holidays!


For quite some time I have been interested in high speed photography.  Last week I finally bit the bullet and picked up some gear to make this a lot easier.  In the following article I will discuss my setup and some of the decisions I have made thus far.  Keep in mind when reading this that I have been doing high speed photography (so far just drops) for only a week and I am still figuring a lot of things out.  Below is one of the first shots I took with my setup.

Water Drop by Joseph Calev

The basics of high speed photography

Some time ago I spent a great deal of effort photographing drops from melted ice.  I spent several hours outside with my camera in the exact position I needed it and continuously pressed the shutter at the right moment.  More often than not I missed my goal and out of every 100 shots I would wind up with about four or five in focus.  Of course, of the photos in focus many of them were quite uninteresting.  As you can imagine, it took quite a few shots and a lot of time to get something decent.

The real problem in high speed photography is improving the odds by making sure you have something in focus in the viewfinder with each shot.  This allows you to spend more of your time working on the most crucial part - making a photo that is actually interesting.  The key here is firing your camera and flash at the exact moment you need to.  There are really four parts to high speed photography.

The trigger - This is the thing that has to happen for some action to start.  For all of my water drops thus far this has been the act of pushing a button.  There are many types of triggers though.  You have infrared and laser triggers, microphones, and special triggers for ballistics.  The idea is something needs to happen to start the events in motion that will lead to your photo.

The flash - This is one case where it is better to have a small speedlight rather than a larger powered light.  You need your flash to freeze your subject as most cameras only go down to 1/8000 second - too slow for a lot of high speed work.  What many do not know about lights is that a 'more powerful' flash creates this by holding the light for a longer period.  Therefore for high speed photography you need to set your flash at the lowest setting.  I currently use two 580EX flashes set to 1/128 - which gives a duration of around 1/40,000 second.  At some point I hope to pick up the Microflash Pro.  This flash gives the same power as two 580EX flashes at full power at a speed of 1/28,000 second.  Alternatively it can go down to speeds of 35 microseconds.  However, at a price of £1800 it was too much to include in my initial setup.

The camera - As I previously mentioned it is the flash that illuminates the subject.  The camera doesn't do much in the equation except cause problems. :) The main issue is there exists a lag between when the camera is triggered and when it actually fires.  On Canon cameras, this lag actually varies unless you use mirror lock.  With mirror lock, I measures my 5D Mark II to have a shutter lag of 83.7 milliseconds.  For drops this is not much of an issue.  You simply need to factor your shutter lag into the equation.  However when photographing things that move invariably and quickly - such as insects - this will not work at all.  For this type of photography you need a special solenoid shutter that typically fits in front of your lens.  You then place your camera in bulb mode and trigger your solenoid.  A good solenoid shutter will have a lag of less than 5 milliseconds.  I currently do not have such a shutter but I anticipate having one by the summer.

The orchestrator - The most crucial piece of equipment you need is something that reacts to the trigger by firing the flash and the camera.  There are several triggers available on the market today.

  • Hiviz - These are very simply hobbyist triggers that depend on the camera being placed in bulb mode in a dark room.  Given a particular trigger it then fires a flash.  Images from these triggers typically have dark backgrounds.  The triggers themselves are not very sophisticated compared to the other options.
  • Mumford Time Machine - This is one of the first high speed devices I heard of and I almost purchased this model.  It is close to the Stopshot in functionality, but I found the specs of the Stopshot to be more flexible.  Stopshot offers more outputs and a lighted screen (add ons to the Time Machine) and it is possible to connect two Stopshots together.  The user interface of the Stopshot also appears to be better.
  • Cognisys Stopshot - This is what I ended up purchasing.  I had a lot of questions about this device before I purchased it and they were very prompt and helpful in answering them.  They are also continuously innovating - unlike the other triggers which seem more like static products.
  • Phototrap - While I am sure this trigger works just fine, from looking at the specs it appears to do less than the Stopshot.  I have the feeling this trigger is more geared towards wildlife photographers in the field, but they do seem to heavily push their system through wildlife photography classes.  Basically you take a wildlife photography class where a photographer shows you some of the great things you can do with the trigger and you wind up buying it before you are done.  From what I can tell though the Stopshot and Time Machine will do more for less money.

My setup

Below is a shot of my current setup.  As I have already stated, keep in mind that I have only had this gear for a week and am still working on things.


One aspect in which I have deviated significantly from many drop photographers is I prefer to use store bought components rather than building things myself.  A quick search on the web will reveal a number of different ways to create a drop setup from wood.  However I wanted something that offered more flexibility.  I am also quite limited in time.  Therefore the following is what I put together.

  • On the sides you can see two light stands.  It doesn't really matter which ones they are.  I tend to prefer taller air cushioned ones but I currently own four different light stands - none of them the same.
  • At the top of the light stand I have a Bogen Clamp on either side.  Between the two light stands I then have a Bogen ArmOriginally my plan was to attach a background stand holder to each clamp and then rest the arm on the holders.  However this allowed the arm to spin - which is very bad for precision scenarios.  Therefore I have the arm actually held by each clamp and the clamps screwed in to the top of the stands.  This is one great advantage of buying flexible parts as it allows me to improvise when necessary.  This setup allows me to easily vary the height of the siphon.
  • On the top you can see the water siphon from Cognisys.  This comes as part of their water drop kit.  Here is a close-up.


The siphon is attached to Cognisys's tripod holder for the siphon.  I am not crazy about this holder but it works.  The most annoying thing is I have to unscrew it to take the siphon out.  I would have preferred some type of clamp and someday I may look into whether there is some type of bracket the will attach to a Bogen Clamp that will do a better job.  The tripod holder is screwed into another Bogen Clamp (can you tell I really like Bogen Clamps?!)  Immediately below the siphon is the water valve (with the red wires attached).  This connects to the Stopshot and releases the water.  Below the water valve is a small infrared trigger.  I am actually not using this right now as the trigger is a button push but this will factor in when I begin using multiple liquids.  To the left of the siphon I have another Bogen Clamp with a heavy duty Bogen Flexible Arm holding another tripod bracket.  In the future this will hold another siphon - which I already have.  This will allow me to work with multiple liquids at the same time.  On the far right of the shot is yet another Flexible Arm + Bogen Clamp for a third siphon.  The blue inside the siphon is from food coloring.  The upside down Sub-Zero box behind the setup is a fort my kids made (most expensive fort yet).

Here is a close-up of the bottom setup.


I am currently targeting the drops to a setup of brightly colored bowls I bought at a local store.  In the future I plan to also buy some straight pans and put a white background behind it.  I can then change the color of the background by modifying the flash illuminating it.  I am still playing with lighting setups but for now I have one 580EX on a small Gorillapod.  The other is held up by another Bogen Flexible Arm attached to another Bogen Clamp.  I have no preference for one way or the other but I only own one Gorillapod.  In this shot I have both flashes gelled with Rosco modifiers from the Color Effects kit (which comes in sheets that I cut to 3" x 5" gels).  In this particular shot IMHO I would have been better off without the gels.

In the corner of the table you can see the Stopshot.  The Stopshot is connected to the water valve above.  A special cable connects the Stopshot to my camera and I have both flashes connected to the same output via an RCA Y cable.  The camera itself is on my tripod that I previously discussed on Ron's blog [see Ron’s tripod & head recommendations].  It is a Gitzo 2541EX with an Acratech GP ball head and two Really Right Stuff macro rails.  It is the same tripod I typically use for macro photography.  On the camera itself is the 100mm 2.8 IS Macro.

Other miscellaneous items on the table are a ruler to measure the height of the water valve (to do calculations for the timing), a pencil I use for focusing, and a measuring glass I use for pouring liquids (don't tell my wife though - she still wonders where it went to...)

Below are some of my results so far.

Drop Monster by Joseph Calev
Water Man by Joseph Calev

Overall I am very pleased with the Stopshot thus far.  Once you figure it out it works quite well - though this is definitely one piece of equipment where you need to read the manual.  It also provides a good lesson in cable organization as I counted exactly 30 cables in the box with my kit.  I now have a rack in my garage just for cables.  I still have a lot of things to learn.  For example I have not dealt with the following yet.

  • Different liquids provide different types of drops.  I have yet to work with milk are additives to water other than food coloring (rinse aid, guar gum).
  • As previously stated I want to try setting the background color via a white background and a gelled flash.
  • I currently own three siphons, but am only working with one thus far.  In the future I want to use multiple drops of different liquids.  With a single siphon multiple drops are supported but are obviously of the same liquid.
  • I also own the cross laser trigger.  In the future I will use this for insects but it has other uses I haven't had time to investigate yet.
  • I also own a microphone trigger, but haven't played with that yet either.


Joe approached me about his excitement getting these products, so I extended an offer for him to blog about his experience. Neither Joe nor I have any known direct affiliation with most of the companies mentioned on this blog. In the limited cases where I do (i.e., Amazon, Adorama, & B&H), I may make a commission if you make a purchase from their site.

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1 comment:

japh said...

wow... you sure do have a lot of gadgets...