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Abstract Photography Tips

How to photograph oil on water with a basic set up to create abstract images.

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As the winter nights draw in and the thought of heading off into the great outdoors is less than welcome, it’s a good time to experiment indoors.

Oil in water

One of Alison M's favourite subjects is oil on water photographs – a project that needs only a few items that can be found in most households.


First you need a glass dish. Something about 5-7cm deep will suffice. Give it a good wash and dry with a lint free cloth as it’s incredible how much fluff the average teacloth will leave on the dish. This is something you may not realise until you start taking the photographs!

Next something to support it on – a couple of boxes will do and the dish can be carefully placed between the two. I use a pair of plant stands which are just the right height for me to work.

Underneath you’ll need something pretty – that garish shirt you have tucked away or some multi-coloured paper or even a page from a magazine.  I generally place this about 25cm below the dish.

Another alternative is to hold a cd under the dish and move it around in front of the light until a pleasing colour pops up – there will be plenty to choose from!

Now you need to light it – I use my bedside light which does the job nicely.  Place this so that the light shines onto your background.

Of course, you need some oil. I use Olive Oil for my images and transfer some of it into a small bottle with a dropper although I’m sure the more precise amongst you can handle pouring it from the bottle!

A camera with a close focus facility and a tripod, ideally with a centre column that can be set horizontal, is all the equipment you need.

Oil on water


Fill your dish with water. About 3-5cm will do, switch your light on, drop some oil onto the surface and watch it spread out. The first few drops will usually spread quickly and following drops will stay smaller. 

I am rather partial to oil images with lots of smaller bubbles and blobs so like to stir everything up and then wait for it to stop. Alternatively, tapping the oil drops lightly (I use a drinking straw) will usually make small bubbles within the oil drops.  I also use the straw to move the drops around the dish, although a gentler method of moving them is simply to blow them across the surface.

If you have a tripod with a horizontal centre column it helps you position the camera right over the dish, but a regular tripod will do the job nicely. I used to extend the back leg so it tipped forward slightly and then by adjusting the head could get a good angle over the dish.  I don’t particularly recommend walking away leaving it lopsided though – your camera might not appreciate a dip in the oily water! 

This is a project that can be done during daylight hours or when it’s dark as the lamp is the light source here and I have found that it makes little difference if you’re working by natural light or in the evening with the room light on. 

For camera settings I’ve found that around 1/30sec works nicely for me and I use a macro lens and focus it manually. 

So there you go – hopefully this has been of use and you can create some oily masterpieces! Oh and don’t do what I did – I tipped the whole dish of water all over the carpet!
You can see more of Alison M's photography on her web site here: 

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