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Making a splash with high speed photography

High-speed photography is really no different from other types of still-life photography. Simon Butcher's recipe for success is to control all the elements of the shot so that it is consistent and repeatable.

| Specialist Photographic Subjects
Words and pictures Simon Butcher

Commercial still-life photography these days is often done with remote control art direction. The photographer is expected to set up the shot and send Polaroids to the art director by e-mail to get the go-ahead to shoot on film. With regular still-life pictures this is not too bad as the set and lighting can be left for hours if needs be, as long as no one trips over a sync lead!
   With high speed shots the same principle applies, you just need more and different tools. Regular studio flash systems have a flash duration of about 1/250 sec, and this is not fast enough for most moving objects if you are looking for good sharpness. I use Elincrom 250R monobloc flash units, partly because they have a flash duration of 1/6000 sec, but also because they are at their fastest when at full power. I tend to use between two and six units, but have to remember to have them all at full power, otherwise I get fringing of the moving object.
   To fire the flashes it's possible to buy or hire a control box, but thats no fun for a control freak so I built my own. I remembered that the BBC Micro that I cut my computer programming teeth on has all sorts of useful interfaces on it. I dug around in my loft and found the computer and all the copies of BBC Micro User magazine gathering dust. I retrieved them and looked up the articles on building input/output devices.
With a soldering iron and some bits & bobs from the local electronics shop I rigged a box with eight channels in and eight out. I also got one of those laser pointer devices and rigged it to work via a long cable.

Equipment check list

  • Elincrom 250R flash units
  • BBC B computer (32k RAM)
  • Home-made input/output interface box
  • Laser pointer
  • Light -sensitive cell in a home-made tube/holder
  • Lots of clamps & tubes and whatever is delivering the moving object to the shot.
  • All this plus the usual cameras, film etc.

Making a splash with high speed photography

Delivery of the moving object depends on the object. For a classic drop of liquid shot a syringe is easiest. For a slice of lemon I made a little cardboard box with a trap door bottom. For drink pouring out of a bottle I got an expert to drill a hole in the side of the bottle by the base. I could then clamp the bottle securely and clamp a funnel just above the hole. By putting a measured amount of liquid in the funnel and releasing it the same way every time, I could get the liquid to pour from the bottle consistently.

Making a splash with high speed photography

The set up is probably best explained as a sequence of events:
The studio is blacked out and I run a Basic program on the computer which asks me for the delay time in milliseconds between input event and output event.
2 I open the camera lens on T, this sends a signal to the computer via the synch lead. The computer switches the laser on and waits to receive a signal from the light sensitive cell.
3 I now have a laser beam across the path of the moving object which I now release.
4 The object breaks the beam, signals to the computer, the computer switches off the laser and starts counting milliseconds.
5 When it reaches the target number it shorts the synch leads attached to the flash head(s).
6 The Basic program then hangs until I remember to close the shutter, at which point it goes back to line 1 and waits for the camera to open again.
7 It is necessary to switch off the laser otherwise I sometimes get red glows on the moving object.

It generally takes a couple of hours to set up the drop, and then another hour or so doing Polaroids to get the exact moment by trial and error. It is very important to note chronology and delay times on the Polaroids!
   Once the desired effect is on a Polaroid I can repeat it at will. It is tremendously satisfying to have a roll of film come back from the processors with a good splash on every frame.

Sometimes a shot calls for what is in the art director's mind rather than what would actually happen. When I got the art directors sketch for the Bonaqua shot (above) I explained that if you actually drop a bottle into a tank of water you get a big crater. The art director said: 'Thats all well and good but this is what I want. Oh and by the way, there are only two of the correct labels in the world and the colour must be spot-on and the label must be fully readable and I need the finished shot as a CMYK digital file with proof print when I fly out the day after tomorrow.'
We had to do some experiments to find a guaranteed way of protecting the label in a tank of water. It turned out that Letraset matt coating worked for the artwork. We also had to find a way of securely gluing the bottle to a sheet of clear glass within the tank. Scratching the glass and the bottle at the glue points worked. After that it was just a case of shooting the bottle in clear water and then doing lots of exposures while blowing through two hoses lying at the bottom of the tank.

Making a splash with high speed photography

We chose the best bubble shots and had them scanned to about 70Mb each along with the straight shot at a lab with full colour correction facility. I then made a CMYK table of the straight shot and comped in the desired bubbles from the other shots in Live Picture, output the comp as a CMYK TIFF, went back to the lab to get the art directors approval on a colour-corrected screen and got the lab to output a four colour proof for him to take with the digital file. Nothing like reality, but a happy client and essential to have had the fast flash units.

Making a splash with high speed photography

About the author
Simon Butcher has been a professional photographer for 23 years working in the still-life and food fields. In the last three years he has been involved in internet web design and has designed and built zSites, a portfolio website system for photographers and anyone who needs to show viual work on the web.


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