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Photographing children's play bubbles

A close up still-life technique to take rainbow-colour photos of soap bubbles.

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When Simon Palmer joined one of the ePHOTOzine Critique Buddy Groups he was soon thinking outside the box to try a different approach to the first month's chosen subject  - macro.
Having discovered the work of Karl E. Deckart, Simon set about taking Soap Bubbles and after hours of attempting to achieve similar quality he has now developed a technique to achieve decent results.

Here he explains the process, which is great fun on a day when you can't get out to do your normal photography.

What you need:
  1. Soap Bubbles, I  bought these from Toys R Us - £ 2.50 a bottle.
  2. Glycerin, available from Boots or grocery stores - about 90p per bottle.
    btw Glycerin is one of the best cough and sore throat medicines ever and is the base for the majority of those ones that cost 4 quid a bottle, a big saving without the fancy (and expensive) flavouring.
  3. Some foam - I bought a pack of sponge cloths at a cost of about a quid.
  4. Some Garden wire or an old wire coat hanger.
  5. A pair of sharp scissors - be careful kids!
  6. Some sticky back plastic - Sellotape.
  7. A container, vase or jug.
Soap Bubbles from Toys R Us and
Glycerin from Boots the Chemist
Garden Wire and sponge cloths
Start by shaping the wire/coat hanger into a square about 5 inches by 5 inches, making sure you leave a good 8 inches or so overhang. If using a coat hanger you may need a pair of pliers to help with this, the garden wire is easily done by hand.

Bend the wire into a rough 5x5” or so square
Once you have shaped your wire, cover it with foam this helps 'feed' the bubble and thus make is last longer. I did this by cutting the sponge cloth into strips and then wrapping it around the frame, finish it off with a good piece of Sellotape wrapped around a few times.
Cut your foam into strips Wrap the foam around the wire

Now the fun begins...
Pour your bubbles into a container, make sure this is deep enough for you to be able to 'dip' your wire frame in and cover it fully. I found the plastic containers that you use to store morning cereals in ideal for this. You can start now if you want, however, a straight bubble mix only lasts about 30 seconds to a minute and it is very hard to get the shots in that amount of time. The 'secret' is Glycerin, add this bad boy to the mix and bubbles last for a good 3 to 4 minutes. If you blow them they are much bigger too, a good thing to remember the next time your kids want big bubbles ;) Mix approx 200ml of Glycerin per 1 litre to 1.5 litres of bubbles, you may find a better mix than I did, but this is how I did it and it worked well.

Place a black background behind your bubbles and shine a light through it and you will see some amazing colours and patterns taking place. It is this that we want to photograph using a macro lens.

The iridescent colours are caused by interfering light waves and vary depending on the thickness of the film, again the glycerin helps here as it thickens the mixture. This phenomenon is not the same as a rainbow, but rather the same phenomenon that causes the colours in oil on a wet road for instance.

So the setup then, get a piece of black card or cloth and place it behind the surface you are working on. Place the bubble frame that we made in front of this at a rough 45 degree angle to it. Now place your light source at a 45 degree or so angle to this. Finally set your camera up at a 45 degree or so angle to the bubble.

Black background. Frame and container of mixture, light source and camera.

The light source needs diffusing and softening so if you have studio lights put a softbox on or alternatively place a piece of white paper in front of your desk lamp etc.

I found it easier to bring the container of mixture to the frame as opposed to the frame to the mixture, so dip your frame and I suggest you watch it and learn the first time. For the first 30 seconds or so, the bubble appears somewhat colourless and boring, this is because the liquid is all evenly distributed.

After 30 seconds it starts to get interesting and colours and streaks appear and start moving around inside the bubble.

Over time and as gravity starts to work on the bubble you start to get some fantastic striations across the surface and it all starts to really slow down its movement.

More colours begin to appear and the patterns become much more defined.

As the bubble fades you get a lot of black
appearing (the background showing through),
this is caused by the soap sinking and being
left with just a glycerin and water surface.

Finally the bubble bursts and so it's time to
dip it in your mixture again.
          Interesting things to try
  • Instead of using a square frame, bend to wire into a circular shape, the patterns are different. Bend it into other shapes.

  • Try different soap mixtures or add some food colouring.

  • Gently blow on the surface to drastically alter the patterns.

  • Move your light around. Or alter the angle of the frame.

  • Try long exposures when it's all moving around, in the region of 3, 4 or 5 seconds or so.

  • If you want to use a flash to freeze the movement, the flash must be located in the same place as the light source, it doesn't work if it is on the top of your camera.

I've had hours of fun doing this now and just know I'm going to have more hours doing it too. No two bubbles are ever the same.
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Pete 20 18.8k 97 England
29 Jun 2009 11:50PM
If you read this article and try the technique please come back and tell us how you got on and put a link to photos you upload using this technique in the gallery.
TSP 13 17 1 England
13 Jul 2009 10:11PM
I gave it a go tonight and it turned out pretty well. I made my own soft box using a desklight, a collapsible crate and some white fabric that worked quite well. I also used some fairy luqid (apple quake flavour) and sainsburys Glycerin lemon and honey cough syrup. smelt quite nice all in all.
Any how heres a fewversions here: link
AntHolloway 16 168 United Kingdom
5 Aug 2009 1:01PM
Yep, had a go with washing up liquid and a small bottle of glycerin from the 'cake ingredients' shelf. Used an off camera flash and softbox. A couple of shots here and here.

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