Watery Camera Tricks for Rebellious Photographers

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A photographer’s best light source? That would be the miasma of incandescent plasma hanging in the sky.

A carefully-placed lens flare can add drama to your shot. But for the truly daring, a little H2O can take it even further.

Introduce strange squiggles, gauzy haze, and a twinkly smattering of bokeh by placing water on your glass.

Of course, your neighbors may gasp: Dihydrogen monoxide is a menace to electronics, and getting a camera wet is unheard of in polite circles.

Traditionalists may admonish, “it’s simply not done!” But innovators like you know better. High risk! High reward! Now let’s go make history.

Make Your Lens Flares Bloom

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Using water to deform the sun! It is an endeavor almost mythological in its hubris, placing ourselves between two such fundamental entities. Fire versus ice! We feel like a modern day Euripides, or Robert Frost, or combination of the two: Euripifrost. What?

Anyway, please promise us you’ll be careful. Water is one of the most dangerous substances in the world. Seriously! Water inside of a lens can cause rust, mold, and ever short-circuits. So be aware of the risks, and use a lens that’s been around the block a few times and doesn’t cost a million dollars. This is a trick that could potentially mess things up — or invalidate your warranty.

But you are a rebel! You laugh at danger! Scoff at fear! Sneeze at hard hats! In well-behaved photography circles, getting a camera get wet is utter heresy. What will the neighbors say? Well, they’ll probably say, “there goes a photographer who isn’t afraid to be a little bad.” GASP.

So now, if you’re aware of the risks and ready to give it a whirl (and you should, because this is totally fun), let’s do it!

What You’ll Need

  • An SLR lens (not your best one)
  • A cheap UV filter
  • Lens-cleaning cloth or paper
  • A spray bottle
  • A sunny day or very strong artificial light

Step 1: Wet Your Lens

This is a pretty simple step. But there are a couple different ways to do it!

  • For a sprinkling of bokeh: Hold a water-spritzy-bottle a few feet from the lens and let the spray lightly drift onto the filter. (Cover up the rest of the camera so it doesn’t get wet.)
  • For a dreamy haze: Put a few drops of water on the filter and then smear it with the lens-cleaning cloth or paper — but don’t let it dry all the way.
  • For a rippling raindrop effect: This requires big globs of water. Hold the spray-bottle inches from the filter and get it really wet, so the water beads up into big fat drops on the glass.

Step 2: Study Your Droplets

The water on your lens will appear in a variety of sizes, and will quickly change as you’re shooting due to evaporation. Keep an eye on the droplets to make sure you’re getting the effect you want:

  • Tiny droplets produce a bright sparkling geometrical shape, usually a hexagon (depending on the mechanics of your lens).
  • Big drops produce a wet round globby shape, sort of like looking through a window on a rainy day.

Big drops can confuse your autofocus — but not to fear! If your AF can’t make up its mind, you can just take the reins yourself. Switch over to Manual Focus and develop your hand-focusing skills!

Step 3: Choose Your Aperture

Big wide aperture = big splotchy flare. Narrow closed aperture = tiny glittery bokeh. Here’s why:

Think of your lens as being like a garden hose, and light as being like a blast of water. When the spigot is tightened, only a trickle of water can get through, and it only splashes a small area. When the spigot is opened all the way, the hose can splash water all over the place. Bokeh works the same way: when your aperture is narrowed to a very small hole (like f/18 or f/22), only a little light can get through, so your bokeh will be small. When your aperture is widened up (like f/1.8 or f/3.5) your bokeh will be huge.

The easiest way to control bokeh size is by setting your SLR to aperture-priority mode. That way, your camera will vary the shutter speed to compensate for whatever aperture you choose. On most cameras, that mode is labeled “Av.”

Step 4: Watch for Condensation

Eventually, you may notice a strange foggy haze overtaking your photos: it could be condensation forming on the inside of your filter. That’ll add an air of mystery and fog to your photos, like there’s three witches stirring a cauldron just off-screen.

One word of warning, though: Over time, moisture in your lens can cause rust or mold.

If you’re worried that things are getting too damp, take the filter off of your lens and let it let it sit someplace warm, dry, and dust-free for a few seconds. Use a blower to speed up the evaporation — but don’t breathe on it! Unless you are a mummy, your breath is very humid. You can also pack silica pouches in your camera bag to help keep things dry.

Take it Further

  • Other substances: Why stop at water? If you don’t mind ruining a cheapo filter, carefully experiment with other concoctions: soap, sports drinks, styling gel, egg whites. Tallulah Bankhead once observed, “they used to photograph Shirley Temple through gauze. They should photograph me through linoleum.” Ha! (She also said, “the only thing I regret about my past is the length of it.” Oh, Tallulah.)
  • Other lights: Not all that glitters is the sun, you know! Try shooting around other bright lights — concerts, car headlights, off-camera flashes.
  • Other haze: If you love the hazy, foggy effect that’s produced by condensation in your lens but you don’t love how condensation will destroy your equipment, get a diffusion filter. Diffusion will replicate that soft 1940s-Hollywood-starlet look without gunking up your optics.

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