Creating Oil-Based Abstract Images


Combining oil, water and coloured card can make for a fascinating rainy-day photo project. Beth Harper explains


Creating Oil-Based Abstract Images

All images by Beth Harper


This is an image of an oil bubble resting on the surface of water above a coloured piece of card. It was taken in my kitchen with the help of a few things lying round the house. For this reason it is the ideal photo project for a rainy-day activity – almost all of the things you will need can be found at home!

Oil’s dense properties make it an ideal liquid to photograph up close when combined with water. With a bit of patience and luck, you can get some seriously interesting photographs. Here’s how...


Equipment you will need:

• Baby oil (cooking oil will also work, but I prefer the colourless look of baby oil) • Cold water

• Torch or lamp

• Clear bowl or plate ideally with no embossed logo (I bought a cheap casserole dish from Tesco)

• Sheet of glass from a picture frame

• Coloured or patterned paper – old wallpaper or scrapbooking paper is ideal

• Macro lens or lens adapter (I used a 150mm Sigma but any focal length will do as long as it has a 1:1 reproduction ratio)

• Between 4-8 tin cans, depending on how close you want your background to be

• Tripod (optional)


Creating Oil-Based Abstract Images


Step by step:

• First of all you want to arrange your equipment in a similar fashion to this:


Creating Oil-Based Abstract Images


Creating Oil-Based Abstract Images


Although this setup doesn’t look particularly glamorous, I have found it is the most effective way to do this project.


• Place the coloured card either on the floor or on a stool, I found it easier to keep my setup closer to the floor as without a tripod it is a lot easier to hold the camera and lens setup steady when you are directly above the bowl.

• You then want to position your tin cans in a way that will hold the sheet of glass and bowl steady, but without the lids of the tins showing in your image. I used an 8x10 sheet of glass, which I found to be the perfect length and width to support my dish.

• Next, arrange the lamp in such a way that it is shining on the paper – this will light up your background and also bounce the light off the paper and light up the underside of your dish. You can experiment with distance between lamp and background to create different effects – I prefer the light to be quite close to the background to ensure it is as bright as possible.

• Next, fill the bowl to about half of its capacity and drip a few drops of oil into the water. After a few seconds, the bubbles should settle and join together.

• Once the oil has settled you can take your pictures. Manually focusing your camera is generally easiest, as the autofocus will likely struggle to pick out the oil against the water. If you are using a tripod without a level tool, I would recommend placing an object in the water and manually focusing using live view to check that the camera is level. There is nothing worse than taking all your pictures only to find that one side is out of focus because the camera wasn't level!


Things to experiment with:

The distance between the paper background and the bowl: The image above was taken using eight cans so as to more effectively blur out my patterned background; when using simple coloured card I used four cans, as I found the colours were much more pleasing when the oil and paper were closer together.


Creating Oil-Based Abstract Images

This image was taken using only four cans, as the background pattern was a single colour in different shades



Using a tripod or not:

Due to the design of my tripod I was not able to use it in the creation of these images, I instead had to rely on holding my camera extremely steady while focusing as fast as possible. It is easy to miss great shots when photographing like this, as one little movement can throw your carefully focused image. Both methods are equally as fun and challenging – it’s just down to preference!

Mixing the oil after the large drops have formed: After the oil has settled you can create abstracts like the one below by stirring the mixture with a spoon.


Creating Oil-Based Abstract Images



About the Photographer

Beth Harper is a student and photographer. Follow her on Instagram



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