Oil and Water Photography

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Oil and water photography

notice how flat the oil is on the water - 1/80s  f2.8 iso 100

Note to self: This is too wide. I really should have started at f5.6 as my macro lens is super sharp at that setting

Want a project for a rainy day? Feel like bringing a bit of abstract photography into your portfolio? Well why not try some oil and water photography!


I decided to have a go as it's been on my to do list for over a year. It seems to rain every day here so it's a great way to spend the morning. You just never know what you're going to create.


It's the perfect project for a macro lens.


Even if you have super macro settings on your point and shoot. But if you don't have a macro lens try it with extension tubes. Or a reversal ring on your 50mm lens. These are my very first attempts ...and a confession - I didn't use a tripod.

Here's what you need for Oil and Water Photography

  • A CLEAN dish with handles. Look for one without a watermark/writing on the base. And one that doesn't have too many scratches on the base!


  • Colourful fabric, cd or scrapbook paper that is placed about 1 foot below the bowl.


  • Now if you can't find a dish that has handles you can always place your clear dish on a piece of glass that is resting on two/four supports.


  • Add some water to the dish and a few drops of cooking oil. I went a bit over the top and added too much ...well it was a big wide dish.
  • TIP -  Add a drop of washing up liquid to give the bubbles a little more dimension. The first shot didn't have washing up liquid added but the 2nd shot does.


  • Point a light source on your scrapbook paper when you're shooting indoors like me.A towel for emergencies if doing this indoors.


  • Give the mixture a little stir and just wait till everything settles before you start shooting. Don't stir too madly as I introduced far too many tiny air bubbles in my 2nd shot. Another reason why not to stir too madly is that the handles may not stay on the supports. (go figure - I speak from experience ...hence the reason a towel for emergencies is now on my list).

Oil and Water Photography - Camera Settings

  • Some photographers suggest that the aperture needs to be between f11 - f16.
  • Mine at those settings kept the background paper clearly visible in the picture for most of the shots. So I opened wider though at f2.8 lots of the bubbles look soft. Next time I'll start at f5.6.
  • Manual focus is a must. Most good point and shoot cameras will have a manual focus setting though it could be hidden away behind other buttons. So you'll need to check your manual.
  • My shot was on auto white balance. But you could change to any of the settings to see how it changed your colours in camera. Especially if you have time to experiment in degrees kelvin.
  • For canon photographers you could also change your picture settings in-camera and make the image more saturated as an sooc.
  • Use a tripod  - I will next time.
Oil and water photography
Oil and water photography with washing up liquid added

Post Editing


If you're using Picasa you'll know about the great free tools and filters. I must admit it was incredible to see how this one picture changed without even bringing it near photoshop in lomo, 1960's and cinemascope.


I finally brought the images into photoshop. Checked and removed any bits of lint. Increased the saturation a bit and then just sharpen.

Notice the bevel edges in the oil once the washing up liquid is added. Still at the same wide aperture though the edges would have had even more of a bevel if it had been shot not just so wide.

Next time I'm going to try this outdoors with the tripod. Plus alter the height that the fabric/paper is away from the base of the bowl to see if that helps me use a smaller aperture.

Follow Rosie Nixon:

Photography Tutor and Gardener

Rosie is a garden photographer, writer and nature lover. She enjoys soaking up nature and is easily distracted from doing the weeding by anything that flutters, flies, buzzes, creeps or crawls! She enjoys sharing the beauty of creation through her photography. Rosie has been featured on TV on BBC2's The Beechgrove Garden and she uses the outdoors as her natural light studio. Her work can be seen at one of Scotland's only photography galleries - Close Gallery, 4b Howe Street, Edinburgh.

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16 Responses

  1. Amanda

    Very cool! Ive tried it before, but I didn't get the exact set up right, and had no tripod, I will be trying it again!!

  2. Mom of M&Ms

    I love these.. Chelle and I met through shooting water and oil..

    try veggie oil vs olive or canola.. they all make different sized of bubbles and pop at differnt times.. it is interesting

  3. Andee

    I love these pictures. Thanks for sharing all your recommendations. I can't wait to try it.

  4. Kim Stevens

    Hi Rosie, and thanks for linking up my tutorial. I do want to say that because we are shooting straight on at the oil and water that the aperture really only comes into play depending on how much blur you want on the paper or design showing through. And one thing I can't remember if I mentioned, is if you do have some bubbles it helps to focus on that for sharpness in the photo. I shot in manual but did find that I was able at times to shoot in auto focus when the light was right and there were bubbles that it could clearly focus on. I wasn't able to use my tripod for any of the photos because my macro lens is a 40mm and you have to be very very close in order to fill the frame with that lens, and I just couldn't do that with the tripod. I found myself holding my breath just so I wouldn't move after finding a sharp focus. But it helps that my lens weighs next to nothing. The purple shot was at f 4.0 and the background is blurry, but when I shot at f14 on the first shot the background has more pattern. And as I'm thinking, my best results were when my set up was on my back patio table (like my photo) – where I didn't have to bend over too far while trying to manual focus and not move. I like how you added dish soap, I'll have to try that next time. I have a few other ideas I would like to try too, I'll let you know how that goes.

  5. Gardening in a Sandbox

    Love this technique. I have wanted to give it a go for a while but have never got around to it. I loved how the colors came about with the bubbles. V

  6. Ruth

    These are great! I saw that tutorial and must try it, I love the colours you've got in yours though and the abstract patterns, brilliant!

  7. Gina @ Gigi Marie Photography

    How funny- I just did this over the weekend & will be posting them later in the week. I love how yours came out. I wasn't liking how my bubbles were working out so I did swirls instead 🙂

  8. Michelle Reed

    Oh, I keep saying I want to do this again…. I'm going to have to, now that I got some better skills a year later {hopefully} ha! 🙂

    These are awesome shots! And great details/tips, too! 🙂 Love it!

    and hehe… it's so funny to be glancing though the comments and see me mentioned…. 🙂