Making a Splash

by Martha Blanchfield

Martin Waugh

September 01, 2011 — Drips, drops, droplets and ripples are all part of this photographer’s day. The divine art of the splash has been one of Portland resident Martin Waugh’s favorite pastimes since 2002. He claims he’s obsessed with creating high-speed photographs of drops and splashes, and is constantly exploring and inventing new techniques to wow viewers.

Seven years ago, Waugh posted a few dozen images on his Web site. At the time, he had a day job developing software that tracked Web site traffic, so he was very aware his site had been logging just 20 to 30 visitors a day. But the day after this auspicious upload, he noticed 3000 hits; the following day they rose to 20,000; within a month, more than a million people had visited his site. Waugh’s experimentation with high-speed digital photography from the basement of his home was bringing him both acclaim and offers to bid on commercial work. The hubbub and novelty may have slowed in recent years, but interest remains strong in his work.  

Magic Water
Waugh’s liquid sculpture has been featured on The Discovery Channel. He’s been named one of Yahoo!’s 24 Picks of the Year, and has exhibited in Paris’ acclaimed Capital of Creation Trade Show and Art Basel Miami Beach. His work can be found in both corporate and private collections around the world, and he’s produced ad art for Coca-Cola and Treasure Island Hotel & Casino.

In the early years, nearly every day Waugh would position his Canon 5D with a Tamron 180mm macro next to his aqua stage. He prepped his lineup of Vivitar flash units. The lights went dim, a droplet was heard and magic appeared on the viewfinder.

Waugh accomplishes this both through science—by controlling and varying a liquid droplet’s size, trajectory, physical properties (surface tension, viscosity)—and through art—by adding colors, reflections and backgrounds.

He uses water for the majority of his liquid sculpturing because of its availability and cheapness, as well as how well it cleans up. Having staged many falling droplets of water, Waugh feels he’s got the hang of H2O’s somewhat predictable manner. However, he warns that water is still “willfully non-linear, causes madness, and even in highly controlled environments, every droplet depends on everything else.” He’s worked with milk, he’s added cooking oil and glycerin, he’s dabbled with alcohol, detergents and plenty of other additives—but pure water remains his favorite.

Weird Science
Another perk about using water is its surface quality. “Water has a fairly high surface tension, meaning that it’s fairly resistant to external forces that attempt to break it up, interact or interfere,” says Waugh. “This resistance is caused by a strong cohesion of like molecules —hydrogen bonds hold water together.” He rattles off a few commonly seen examples of this cohesion, including water beading on the hood of a waxed car and the long streams of rain pouring down a window. Even that slow-to-form droplet lingering at a faucet’s mouth does so because of its high level of cohesion. Water attracts water. This power of attraction fascinates and flusters Waugh. “The way water releases from a dripper head depends on flow rate, the size of the opening and surface tension of the water, among other things,” he says.

Of his timing tower, a necessary element of the water-drop capture sequence, says Martin, “I have built most of my own electronics, which, in retrospect was a fool’s errand (and I’m just the man for the job). Certainly now, there are very good devices commercially available for reasonable prices.”

Here’s how it works: The timing sequence starts when the droplet passes through an electric-eye, or “photogate,” Says Martin, “The one I use is built from a laser pointer and a phototransistor. I also built a microcontroller-based timer that is accurate to 1 millionth of a second (about 100 times better than required). The timer starts when the photogate senses the drop, and after a set amount of time it opens the camera shutter and activates the flash. My timer can also control an electronic water valve and various other motors and devices that I use for putting the drops in the right place at the right time.”

For his photograph of a droplet family with swirling circles and arcs mirrored inside (pg. 33), Waugh positioned his Canon 20D with his Tamron 180mm macro lens approximately 12 inches away. He used two model 285HV Vivitar flash units; one positioned to illuminate the droplet as it fell, the other positioned to light the background. His background, a printout of the Mandelbrot set, was placed about six inches behind where the droplet would fall. For staging, Waugh custom built a drop gun from scrap parts in his shop and electronic components from DigiKey.com (cold, pure water was used). The view of the drop gun has been placed just slightly above the top line of the frame, creating a sliver of space that reveals the drop just as it starts to break apart.

As mentioned, Waugh occasionally messes with water’s bonds by dropping in glycerin, dye or soap. Even the slightest bit of contaminant alters his favorite medium’s behavior. For example, adding glycerin increases viscosity so much that water becomes “gooier.” This aids him in catching pictures that show crisper disturbance at the water’s surface. “Exploration can be a vicious cycle of serendipity and curiosity. You cannot always predict whether a liquid will fall, stream straight down, dance or be jittery. Additives always bring a wild card to the equation,” he says.  

Dealing With Tension
Despite his experiments with mixing and introducing foreign elements and additives over the years, Waugh has identified a few constants. For starters, working with the cleanest filtered water is desirable. And he’s recognized that the addition of food coloring tends to muddy the liquid, while aniline dyes yield clearer, crisper and more electric coloration.

Even a liquid’s temperature can affect the droplet or splash. “Water’s viscosity changes as its temperature shifts; it gets thinner as it heats up, which equates to more splashy effects,” Waugh shares. “Water is special. It has a high heat capacity, it evaporates away, there is no filmy residue left behind and it’s got the best surface tension.”

In the  image, “Earth Rebounds,” shown below, Waugh used cold, pure water, knowing it would yield a large spherical ball with a sense of stoutness. “This feel is what a higher surface tension yields. As I alluded to earlier, the higher the surface tension, the more apt water is to attract or bond. For me this means if I wish to create a single or series of droplets on a surface, the liquid has to be kept cool.

 “But keeping just the water cool may not be not good enough though. There are instances where I need to control environmental temperature. Even the working space or surface area itself has properties that can affect success—for example, whether the starting surface is dry or wet, its porosity, latent temperature and even its integrity or ability to preserve a constant temperature.”

The Art of Making a Martini
In 2007, J. Walter Thompson (JWT), the ad agency for Smirnoff, commissioned Waugh to produce splash imagery for the “Extraordinary Purity in Every Drop” campaign. Waugh’s job was to create martini, highball and whiskey glass magic.

Despite his desire to remain true to and use the actual product, Waugh knew that water was the only choice. Alcohol disperses quickly, has far less surface tension and would not yield the desired look; even a combination of vodka and water would not work. “It also evaporates away from one portion of the surface, which creates an uneven surface tension.

If you drop alcohol, or even a mixture of alcohol combined with another liquid in an effort to create a column (for example in making the stem of martini glass or column sides of the glass), the sides will vary, bending toward the areas of higher concentration.”

Even back then, Waugh had taken thousands of shots resembling wine and martini glasses through a droplet collision, but had not quite perfected the look demanded. Careful manipulation of droplet size, speed and timing, as well as gallons of patience, helped him obtain what he needed.

 “To get a stemware look I first allow one drop to splash, which forms a familiar column with a knob on top,” he says. “A second drop is timed to the millisecond and this lands on top of the column, splaying it outward.

Waugh grins, “Of course, when it came time to do the martini glass, it took three days of shooting to get just what was wanted!”

Ring Toss
Run a Google search for “liquid stop motion photography” you’ll get results showing hundreds of Waugh’s images displayed on sites all over the Internet. Among these  are his current fascination—something akin to the ring toss game. “First I make a single droplet fall, then start forming a column. Next I drop a small ring and get it to fall without tumbling through the air,” Waugh says. “I’ve got to time and position both so that the ring just slides over the first liquid column. Then I drop one more drop on top of the column!”

Martin’s madness continues with this and other liquid pursuits. There was a time when he’d log about 500 drops, three times a day, four hours per session. These days, though, he’s quite content passing just a few Zen hours with water.
To see more of Waugh’s work, visit www.liquidsculpture.com.


Martha Blanchfield is creator of the Renegade Photo Shoots and a freelance marketing and public relations consultant.

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