Introduction: High Speed Coloured Ink Plume Photography

About: Photographer (Mainly Portrait and Wildlife) Graphic Designer

I've never done anything with high speed photography, let alone that of the fluid dynamics of coloured ink and oil in water. The best thing you should do before attempting a new project is to thoroughly research it, so you can learn from other people's mistakes, which is likely what you are doing now!

I didn't. I had an image of what I wanted to create in my mind and this is my completely trial and error based stab in the dark attempt at trying to replicate it! I've included many of my trials tests and failed experiments so you can learn not only from what does work, but what doesn't and why.

I've been a fan of Instructables for a long time, but this is my first attempt at creating one! If you enjoy this I'd really appreciate a vote or a favourite, or if you didn't: some constructive criticism on what I can do better next time would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

All images above are the final result, not stock photos! Hence I am extremely pleased with them and how they surpass completely what I expected to achieve.

Step 1: Why?

I'm a photographer and a graphic designer. A few things that I enjoy a lot but scarcely do myself is both high speed photography, fluid dynamics photography and upclose, abstract colour.

I was inspired for this project over the course of a day by a few things:

  • My favourite music channel, Cloudkid, utilises waving ink patterns as a visualiser, and I continually wonder how he manages the awesome artworks!
  • The recent video, by Destin, from Smarter Every Day, featured two inked vortexes being fired at each other in high speed. Which is both science and an art in itself!
  • Violet food colouring laying around. It's my favourite colour.I mean, cmon. I just had to do something cool with it!

Step 2: Container

Fluid dynamics involves the interaction of two fluids. Seeing as I have no capability to work with gas, it was pretty obvious I needed a tank to hold my liquid.

On my search for a container I held these criteria:

  • Minimal curvature (By either completely square sides or a very large, and thus gradual, curve.
    • This is to mitigate any distortion/ fisheye effects of the contents and so that there are no bright highlights reflecting off of the curve that might ruin the picture.
    • In my search and testing I found very large cylindrical tubes worked significantly better than smaller tubes due to more gradual curvature.
  • No fogging or branding.
    • (An Airsoft BB bottle I debated using had embossed / pressed branding into the side, this seemed to be no issue until it was highlighted by the flash)
    • Even the slight fogging of cups and boxes seemed to reduce clarity significantly.
  • Large
    • Camera lenses can't focus fully up close (Well mostly, we'll talk on that later.) So the larger the container the closer the camera can be to the glass, reducing the reflection and allowing us to focus past it, whilst allowing us to focus clearly on the objective.

In the end I was able to source a relatively large flower vase which was a rough cube with minimal curvature.

Ideally a DIY perspex or real fish tank would be better where it would be very long to allow for the details discussed under the criteria of 'Large'. It is important to note that anything you use must be watertight!

After washing thoroughly I used Windex to ensure there were no smudges or blurs on the glass that might cause artefacts.

Wiping the inside of the filled tank with a hand to remove bubbles is VITAL! And ruined too many photos from my laziness!

Step 3: Camera & Lighting (Gear!)

I use a mix of different equipment throughout, which I will cover here.

Photography Jargon:

The Camera is a 7D Mk1, used for it's eminently high shutter speed for cameras in it's range. (1/8000)

I used a 24-70 L because of the 2.8 f stop. I actually also utilised the stock lens because I had a macro attachment which allows me to rest it directly against the glass despite image quality being significantly worse due to quality. (It did come in handy with experimentation as f32 (instead of f22) allowed me to focus on practically everything and not force me to use ND filters)

I used four lights. The main ones being the red one above which is a standard studio light, a general large 'fill' light (grey) and a Canon speedlite (580ex). I equipped the light with a softbox to diffuse the light and fill the full plume, whilst avoiding harsh shadows that cannot be removed in Photoshop.

I used a standard tripod which doesn't have anything special of note for this purpose.

If that means nothing to you and you're not really into photography, you can still achieve similar results with slower ink and a good smartphone! The difficulty here was achieving very sharp images with no noise (Low ISO - using VERY bright lights)

Issues that arrised was that 1/8000 shutter speed managed to catch the speedlite flash (it was set to high speed mode to exceed 1/250) but it was too quick to capture the other lights on slave mode (they flash when they see a flash). Thus I just used them as fill lights (permanently on) to mostly eliminate shadow created when I flashed the speedlite and it cast a shadow from the glass and table.

All cameras that aren't SUPER high end or mirrorless use a rolling shutter, I think Vsauce's 'Distortions' has a good explanation on it. Hence 250 was about the maximum speed my shutter could handle when plugged into the other lights.Under that and an image like the last one above was created.

Step 4: Test 1!

I mixed water with some food colouring paste (black) that I could afford to waste. This is so I could do many repeats without emptying the tank, in comparison to the ink we create later which fully contaminates the tank with 5 seconds of diffusion.

To create this, with the setup shown before we flashed the speelite from below the tank in a pitch black room with the camera on bulb mode (shutter open) the large studio light then flashed from above (held up) using slave, all before the camera was released.

Timing the ink from a pipette with the speedlite in pitch black in a tiny room with a camera that requires the shutter to be held down during bulb mode, was extremely awkward and wasn't working as well as I wanted.

Largely due to camera wobble, larger ISO and uneven / inconsistent light with arms in the way!

It is worth noting that a ruler was placed in the middle of the tank for the camera to focus on as a point of reference, which was extremely useful.

After this I knew that the idea would work, but that flashing the flash with the plume was not the way to go.

Step 5: Pure Oil!

I tried a setup with pure oil to see how it turned out. Again it was necessary to blend the hot oil in with food colouring in order to create a mixture which was then deposited underwater.

The results were underwhelming but had potential. I think a fluid (as discussed next) into an oil bath would be a lot better, but I did not have enough oil. I will have to try it in the future as I think results may be even better than my final main results!

Step 6: Violet Pastel!

After several iterations I found the best mix was very small amount of oil, a very high concentration (non aqueous food colouring) as aforementioned, and double cream. It was necessary to heat the oil to incorporate it, and it seemed to create some cool effects inside the plumes such as globular smooth balls rising up to the surface.

I prefer the solid dye to the liquid dye as due to the cream being over-saturated with it you can see solid chunks of it fall down / rise up from the plume trailing behind diffusing ink, which looks incredible.

Step 7: The New Setup!

I used many cardboard boxes to raise my container to the desired height and used paper to hide their colour, I used a softbox fill light on the side, and a fill light shining at the background (white screen) which eliminated shadow from the speedlite. The speedlite was camera mounted and shone directly up into a silver reflector which reflected it top down into the fluid.

The use of the side softbox ensures that the ink casting hand casts no shadow.

To take the photo I lay awkwardly to the side and held the focus ring and a remote shutter in the same hand. As I dropped the ink in I adjusted focus whilst looking through the viewfinder and awkwardly pressed the shutter with a knuckle.

I feel an articulating screen would have come in extremely handy here but it turned out okay!

I found plumes were much better when created under the water, and the flash was set to 'multi' so I could get at least 5 flashes per ink plume. I did no more than this to avoid overheating in the already scorching room!

I tried the f32 lens with a lower shutter speed and dimmer lights, to try and get a plume in full focus but many artefacts were also pulled into focus. I therefore recommend artificially sharpening stuff in Photoshop instead of using a higher f stop.

At first results were extremely underwhelming, all out of focus and blurry. I knew the error was human and varied each time, so I used a remote shutter and raised the f stop to reduce human caused blur. I stuck with it until I got some good results and then I stuck doing that!

This set of results was extremely good. I refilled and repolished the tank between each ink deposit and continued.

I collected my final photos (which were all taken in RAW (never shoot jpg when you're doing intentional, planned shots you plan to edit!) and separated out the best ones for editing.

Step 8: The Edit.

Editing consisted of the repetition of a few steps in both Lighroom and Photoshop:

One Time:

  • Set white balance to the background and mask off where the effect is not satisfactory (small fibres)
  • adjust curves to lower blacks and raise slightly the bright spots


  • Boost Clarity and Sharpness halfway.
  • Increase noise slider to reduce added noise
  • Increase exposure very slightly to compensate for added clarity
  • Increase highlights slightly to compensate for clarity
  • Reduce slightly or increase a lot, the shadows, depending on what fits better.

Repeat less or more intensely using radial filters.

I then used photoshop to remove the aforementioned cursed air bubbles! The spot healing brush in lighroom worked, but not was well as a combination of the photoshop tools

  • Mixing brush 10%
  • Spot healing tool 10%
  • Clone stamp 75%
  • Brush tool 5%

A pro tip with the clone stamp is to alternate between lighten and darken to remove repeating patterns which the eye spots immediately as fake or dodgy.

You can even use the hue adjustment to change the colour into the whole rainbow spectrum!. Smaller but more accurate changes can be made with Lightroom (colour independent) or just done using masks in Photoshop (Takes ages!)

Step 9: Final Results!

I'm very happy with the final results of my violet ink plumes. Next time I'd love to experiment with vortexes and utilising hydrophobic materials a lot more.

I think half mixing the dye could create some fantastic looking two tone patterns like my inspiration art from Cloudkid, but I am happy I chose my primary colour as Violet.

Thanks for reading my first ever Instructable, don't forget to vote for me if you enjoyed it! And if you tried it, I would love to see!

Thank you!

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