Still life with falling coffee by Dina Belenko

Dynamic balance

Since I live in a small provincial town at the End of the World, I don’t have an access to any fancy machinery that is supposed to help you in shooting splashes.

Machines that can pour liquid at exact angles and with precise speed are more a subject of daydreaming for me than something that I can just buy at local store. Surely, there are a lot of people with the same problem.

That doesn’t mean we should miss all the fun and keep our still life images, well, still. Let’s see how we can shoot a dynamic image with falling cups and splashing liquid using only two speedlights and a glue gun.

The key element in shooting splashes is gaining as much control as possible. Since precise control under pouring liquid is very hard to archive, let’s go other way and make sure that we can fix our „falling“ cups steady in the air, for that we use professional clamps or improvised tools like knitting needles and a glue gun. 

As for gear, the required kit is a camera, tripod and any light source suitable for shooting at high speed (in my case it’s two speedlights — one inside small softbox and another behind large diffuser). Remote release would be a big help too, but it’s not a requirement. So, let’s do it!

1. Collect the props.

Gather all the things you need for your still life (a couple of coffee cups, some cookies, a couple of sugar cubes — everything you find suitable; don’t forget lots and lots of coffee), supports for „falling“ cups and a glue gun.

1 Collect the props

2. Composition.

Arrange a composition with some space for a future splash. In my case the whole bottom part of an image is almost empty, so moving liquid wouldn’t ruin any important parts of a still life.
Glue cups that supposed to be “falling” to supports and fix them steadily in place (in my case a milk glass is glued to a knitting needle, which can be easily removed at post-processing, and knocked coffee cup is glued to a shelf).

2 Composition 1

2 Composition 2

2 Composition 3

4. Lighting and camera settings.

The scene is light with two speedlights, set on the low power (from 1/16 up to 1/128 power provides a very short pulse that will freeze the motion of liquid), one working as key light from the left and slightly behind the scene, other working as fill light on the right.
Since we’re working with flash, set your shutter speed to the flash sync speed – usually between 1/160 sec and 1/250 sec. From there, take a test shot to establish what maximum aperture you can get without underexposing an image. Set your camera on a continuous mode to make several shots in a row, and focus manually on the main object.

4 Lighting

5. Shooting.

That’s the best part! Pour some liquid into a cup and take a sequence of shots. Because cups are fixed in place you can make several tries without ruining the scene. Try different amounts of liquid and different angles before you create a splash closest to ideal one. And most important — have fun!

5 Shooting

6. Post-processing.

Choose the most beautiful shots and combine them together (paste each frame into a new layer and use Layer Masks and brush to reveal the details you like). . In my case there are two mains shots — one with coffee and one with milk — and some drops added from other iterations. Retouch all visible supports (I did it with Clone Stamp), give the picture a little polish (delete drops you don’t like, adjust colours and contrast ) and voila!

Now you can try the whole process again with different objects: cookies and flour, donuts and sprinkles, anything you like!Here’re some images from series called „From the Top Shelf“ which were made in exactly the same way. So, over to you.

6 Best coffee

6 Best milk

7 Post-processing


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