The setup is deceptively simple.

A fish tank.


Inks and dyes. 

I don't photograph these in the studio. I've had the fish tank since I was a child and I don't trust it not to hold water. The studio is in the loft of our house. If it broke the ensuing mess would be a nightmare.

I will eventually get a new fish tank. Or two. A bigger one and a small one for macro work.

I set up the fish tank in the shed.

I decide on my light setup. I shoot with Profoto D2 heads. Having experimented with continuous light and less able flash heads, the extremely short flash duration of the D2s (up to 64,000th of a second) guarantee sharp photographs.

I set up my camera on a tripod with a 100mm macro lens and a cable release. The Canon 100mm 2.8L allows me to get in really close if there's a composition that appears in the ink that I like. 

I decide which colours of inks I want to use. I normally use Liquitex Acrylic inks.

I insert a metal ruler into the fish tank, angled from front to back. I focus the lens on a particular measurement on the ruler. This will be my focal point in the scene - where the ink will be in focus. The gaffer tape on top of the tank lines up with this measurement, so that when the ink is inserted into the water it will be in line with the focal plane.

I fill the tank with water.

I remove the ruler.

I then begin the shoot... 

I normally start with one colour. I either drop the inks into the water with the integrated dropper, or I inject them using syringes.

As the ink settles I introduce other colours or dyes to build up layers, textures and depth of colour.

It's important not to rush. The ink has to find its way through the water. Any intrusion on my part will mix and blend the inks together, darkening the water. 

I study the scene. I move in closer or adjust the focus if there's an area or composition that catches my eye. I move the flash around if a different angle of light will create a different mood.

I wait. The ink suspends itself in the water as long as I don't intervene. 

If the scene needs more movement and drama I consider using heavier substances. Dye in particular is heavy, billowing and rushing through the ink and the water. 

I have to move more quickly now as the scene gets more obscured. The flash struggles to cut through the darkness. I move the lights again.

Once the fish tank is in complete darkness I end the shoot. 

I empty the fish tank. This is painstakingly slow. I can't carry the fish tank as it's too heavy and could easily break. So I use an adapter on my drill to pump the water out into buckets. 

I clean the fish tank, making sure there is no ink and dye residue inside and no water droplets on the outside.

I then restart the whole process, filling the tank with water and deciding on the colours of my next scene. 

Photographing ink in water can be frustrating. It is deceptively simple in concept. But technically it is complicated and painstaking slow.

I've learned not to get frustrated. The more I push and grasp for results or certain looks the more they elude me.

I've learned to plan my scenes, to set everything up, and then to react to what the inks and the dyes and the water create. What they reveal is unpredictable and often surprising.

The challenge is to reflect this in my photography. 

In one drop of water are found all the secrets of the oceans.

Kahlil Gibran