How to do Bubble Photography
By Kelly Zhang
Kelly Zhang is a young photographer based in New York, USA, specialising in abstract macro photography. Inspired by the scientific phenomena behind soap bubbles, Kelly began photographing them in 2022. Kelly has received several awards for her work, including first place in the 2022 American Association of Physics Teachers High School Physics Photo Contest and Honourable Mention in the 19th Julia Margaret Cameron Award. She shares her creative process for photographing soap bubbles with WE ARE Magazine.
I have always been captivated by the ethereal beauty of soap bubbles. The iridescent hues, rich textures, and fascinating interaction between spherical and amorphous shapes have always held a special allure for me. When the pandemic began and the world came to a standstill, I found a unique opportunity to dive into my passion for soap bubble photography. With ample time, I experimented with various techniques and setups to capture the exquisite beauty of soap bubbles and explore the scientific phenomenon - thin-film interference - that determines their formation and behaviour.
In this article, I will share my journey and insights into the fascinating world of bubble photography. We will explore the art of soap bubble photography, discuss the best practices for creating bubbles, and delve into the challenges and solutions I encountered. By the end of this guide, you will have gained the knowledge and skills necessary to excel in the enchanting realm of soap bubble photography.
The Science Behind the Soap Bubbles
The colour of soap bubbles is an example of thin-film interference. White light reflecting off soap bubbles produces a swirling pattern of colours. A soap bubble is an air-filled sphere surrounded by an extremely thin film made up of a sheet of water encompassed by two layers of soap molecules. Light behaves as a wave, much like ripples from a stone thrown into a pond, and different colours of light have different wavelengths. White light is a complete mixture of all the wavelengths of the visible spectrum at equal intensity. When white light shines onto the soap bubbles, the light reflected from the outer soap layer interferes with the light reflected from the inner soap layer. Depending on the film's thickness and the light angle, the reflected light waves can interfere destructively or constructively with each other, causing the iridescent colours on the soap bubbles' surfaces.
A Semi-Dome Bubble (1/160, f/16, ISO 200, 90mm) © Kelly Zhang
Creating the Perfect Soap Bubbles
Bubble solution: the foundation of great soap bubble photos lies in the quality of the bubble solution. Commercial solutions can be unpredictable, so I recommend creating your mixture by hand. A tried-and-true recipe uses distilled water, dish soap, and glycerin. Glycerin can attract and hold water molecules from the surrounding environment, adding thickness and longevity to the bubbles, which makes them easier to photograph. The best mixture ratio for water, dish soap, and glycerin is approximately 7:2:1.
Bubble domes or wands: soap bubbles can be photographed as semi-domes or flatly through a wand. A semi-dome bubble can be created at the opening of the solution bottle when air is blown into it using a straw. Bubbles can also be made with various wand shapes and sizes, producing different bubble effects. You can also create your wand using wire or pipe cleaners bent into the desired shape.
Soap Film (1/160, f/16, ISO 100, 65mm) © Kelly Zhang
Setting up the Photography Environment
Lighting: using a flash for bubble photography is essential for achieving proper illumination and taking more captivating and dynamic images. A flash provides a directional light source, allowing you to control where the light falls on the bubble. This control lets you emphasise specific features, such as the bubble's iridescent colours, patterns, or textures, and create dramatic effects by manipulating shadows and highlights. The flash can usually be set up vertically, with the light directed downward.
Background: a black or dark-coloured backdrop works well, as it offers increased contrast, minimised reflections, simplified composition, enhanced colours, and versatility with lighting setups. These benefits contribute to creating visually appealing and impactful images that showcase the beauty of soap bubbles.
Tripod: a tripod is crucial for stability and sharpness in your images, especially when using macro lenses. It also allows you to free both hands to manipulate the bubbles and the wand.
Typical Bubble Photography Setup © Kelly Zhang
Camera Settings and Techniques
Macro Lens: a macro lens is ideal for capturing the intricate details and patterns within soap bubbles while providing sharpness, shallow depth of field, optimal working distance, and versatility. Most of my soap bubble photographs were taken with a 90mm f/2.8 macro lens, which allowed me to maintain a comfortable distance from the bubbles without disturbing them.
Aperture and depth of field (f/16 – f/22): narrow aperture and a deep depth of field can increase the sharpness of the image. This can be beneficial when capturing the intricate details of soap bubbles or creating images intended for large prints or high-resolution displays.
Shutter speed (1/160): use a fast shutter speed to freeze the motion of the bubbles and eliminate motion blur, capture fleeting moments, control lighting, and reduce camera shake, as soap bubbles are constantly moving, floating, and changing.
ISO (50, 100 or 200): keep the ISO as low as possible to reduce noise in the image.
Focus: Manual focus is recommended for precision and control, especially when working with macro lenses. In low-light conditions, autofocus systems may have difficulty focusing on transparent or reflective subjects like soap bubbles.
Challenges and Solutions
Bubble stability: bubbles are delicate and can burst easily. In addition, other factors like wind and air movement could worsen the situation, destabilising the soap bubbles. Usually, a soap bubble may last less than 30 seconds. However, you can create a more stable bubble solution by adding more glycerin. You can also experiment with different bubble solution component ratios, as some may help create stronger bubbles.
Reflections: bubbles can act as mirrors, reflecting unwanted elements from the surroundings. To minimise reflections, ensure that the background is uncluttered and that any light sources are diffused. You can also use a circular polarising filter to reduce glare and reflections. Most of my high-quality soap bubble photographs were taken before dawn under low light conditions. Moreover, the surroundings were quiet, which minimised interference and allowed for better photography.
Timing: capturing the perfect bubble moment can be challenging due to their unpredictable nature. Be patient and take multiple shots to increase your chances of capturing the perfect image.
Focusing: focusing can be challenging in soap bubble photography, which arises from various factors, such as a shallow depth of field when using a macro lens or shooting close-ups. The transparency and reflectiveness of bubbles can confuse the camera's autofocus system, making it hard to lock onto the subject. Low light conditions, which are often preferred for soap bubble photography, can also hinder autofocus performance. To address these challenges, use manual focus for precise control and a tripod to stabilise the camera. Exercise patience while waiting for the bubble to settle into the desired position, improving focusing accuracy.
Abstract Soap Bubble (1/160, f/16, ISO 50, 90mm) © Kelly Zhang
Advanced Techniques and Variations
Abstract bubble art: experiment with abstract compositions by focusing on the swirling colours and patterns within the bubbles. For instance, you can blow on the bubbles to swirl and blend the colours even further. This technique can create images reminiscent of galaxies, oil paintings, or even stained glass.
Multiple exposures: combine soap bubble photography with multiple exposures for a creative and surreal approach. Layer several exposures on a single image to create a dreamy, otherworldly effect. To achieve the best results, use a flash to fill in the light, underexpose each image, and shoot against a seamless backdrop. A shutter release cable and tripod allow for ease and consistency. Blowing the bubble while taking photos can further enhance the dreamy atmosphere in the image.
Bubble burst: capturing the moment a soap bubble bursts is an exciting challenge in bubble photography. A bubble bursts extremely quickly, and since soap bubble photography often takes place in low light conditions, it requires advanced techniques to capture the scene properly. Utilising sound triggering modes and controlling the bubble's bursting time by blowing it can help you capture a stunning bubble burst image successfully.
Contrast and saturation: enhance the colours and patterns within your soap bubble images by increasing the contrast and saturation in postprocessing. Be careful not to overdo it, as excessive adjustments can make the image look unnatural.
Sharpening: apply selective sharpening to the bubble's edges and patterns to emphasise the intricate details. Be cautious not to introduce noise or artefacts due to over-sharpening.
Noise reduction: if you had to use a higher ISO during your shoot, apply noise reduction in post-processing to minimise grain and maintain image quality.
Creative edits: use editing software like Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom to make creative adjustments, such as adding textures and overlays or even combining multiple images for a unique composition.
Bubble Burst (1/160, f/16, ISO 50, 50mm) © Kelly Zhang
Soap bubble photography is a captivating and rewarding genre that challenges photographers to capture the wonder of these delicate spheres. With patience, practice, and the proper techniques, you can create stunning images that showcase the enchanting world of soap bubbles. By following the tips and techniques outlined in this guide, you will be well on your way to mastering soap bubble photography. Remember to experiment with different bubble solutions, wand shapes, and lighting conditions to find the perfect setup for your unique style. Most importantly, have fun and enjoy the process of capturing these magical, fleeting moments. Soap bubble photography offers a unique opportunity to expand your skill set and explore new creative avenues. So grab your camera, mix up a batch of bubble solution, and start capturing the mesmerising world of soap bubbles. Happy shooting!
Header image: The Beauty of Soap Bubbles (1/160, f/16, ISO 200, 90mm) © Kelly Zhang
This article was published in WE ARE, The Women in Photography magazine, June 2023.