Oil and Water Abstract Photography

One fun looking photography technique I had often admired by when done by others, but never tried myself, is oil and water photography. I love the way the colours change and the way the oil creates interesting shapes on the surface of the water.

I really enjoyed trying this idea out, something a little different from the photography I usually do. It’s always a good idea to try new things to help yourself to learn and grow, this kind of photography is also a fun way to experiment with using different apertures and seeing how they affect your background.

Oil and Water Photography Tutorial

Oil and Water Photography Tutorial

Oil and Water Photography

You will need:

  • A clean, clear glass dish with handles. Preferably one with no embossing or writing. All I had was a Pyrex casserole dish that did have writing embossed on the bottom, so I just tried to avoid the part with the writing while shooting.
  • Something fun and bright to use as a background, I used some of Mikey’s paintings but you could use scrapbook paper or brightly coloured fabric instead. I found that I got better results with bright, high contrast backgrounds.
  • Supports for your glass dish, I used two plastic tumblers turned upside down beneath each handle of the casserole dish to hold it above the paper.
  • Water
  • Olive Oil (or similar)
  • Dish Soap
  • Towel (Good to have on hand in case of accidents)

Set up the glass dish with the handles resting on the supports and slowly fill it with water until just over halfway. Add the olive oil, a little dish soap, and then give the mixture a gentle stir. Slide your chosen background underneath, wait for the mixture to settle and then start shooting!

The dish soap gives the oil droplets more definition, resulting in photographs with the circles of oil like the ones above. Without dish soap the oil looks a little like raindrops on a window, as in the photographs below. Both look pretty in their own way, it just depends on which effect you are going for.

You can also experiment with the distance between the glass dish and the background to see if that changes the effect, or how much water you use.

Oil and Water Photography Tutorial

Oil and Water Photography Tutorial

For these photographs I used a macro lens and an aperture of 4.5 to make sure that I got as much of the oil in focus as possible while still leaving the background paper out of focus. I didn’t use a tripod, but if you are shooting in lower light conditions or don’t have particularly steady hands a tripod is recommended.

You can experiment with different apertures to see how it affects the resulting photograph. The oil is all on the same plane, so changing the aperture will only affect your background. If you are not yet comfortable with shooting manually, you can set your camera to aperture priority so that you can choose your aperture and leave the rest of the settings to the camera.

I tried stirring the water and oil mixture a little with my finger and taking photographs before it had settled to get these long oil shapes in the photographs below. You might have to increase your shutter speed for this to avoid motion blur.

Oil and Water Photography Tutorial

Oil and Water Photography Tutorial

Manual focus is a must for these. I tried to use auto-focus just to see if it would work, but the lines of the oil aren’t strong enough for the camera’s auto-focus to have anything to lock onto. More often than not my auto-focus decided to focus on the paper background instead. With manual focus you can fine tune it so that the oil droplets are in focus, leaving everything else blurry and creating beautiful abstract photographs.

The set up for these shots might appear intimidating. It took me a while to work out exactly which dish to use and how to set it far enough above my background. However once it was set up, the rest was relatively simple and definitely something I will try again!

Oil and Water Photography Tutorial

Oil and Water Photography Tutorial

Feeling uninspired and want to try some interesting, creative photography ideas? Kristi of Live and Love out Loud and I will be sharing some fun photography tutorials in this Creative Photography mini-series to help you start thinking beyond the lens.

Head on over to Live and Love Out Loud today where Kristi is sharing a tutorial on how to use your 50mm lens as a macro lens (a perfect addition to the oil and water photography tutorial for those of you who do not have a macro lens!)


If any of you try this tutorial, or have done something like this before,  I’d love it if you would post the link in the comments so that I can take a look!


  1. How cool & creative! I look forward of trying this – the images are really captivating … Thanks for sharing these inspiring tips – you & Kristy make a great team in teaching photography!
    Nina´s last post ..A day off

    • Kristi {at} Live and Love Out Loud

      Nina, that’s so sweet of you to say. I love working Rebecca and sharing our passion for photography with others as a team. :)

      Kristi – LiveAndLoveOutLoud.com

  2. Pingback: Oil and Water Photography Techniques

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