Photo Experiment: Freezing Bubbles

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The cold season with its frosty temperatures offers a whole range of unique photography subjects – theoretically, at least. For this to work, it has to get cold enough in the first place, and in this respect, the current winter so far failed miserably. There hasn’t been a single day with the high temperature below freezing. Thus, I had more or less given up hope on checking off the still open topic “Ice Crystals / Snowflakes” on my photo board this winter.

Last week, however, a “polar cold front” moved in after all, with clear blue skies and temperatures as low as 15°F in the morning. So it was clear that I would use the short time between breakfast and leaving for work to take pictures. There still wasn’t any snow, hence I picked up a very popular idea from the internet: freezing soap bubbles.

FOR THE IMPATIENT

Gear Settings
  • Camera
  • Standard zoom lens
  • Soap bubble liquid
  • Straw
  • Outside temperature below 20°F
  • Warm clothing
  • Optional: external flash with color gel
  • Auto-focus
  • Aperture priority mode (A/Av)
  • Aperture ca.  ƒ/8 – ƒ/11
  • ISO 100 – 200
  • With flash: manual mode

THE SETUP

There isn’t much to set up, but the conditions have to be right. On the one hand, it has to be sufficiently cold outside; 20°F or below is optimal. On the other hand, there should be close to no wind at all, because the soap bubbles are extremely sensitive to wind and even the slightest breeze will let them burst quickly. Finally, you need a suitable surface, onto which you will place the bubbles. Wood, stones, moss, or – if you happen to have any – snow work well, for instance. I also tried metal, but that didn’t work at all. No matter what you choose, of course it should look nice.

Last but not least, the lighting has to be right. Strong backlighting makes the ice crystals stand out best, so an ideal time to take these pictures is right after sunrise or right before sunset. This allows you to benefit from the low sun, and it also creates a beautiful colorful mood. If this doesn’t work for you, maybe because the sun is hidden behind trees or buildings, then create your own backlight with an external flash that is controlled by a remote trigger. You can vary the mood of your images by attaching a color gel to the flash.

THE SETTINGS

The final settings depend on the actual light conditions, thus take the recommended settings given below as guiding values. I selected my “Always-on” as the lens, because its focal range of 17-70 mm (equals 27-112 mm on a full-frame camera) provided me with the desired flexibility for framing the image. In order to have sufficient depth of field, I chose an aperture value between ƒ/8 and ƒ/11. I set the ISO value to 100 or 200, mostly depending on where the sun was. I aimed at keeping the shutter speed below 1/25th of a second. Thus, thanks to the good image stabilizer of the Sigma lens, I was certain to avoid motion blur from camera shake.

I used auto-focus with a single focus point to fixate on the ice crystals. Since it only takes a few seconds for a bubble to freeze, this allowed me to quickly change position or adjust the framing of the image. However, the camera did have its problems with focusing on the intended side (front or back) of the bubble. The ideal solution is to use a lens that offers manual auto-focus override – a feature my Sigma unfortunately doesn’t have.

By chance, around this time of the year the sun shines perfectly through a gap between neighboring houses and trees onto our terrace, so I didn’t have to fiddle with an external flash for the necessary backlight. With flash, set the camera to manual starting with the values indicated above (ISO 100, ƒ/8, 1/25) and then adjust as needed. The idea is to choose the settings so that the resulting image, without flash, is underexposed by one stop. Then, you add the flash. In case you do not position the bubble on the same spot every time, the most convenient option is to set the flash to auto-exposure (TTL) and use flash exposure compensation to adjust its brightness as needed.

THE SHOOTING

Burst!
How to not do it: a light gust of wind was enough to burst the half-frozen bubble and let it flutter in the breeze. In addition, due to the aperture set to ƒ/11 and ISO 100, the shutter speed was too slow at ⅛ of a second, thus the image is also blurred because of camera shake.

Experience shows that when you blow the bubbles through the usual plastic hoop, they rarely land where you want them to – if they do, they pop immediately. Much more reliable results can be achieved by using a straw: take it into your mouth, dip it into the soap bubble liquid and then block the opening at the top with your tongue (don’t suck; believe me, it tastes awful!). Then place the bottom end of the straw above the target spot and carefully inflate the bubble to the desired size. It won’t work every time, but the success rate is sufficient.

It takes a few seconds until the bubble starts to freeze. This will give you enough time to put the straw aside and bring the camera into position. Ice crystals will start to form at the bottom rim of the bubble, where it touches the surface, and from there they will grow upward like ferns. If it is really cold, crystals will also start to form at the top of the bubble; these will grow in different patterns. How the crystals grow is entirely random, and it takes some luck to get really beautiful ones. This phenomenon works because a soap bubble consists of three layers: two layers of a soap with a thin layer of water in between, and the water freezes quicker than the soap does.

After about five to ten seconds, the bubble is fully frozen; this is the time window you have for taking pictures.  A fully frozen bubble is dull and flat, and structures are barely visible. Thus, it is difficult to take appealing images with more than one bubble.

You’ll quickly get the hang of the timing and the best size for the bubbles. What remains is to play with different backgrounds, to vary the framing of the image and to try different camera settings. The more bubbles you photograph, the more varied patterns you will discover in the ice crystals.

The required frosty temperatures also limit the duration of the shoot. On the one hand, after a while you will be so cold, that it will become difficult to hold the camera steady enough. On the other hand, the soap bubble liquid will start to freeze in its container; it will become so gooey that it is no longer possible to blow and bubbles. This means it’s time to go back inside, warm up with a nice cup of coffee, and review the pictures taken thus far.

TIPS & TRICKS

Finally, some helpful hints for you to get a bit more comfortable and to increase the success rate:

  • Use gloves. These should be thick enough to warm your hands, but also thin enough to allow for easy camera operation.
  • Set up wind protection. The soap bubbles are unbelievably sensitive to wind. I put some cardboard boxes onto the table next to the bubbles, positioned in a way that neither the boxes nor their shadows appeared in the image. Take care not to use colorful items, as their reflections will show up in the bubbles.
  • Take the images together with a friend. This way, one of you can blow the bubbles while the other one makes the pictures. This saves time, and it will also allow you to quickly change location.

CONCLUSION

Recommendation: If it gets cold enough where you live, definitely give it a try! It is absolutely mesmerizing to watch the ice crystals grow over the bubble. I could watch it again and again, even without taking pictures of it.

What I’ve learned: Don’t be scared by the cold. If you want to have special photos, you’ll need to take special actions. And the resulting images are by all means worth the effort.


LINKS

Picture Credits: All pictures – own images.

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