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Liquids in Motion

Photographer Martin Waugh teams with City Graphics and Imaging on a project for Treasure Island.



Martin Waugh is a trained physicist and a self-taught professional photographer-two professions not often listed in the same bio. But it was Waugh's scientific curiosity that led him to the droplet photographs that he is well-known for today.

His interest began back in college when he saw the classic science film of slow-motion drops and splashes of milk, as well as the famous photograph by MIT professor Dr. Harold Edgerton of a bullet going through an apple.

It would take 25 years, but Waugh would finally indulge his desire to explore the art of high-speed “droplet photography.”

Drop shots
About 4 years ago, Waugh began taking photos of water drops forming and splashing. In his Portland, OR, basement, he built setups and timing equipment to get the flash just right. Then, one night, quite by accident, he caught the image of a drop colliding into another drop. Pleased with the unintended outcome, Waugh began trying to purposefully make this happen.

Again, he experimented with the timing between drops, the size of the pool of water, different liquids, etc.-with some successes and some disasters-before he found a consistent “formula” that worked. “There are many variables, including the type of liquid, surface tension, color, and more,” says Waugh.

Digital is Waugh's capture method of choice. He started out with a Canon D60 digital camera. “In the beginning, I made so many mistakes, but digital made it easy for me to quickly learn from them,” he says. In fact, he originally tethered the camera to a television so it was easier to quickly see the results and make changes. Today, he typically turns to his Canon 20D and takes full-resolution RAW images, averaging 8 Mpxl.

Deciding what the shot should look like is the easy part; setting it up is where the complexity comes in. It takes Waugh anywhere from 1 to 3 weeks to set up a shot, getting the lighting, timing, and liquid right. He might take up to 100 shots in one night, each shot captured with split-second timing.

“My biggest problem in capturing the images is always handling the liquids,” says Waugh. “Recently, I needed to create a small, spherical drop-the job called for five of them simultaneously. It's harder than it might seem. I spent days building an entirely new mechanism to do it.”

Once the photos are snapped, Waugh converts the RAW images with Adobe Camera Raw in Photoshop CS. He uses a Neat Image plug-in to reduce digital noise, which is especially important since the backgrounds are smooth. His backgrounds-comprising a smooth gradation of a single color-present a challenge in processing and printing the images. When printing, “Any banding from the printer shows up in that background. Even Photoshop has trouble dealing with a subtle light-blue-to-dark-blue background. It won't dither it correctly.”

Waugh uses DataColor's ColorVision Spyder for color management and a variety of Photoshop tools on all his images to clean up “the little stuff” such as dust spots on the water surface, and to do color balancing and cropping.

He uses his 13 x 19-in. Canon S9000 printer for some 8 x 10- or 11 x 14-in. proofs, but for full-size proofs, as well as for final output, he typically sends images directly to City Graphics and Imaging of Portland, which he's been working with for 3 years.

At the spa

For his art images, Waugh doesn't manipulate the shape of the droplets and splashes, but he will do this when working on commercial jobs-such as the one he took on for Treasure Island's Wet Spa.

Earlier this year, MGM Mirage's Treasure Island in Las Vegas was redecorating its Wet Spa. The spa's interior designer, Dawn Larsen, came across Waugh's website when searching for water images. Because Waugh's images so perfectly complemented the Wet Spa's theme, she promptly ordered 16 of them, each at 20 x 24 in.

The Treasure Island Spa images “work perfectly with the whole atmosphere,” says Waugh. “My images of fluids in motion are simultaneously invigorating and relaxing-the perfect spa experience. The art blends…with the calm, rich colors of the furnishings and with the undulating lines of the glasswork and carpet.”

City Graphics and Imaging, which houses print, film, and lamination facilities, printed the spa images. After producing a few test prints, the shop then output the final graphics using its Roland Hi-Fi Jet FJ-50 (with Onyx PosterShop RIP) onto 9-mil InteliCoat Magic matte polypropylene banner, using Roland's 6-color pigment inks. Producing the 70-sq ft graphics took 4 hr of printing. City Graphics then applied a MacTac IP 7301 laminate with its Seal 5500 laminator; lamination took an additional 2.5 hr. The company mounted the images and sent them to a local shop for framing.

All of the art chosen for the on-the-wall display were droplets as he shot them. In addition, however, the spa also needed images for advertising and promotional purposes. As a result, Waugh was asked to provide manipulated images in shapes that complemented the clientele and services offered-man, woman, foot, face, and hair.

To digitally manipulate the images, he used Photoshop's Liquefy filter to drag and stretch the shapes. “It does a great job of maintaining the liquid quality of my images,” says Waugh. “I started with an image that had a shape close to what I was looking for. Some of the images took just a few minutes of work and were accepted [by the clients] on the first try; others required a lot of work and much iteration with the client.” The manipulated images can be seen as illustrations on the pages of the spa's

Capturing that definitive drop

Although Waugh has now produced hundreds of drop and splash images, his curiosity has not yet been fully quenched. “Part of my curiosity is about the science of what the materials will do, and part of it is experimenting with the artistic presentation of the resulting shapes.”

While others may think that Waugh has captured the definitive drop, he believes he has splashes still to master. “I still want to explore the world of very small drops. One of my clients is a biosciences company, and a scientist there suggested that I try a solution of DNA in water. Apparently, in strong solution, DNA gives the water a stringy quality, like melted mozzarella cheese. That I want to see.”





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