How to Capture a Water Balloon Popping

What you'll learn

1. How to capture a photo of a water balloon popping

2. The basics of high speed photography

3. The importance of flash duration

Photographing bursting water balloons is remarkably easy, and good fun! This tutorial is your way into high speed photography.

What you'll need

  • Camera
  • Tripod
  • Flash gun
  • Light stand
  • Sound sensor (e.g. Triggertrap Mobile Buy Here)
  • Darkened room (unless outdoors at night!)
  • Balloons
  • Source of water for the water balloons
  • A way of hanging the balloons (a boom stand and invisible thread work well)
  • Something sharp to pop the balloons
  • Triggertrap Flash Adapter) for Triggertrap Mobile

A bit of theory

While this tutorial covers the basics of high speed photography, you’re going to need to know a little about setting a camera up on manual focus and exposure and setting a flash up on manual. If you’re not sure about any of this, check out our basic tutorials.

High speed photography is all about capturing something which is happening very fast in a single frame. You can do this simply by using the fastest shutter speed possible on the camera, but to be honest, the results will probably be pretty disappointing. Triggering a camera takes a fair amount of time so there can be a delay between the triggering and the camera actually firing. Also, the maximum shutter speed of a camera really isn’t all that fast. We can get around this simply by using a dark room, the camera set to bulb mode and a flash. This allows the flash to effectively dictate the shutter speed.

By using a darkened room and having the camera set on bulb, the flash is acting as our shutter. Not only is a flash much faster to trigger, but the flash of light can be much faster than the maximum shutter speed on most cameras. The speed of a flash is known as flash duration. As we want to freeze motion as much as possible, we want to use the shortest flash duration we can get.

Typically with small, portable flashes, the lower the power of the flash is the faster the flash duration will be, so try and use the lowest power possible. Somewhere around 1/64 or 1/128 is ideal. Just to give you an idea as to how fast the flash can be, a Nikon SB-800 at 1/128 has a flash duration of 1/48000 of a second. When compared to 1/8000th of a second which is typically the maximum speed of a camera shutter, it’s pretty fast!

The darkness is crucial, and you should always aim for pitch black. Any light source other than the flash will cause problems as it will begin exposing your frame and will result in things looking a little blurred, so be cautious of any light sources in the room.

Setting up

Show me the final set up.

Setting the camera up

Get the camera securely set on the tripod. Set the camera to bulb and on manual focus.

Start with a low ISO and an aperture around f/4.


Setting the flash up

Place your Triggertrap Flash Adapter on your light stand, and then add your flash. Turn the flash onto manual and ensure that it is on the lowest power possible.


Add your sound sensor

Plug in your sound sensor to your flash. If you’re using Triggertrap Mobile, make sure to plug the Triggertrap Flash Adapter into the Triggertrap Mobile Dongle, then the Dongle into the smart device. Set the threshold fairly low so that the flashes fire on a moderate sound. Also, be sure to add a sensor reset delay of around one second to ensure the flash only fires once.


Protect your kit

You’ll want to get your smart device pretty close to the action, so place it in a freezer bag to protect it. The closer to the action, the faster the flash will fire, but do be careful! Anything close to the balloon should ideally be covered in a sandwich bag.


Set up your balloon

Next, set up your balloon. It may be worth using a balloon filled with air to start with. Set the camera up and compose your shot and make sure the balloon is in focus. We used a paddling pool beneath the balloon to catch the majority of the water.

When you’re filling your water balloons, be sure to blow a little air into the balloons at first. This ensures that there will be a sound when the balloon bursts.

The finished setup

Got it!

At this point you should have your camera, flash, water-filled balloon and something ready to catch the water.

Capturing the photos


Show me the results!

Turn out the lights.

At this point, you should have your camera, balloon stand and light stand set up. It’s now time to turn out the lights (this is when the torch comes in handy!)

Test everything!

Here’s the time to test everything is working. First check the flash is on and awake, and the sound sensor is running. Turn off your torch, start your bulb exposure then make a loud sound (a shout works) and the flash should fire. Once the flash has fired, stop the bulb exposure and check your exposure. If things are too dark, try bumping up your ISO rather that boosting the flash power.

Take the photos!

When you’re ready, hang a water balloon up, test the flash again and then open the shutter. As soon as possible after opening the shutter, burst the balloon and the flash should fire. Once the flash has fired, close the shutter. You may need an extra pair of hands for this. If you don’t have a spare pair of hands, set the shutter speed to around 10 seconds and make sure that you’re ready to burst the balloon shorty after pressing the shutter release.


Using this technique, we've been able to capture...