How-To Guide – Floating Paperclip

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This is a Guest Post by Ian Knaggs from Ian Knaggs Photography. You can visit his facebook fansite or flickr stream to see many more photos!
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Create this image in the comfort of your kitchen – it’s easier than you think!

This image won me the title Photographer of the Year 2011 for the UK based Practical Photography and Digital Photo magazines.  Many people believe that images like this are beyond their capabilities, but I’ve got news for you!… It’s a lot easier than you think!  I firmly believe that everyone is capable of creating this image.  There’s no expensive equipment required, just a little time, attention to detail and you need a few things that you already have lying around your house.

With all the necessary things together, it should take no more than 90 minutes to set everything up and get the basic shot, then a couple of hours using Photoshop to produce the final image!

So what are you waiting for… let’s get started!


  • Paperclip
  • Black frying pan filled with water
  • Tissue paper & pencil
  • Venetian blind with background stand (or similar)
  • Tripod
  • Flashgun & softbox
  • Remote flash trigger (or PC cord)
  • Camera (ideally with macro lens)

A macro lens is preferable, but not essential.  My first attempt at this shot shown below was taken using a Sigma 50-150mm f/2.8 lens!  Using this lens the camera had to be just over a metre away from the paperclip and a tighter crop was required (with the resulting loss in resolution), but the results are still quite spectacular.

Note: this image was taken using natural light behind the blind rather than a flash… and the difference in contrast of the lines on the water is quite obvious!  

Step 1 – Setting up

  • Start by placing the pan on to a suitable stand (I used a chair!) which is about 1m in front of where venetian blind will be positioned.  Fill the pan with water up to about 1cm from the top.
  • Hang the venetian blind from a suitable support (I used a background stand) and lower the blind.
  • Position the softbox behind the centre of the blind and slightly higher than the pan with the softbox angled slightly downward.  The light source being higher than the pan makes it possible to get the reflection of the blind in the shot.
  • Finally place the camera on a tripod behind the pan.  A tripod is not essential but it makes life a lot easier to get a pin sharp shot!
  • You should now have a setup that look something like this:
  • Once the flash triggers are fitted to camera and flash, the basic setup is complete!
  • That wasn’t too difficult now was it?!
  • Now you’ve just got to float the paperclip!…

Step 2 – Floating the paperclip

This part really isn’t as difficult as you may think and all that’s required is a steady hand and a little patience!

Hint: If the inner curve of the paperclip bends outwards, then placing this down into the water will bend the surface of the water more, producing more dramatic shadow reflections.

Carefully place the paperclip on a small piece of tissue and gently lower it into the water… they both should float!

Then use a blunt object, the non-pointy end of a pencil works well, to push one corner of the tissue under the water… keep pushing until the tissue is at the bottom of the pan and then drag it to the side…

There we have it – you’ve got a floating paperclip!

Once floating, the paperclip will drift around the pan slowly… if it touches the sides it may sink, so you can keep it in the centre of the pan by gently blowing on the surface of the water.

Now you’re ready to take some shots!

Step 3 – Taking the shot!

Camera settings

The settings for my original shot with a Canon EOS 450D with a 100mm EF f/2.8 macro USM lens were:

  • 1/160
  • f/20 (because I wanted to maximise the shallow depth of field of the macro lens)</li>
  • ISO: 400

Set the flash power

The flash settings you use will vary on what kit you are using, how far away the flash is from the camera etc.  But a couple of test shots varying the flash power sould soon get you in the right area!

Adjust the blind

Once you get the exposure and flash power correct and you can see the lines of shadow from the venetian blind, the only other variable is the angle of the slats of the blind.

Experiment with a few different angles of the slats to find what gives the best shadows.

Shoot away…

This was my favourite image and the one that continued to work on…

Step 4 – Post production

Clean up the image

Open the image in Photoshop, the first and most time consuming task was to use the Clone Stamp tool to carefully remove the dust particles from the surface of the water.Once the cloning is done, you should have an image that looks like this:

Blur the background

Copy the original image as a new layer and use a Gaussian blur with layer mask to blur the outer corners of the image.

Sharpen the lines on the water

Use a High Pass filter with Overlay blending mode to sharpen the lines on the water’s surface to sharpen them up and really make them pop.

Colour the water

Add some colour to the water…  Create a new blank layer on top of the original image and fill it with the desired colour.  Set the layer blending mode to “Colour burn” and adjust the opacity to give the desired colour.  I used 87%.  Use a layer mask and carefully paint over the paperclip to reveal the original silver colour.

Boost the contrast

I added a final Curves layer to boost the contrast and darken the shadows… but this may not be required depending upon how dark the shadows are in the original image.

You’re done!

And there you have it… you’re done!  That wasn’t too difficult now was it!  You can now show off your stunning image to the world!

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