When it comes to surf photography, there is little more annoying than finding all your shots covered in water drops. It's incredibly frustrating when first starting out and yet there is a very simple fix.
Water drops weren't really something I was thinking about when I hopped into the surf with my housing for the first time. It was however, the very first thing I noticed about my photos. All of them had been completely ruined by water drops. At the time I was actually pretty surprised. I had assumed there would be some bad ones but I really didn't expect all of them to rubbish. I had seen heaps of photos taken by pros with completely drop-free images and yet every single one of mine was terrible.
Clearly I was missing something and as it turns out the fix is really simple.
Saliva (dome ports and GoPros)
Yes that’s right, good ol’ saliva does the trick. All you have to do is lick your port before you get in the water. This forms a hydrophilic (water loving) layer across the front of the port which 'attracts' water. Now when you dunk the port in the water and pull it out, the water forms a thin film across the entire surface. The water is spread out over the dome. When water drops hit this layer, they are absorbed into it making them invisible.
This is called "shooting wet" and is best suited to GoPros and dome ports. If you try to do this through large flat ports you'll probably run into distortion and focussing issues.
If you find it takes ages to get a good layer going, you probably didn't wait long enough the first time. I find that it will normally take me about 10 secs if I plan ahead and do it 5 mins before getting in the water.
Some people prefer to spit on the port and then rub it around with their hands. This will also work although it's worth noting that oil from your skin has the reverse effect to saliva. This will possibly slow the process down. Same thing goes if you accidentally get sunscreen on your port. A little bit of sunscreen can completely ruin the nice film of water you're trying to make. Even after you wash the sunscreen off, it takes ages to completely remove it's hydrophobic effects. I learnt that the hard way. The photo at the top of this post was actually caused by sunscreen. Or rather the drops on it were caused by sunscreen. I accidentally bumped the port on a recently sunscreened part of my face and it took me at least 30 mins to get the dome port to 100% again.
Another thing you'll likely notice is that the film of water is at its strongest immediately after you take it out of the water. This is due to evaporation (and at a guess surface tension as well). The time it takes for it to degrade varies wildly on a whole number of factors. For this reason, a lot of pro photographers suggest holding the housing underwater when you’re not taking photos. When you're ready to take a shot, that's when you bring it out of the water. This gives you a better chance of taking a dropless image.
Candle wax (flat port)
Strangely this works the opposite way to the saliva method. Wax is hydrophobic (water hating) and this makes it repel water. This property actually causes the water to form more drops. That might seem counter productive but it's actually not. Because the water is being repelled by the wax, all those drops should easily roll off the front of the port. This actually leaves you with less drops than if you had done nothing.
You can easily see how this trick works with a piece of wax paper and a spray bottle. If you spray water onto the wax paper, you'll notice the water forms drops all over it. Now if you pick up that piece of paper vertically and give it a shake, you'll see a lot of the drops roll off.
So how do you get wax onto your port?
I've found this technique works reasonably well. You'll still end up drops on the port, but usually a quick shake will drop the last remaining few off. Sometimes there's some stubborn drops that won't budge. You can normally blow them off pretty easily.
A lot of pro surf photographers will actually go out into the surf with a cloth that they can use to remove drops from the flat port. Some even go as far as to take a squeegee blade with them and use it to wipe the port in between shots. That's not something I personally have much interest in doing. I find that the wax method works pretty well by itself.
There's also a significant group of photographers who use a body oil technique. Essentially you rub your finger behind your ear and then rub it on the port. The idea is to transfer the oil from your skin to the port. This has the same effect as wax and many people swear by it. Personally, I've found it a bit more finicky than the wax method. The advantage of body oil though is that you always have it with you.
Other oil based products can also work however many will eat away at acrylic ports which isn't much good so be careful what you use.
That’s really all there is to creating drop-free images with your GoPro or underwater housing. Most of my shooting is wide-angle so I shoot with a dome port a lot. This means I use the saliva method a lot and it works amazingly well. Flat ports do unfortunately take a bit more work but I spose you got to do what you got to do.
Hopefully you've found this helpful. I remember when I started. My first session was a disaster and finding out how prevent water drops took quite a bit of research. With any luck, you won't have the same trouble that I did when starting out.
I'm curious to know what your experiences have been like dealing with water drops? Please feel free to share in the comments below.