Self Challenge: Shooting The 4 Elements In A Single Exposure

photographing the four elements

While I was doing my 365 Day Project, I did a photo of the four elements: Earth, Wind, Water and Fire. I shot this photo around three years ago, I was quite new to photography and was still learning a lot of new things (which I still do now)… Shooting the 4 elements seemed like quite a challenge, because it involves different exposures and the different timing for each element. When I first shot this, three years ago, I had no choice but to shoot each element separately and compose them in photoshop.

The Challenge:

I always show this shot in my Workshops. On one hand, it shows several different techniques in one shot, including rim lighting, shutter dragging, high-speed photography, a bit of smoke-like photography (wind element), reflection on a granite tile, real fire, and a more tricks. On the other hand, the downside of showing something like this is that I needed to tell my students that I photoshopped it, which I don’t usually teach in my workshop just because I’m quite a purist when it comes to photography.

Fast forward to three years later (quite a long time to think about another approach), it was time to shoot this again but this time, to take it all in a single exposure.

The Elements:

Earth – This was the easiest of all elements, because it’s just sitting there, static. Got some plants and gravel from our garden and placed it inside the first wine glass.

Fire – For the fire shot I knew that I needed to lower my shutter speed to expose for the flame (flames are quite bright). To actually create the fire, JayJay (assistant and friend) used tissue paper in a wine glass and lit it on fire. It took quite a few tries to get the flame perfect, trying to use alcohol and paper, until JayJay found the perfect combo to shape and time the flame. Also, we needed to make sure not to make the wineglass to hot or for sure it will break.

Wind – For the wind, we used powder that was dropped onto the glass to symbolize the wind element.

Water – Lastly, for the water element, I used water with blue food coloring (kinda similar to this setup), and dropped a carrot in to create a splash.

photographing the four elements

photographing the four elements

The Theory

We had two challenges with this photograph: exposure and timing:

I knew that there was an inherent conflict with the exposures. On the blue corner we had the water splash – a high speed photography exposure (short shutter speed). On the red corner we had Fire. Fire needs a long exposure. Of course those two had to live in a single exposure.

The other challenge was getting the right timing for the Fire, Water, and Wind.

The trick to solving the first problem is knowing that high-speed photography is about using your flash to stop the motion, so normally I would shoot a high-speed photography shot at 1/160’s (sync speed of my camera). Now with the Fire shot, I needed to shoot at a lower shutter speed, for this shot I shot at 3 seconds shutter.

The resolution for this conflict was to expose a 3 seconds exposure and front curtain sync the flash. When I click the shutter, my flash will trigger exposing for the Water, Wind, and Earth, the remaining shutter speed will expose for the Fire, sounds simple huh?

To solve the second challenge was just “pure luck”, good team work, and lots of synchronization training. There were times that we got the perfect flame but I missed to water shot. Or sometimes we got the perfect water shot but didn’t get the wind shot. There were 3 of us to do this shot: one person for the Wind glass, one for the water drop, and one to light the flame and also to trigger the camera.

photographing the four elements

The Setup and execution:

photographing the four elements

For this shot, we used 3 studio strobes with softboxes, 2 strobes, back-left and back-right for the rim lighting, and strobe one directly above the glass.

My camera was placed on a tripod and set to 3 seconds exposure @f13, ISO 200. The first thing we did was to light the flame: I counted to three, then I dropped the carrot and my friend dropped the powder, and my other friend who lit the flame triggered the flash.

After each time doing this we needed to clean the powder, the spills of water, and replace the tissue for the flame. We did this for around 2 hours and more than 35 shots, and after a while we were about to give up and said that we would take last 5 shots. Lucky enough we got the perfect shot on #4 shot.

Here Is That Photo From Three Years Ago

photographing the four elements

And The Final Shot from this round again:

photographing the four elements

The Team: Milk Mendoza, Jayjay De Guzman and Laya Gerlock

photographing the four elements

  • Brian Stalter

    Very cool!

    • LSG

      thank you :)

  • sam
  • Rick

    Wouldn’t a purist have dropped an ice cube?

  • Wil Fry

    Pretty cool concept. And good work on the delivery. I’ve never attempted something like this, though now I’m inspired to try — getting the four elements in one shot I mean, not copying your methods. 😉

    • LSG

      thank you :) please post the result here. would love to see it :)

  • Jared Lawson

    Great tutorial – thanks for the tips, I like the idea and the outcome. Photography Tips / Gallery

  • 88Emmy88

    How did you manage to remove the people in the background in the finished photo ?