Sharon Johnstone Interview

Sharon Johnstone is a British abstract macro photographer, she acquired her degree in Fine Arts in 1993 specialising in printmaking. It was serendipity finding Sharon’s beautiful macro photography, and I was instantly inspired by her Oil and Water, and Dandelion collections. Her work explores the tiny details which are often overlooked in organic forms. She focuses on the formal elements of photography; these include texture, pattern, shape, colour and form.

Bubbles (Oil and Water ) with Cyan and Pink by Sharon Johnstone


Below is an interview with Sharon, which she kindly agreed to support my project. It explains some of the techniques she uses to create her visceral images.

Who or what inspired you to experiment with photographing the affects you can achieve using oil and water with varied materials?

I love experimenting and I’m always trying new things. The oil and water abstracts are perfect to shoot when the weather stops you photographing outdoors.

How long did you spend experimenting (days, months, number of shoots etc.) before you achieved the affects you were happy with / or aiming for?

I never stop experimenting, but I think I spent a couple of months (on and off) coming back to these abstracts trying different things. I was hoping to find something that would stop the oil bubbles from flattening out in the water. The effect/success of the washing up liquid took me by surprise. Even today when I do these abstracts I experiment (often with different backgrounds) Recently I used cake sprinkle decorations under the glass and loved the effect and colours.

What equipment did you use?

Usually I use my Canon 7D with the Canon EFS 60mm macro lens. I use between 1-3 extension tubes (Canon EF25-II) and Canon Twin-Lite MT-24EX macro flash

I have tried to replicate your photographs but without the same equipment you have. I set my camera to aperture priority, used a macro lens and experimented with different I.S.O. and lighting forms.  I took one shoot outside using natural bright sunlight, and the others were taken inside using fluorescent lighting later in the day. I experimented using the flash but found that the colours were too over exposed washing out the colours. Also I experimented with secondary lighting (a small strobe light) but again found that the colours were washed out. Please can you suggest any techniques using secondary lighting but maintaining colour quality.

 Use a tripod to shop camera shake and experiment with your oil and washing up liquid mix. Try using less and don’t mix the water up, (which should give you fewer and cleaner bubbles).

 Also  try playing with your aperture a little more and if you have problems with your colours not being vibrant try adding some contrast in Photoshop (or similar) to make the colours really pop.

What does a macro flash do and how does it differ from a standard inbuilt flash on the camera?

I use the Canon Twin-Lite MT-24EX macro flash

A macro flash differs from a built in flash in that it fit on the end of the lens (where you need the light for shooting close-up macro) A built in flash isn’t always going to get the light where you need it. My Twin Lite has 2 flash head attached to a ring that fits on the end of my macro lens. I can move the flash heads around the ring and adjust the angle of the flash giving me complete control and versatility. It’s an expensive flash but my most invaluable piece of macro kit!

What camera   settings would you recommend to use without the specialist equipment?

For my oil and water abstract I shoot next to a large window and always use my macro flash. I do sometimes use additional lighting ie lamps.

Using a built in flash for these shots can be tricky. If you have the flash pointing straight down it can ruin the shot. You could try shooting at a bit of an angle or bouncing the flash off something like a piece of white card.

If you are shooting without flash you need a tripod as you will be using slow shutter speeds. Increasing the ISO is an option but personally for me with these shots I am looking for sharpness and clean crisp images. I want to avoid grain which you can get from high ISO settings.

The typical setting I use:

Aperture f/14- f/16, Shutter 1/250sec, ISO 100

I always shoot in manual and focus manually for all my macro work.

Which materials did you find worked best to create colours in your bubbles?

The colours/backgrounds can be absolutely anything. Feathers, card, wrapping paper, even cake decorations J

What was your main objective of this “project?”

The oil and water projects are about having fun!

What were the main problems you encountered whilst completing this assignment? Did this lead to different ideas?

The main problem I encountered was how to stop the oil from just flattening out. Once I started adding washing up liquid it was about getting the right mix. The other big problem I find is dust very quickly sticks to the oily surface. I have to change the water after a few minutes to stop it getting mucky. Using tubes and the small aperture f/16 shows up every little bit of dust. I always check for this in Photoshop and if need be remove any with the healing tools.

I experimented trying to achieve the perfect mixture of washing up liquid, olive oil and water but found it very frustrating. Did you find any tried and tested methods?

I add a few drops of olive oil then just a couple of drops of washing up liquid. I usually add a few more drops of oil at this point. I never mix the oil up as it can get mucky.

If you used Photoshop for this shoot, what functions did you use the most, and effective were they?

I always check my images in Photoshop (at 100%) Any dust, marks in the oil I remove with the healing tools. I usually add some contrast also to make the colours pop.

Have you experimented using any other oils or inks and water?

With these abstracts I think I have tried most things at some point. I’ve some awful disasters too J

Since completing this assignment how has your work developed?

Where do you see your future work going?

I’m always learning and experimenting and I hope I always will. As long as I have a camera in my hand I’m a happy person.

Why I’m here….

I am a mature  student on the second year of an A.S. photography course. This blog has been created for my personal study course work,  but I intend to continue adding features in the future.

I am fascinated by the often overlooked patterns, textures and colours  (formal elements ) of everyday objects both organic and mass produced.  I will be taking a brief look at the history of abstract macro photography and will then examine the work  and techniques of one of my favourite   fine art macro photographers,  Sharon Johnstone.  I hope to include an interview with her,  providing information about her inspirations and the techniques she uses to take her abstract macro photographs of oil and water,  ( See ).

I have followed Sharon’s techniques to take a series of my own oil and water macro photographs.  Both sets of photographs (before and after examination of techniques ) will be featured and constructive comments are welcomed.

Oil & water 1 image