Vortex Magic: Frozen Bubbles!

It's been very cold where I live due to the polar vortex, and I decided to experiment with photographing bubbles freezing at these very low temperatures. I'd seen magical photos of frozen bubbles online, and even tried my hand at it a time or two. The results I got, alas, were less than encouraging.

But on this day, I finally found success in this endeavor! Above and in the extras, you may see some pictures of my grand experiment. Below, I go into more detail on "how-to," to document my efforts and to provide suggestions for anyone else who may want to try this. Good luck!

It is my custom to include a song link with my photos, and for this posting we need a little something magic. So here is Steppenwolf, with Magic Carpet Ride.


Penn State cancelled work on Thursday due to the cold, so I had some free time to play around with. I decided to try something I thought might be fun and creative: photographing bubbles as they froze. So I got out a bottle of bubbles I had bought at the store and started with those. My first bubbles were fragile and thin. They broke as soon as they hit the snow. I got a few pictures of one that lasted just a few seconds; it looked like a silver-gray pearl against the snow.

I had also seen a recipe online that mentioned dish detergent, water, and Karo light corn syrup, so I made a mix of that too. It was also too thin; too much water in the mix, I think. I can tell by the time stamps on my photos that I spent less than one minute outdoors on Thursday, discovering that both the store-bought bubbles and my first mix were not up to the task at hand.

Fridays, I generally don't work. So I had more time to play with my bubbles. It was snowing and in the single digits when I got up, and I was anxious to get out and work on my craft; it was my husband's idea that I should continue my experiment on the front porch, where the camera and I would be protected from the snow.

Friday morning, I woke up remembering that I had MORE bubbles somewhere, and I found them rather quickly. "Blow bubbles you can hold in your hand!" it said on the label. So promising! But alas, the mix, years and years old, was no good any longer. When I opened it, I discovered it had hardened into a goo that was almost the consistency of rubber bands. So much for bubbles I could hold in my hand!

So I took my mix of dish detergent, water, and Karo corn syrup, and I added more of everything to it. My bubbles kept breaking as soon as they touched ANY surface, so I got the bright idea to wipe the area where I wanted the bubble to sit with bubble mix FIRST, and then blow the bubble right onto the spot where I wanted it. This worked better, but my mix still seemed too thin.

I went out for three photo sessions on Friday. The limit on how long you can stay out is how long you can tolerate frozen hands. For there is no way to mess with bubble mix and photos while wearing gloves. So I went out in my boots and coat, but bare-handed.

Another danger is that if you have your camera around your neck, and you start blowing bubbles through a wand, there is a risk that you will get sticky bubble mix on your camera. Let me assure you that this is something you Do Not Want! I tried a macro shot of a bubble and got too close, and the bubble exploded on my lens, leaving it with a colorful rainbow of sticky residue that I had to go back inside and clean off carefully. 

So I ended up wearing the camera around my neck, but pushing it off to the side with my one arm, while I blew bubbles. Ideally, you might have someplace dry cleared off to sit the camera down while you blow the bubble, and then pick the camera up and start taking pictures.

I went out around 10:30, 1:30, and 4:30, and my photo sessions lasted seven, ten, and six minutes. Temperatures varied from about 6 to 10 to 15 degrees F. A bubble's freezing took about a half-minute in the coldest temps; maybe a minute at 15 degrees. I found that my frozen hands appreciated a dip in hot water from the tap once I came back in from each session. ("Nobody knows how much you put into these things," said my husband, shaking his head, as he watched me come and go.)

After the first photo set, I came back inside and dumped out my bubble mix and started over. This time, I tried to get it closer to the ratios I had seen online: one part water, four parts dish detergent (any brand will do), and a dash of Karo corn syrup. I blew some bubbles indoors to make sure it worked, and it did. I got some pretty patterns on the bubbles in the morning and early afternoon sessions, but the light just wasn't what I was hoping for.

Then, around 4 pm, I saw golden light out the deck door windows, and I got a great big grin on my face. "There's the light I need for my bubble pictures!" I told my husband. I fed the cat his supper, and went outside in that gorgeous light for my final bubble photo shoot of the day. (All three of these pictures are from that last photo set.)

Out front on the porch, I'd found some flat spots on the railing that worked well to place my bubbles on. On the deck, there wasn't really anything like that. So I took along a lid from a small, round Rubbermaid food container to use as my base. Onto that base, I liberally smeared bubble mix. Then I blew my bubbles onto that very spot.

With the sun in my face, I blew my first bubble, and watched the frosty patterns appear as the golden light lit up my bubble like a tiny moon. My heart smiled. I experimented with shooting from different angles, but the results were best with the bubble between me and the light source. Finally, success!

Here is a short summary of tips for photographing frozen bubbles, based on my experience:

Temperatures must be cold enough. In my case, they hovered between about 6 and 15 degrees F.

Conditions must be very calm. You don't want the wind blowing your bubbles around! They must be allowed to sit still to freeze.

Homemade bubble mix works best: four parts dish detergent (any brand; I used the el cheapo dollar store variety), one part water, a dash of Karo light corn syrup. Skip the store-bought bubbles.

Anticipate that you will have sticky fingers. Place paper towels in your coat pockets. Make sure your camera battery is a good one; they go down quickly in such temperatures. Select your camera settings BEFORE even going outside; your sticky fingers won't make it easy to change settings or put in a new battery.

Be very careful with handling the camera once you have the sticky bubble mix on your hands. After you blow the bubble, wipe your hands with a paper towel (they will still be sticky, but it'll be better) before handling the camera. Ideally, you would have someplace to sit the camera nearby while blowing the bubble, so you that can blow the bubble and THEN instantly pick up the camera.

At 6 degrees, you've got about a half-minute of time with each bubble, to photograph the progression from clear bubble to completely frosted specimen. At 15 degrees, you get about a minute. You'll need to move quickly.

Pick the spot where you want your bubble and slime it down with bubble mix. There, you have a perfect place for your bubble to sit! A smooth surface will work; if you don't have one, you can do as I did, and bring some other item (a container lid, in my case) to serve as the base.

Do not get bubble mix on your camera lens while blowing the bubble. While taking pictures, do not touch your lens to the bubble. Do not let the bubbles burst onto your lens. This is all easier said than done.

Plan for multiple attempts, and be prepared to adjust your bubble mix, if it seems too thin. When I got the mix right, I could tell because the quality of the bubble was suddenly different. As the bubble started to freeze, the surface of the bubble would move and squirm and it was marvelous to watch. This is the Karo corn syrup at work, giving a dynamic strength to your bubbles.

As you plan for multiple attempts, anticipate that your camera lens will fog up when you run back inside the house. I allowed plenty of time between attempts because my hands were freezing; but allowing time between attempts is also a good way to allow the lens to adjust. (This is also a tip for shooting moon shots in the cold; be wary of the foggy condensation on the camera when you run in and out.)

Position the bubble between yourself and the light. Shoot from many different angles. Be prepared to delete many, MANY shots before even removing them from the camera. I ended up with about 150 shots, but I probably deleted at least that many.

Wait for the sun. A beautiful golden light makes all the difference. I also used the vivid setting on my camera for most of my shots, to boost the saturation. Upon uploading the pictures, I also adjusted the contrast and definition upwards on almost every shot.

Consider what backgrounds you want in your shots. The bubbles almost look like little snow globes or moons. Placed against a darker background (trees, etc.), the glow can be very pretty, and quite dramatic. I enjoyed the shots I took that included my own trees. I can only imagine how this sort of thing would look against the background of the Arboretum's children's garden, for instance. (Maybe a project for another cold day!)

Good luck, and have some fun! It may take a bit of work, but there's magic to be found in the cold!                             

Sign in or get an account to comment.