In the world of photography, water droplets are something of a rite of passage. It’s the perfect rainy day photography project and one that many of us try at some point or another – to varying degrees of success.
You can increase the chances of that success with a bit of DIY tinkering. Some kind of computer-controlled Arduino based system, perhaps, which times everything perfectly. Or, you can save yourself a lot of build time and hassle and get the MIOPS Splash.
I’ve had a go at water droplet photography a number of times over the years. Every now and again, I come across some new series of images on Flickr or Facebook and think “I really need to go back and try that again”. I even bought an Arduino, solenoid, and a bunch of other electronic bits but could never quite work up the motivation to complete the build for something that was just mere curiosity.
The last few weeks, though, I’ve been experimenting with the MIOPS Splash. It’s essentially the type of thing I’ve been planning to build myself for about the past 8 or so years now. Except, it’s already built and ready to go out of the box, so now I don’t have to.
The MIOPS Splash Kit
So, let’s start at the beginning. The MIOPS Splash comes in a rather unassuming black box with the logo emblazoned on its surface. It actually comes in two boxes if you get the optional Holder Kit (we’ll get back to that).
Inside the main MIOPS Splash box are two components. There’s the Splash unit itself and a PC Sync cable. There’s also a small printed “Getting started” guide, however mine included one for the MIOPS Smart, which is something completely different. I managed to find the right one in PDF form online, though.
The unit itself is a fairly simple design. There’s a box containing the electronics, a solenoid to control the flow of water, and a Mariotte bottle to hold the water.
I want to go into a little aside about what a Mariotte bottle is and why it’s important.
It was the Mariotte bottle that always put me off making my water droplet system. It was just a hassle for me to come up with a bottle that wasn’t going to fall apart if I looked at it too hard. You can’t really buy one fit for this type of purpose. You have to make one yourself. But why do you need a Mariotte bottle in the first place?
The idea with any water container is that when the solenoid is open for X amount of time, a water droplet of a certain size falls through. If that container is sealed, then as it starts to empty, a vacuum begins to form inside the bottle which prevents the water from flowing out so easily whenever the solenoid opens. And as the water is pushing down, no air is able to get in to fill that void. Eventually, the vacuum equalises the weight of the water and nothing more comes out.
With an open container, it works more like a funnel. The vacuum issue disappears as air can easily get into the container to fill the void through a big hole on the top. But different forces are at work here. Namely, gravity. The pressure on the water going through the solenoid valve depends on the amount of water sitting above it. The greater that amount of water, the harder it pushes. So, as the container gets emptier, the droplets become smaller each time the valve is opened for a set amount of time.
A Mariotte bottle gets around that issue by combining the two forces. They create a vacuum, but also offer an inlet for air to get inside the container. These two forces acting in unison allows the pressure on the valve to be constant, regardless of how much water is contained within – assuming the water level is still above the bottom of the air inlet tube.
So, with that out of the way, we’ll continue. The second box contains the Holder Kit. Inside here we have an articulated arm, and what appears to be a mobile phone holder bracket.
Now, The MIOPS Splash costs $99, and it’s an extra $20 for the Holder Kit if you order direct from MIOPS. If you don’t order at the same time, then I’d say don’t bother going back to order the Holder Kit and just buy the bits you need on eBay or Amazon instead, you’ll probably get a better deal.
However, if you buy the Holder Kit along with the MIOPS Splash at the same time, then you get free shipping. Shipping is normally $15, so if you buy the Holder Kit along with the Splash, it’s only costing you an extra $5. Even if you already have something that can hold it, it’s worth paying the extra $5 just to get the arm, because they’re really handy.
Setting the whole thing up was fairly straightforward, and you don’t need a whole lot of room to do it.
I set the MIOPS Splash up on my Manfrotto Element Carbon tripod behind an ironing board, with the articulating arm on top, reaching over a bowl below. A second tripod, the Befree Live Twist, holds my camera.
Then two light stands hold a Godox AD360II strobe and Nikon SB-900 speedlight. Ideally, I think just speedlights would be the best solution to get the fastest flash durations. But I wanted to see how well the AD360II flash durations could handle something like this.
Once everything was physically in place, it’s just a case of wiring up the sync cable – I went from the MIOPS Splash to the PC Sync socket of the AD360II head. The SB-900 was set up as an optical slave, going off whenever it saw the AD360II fire.
The Mobile App
The MIOPS Mobile app is fairly simple. When you first fire it up, it presents you with the option to tell it which device you’re using. Either the dongle, the remote or the Splash. So, I tell it that I’m using the Splash and it starts hunting around for compatible Bluetooth devices. Assuming your MIOPS Splash is turned on, up it comes in the list. Choose it, hit connect.
From here, there’s just a single screen to control everything. You set the size and delay between 1 and 4 individual water droplets, and then the delay before firing your flashes (or camera, more on that later). Any water droplet with a duration of zero essentially means “no droplet”, so if droplets 3 & 4 have a duration of zero milliseconds, then you’ll just get the first 2 droplets falling whenever you hit the trigger.
Using the kit
Now, bearing in mind my experience is limited with water droplet photography (like I said, I never got around to completing my own DIY build), I thought things through logically.
Focusing was the first task. I let a few drops of water flow through, and placed a pencil in the bowl where the water landed. This allowed me to focus the lens (I was using the Nikon 105mm f/2.8D AF Micro-Nikkor on a Nikon D7000) where the water would hit.
The next job is to figure out how long it actually takes for water to leave the Splash and hit the surface of the water in the bowl below. So, I set my camera’s shutter speed to 1 whole second, with the room darkened down enough that it still created a black exposure without the assistance of flash.
Then, one droplet at a time, I would shoot and adjust the delay for the flashes by 10ms at a time until I started to see the water land in my frame.
Once I figured out the timing on the flash delay, the rest was fairly straightforward. First, adjust the size of the first droplet so that it wasn’t so heavy it splashed too much, but not so small that it didn’t look good.
Then, add in a second droplet and adjust the timing by experimenting in the same way as I did with the first. Alter the delay on the second droplet by a few milliseconds at a time until the two were colliding in a way that I found pleasing.
You’ll likely see a lot of shots like this one while you’re figuring it out.
The blur on the water droplet at the top of the frame, by the way, is the result of a long flash duration. I tried to keep my flash durations as fast as possible, but you can see that even at 1/5,000th of a second, it’s not always going to freeze such a movement. Try to keep your flash durations faster than 1/10,000th of a second if possible.
But then once you get the timing of everything just right, you’ll start to see something that looks a little more like this.
And once you’ve dialled it in, it’s very consistent and repeatable, too. I fired off a number of shots to see just how consistent it was with its timing, and out of 100 shots, I had less than a handful that didn’t look something like this.
There is some slight variance between each shot, obviously. Not every water droplet forms in exactly the same way. The shape of a water droplet might skew it a few micrometres off to one side, and the first droplet isn’t always going to bounce back up in exactly the same way off the surface, either.
But, this is why you need the kind of consistency and timing that something like the MIOPS Splash. Because every shot will be slightly different from the ones that came before it, allowing you to keep shooting until you get the perfect shot that you’re after.
And sometimes that slight natural variance in the air and water can produce some interesting results. When I saw this one, I immediately thought of some of the trees I see when I’ve visited Florida.
If you’re doing everything manually, maybe one out of every 100 shots might be ok, and that’s just with one water droplet. Adding a second droplet manually can make it virtually impossible to get what you want manually. With something like the Splash, or even a DIY solution, you can bring that number up to 99 times out of every 100 being a good one.
Adding a third droplet is where things start to get really interesting, though.
I added the orange background to the setup here (it was just the sleeve cover off my Nexus 7 tablet), to try to introduce a little colour into the water’s refraction.
Timing the third droplet isn’t quite as easy. Now you have a number of timing variables to take into account. You’ve got the delay between the first and second droplet, the delay between the second and third droplet, and then the delay for your flashes to fire. Figuring out exactly which one you might need to adjust can be tricky.
You’ll probably end up with a lot of shots that look like this while you’re working things out.
So, first thing, and I mentioned this briefly at the top, the price. The MIOPS Splash isn’t the first commercial device out there to let you easily do water droplet photography. However, it’s certainly amongst the cheapest (if not the cheapest) of the options available.
The Camera Axe, for example (if it’s still being made) is $300, and that doesn’t even include the solenoids and bits you need to use it for water drop photography. The HiViz water droplet kit is $170, and the Universal Photo Timer starts at $145 and still requires extra purchases. Of course, these are advanced units offering a lot more functionality. You can add sound, light, laser and other triggers to control all sorts of devices whereas the MIOPS Splash is a specialised tool for one job – which it seems to do very well.
The MIOPS Splash is $99, and it does right what it says on the tin straight out of the box. It’s an extra $20 for the Holder Kit. And, as far as I’m aware, it’s the first such kit for water drop photography that lets you use your smartphone to control it.
The app is minimal, no fuss, and lets you get straight to what you need. It’s a little awkward in parts, though. Adjusting the numbers to change delays and durations could be implemented a little better. Using dials, for example, to quickly spin through, rather than having to enter them in with an on-screen keypad. But, overall it worked, if a little fiddly.
As mentioned, A PC Sync cable is included to fire your flashes. You can plug straight into a single flash unit, or you can plug into a wireless transmitter to fire multiple flashes. While a PC Sync cable for triggering flashes is included with the Splash, a camera cable is not. This isn’t much of a surprise as there are three different connection types for Nikon, three more different connection types for Canon, and who knows how many more for Sony, Panasonic, Olympus, Pentax, Fuji, etc.
However, the socket seems to be a standard 2.5mm socket wired the same way as that of many intervalometers and wireless flash triggers that can also act as camera triggers. I tested the Nikon N1 (10Pin) cable that came with my old Yongnuo intervalometer, and it worked flawlessly with the D800. I also tested the Nikon N3 cable that came with my Godox X1R-n, and that also worked perfectly with the D5300 and D7000.
My only issue was that the cables I already own are a little short, as they’re designed to be plugged into a receiver sitting on the camera’s hotshoe or a trigger in close proximity to the camera. So, the cables I have wouldn’t allow me to get the camera far enough away from the Splash while still getting a decent shot. MIOPS do sell individual camera cables for $20 each which are 1 metre long. However they are coiled cables, so you’re likely not going to get that complete 1m distance. It would’ve been nice to see this cable included in the package as an option to choose which one you need on checkout.
Regardless, the MIOPS Splash will allow you to trigger either the camera, the flash or both together. So, it’s a versatile tool that allows you to work quite quickly and efficiently with repeatable results.
When you use the camera cable, it will open the camera’s shutter before the droplets start, then the flash will fire at the appropriate time, and the camera’s shutter will close after the shot has been created. When you just use the PC Sync cable, you’ll need to fire your camera manually. This isn’t really a problem, though, as long as you can get your room dark enough.
I did think there are a couple of questionable design choices with the MIOPS Splash, though. I’m sure there are reasonable explanations for them, but I don’t know what those may be, and they’re things you might want to be aware of in advance.
First, there’s no 1/4-20″ socket on the bottom. This really surprised me. I expected to be able to screw something into the bottom and just go, but no. This is why you need the Holder Kit – or something similar. The Holder Kit isn’t anything special or custom. It’s a standard cheap articulating fiction arm you can get on Amazon for $10 or less. The phone holder (and I realised why this was included when I saw there was no 1/4-20″ socket) is just the same cheap standard clip you find on $1 selfie sticks. But, it may still be worth getting the Holder Kit along with the Splash, as mentioned earlier.
My other issue is the battery. Internally it houses a 12v MN21 battery. They’re a fairly standard battery, which is readily available and not that expensive, and you can see how much of a charge is left when you connect the app to the device over Bluetooth. But, my issue with it is that there’s no easily removable battery cover. You literally have to get a screwdriver and disassemble the case in order to get to it and replace it when it’s drained.
It also means you can’t quickly remove if you plan to put the Splash away in the cupboard for six months because the sun’s finally back and you want to get out and enjoy and photograph that instead. So, there is that potential for the battery to leak if you leave it in there unattended for too long.
An AAA battery could’ve also potentially been a nice option, as they are more readily available. But it would need to be converted to 12v to activate the solenoid and it likely wouldn’t last as long as the less common MN21. So, the choice of battery is logical. Using the MN21 battery will last much longer than a Triple-A, and it’s also less hassle than something like a three cell LiPo and charging circuit.
And that “less hassle” thing for LiPo is not just from the electronics standpoint of requiring a charging circuit to prevent things like overcharging or discharging. No, adding rechargeable LiPo batteries also presents a new set of regulations to which one must adhere in order to meet various legal requirements around the world, and all of this would add to the cost.
Given that the unit is currently only $99, bumping it up an extra $20-30 for the convenience of a rechargeable LiPo battery and USB socket for charging wouldn’t be a dealbreaker for me. Of course, no USB socket does also mean that it may be difficult to update the unit with future firmware if needed. But there is app connectivity over Bluetooth, so perhaps that ability already exists there. And also, LiPo batteries aren’t necessarily the best choice for products you probably won’t use all that often. Just leave a smartphone unused in a drawer for a year or two and you’ll see what I mean.
As it’s not a rechargeable LiPo, though, but a “disposable” battery, a slidey battery cover with a proper battery compartment would have been nice. Then one could easily remove the battery when not in use and swap it out when depleted (which, to be fair, should take a very long time).
- Appears to be the least expensive in its class
- Android and iOS Bluetooth remote control
- Works right out of the box, just add water
- Up to four water droplets with precise, repeatable timing and size on a single press of the trigger
- Consistent and reliable
- Single-use battery that you have to unscrew the case to remove or replace
- No 1/4-20″ socket, so you have to resort to less conventional attachment methods
- Adjusting numbers for timings on the mobile app could be a little easier
For what you pay, it’s a pretty outstanding little unit. It’ll get you up and running very quickly with the minimum amount of fuss.
Being able to individually control up to four droplets also provides a lot of opportunity for different configurations and variety in your results.
Despite the potential clunky setup with the phone holder, and having to unscrew the thing to take the battery out when I’m not using it for a while, overall it’s still a decent little device.
Of course, it’s still much cheaper to build your own. A quick look around online, and you can pick up the components to build it yourself from scratch for around $30. or less And building your own can be a lot of fun.
But if the idea of making your own doesn’t sound all that fun to you, or you don’t want to spend days finding bugs in your code to get it working perfectly and you just want to buy something that works, then the MIOPS Splash is a great way to get started.
DIYP is running a giveaway at the moment with prizes including a $1,000 B&H Gift Card. Perhaps you could use it to get your own MIOPS Splash!