Pixel TR-331 TTL Wireless Flash Trigger Part II

This Bites!
This Bites!

Pixel TR-331 Wireless Flash Trigger For Nikon TTL

The Tao of Wireless Flash Continued…

In conflict, be fair and generous.

I have now taken many, many photographs with the Pixel TR-331 Wireless Flash Trigger set. At least I would have if the transmitter and receiver were doing what they are supposed to do. Rather than bore you with two days worth of trial and error results, I’ll just say that I have come to the conclusion that my transmitter (TX) and or receiver (RX) are either defective or were damaged in transit. My best guess is that there is a short in the TX between the circuit board and the hot shoe. Of course this all chafes, bites and stings but it is not the world’s worst problem and can be easily resolved. It is very frustrating when something works, then sort of works, then stops working, starts working briefly and then finally stops working again. I’m going to set those issues aside for the moment and tell you what I have learned about these triggers. What follows is my personal opinion, probably flawed and about the best I can do.

I like these triggers. They seem to mimic the iPod TouchÔ design theme with flat, glossy black (plastic) tops. The digital display and function buttons make setting the modes and channels on the TX and RX units a breeze compared with the tiny switches found on many of the other Chinese wireless triggers. The Pixel TR-331 triggers add the ability to transmit the camera flash menu settings to the off camera flash. Any changes made in the flash mode menu on the camera are sent to the off-camera flash and appear on the flash menu display as though it were sitting on the camera hot shoe. You can control functions like red-eye-reduction, slow sync, rear sync and any available combinations of those options that are included in the camera menu. The TX and RX also recognize when the camera is set to FP HSS mode. You can sync the flash up to the camera’s maximum shutter speed, which is useful for taking flash photos in bright sunlight at low apertures.

A lot of people were hoping that the advertised TTL function meant that the TR-331 would also allow access to the Nikon CLS flash features or at least permit some sort of hybrid arrangement that might combine radio frequency signals to a Nikon commander flash at increased ranges and then enable the commander to send CLS information to several groups of slaves. The Pixel TR-331 has Master and Slave settings on the RX units but this only applies to TTL functions. Pixel has confirmed that there is no communication between RX units and that the Pixel master and slave RX functions are both controlled by the TX unit on the camera hot shoe. The current asking price of the TR-331 combined with the lack of CLS compatibility may be a deal-breaker for many photographers looking for low cost, acceptably reliable flash triggers. For the cost of one Pixel TR-331 transmitter and receiver set; you may be able to purchase four or more sets of the Yongnuo RF-602 triggers or similar units from Cactus. When it comes to low cost flash triggers, emergency spares and backups seem to be the name of the game especially when replacements can take several weeks to arrive in the mail.

It seems as though there is no free lunch when it comes to wireless flash solutions. You have to learn to decipher the advertised features and then decide if these types of products will fill your needs. For instance, I don’t think that wireless flash triggers offer much of an advantage for wedding photographers who use mostly on-camera flash or flash mounted on a bracket to shoot TTL and bounce flash along with the ability to move quickly around a venue.  I’m not sure that TTL is extremely useful in general for off-camera flash, where you need to set groups of flashes to different power ratios for customized lighting setups. The ability to remotely control power level adjustments seems much more useful to photographers working alone and don’t want to waste time walking back and forth between flash units to make minor power level adjustments.

I feel like going for a drive and taking some photographs today. I’m thinking of making a bumper sticker that says:

MY OTHER TRIGGERS

ARE POCKET WIZARDS

Pixel TR-331 Wireless TTL Flash Triggers

Pros:

  • Replaces dedicated TTL cable with wireless radio transmitter and receiver
  • Supports Nikon flash menu functions (slow, rear sync, red-eye-reduction, ect.)
  • Auto zoom mode on flash head with compatible flashes
  • Controls off camera Master flash output from camera flash compensation menu
  • Digital channel & mode selection through two simple function buttons
  • TTL and Manual transmitter modes
  • Master and Slave modes on RX units
  • Supports Nikon FP HSS high-speed sync mode
  • Locking wheel on TX and RX hot shoe foot
  • Backlight on TX and RX display
  • Programmable ROM may allow extra functions in the future? See jack on TX unit
  • Low battery / power indicator on TX and RX display
  • Advertised long battery life in standby mode
  • Uses 2.4 GHz frequency for increased range

Cons:

  • No communication between Master RX and Slave RX
  • Does not support Nikon CLS Commander mode or groups (may be modified by future firmware updates)
  • RX display is difficult to see with the flash connected to the hot shoe
  • Nikon flash units obstruct function buttons when connected to RX
  • Possible quality control issues
  • Uses relatively expensive CR2 batteries
  • In-use TX battery life likely to be substantially reduced from stated standby times
  • No test button on TX unit, requires multiple shutter releases to test lighting levels
  • Feature set versus cost
  • Price per unit versus the competition

Summary:

The Pixel TR-331 is a bit of a tease. It promises some very cool things and appears to be able to accomplish them. That leads people to believe that it can do other things that it can’t currently deliver and does not claim to. I don’t think any deception is intended. We simply seem to be the victims of our own high expectations, endlessly searching for the best of everything at the lowest possible cost.

I think the addition of factory programmable memory is a big step forward from previous simple wireless triggers used as replacements for pc sync cables. It shows what can be done even if all of our needs and wants are not included in the current feature set

After getting two defective (or damaged) transmitters in a row from two different companies, I am fairly frustrated by the whole world of wireless flash triggers.

For many photographers who want to experiment with off-camera lighting the Nikon Creative Lighting System is still the best and most reliable choice but only if you can afford the cost of Nikon flashes. If you currently have a Nikon camera with an on-board flash that can serve as a remote flash commander, you can buy one very nice Nikon SB600 for just slightly more than the current price of a set of the Pixel TR-331 wireless remotes.

Nothing is foolproof but if I had to make a recommendation at this point, I would be leaning towards Nikon CLS, especially if you are working at relatively short distances or indoors. Nikon CLS works as intended and Nikon flashes are here now. There is no waiting period required while the manufacturer works out the kinks in the product or delivery.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say in the future when I get my replacement triggers.

Pixel TR-331 Wireless TTL Flash Trigger Review

tr331box

By now it’s no big surprise that whenever the Strobist community at www.flickr.com discovers (or even gets a whiff of) any emerging products that have something to do with the subject of off-camera lighting, they jump all over it like nothing else I or anyone else has ever seen. The phenomenon of the strobist pile-on is really something to behold. The latest product to grab everyone’s short attention span is the Pixel TR-331 for Nikon iTTL flash units and TR-332 for Canon eTTL flash units. Trying to discuss Nikon and Canon flashes at the same time tends to make my head spin so I am going to restrict my comments to the Nikon flash version. I am a Nikon guy and the Nikon triggers are what I will be working with. The Canon version of this trigger is rumored to be coming in December 2009 or January 2010.  You’ve got to love rumors…

I will begin by saying that I have no affiliation with Pixel Corporation who manufactures these units and that I have no plans of becoming a North American distributor, spokesman or product model for their company. In fact, the first time I heard of Pixel was the discussion about their new TR-331 wireless flash triggers in the Strobist group on flickr.

http://www.flickr.com/groups/strobist/discuss/72157622664286875/

In the early part of that thread the rumor was that these triggers where being sold only to distributors in lots of 100 and that the retail cost of a transmitter and receiver set might be somewhere around $200. I contacted Pixel to inquire about getting a set (or sets) to test; I was told in very clear terms (that lost absolutely nothing in translation) that Pixel does not send, lend or loan hardware for testing and that anyone interested in testing them would have to buy a set at whatever they determined the retail price was going to be. As I mentioned over on the strobist discussion, I wasn’t particularly thrilled with the idea of being a wireless trigger test monkey or in putting up hard cash for unseen and untested hardware and that’s based on my previous experiences with “value priced” remote triggers.  Here is a link to the Pixel product page:

http://www.pixelhk.com/en/proview.asp?P_ID=1549

In the rapidly moving world of off-camera lighting a person tends to get bored quickly, which often leads to rash decisions that usually involve throwing caution to the wind and doing the exact same thing that you had just sworn only moments before that you would never do. Just be aware that whatever follows is strictly my personal opinion and not intended to sway you one-way or the other. You have to decide for yourself if these particular wireless triggers will serve your particular needs or not.

Receiver, transmitter and studio flash cables.
Receiver, transmitter and studio flash cables.
It's all about communication.
It's all about communication.

I now have one set of the TR-331 triggers in my hands. I have been asked by Pixel not to discuss direct pricing or what I paid for these triggers, which seems reasonable since Pixel currently appears to be in the process of working out the pricing and distribution details with distributors in various countries. I don’t know if they are planning to sell directly to consumers or not, so I’m not going to speculate about it and will just move on to the review or what I like to call…

The Tao of Wireless Flash Triggers

Enter emptiness; it is the space where there is nothing that the usefulness depends.

 

Unfortunately I can’t begin talking about “The Way” without first talking a little about the how Nikon flash works in general (or at least my understanding of how it works). So be patient.

 

The Pixel TR-301 (Nikon mount) is a remote flash trigger that essentially uses radio signals in place of a hard-wired hot shoe sync cord such as a Nikon SC-28 TTL.

http://www.nikonusa.com/Find-Your-Nikon/Product/Flash-Cord/4765/SC-28-TTL-Remote-Cord.html

In case you didn’t know, TTL means “Through The Lens.” The lower case “i” in iTTL stands for intelligent.  When any iTTL compatible Nikon flash like an SB400, SB600, SB800 or SB900 is used in the on-camera hot shoe, the output of the flash is measured by the camera metering system and the exposure is adjusted on the fly. At least that’s the simplified version of the story we use to explain it to small children.  It’s not so much that using flash (even automated flash) is too far above our understanding, it’s just that there are so many things to talk about and people tend to get lost halfway through the discussion, which usually breaks down into a back and forth debate that leaves people wondering why they should even care. Oh, we care… and we care until it hurts.

First let’s look at what happens when we fire a Nikon flash directly from the hot shoe of a Nikon camera that supports TTL.

  • The on camera flash fires a pre-exposure sequence
  • The camera metering system measures the reflected light in the center of the frame based on the pre-flash sequence and calculates the power for the flash
  • The power level for the flash is adjusted based on any flash compensation that is set on the camera and on the flash, This adjustment also includes any exposure value (EV) compensation set on the camera
  • The shutter opens and the flash fires

As you can see there are at least three things you can adjust to affect the exposure. And when I say affect, what I really mean is screw up. Now that we have a basic idea about how TTL flash exposure works with a flash sitting on the camera hot shoe, it seems simple enough to extend the electrical connections between the camera and flash unit by using some sort of compatibly wired cable. I am using a Nikon D300; if you go online you can look at the D300 manual and read about optional flash units (Speedlights) beginning on page 357.

http://www.nikonusa.com/pdf/manuals/noprint/D300_en_noprint.pdf

On page 362 you will find this interesting bit of information:

“When an SC-series 17, 28, or 29 sync cable is used for off-camera flash photography, correct exposure may not be achieved in i-TTL mode. We recommend that you choose spot metering to select standard i-TTL flash control. Take a test shot and view the results in the monitor.”

 

Hmmm… It’s suddenly clear to me how I came up with that “Test Monkey” concept. Even though I am using intelligent TTL flash photography it appears I am still going to be “chimping” my exposures as I go. For those of you who may not be familiar with that term, it is defined here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chimping

In my mind a wireless remote system that is designed to replace a dedicated TTL hot shoe cord is not going to perform any better or in theory behave any differently than the cord with the exception that it essentially gives us a longer, cordless cord. What I want you to remember is Nikon’s advice about trying spot metering because it makes a difference depending on where and what you are photographing.

Off-camera flash photography or “Strobism” is commonly done using a camera in manual exposure mode in order to allow control over the balance between existing or “ambient” light and the artificial light produced by compact battery-operated strobes. Because of the relatively short duration of the light from a strobe unit the ratio of the two lighting types can be controlled by adjusting the camera’s shutter speed and aperture. Another thing that controls flash exposure in manual mode is the power level of the flash being used (and the flash to subject distance). Simple dumb wireless triggers are fine for firing flashes but don’t have any way of adjusting the power level settings remotely. You have to walk over (or climb up to) the flash unit and set the power level manually. On Nikon DSLR cameras with built-in (pop up) flash units you can set the power level of remote off-camera flash units using the built-in flash to send command signals to the off camera units (slaves) using the Nikon CLS (Creative Lighting System). That system uses pulses of light or pre-flash sequences of light to send information to the remote slaves. The CLS system works very well with two minor exceptions; the range is somewhat limited and the remote flash units need to have a direct line of sight to the on-camera commander flash, in order to receive the exposure instruction signals.  You might be able to cheat slightly on the direct line of sight limitation indoors where there are walls or ceilings for the pre-flash signals to bounce off of.

You are probably thinking or maybe hoping that the TR-331 units will extend that CLS function by transmitting these signals to the remote flash units in the same way as the built-in flash on the camera does but of course you cannot use the pop-up flash when the TR-331 transmitter is in the hot shoe of the camera because the pop-up has to be up to work. No pop-up flash means there are no in-camera controls to adjust the power level of the remote flash units in CLS mode. You might also think, or hope that you can still use the pop-up flash by simply plugging the TR-331 into the camera’s pc sync port. You can forget that plan because the sync port is disabled whenever the on-camera flash is raised.

When you have an SB800 or SB900 flash unit in the hot shoe of the camera they can behave as commanders for remote slaves just like the built-in flash with the added ability to control a third group of remote flash units. Since the TR-331 does not have a hot shoe on top of the transmitter, you cannot directly attach a flash to it to act as a commander for other off-camera flash units. So you have this long wireless wire but if you wanted to adjust the power level on the master or slave units you will need to walk over to the master flash on the TR-331 receiver and adjust it from there. While an SB800 flash operating in Nikon CLS allows you to set your remote units to several groups and adjust those groups to different power levels independent of each other, the TR-331 only appears to support one group consisting of one flash on a receiver set to MASTER and one or more flashes on receivers set to SLAVE. You can set the exposure compensation of the remote MASTER from the flash menu on the camera since I currently have only one RX unit so I was not able to test what affect adjusting the flash compensation (on the camera menu) has on the RX units set to SLAVE. There are no power level settings or adjustments on the TX or RX units and the flash adjustments on the camera menu are limited to those that would normally be available if the flash were on the hot shoe of the camera. Basically that means red-eye reduction, slow sync, rear curtain sync (I’m not 100% sure about this one) and flash compensation settings. There are no CLS group settings available on the camera when the built-in flash is not deployed.

Nikon CLS is not just about TTL metering but also about the ability to adjust the output or power ratios of separate groups of flash units. Because the TR-331 only has one available group you cannot use it to adjust ratios between groups remotely. Because the normal pre-flash does not appear to be used for TTL calculations with the TR-331 trigger, the flash appears to be dumping full power or close to it each time it is fired by the wireless trigger.

In general practice I have a lighting ratio in mind when I set up my off camera lights but my first best guess is often wrong and I have to lower the light stands, adjust the power and then reposition the lights. If you are shooting a live subject who is doing you a favor by posing for a photograph they usually get impatient very quickly and all this required fiddling with power levels is no help. I can understand why a lot of photographers are looking for a way to remotely control their lighting from the camera because more convenience generally translates into more productivity. I think they may be slightly disappointed by what I have to say next…

sb800menu

When I access the [remote, master, master (rpt), remote, su-4] menu on the Nikon SB800 flash I notice that as soon as I put the flash in the hot shoe of the TR-331 (turned on or off) that the master and master (rpt) menus went away and also that the A/AA menu option went away. To me this shows that the CLS functions are not supported when used with the TR-331.

I also tested to see if I could determine if the transmitter fires a pre-flash for exposure calculation in TTL mode. To do this I set the flash to rear sync mode on the camera menu and chose a shutter speed of around 1-1/2 seconds. The idea is that if there is an exposure metering flash (pre-flash), it will fire at the beginning of the exposure and then the flash will fire a second time (rear sync) at the end of the exposure. Flash, open shutter, flash, and then close shutter. Sounds good but it does not seem to work. I only get one flash. The TR-331 manual states the following:

[i-TTL] capabilities support various parameters through the camera flash setting, including exposure compensation, FV lock, anti red-eye reduction flash mode / anti-red-eye reduction slow sync, rear-curtain flash sync, site the ISO sensitivity, power zoom functions and so on.

 

The red-eye reduction flashes do seem to work though a lot of people are not wild about using that feature because it seems to make people blink before the actual exposure. The power zoom feature also works but it seems this would only be useful for those times when the remote flash unit was the same distance from the subject as the camera. I don’t think this would normally be the case except perhaps in a studio situation. For situations where the camera is much farther from the subject than the flash you will probably want to set zooming flash heads to manual and then adjust them according to your creative desires. I tested this and when auto zoom is on it makes the flash nuke the subject because it naturally assumes you need more power the more the flash head is zoomed to match the focal length of the lens being used. This distance information seems to work well on the TR-331. How useful it is will depend on what type of photographs you are trying to create.

 

The transmitter (TX) and receiver (RX) units have slow flashing red LED lights to show when they are powered on. This is very handy because the RX display is hard to read when a flash is mounted on it and there is no test button on the RX. Any time the two units are communicating the LED lights change from blinking red to rapidly pulsing blue. This blue flashing can go on for a relative long period of time. For instance, when I power up the camera it takes approximately six to eight seconds before the blue pulses stop. If that is the actual amount of time needed to alert the remote flash to exposure or mode changes then I would be concerned when shooting fast moving subjects. You might find yourself waiting on the flash a lot or taking time to take numerous test shots to see if the adjustments really updated on the remote flash. Both the SB600 and SB800 flash units seem to wake-up right away when you lightly press the shutter button on the camera.

The TX and RX units have battery level indicators on them, which is a nice feature. It may also alert you the fact that the battery is not seated fully in the TX or RX, even though other functions seem to be working. In fact the digital displays are very nice in general and a big improvement over tiny DIP-switches that are often difficult to change with just your fingers. Hold the power button down for two seconds and the TR-331 units spring into action with a little animation Pixel logo. The previous channel settings are retained from when the unit is turned off, which means you are not forced to constantly set it back to what you want. There is also a backlight on the display that is activated when you briefly press the function button. That’s neat. The function settings work just like a digital watch. Hold the button (or buttons) down for a couple of seconds to access the modes and channel settings. It’s simple and it works well.

TTL flash exposure compensation from camera menu.
TTL flash exposure compensation from camera menu.

When using the TR-331 for multiple flash setups, the first flash is designated the master and all other flashes are slaves. This means that you set the first RX to MASTER and then set all the other receivers to SLAVE. Because I only have one RX unit at this time, I have not been able to determine exactly how this affects the function of the units and speculating about how they might work seems pointless. The RX in SLAVE mode did seem to wake-up when the camera with the transmitter was turned on but it would not fire.  After way too many test shots in different metering modes, I can say that the Auto FP (high speed sync) seems to work (I only tested it up to 1/2000th of a second so far).

The MANUAL mode is primarily for studio flash units or other flashes that are not Nikon TTL compatible. The TR-331 set ships with a couple of decent looking cables for using them with studio flashes. I got fairly reliable results when I used the triggers in manual mode but I have had numerous issues with the TTL mode because the flash appears to fire before the shutter is fully open (I can see the flash fire in the viewfinder).

I have replaced the batteries in the TX and RX with new ones and I am still having issues with flash sync. At this moment I can detect 20 individual wireless networks in my building. During the day when I am near a window I have detected as many as 40 at one time. I’m going to try testing the TTL mode again tomorrow from a different location. Switching channels did not seem to increase the reliability. It is possible that I have the units too close together and this is causing some sort of feedback or interference as well.

When I have managed to get the flash and shutter to sync using TTL mode it works pretty well and I can adjust the flash output by using the exposure compensation available on the camera. I tried testing sync with my trusty old D70 and had the same issues. I just wanted to rule out that I had somehow fried the hot shoe on the camera by possibly frying another camera.

Shooting in manual mode.
Shooting in manual mode.

In short, I like these units a lot though they may fall short of wish list of features that many photographers are currently hoping for at a price they feel they can afford to pay. At the moment they don’t seem to be working as reliably as I would like them to but I’m willing to give them the benefit of doubt until I can at least determine the source of the problem. There are a lot of things I like about the TR-331. It’s going to ultimately come down to features versus cost factored with reliability and performance. Even after establishing any sort of benchmark for reliability it is going to be prudent to have back-ups when something breaks.

The main point to remember with any sort of light metering system is that you are not going to be able to randomly set up lights, blast away at full power and then have some sort of automation solve every lighting problem for you. Automation only works up to a certain point and TTL metering cannot fix huge errors in lighting exposure.

I’m not done yet; I’ll have more thoughts on the Tao of Wireless Flash Triggers very soon.

Yongnuo RF-602 Practical Applications

brucieontheloose

Well you certainly can’t be stretching flash sync cables underwater to take photos of your kayak with a flash inside and it’s pretty doubtful that you could get Nikon’s Creative Lighting System (CLS) to do the job either. By using wireless remote flash triggers I can put them just about anywhere including inside my kayak.

Indian Summer has been replaced by rain and lots of it. I hope I get to go kayaking again before the water gets hard.

Strobist info: Two Nikon SB600 flashes with green gels in ziplock bags inside kayak. One Sunpak 383 flash at camera right. ISO 200, f/4, 1/200 second. Flashes at 1/2 power. All flashes triggered with Yongnuo RF-602 receivers.

I’m still waiting on the replacement for my defective Yongnuo transmitter. When that comes I’ll be able to take photos remotely at the same time on another channel. Maybe I can get in the photo when that happens.

Pelican 1510 Carry-On Watertight Equipment Case Review

It’s always hard waiting for a new piece of kit to arrive. There is a lot of nervous anticipation and frequent checking of the mailroom until finally when the magic day arrives, you can scarcely believe that the package you were waiting for has actually materialized. At the same moment by some unknown method, the mischievous gods of unforeseen circumstances are made aware of your situation and manipulate the universe in such a way as to make you late for your current appointment and simultaneously send you an additional half-dozen pressing obstacles and miscellaneous life altering challenges to block your immediate inspection and enjoyment of the article you had been so impatiently waiting on…

Pelican 1510 Carry On Watertight Equipment Case Review

Yongnuo RF-602 Transmitters In Use

erosbendato

I’ve been thinking that a few people might be wondering why I was so interested in those wireless remote flash triggers. I can see a lot of “So What?” responses so I decided to give you an example of off-camera lighting using them to trigger flashes from all angles and even inside a solid bronze sculpture.

This is a photograph of “Eros Bendato” by Polish-born sculptor Igor Mitoraj. It is located in City Garden in downtown St. Louis, Missouri. If you do a google search or a search on www.flickr.com you can probably find a bunch of mediocre snapshots of this sculpture. Go ahead, I’ll wait…

Since we are not in the business of taking mediocre snapshots I thought you might like a rundown on how I lighted this first and made the photograph.

Lighting Info: SO 400, f/5.6 at 1/60th. Nikon SB600 high left (hand held) at full power and red gel. Nikon SB600 ground-level left at full power with red gel. Sunpak 383 flash at full power inside sculpture with DIY diffusion dome and green gel filter. All flashes triggered with Yongnuo RF-602 wireless triggers. White balance set to tungsten.

The flash sitting on the little plastic foot (made by Nikon) at ground level seemed to be flaking out even at this fairly close range so I changed the orientation of the receiver (and antenna) and also checked to make sure that the flash was pushed all the way into the hotshoe. No issues after that, it seemed to fire consistantly every time. I also changed the position of the flash inside the sculpture. At fist I just reached in the lower eye opening and laid it to the right side. I was getting a hot spot and spotty triggering (this thing is made out of solid bronze) so I moved the flash over to the neck all the way on the right which is open (people like to go inside and take their photo looking out of the eyes). The flash worked better on the right and there was a more even spread of light. The dark areas in the eyes are from the texture or folds in the metal on the interior of the sculpture.

This is a test shot I took to establish a base exposure setting.
This is a test shot I took to establish a base exposure setting.

In this test shot the exposure is set to the ambient light. I fired a single flash with a red gel just above the camera sitting on a low tripod. The sky is flat gray and featureless and the flash set at 1/4 power is pretty week. I’m really just getting started at this point, putting receivers on the flashes and test firing each one before moving to the next one. This type of flash photography with simple wireless triggers is almost always done in manual mode. Don’t run off… It’s not difficult, despite what the camera companies always tell you about automated exposure systems taking the worry out of calculating flash exposures. There is really little or no calculation going on here and you don’t need a calculator or even a pencil to do it. The camera (in manual mode) meter is giving me the correct exposure for the overall scene. It’s up to me to decide how much of the available light I actually want to use and then fill in with light from my flash to get the exposure I want. By getting the flash units off the camera, I can direct the light just about anywhere I feel like putting it. Check the exposure with the camera but remember that it is only a suggestion not a commandment. A lot of people will underexpose the recommended exposure for the background and then add light back in with the flash as I have done here.

There are other ways to get a similar result even if you don’t currently own any wireless triggers. You could wait for it to get darker outside and then take a very long exposure with the camera on a tripod and then just walk around firing your off-camera flash unit with the test button. You can even get by with just one flash that way. I’ve done it this way before and ended up with some interesting light trails from passing cars and ghosts of people moving through the frame of the photograph.

Of course sometimes a simple straight shot can be your best bet at recording and preserving memories of your travels and adventures but nothing says you have to stop there either. For a change of pace and a chance to be creative try thinking less about photography and more about lighting. It’s fun.

So What’s My Obsession About?

Boots At RestW Magazine is having a photo contest at the moment and the theme is Obsession. I’m slightly obsessed with photography and food and fashion. I’m not very fashionable myself but I am fascinated by the creative aspect of fashion. At first glance it seems like something people don’t really need but what’s the point of life if it only includes the things that you really need?

We often  spend way too much time worrying about hardware and other things that really don’t add much value to our lives.  I thought about using this shot of the boots as my submission to the magazine. It’s funny how the things that create obsession in one person mean nothing to the next. I think I was attracted to boots on this particular fall day because the smell of beef being grilled outdoors by six of the best chefs in St. Louis reminded me a lot of my trip to Argentina. Travel is another obsession of mine though I often feel put to shame by other travelers who have a lot more time and money so spend crossing the globe.

I used to be obsessed with tools. Carpentry tools mostly, I even made a few tools of my own for carving totem poles and cutting things straight and square with a power saw. I’ve come to the conclusion that I may have a few too many obsessions and that prevents me from being able to really focus on any one obsession.

One of the pitfalls of obsession is that you spend so much time obsessing that you rarely get anything useful done. I also obsess over little lists of things to do that I carry around with me for a while and then abandon in favor of new lists. The list of projects becomes a project itself and then none of the other projects manage to get done. Of course that’s not all my fault because life and family usually conspire against our carefully laid plans to get any sort of personal work done. Just don’t become obsessed with blaming others for your lack of will power.

Anyway, I’m off in search of a new obsession or at least a good description of an old one so I can send it off to a magazine to be judged by other people with their own obsessions to deal with.

Yongnuo RF-602 Wireless Remote Review

091103_2959

I just received a couple of sets of Yongnuo RF-602 Wireless Remote Control units in the mail. I got them primarily to use for triggering my off-camera flashes and as an added bonus they can also be used to wirelessly trigger a camera including activating an autofocus lens prior to the shutter being released. Professional photographers (also known as photographers with an equipment budget) usually choose PocketWizard brand radio triggers for their paid gigs and no serious (or semi-serious) trigger review can get by without at least mentioning PocketWizards as the standard by which all other wireless remotes are measured. Most people will tell you that if you can afford the PocketWizards to just go ahead and buy them and have no more worries.

In case you are not aware of the cost, the current price of a PocketWizard Plus II Transceiver/Relay Radio Slave – Combined Transmitter or Receiver in One Unit is $169. The thing you need to remember is that you need at least two units to do anything, which is basically to trigger your flash units (or camera) with solid reliability over ridiculously long distances while never being bothered about tripping over a bunch of messy sync cables.

091103_2965

For those of us without expense accounts or annual hardware budgets, there are inexpensive though “somewhat” unreliable flash triggers that can be purchased under various brand names from online retailers and auction sites. Low cost, sketchy construction and the reliability of a love stricken teenager have given them affectionate nicknames such as “PovertyWizards” and “FleeBay Triggers.”  The good news is that there are a lot more choices now than in the past for budget priced flash triggers. Since my old Cactus V2 units were getting long in the tooth and didn’t seem to be cutting the flash mustard for outdoor shoots; I decided to go in search of the illusive, legendary, low cost and reliable remote flash trigger. If I want it bad enough and have faith it must exist.

A good place to start looking for anything related to flash photography is over at the strobist group on www.flickr.com where you will find lots of useful information along with colorful opinions about what works and what does not. The Yongnuo 602 triggers seemed to be getting the most chatter lately so after careful consideration and the realization of my lack of available funds for anything more expensive, I decided to order a couple of sets of the Yongnuo remotes and test them for myself.

I guess if you somehow stumbled over here by accident you might be asking, “Why do I need wireless flash triggers anyway?” Simple – there are no wires; and no wires means you can put your lights almost anywhere you want to without being restricted to the length of a sync cord or even tripping over the wire and knocking over your expensive flash or precious camera. Without wires you have better working range and greater flexibility so you can back up or move around easily. You can also put the flash behind things or even outside a closed window, which is sort of like having the power to walk through walls. Trust me, wireless triggers are a good thing and you want them. With Nikon cameras and dedicated flashes we have something called the Creative Lighting System or CLS for short. It works great in places where the flashes can directly “see” another flash on the camera that is set to send command signals with exposure information from the camera metering system or in other setups where the camera command signals can bounce off of walls or ceilings to be seen when the flash units do not have a direct line of sight. CLS works great for a lot of applications but has some limitations like range and the need for a direct (or semi direct) line of sight in order to communicate with the on camera commander flash or dedicated commander unit. In case you have not already guessed, you need Nikon flashes to use the  CLS system.

091104_2976

In this review I am going to be talking about using the RF-602 with Nikon cameras and flashes in manual mode. Specifically the Nikon D300 camera and Nikon SB600 flash units. The Yongnuo transmitters and receivers come in different versions, which basically relate to the pin configuration on the camera hot shoe and the matching foot on the remote transmitter and receivers. There is supposed to be a wake-up function for flash units that have a standby or power saving option and that requires the correct pin layout to be able to communicate with the flash. My initial test of that function using an SB600 flash failed. The work around for now is to disable the standby mode in the custom setting menu on the flash. I hate to say it but that particular “feature” on the SB600 flash is more trouble than it is worth. When used directly on the camera the flash wakes up whenever you half-press the shutter release and it should work the same way on the triggers as well, or at least that is what I was led to believe based on the RF-602 instruction manual. I doubt if there is actually much of a savings in battery power using the standby mode unless you were to inadvertently leave the camera on all day and night. Just remember to turn off the standby mode on the SB600 and everything should be fine. If I find a better solution I’ll post an update. I suspect the problem is with the receiver wiring to the hot shoe because the half press function works fine when used with the 3 pin shutter release cable and the indicator light on the receiver turns green when the shutter is pressed half way.

I did send an email to Yongnuo asking about the wake up feature and got a response back that basically asked me to try it on a different flash like an SB800. I don’t happen to have one of those handy at the moment and I’m not likely to be buying one in the future since they have been discontinued by Nikon. I may try to borrow one sometime soon just to satisfy my own curiosity. I’m pretty confident that it will not work  on the hot shoe either but I have a feeling that if I had a three pin to pc sync port cable that it would. The three pin connector seems to be wired correctly but the hot shoe does  not. That’s my theory but if I was truely adventurous, I would take one of the receivers apart and verify my suspicions.

091104_2957

I sent another email to Yongnuo this afternoon because when I was doing my range tests today the metal foot came off of the transmitter when I tried sliding it on to the camera hot shoe. I was a little confused at first and thought that the pins where sticking out of the base too far so I looked over at the hot shoe on the camera and saw that the metal foot from the transmitter was still in the hot shoe and that the three screws used to hold it to the transmitter casing had come out inside the transmitter. I was sort of in disbelief for a few seconds until I remembered that these are inexpensive Chinese remotes. Of course something is going to go wrong, that’s just part of the deal. I decided that this would at least be a good test for Yongnuo’s customer service department but I was a little unhappy to have my plans for the rest of the sunny afternoon interrupted by a defective piece of equipment.

Back to the range testing… Preliminary tests in front of my high rise building last night showed reliable triggering at 120 feet. When I got up this morning I did a scan from my front window and found 47 wireless network signals. I don’t know if these two things are related or not but it seemed worth noting that radio interference may affect range and reliability. Based on the results that other people have posted online, I decided to retest in a different location. I went over to Forest Park where there are a couple of big soccer fields surrounded by more open space. I brought along a thirty-foot tape measure and put a Sunpak 383 flash on a light stand so it was about four feet off the ground. Since I was by myself I had to walk back and forth to move the flash but it was a nice day so I didn’t really mind. I was able to fire consistently at 250 feet holding the transmitter in my hand.

Some people claim that the range is increased when you touch the transmitter because your body acts as an additional antenna. I’m not sure if that is true or not and since the metal mounting plate fell off the trigger I was not able to verify that the shutter was actually syncing beyond 200 feet even though the flash continued to fire when I measured it for the last time at 250 feet. In fact I could fire the flash with just the transmitter in my hand all the way from goal to goal. Unfortunately I didn’t measure that distance and when I went to check the standard dimensions for a soccer field online, I found out that soccer fields actually vary depending on where they are. It’s no wonder that soccer is not the national sport here. 

The bottom line is that I am very happy with the increase in range of these remotes over my Cactus V2 triggers. I’m sure that everyone will have slightly different results depending on their local conditions anyway, not to mention a few people who are prone to making wildly exaggerated claims to impress their internet peers. I don’t have a lens long enough to really need that much range but on the other hand I would not want to be constantly working at the limit of useable range either. It’s good to have more range than you need or think you need.

091104_2974091104_2975

I’ve already hinted at quality concerns. Some people may want to compare the RF-602 remotes to the Cactus triggers which up until recently were among the favorite choices for inexpensive  remote flash triggers.  One thing I didn’t like was the little swivel foot on the Cactus triggers and I was sure that one day I would break one by accidentally over-tightening it in an effort to support the weight of the flash (so far so good). On the RF-602 I’m not wild about the little battery (trap) door on the transmitter but at least it has a door so you don’t need a screwdriver just to change the battery. It’s hard to say if one or the other of these kits could stand up better to abuse. It’s like asking which would bruise easier, an apple or a pear? I’m sure the answer is both. I guess the idea is that these remotes are cheap enough to be easily replaced when the time comes. My recommendation is to use some of the savings from your low cost triggers to buy a backup set so that when one of the receivers or transmitter units eventually fails (possibly on the first day out) that you are not out of business.

The RF-602 remotes have several features I like. The direct mount to a hot shoe means I don’t have to buy any additional connectors or cables. In fact I was happy to discover that these units ship with a couple of useful cables as part of the kit. What kind and how many may vary depending on who your supplier is and what brand of camera you order them for. Be sure to verify what is included in your order when you buy anything online. I was a little suspicious about the quality of the cables before I saw them but for the money I think they are actually pretty nice. I’m hoping they hold up in use but since most people will be using the remotes primarily for hot shoe flashes the cables should not be a problem.

I also like the lower profile of the RF-602 receivers compared to the Cactus V2 for using on umbrella mounts so that the flash sits a little closer to the center of the light modifier. For some reason it just looks a little more professional and less prone to accidental movement.

It’s pretty cool that this set can also function as a wireless shutter release (or cable-less cable release if you prefer). Unfortunately the length of your exposure is going to be limited to 30 seconds because the transmitter does not lock the shutter when in bulb mode. You could hold the button down on the transmitter for thirty minutes to take star trail photos but I’m guessing you wouldn’t enjoy that very much and at the same time it would kill your batteries. For most things short of 30 minute bulb exposures I usually get by with just using the cameras self timer. I think the remote shutter release might be very useful for sporting events where you could place a remote camera near a goal line to take a wide shot at the same time you where taking a close-up with a long lens on another camera.

I also like the function lights on the 602 transmitters and how the flashing light on the receiver reminds me that it is still turned on. The switch on the receiver is flush and has a solid feel when you turn the unit on or off, plus it is clearly labeled so there is no guessing which direction is off or on unlike the tiny switch on the Cactus receivers.

The hot shoe on the receivers is brand specific and the lock on my SB600 flash works well with those. On the Cactus V2 there was a real danger of the flash sliding out of the hot shoe because there is no hole for the locking pin. My Sunpak flash has a little locking wheel that works fine on just about anything so there are no problems with the Cactus V2 if you have that sort of arrangement on your flash

Another interesting feature is that it looks like it is possible to use two transmitters on different channels as a radio relay or signal repeater to increase your effective trigger range, though this is probably going to reduce your maximum sync speed at the same time. Since my second transmitter fell apart today I won’t be able to test this trick feature but others have and say it works. I can’t say how or when that might be useful but it sounds pretty cool.

091104_2983

Another hot topic of discussion of discussion when it comes to wireless flash triggers is maximum sync speed or the maximum shutter speed that can be used when taking flash photos. Basically the shutter has to be open at the same time that the flash goes off. It’s actually a little more complicated than that because most camera shutters have what is known as front and rear curtain shutters. In simple terms this means that the shutter opening is really a moving slit that travels across the frame and in order to get a proper exposure the flash has to fire between the time that the first curtain opens and the second curtain closes. That timing in what really determines the maximum sync speed.

Many people seem to be confused about why the flash triggers do not seem to be able to sync above a certain shutter speed on different brands of cameras. The short answer is that sync speed is limited by the maximum sync speed of each camera. On the Nikon D300 the maximum sync speed is 1/250th of a second. There are times when it does not seem to work at the stated maximum sync speed and the most common cause generally appears to be low or weak batteries in the transmitter or receivers of the wireless remote system. Electrical interference and physical obstructions may also prevent syncing the flash at the maximum available speed.

The main thing to remember is that you are not going to be able to sync correctly at a shutter speed that is higher than what the camera manufacturer states as the maximum. There may be some crazy exceptions to the rule if the specifications actually lean to the conservative side in favor of reliability. I decided to run another unscientific test for maximum sync speed and grabbed my trusty old retired Nikon D70 out of the closet. The D70 has a maximum sync speed of 1/500th of a second because of its electronic shutter. I tested the D70 at 1/500th with the Yongnuo triggers and got perfectly synced photos with no problems working indoors at close range. That was not a very demanding test but it did show that the system was able to sync to the maximum available speed with that camera. Yongnuo claims the ability to sync up to 1/250th second but the triggers do not seem to be a limiting factor if the camera has a higher sync speed available.

Something else that other reviews have pointed out is the need to be cautious about using older high voltage flashes with the RF-602 triggers. I guess you will have to read the specifications for your older flashes or have them tested to see if they exceed the allowed voltage for the Yongnuo remotes. I’ve already had the pleasure of blowing up all my old flashes so I can’t help you sort out any compatibility issues. The rule seems to be never to mount anything on the RF-602 receivers that you wouldn’t dare to mount directly on your camera.

My initial conclusion (barring any troubles getting my defective transmitter replaced) is that the RF-602 transmitter and receivers are a big improvement over my old Cactus V2 wireless flash triggers. For occasional use they may be all you ever need to control your off-camera flashes in manual mode. For prime time use they might still keep me awake at night worrying about what could go wrong on the next day’s photo shoot but to offset my concerns I could probably afford to purchase a spare set (or two) of the RF-602 wireless triggers and still be under the cost of a set of PocketWizards, Cybersyncs, or RadioPopper remotes.