We seem to have lost radio contact…

This post is more of a gripe than anything else and the gripe is about radio triggers for flash units.

There are two kinds of radio triggers for firing flash units remotely, the ones that are too expensive and the ones that don’t work. There is also a sub category of flash triggers that don’t work and that is flash triggers that don’t actually exist yet but have been marketed and promised for delivery sometime soon…

I am the proud owner of some Cactus V2 flash triggers that I bought about a year ago. They work pretty well inside the confines of my living room which often doubles as a makeshift studio. The other day I tried using them outside which I have done before with the same rather poor results. Granted I was trying to trigger the flashes while they were inside my kayak  where I had put them in plastic bags to keep them from getting wet. The last time I had used them outside was when I was taking photos of a giant bronze head where I had put a flash inside the head which is made out of cast bronze. Yes, maybe that was expecting a lot. These triggers which are commonly bought from suppliers in China cost about $40 for a transmitter and one reciever. A set of Pocket Wizards will set you back about $400 or ten times more than these. Pocket Wizards have been around a while and are the gold standard of wireless flash triggering for professional use. Everyone agrees that they are overpriced and that they work.

There are a bunch of new contenders out there right now which promise various improvements like the ability to transmit TTL and iTTL information from the camera to the remote flash units. I say “promise” because most of these are currently under developement or pre-production. Of course none of these various brands of triggers will talk to each other so you are going to be pretty much locked into whatever system you choose to go with. In the case of the inexpensive Chinese triggers, they usually will not talk to each other from one generation to the next so that if you buy the new improved model you are usually going to end up scrapping whatever units you currently have.

Pocket Wizard is coming out with some new triggers sometime around the beginning of 2010 that are supposed to incorportate iTTL information from the camera and sent it to the flash. They have units now for the Canon cameras and flash units but those have been problematic due to radio frequency interference from the flash units themselves. Nikon and Canon flashes work differently enough that it is not a simple one solution fits all and it appears that there is a lot of work yet to be done on the Nikon version of these triggers.

For those who are not initiated into the world of wireless flash triggers, usually when you use a flash trigger you have your camera in manual exposure mode and the trigger is merely acting like a sync cable to trigger the flash at the moment you release the shutter.  Nikon flashes use what is called the Nikon Creative Lighting System or CLS to transmit camera information using infrared pulses. That works great when you have a direct line of sight from the camera to the flash and when you are not shooting under bright sunlight. It does limit the placement of your off-camera flash units. The new Pocket Wizard triggers for Nikon (not available yet) will transmit exposure information from the camera to the flash giving you the correct exposure automatically. Since they work on radio signals instead of pulses of light, you can work around corners and other obstacles without any problem. The best of both worlds. The problem for me and for a lot of hobbyists is that they will cost around $200 each for transmitters and recievers (or transcievers). You are going to want about four of these things so that is roughly $800 and a lot to spend on a hobby just to get your flash to go off.

Next comes a product called CyberSync, designed by Paul C. Buff and made in America. Hey, I like the sound of that. These units are smaller than the existing Pocket Wizards and get good reviews on reliability and customer service. They have a new version (coming soon…) that promises the ability to control the power output levels of the off-camera flashs remotely with a commander unit. The transmitters and recievers are roughly 1/2 the price of the Pocket Wizards with a little less overal range (distance) but good reliability and consistancy.

The new kid on the block is a product called Radio Popper. These units work by converting the infrared signal from the manufacturers flash to a radio signal and back again to infrared at the flash unit. This means that the radio trigger has to sit next to the flash so the IR sensor on the flash can see the signal from the reciever. Sounds pretty cool but Radio Popper kept delaying the release date on its products so often that many people got tired of waiting and went with other solutions in the interim. The company has a new (less expensive) product out now called JRX or Junior. These have a neat feature that allows you to adjust the power output of a remote flash from the transmitter mounted on your camera. That is real handy for adjusting flashes mounted on booms are raised high up in the air on lightstands. They currently work with studio strobes like White Lightnings and there is some sort of a conversion modual (cube) for battery operated flash units. Oh yeah, those are supposed to be coming out in three weeks…

I guess I’m lucky that I don’t have to have radio triggers right now in order to make a living. If I did, I would go with the Pocket Wizards because they also work with the type of studio lighting equipment I would be renting locally to do any sort of a big job on location.

The CyberSyncs are also a strong choice because they work well and have adequate range for most of the things I can imagine I would want to use them for. They are also compatible with the type of studio lighting I am likely to purchase for my own use in the future.

I have not made up my mind about the Radio Poppers. They seem to keep changing directions midstream. I think they are trying to produce the best product possible but only time will tell if they can actually deliver it.


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