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When it comes to photography, light is king. Great light makes a good photograph amazing, even if the subject dominates the scene. Because of that it’s been popular for a while (but even more popular because of great websites like Strobist.com) for the photographer to introduce external lights via the use of hot lights, speedlights and studio strobes. Selecting what lights to use would be a whole topic in itself so today we are going to concentrate on a single but very important aspect of lights. Ways to trigger an off camera strobe / speedlight.
A while ago I wrote this thread in the Atlanta Lighting Flickr Group, it still has relevant information and more concerning lighting equipment and triggering. Some of that information will be copied here. There will be many links in this article for those who are looking to research further. This is a very long article, and will be optimized in the future after writing. Key features are bold for ease of navigation. I suggest also using Ctrl+F on your browser.
To keep this article simple studio strobe and speedlights will be simple called strobes. This word will be interchangeable between the two.
Already in the know about how studio strobes work, just skip down to section 2
Unlike constant hot lights, studio strobes are designed to release a lot of light in a fraction of a second. Because of that reason a studio strobe has to be “Triggered” by the photographer’s camera. A speedlight like the Canon 580 EX II or the Nikon SB-900 that sits on top of the camera is an example of this action. If you look on top of your camera the hotshoe on top, there’s a large circle in the center (and smaller circles around it). This is the electric contact in which the trigger takes place. (This is important later when it comes to wireless triggers). With a signal from the camera the flash is popped and you get a lit scene in the picture. Pretty simple in the mechanics of how it works.
Unfortunately having the flash on camera doesn’t lead to the greatest of photos, and pretty soon most everyone begins to experiment on moving that source of light away from the camera. Moving the strobe away from the camera means having to find a way to extend that trigger mechanism since there is no direct contact with the strobe and the camera anymore. This is where one starts using an abundance of wired and wireless solutions to extend the distance in which he is capable of triggering that strobe.
It’s important from the get go to differentiate between smart strobes and dumb strobes. Smart strobes are strobes that have built in equipment in them that allow the camera to determine the exposure to the best of it’s ability which then modifies how much light the strobe puts out. For example a Nikon Sb-900 on top of a Camera using TTL mode will analyze and scenes lighting, and then modify it’s light output based on what it calculated to be the right exposure. Pretty much skynet inside your camera says “This is what’s right” and then takes the shot. The photographer does have a degree of control over light output, but most of the measurement is determined by the camera itself.
The output of light on a dummy strobe is completely determined by the photographer, and it will consistently put out that amount of light until it’s told otherwise. Either at the unit itself, or now more commonly wireless the photographer is able to change the output amount the light. All measurement of light is determined by the photographer.
It’s important to not that most if not all smart strobes have a dummy mode. But smart strobes are a lot more expensive, and you will see later that wireless smart strobes are even more expensive than their dummy strobe counterparts.
Why would you chose smart strobes over dummy strobes? When a fast paced situation like a Wedding or the like is involved, and the scenes change a lot a smart strobe can help you consistently get great exposures. This is where the benefits of a smart strobe shine. In a situation like a studio shoot where a photographer controls all aspects of lighting, a smart strobe actually creates more problems as the results may vary because of exposure determination. I will soon write about studio strobes and get into this more soon.
For a very thorough explanation of the Canon E-TTL system check here : Flash Photography with Canon EOS
Nikons Website about their TTL Flashes : Flashes from Nikon
Canons Company website about choosing the right flash : Canon DLC Choosing the Right Flash
This blog post will cover the following.
The most basic way to trigger a strobe is with a PC Sync Cable. In fact many studio strobes come packaged with a long 10~15 feet (some as long as 50 feet) PC Sync cable as a way to trigger the studio strobe unit. As with all standard cables there are two ends which don’t necessarily have to be two male PC Sync end (As pictured above). As long as one end is PC Sync Male the other end can range from Standard Audio 3.5 Mini Jack, 2.5 Mini Jack, and 6.35mm Standard Audio. There’s a chance you will stumble upon legacy sync connectors such as one that looks like a power cable (called a blade sync cord). These legacy cables are few and far between and are dinosaurs of the sync cable world. As you would expect from the most basic of cables, its probably going to handle the most basic of task. PC Sync cables don’t do anything special other than trigger a strobe unit. One end in your camera, the other end in your strobe and that’s it.
For cable nuts and do it yourself people : Sync cables are Mono cables by design. Some flash units REQUIRE that the sync cable be mono on their ends to work correctly. Also there is a Nikon Screw Lock feature on PC Sync cords that’s optional, this allows the cable to screw into the sync port so that it is not accidentally removed. These cables fetch a small premium but are well worth the cost.
The female end of a PC Sync cable looks like this.
There’s a pretty good chance that if your DSLR camera cost less than $1500 you won’t have a PC Sync port on your camera. There’s opinions on the internet that companies consider the PC sync port a “Professional” option. Another opinion is that it saves manufacturer and design cost, and thus helps lower the total cost of the camera (I believe in this opinion). Don’t fret though, there’s plenty of cheap ($10~$20) adapters on the internet that you can get that will convert your hot shoe on top of the camera to a sync port. These work fine and should be a must have in your bag just in case of an emergency. Sony people, you will actually need a special adapter for your hot shoe to put a sync port on and also use standard hot shoe devices. Minolta and Sony changed their standard a while back and no one has followed, so it’s kinda like beta max and memory stick all over again. Viva Sony eh?
Common cameras that do not have sync ports : Canon Rebel Series (Xs through the t2i), Canon 60D (Why?), Nikon D5000, Nikon D3100, Nikon D90, Nikon D80, Nikon D7000
They get your strobe off your camera
Very cheap ($5~$15 at most)
Simple to make your own
Your attached to a cable that gets in the way
Only dummy mode operation
Cable easily falls out if you don’t have Screw Lock Feature
PC Sync ports aren’t commonly on consumer model SLR.
E-TTL (TTL, I-TTL) Cord
Where the basic PC sync cable does dummy mode triggering, the E-TTL cord is a proprietary (to the camera system) cable that transmits the TTL data from the camera to the flash unit. Immediately apparent with the E-TTL cable is that it’s pretty thick, and the ends go directly into another Hot Shoe shape rather than a PC sync type port or one of the various other audio type connectors. If you look at the above picture from Flash Zebra’s E-TTL cord you will notice four little dots underneath the primary point on each connector. These electrical contacts allow two way communication from the attached strobe to the camera so that TTL can work. The proprietary nature of E-TTL cords is very apparent here as you have to use the cord for your respective system, so Canon with Canon, Nikon with Nikon, etc. The E-TTL cable also allows further benefits such as allowing the photographer to control the output levels of the light from his/her camera (newer cameras support this) in manual and automatic modes, and also opens up such features at High Speed Sync (Auto-FP HSS for Nikon).
Because of their more advance features E-TTL cables are more expensive than their pc sync counterparts. E-TTL cables such as the OC-E3 cable from Canon, and the SC-29 cable are high as $80. Thankfully 3rd party manufactures have made a lot of headway the last several years and offer many great alternative E-TTL cables at a much reduced price (though still on average about 5 times the cost of PC cables). The Flash Zebra OC-E3 equivalent cable above is listed at around $35 in comparison to Canon’s OC-E3 cable for $75, and both argueably are the same quality and do the same exact job. Something you will notice is E-TTL cables aren’t really that long. They are designed to be used with systems like the Stroboframe which allows a photographer to quickly rotate the axis of his flash to match the orientation of the camera. Because of this the cables tend to be coiled and quite short, and if you try stretching them out they have enough pull back to make it unpleasant to bring the speed light more than a few feet away from the camera. 3rd Party companies such as Flash Zebra offer longer E-TTL cables which can go distances up to 24′ long, pretty impressive, just prepare a little more packing room as the cable is quite thick.
Oddly enough for the premium price they fetch, E-TTL cables are NOTORIOUS for breaking or simply not working correctly if not stored correctly. While this may be an issue on the manufacturing of past cables, I’ve personally had several cords stop working and known both Canon and Nikon photographers who’ve had the same issue. Either the contacts are weak, the cable breaks, the cables are pinched, or various other issues too numerous to name the E-TTL cable just stops working. I guess because there’s more wiring inside the cable there’s more chances that issues will come up.
For cable nuts and do it yourself people : Sync cables can be extended with Rj-45 connectors and Cat-5 cable up to 100 meters in distance. It’s a popular Do it yourself modification to buy a third party cable and extend it yourself.
Use cool E-TTL controls in manual and automatic
Allows to use options such as High Speed Sync (It’s awesome shooting at F1.4 on a sunny day and syncing at 1/8000th with a flash)
Great for use with stroboframe like devices
Your still attached to a cable that may get in the way
Costly (5x to 10x the cost of a PC Sync Cable)
Surprisingly easy to break for the price
Proprietary to a companies flash system
On some studio strobe systems there maybe a proprietary solution that connects flashes together with RJ-11 cables so that you can adjust flash power and also trigger the flash. Since there are several dozen flash systems (maybe even over a 100) I can’t really list more than this tiny snippet about these systems. With the advent of cheap wireless control with power management these systems are going the way of the dinosaur. If you are interested in researching some of these systems check out the White Lightning LG4x shown above or systems like the Photogenic Infrared system that is wireless but use the same principles.
As soon as you go wireless of course things get more complicated. Where as there are 3 simple ways to trigger a strobe via wires, there are plenty more when doing it wireless. So this part of the article will go from as simple as possible to the complex wireless systems that transmit E-TTL information over long cast radio.
One of the most basic ways to do wireless triggering is via a Slave Tripper or Optical Slave sync. Many studio strobes, and few speed lights, have this ability built in. A photo – eye on the unit detects a flash and in turn immediately flashes itself. Since a flash from a strobe is an intense amount of light, a flashlight hitting a strobe unit will not make it go off. The sensitivity and response of a flash slave unit is also extremely quick so its a viable solution as a triggering method in a studio. Since the photo-cell is looking for a flash to trigger it, the photographers camera has to have a flash on their camera (either a built in flash, or a speedlight like the 580 EX II) or be attached to another flash (wired or wirelessly).
Not all strobes have an optical slave tripper. Fortunately like most other things in photography adding this ability isn’t an issue and it can be quite cheap. I found this amazing article about adding the optical slave tripping ability to speedlight units like the canon 430ex, Nikon Sb-600 and more by attaching a device such as a Wein hotshoe slave. For roughly $40 you can add wireless optical slave ability to any strobe. The Nikon Sb-800 and Sb-900 have a mode called SU-4 that turns on optical slave (learn how to turn it on here). While I don’t think SU-4 specifically means optical slave, it does in fact make the Sb-800/Sb-900 triggered via flash.
Since optical slave triggering is based on a Photo-Eye seeing a flash of light to trigger, several problems come up. First of all the photo-cell is only so sensitive. If the flash is too far away, or if the photo-cell is blocked than the strobe will not trigger. This can be an issue if the strobe is behind the flash source, or against a black wall which tends to absorb a lot of light. If it doesn’t detect a strobe, it doesn’t fire, simple as that. Secondly if you are in an environment with multiple photographers, or multiple strobe setups than every time a strobe goes off the optical slave strobe goes off. This makes using optical slaves in a situation like a wedding (where many family members with point and shoot cameras shooting hundreds of tiny flash photos) impractical and impossible. In a controlled environment such as a personal studio optical slaves are a great way to trigger a strobe wirelessly.
Like the pc sync cord, Optical triggering is dummy strobe triggering. A photographer has to go up to the physical unit to adjust power, and there’s no TTL ability with optical slaves.
Note : On many studio strobes, the way to disable optical triggering on a unit is to place a dummy plug into your sync port. It’s smart to buy a pack of stand along plug converters from a radio shack for cheap to leave in your flash. Some strobes allow you to hit a dip switch that will turn the slave function off.
Tip : Need to optically trigger a flash with your onboard flash / speedlight but you don’t want your camera’s light to show up? Manually set the power of your onboard camera flash down to its lowest setting. It’s still strong enough to pop the optical sync of your strobe unit. If it doesn’t pop the strobe add a little more power til it does. You can even use the onboard flash as a little bit of fill.
Finally you lose the cord!
Very basic but reliable (paying attention to photo-eye placement) way of wirelessly triggering strobes.
Built into many studio strobes, and some speed lights
Cheap! Adding optical sync can be as cheap is $7.
Very convenient for single photographer studio environments.
Not 100% reliable if photo-eye is blocked.
Absolutely cannot be used in multi strobe/camera environments
Dummy wireless, it doesn’t allow you to control flash output power
Some studio strobe systems have an option to wirelessly trigger via an Infrared unit. Like with visible light slave trippers the unit is triggered by a burst of light, in this case it’s infrared spectrum light. My experience is limited with these systems, but from what I’ve read they seem to be proprietary and found on cheaper systems such as lights from JTL (Candid moment, after years of seeing how bad they have been for many users I am NOT a fan of JTL). Infrared systems use a module that sits on the hot shoe of the camera that sends out an infrared pulse to a receiving unit that has a photo-eye sensitive to IR. That strobe unit than flashes. Like the Optical slave units the infrared units are line of sight based, and also affected by anyone else using an IR based triggering system (which is very unlikely). I don’t know if regularly IR scatter adversely affects flash triggering. Wireless range on Infrared is pathetically low compared to other wireless solutions, and normally max out at about15′ to 30′.
Like optical slaves also if your strobe doesn’t have the ability to be triggered with IR available, it too can be added. Wein yet again has an IR solution that could be added to strobes, albeit a little bit pricier than slave syncs. Twinlink has a unique unit that combines Radio (to be covered later) with Infrared triggering, so it shows that IR still is used and considered.
Personal experience wise IR has been very finicky and terrible to use outside in sunlight. The reliability of the IR transmitter to trigger the strobes can fall down as low as 50%, which leads to a lot of annoyance in comparison to how reliable other wireless solutions are.
I personally do not like IR as a way to trigger lights. With how cheap radio triggers are getting now, and their higher reliability factor it’s hard to support IR triggering.
Note : This is dummy IR triggering, later TTL based IR triggering is covered which allows some unique abilities.
Finally you lose the cord!
Not as susceptible to being triggered by an outside source (cause no one is using it!)
IR bounces very well in a room, and can be reliable in a small area.
Don’t have to have a flash at camera unlike Optical triggering (if using onboard flash to trigger)
Incredibly crappy range.
Nearly useless during a sunny day.
Some IR Units very iffy about line of sight and might not pick up signal
Not readily available like optical sync.
This section is going to be long. Radio triggers are the biggest markets of wireless triggering there is, and deservedly so for the benefits it gives. Many different models will be listed along with opinions.
Radio triggering of strobes isn’t exactly new (Pocketwizard technology have been here since the late 90’s) but it has proven itself to be one of the most effective ways of wireless triggering. Through the use of radio frequency, a RF transmitter sends a signal to a RF receiver which in turns pops the flash. It’s not uncommon now to see units that do both the work of the transmitter and receiver. These units are capable of sending out a radio signal, and also receiving it and are thus dubbed Transceivers. That basic premise of a RF unit is sending data over radio frequency.
So why are RF transmitters a great solution? Well RF units are a contained unit. Where a optical slave unit is waiting for any flash to trigger it, RF units wait for a device that uses a specific radio bandwidth to hit it. This shouldn’t be mistaken that RF units are paired uniquely with each other, as other similar RF units can also trigger each other, but more that not any other camera will inadvertently make a strobe fire. To help RF units be more contained, many RF unit manufactures allow the photographer to adjust the channel that the RF unit is on. So if a transmitting unit is on channel 4, than only receiving units on channel 4 will trigger. Units now are coming with as little as 2 channels upwards to 32 channels that a photographer can change too. I believe you can also purchase unique channels (at a premium price) from companies such as LPA Design (Makers of Pocket Wizard) just in case you really need to have your own channel.
Along with being a contained system, RF triggers have amazing range advantages over Infrared and Optical triggering. There is no line of sight issues in RF triggering, so it’s possible to place a strobe behind a tree to illuminate it. With optical or infrared systems this would not be possible. Usable range for RF systems start at 100′ and can go up to 1500~2500′, an amazing step above the 15-30′ range of IR.
RF triggering has been such a great way to trigger flashes that studio strobes such as the Norman ML600R have built in RF receiving abilities. Also with the recent surge of interest in off camera lighting, there has been many 3rd party release of radio trigger solutions. Where Pocketwizard before had dominated the marketplace at a premium price, there are many systems coming out now that deliver a reliable RF product at even a quarter to a tenth of a price of a similar Pocketwizard system. Glory to the open market! Because of this this section will have a heavy concentration on various RF triggering solutions. RF triggers are pretty much the smartest bet purchase wise. First of all lets do pro’s and cons.
Note : I have not personally had any issues with radio cross contamination, but I have had serious drops in range when it comes to being between certain materials.
What’s exciting is there are Radio triggers that do TTL, those will be covered below.
Complete liberation from wires. Amazing range the 100% reliability of cable (with the right units)
No line of sight issues like Optical and IR triggering.
Contained system, little pollution unless other photographers have the same type of RF unit.
Cheap! Starting at $19 now when years ago it was at minimum $280.
A solution you have to purchase separately, not built into most cameras.
Some units may not be 100% reliable (this will be covered immediately below)
Some IR Units very iffy about line of sight and might not pick up signal
Can get really expensive (At minimum you need $320 to get 2 pocket wizard transceivers)
Radio Frequency (RF) Triggers – Your options and opinions
RF triggers are the most common solution for wireless triggering that a photographer will look to purchase. Here is a list of RF trigger solutions and a quick review of them to help you with your equipment questions and possible purchase. None of these companies at all have advertised or given their product to me, but I’ve been fortunate to use many of them or have contact with people who have. Please feel free to contact me with your experience if you find any description lacking.
Gadget Infinity Cactus V4 Trigger –
Starts at $20 for a transmitter and receiver, shipped from China.
These RF units recently started coming out a few years back, and have taken the photography community by storm. Honestly, they work and work well. You may hear people say…OH 95 out of a 96 times it works. To me that’s a passing grade. There are limitations though. Distance is one with a standard range of 30’~100′. Also the transmitter may use a non standard battery (L1028 or whatever) that can be annoying to replace when it dies in the middle of a shoot. (Carry an extra). They have upgraded model versions as years have passed and each rendition stays cheap while offering more reliability. The first few Cactus units were four channel models, but I believe the new ones are 16 channel. The first units were also just flash triggers and did not perform as wireless shutter triggers, I do not know if this has changed or not with new models.
Yong-Nuo RF-602 –
Starts at around $40 for a transmitter and receiver, shipped from China
To my understanding released just a few years ago, the RF-602 has gained a cult following as a reliable RF solution with incredible range, lots of versatility, at a very affordable price. Because of the hoopla around the unit I purchased a set in the summer (2010) and was generally pretty impressed with the units. I did have my issues though. The transmitter had a tendency to slip off because there is no locking mechanism on the unit. Also reliability became an issue when I used it during a wedding, and the unit refused to fire my 580 EX II off camera where my pocket wizard units were 100% reliable. I did not place the pc sync cable on the unit to the 580 ex II (just used the hot shoe portion) so its not known if the issue was the transmitter or the receiver. Outside of the wedding and another shoot, the RF-602 worked great firing a 580EX II and a Nikon Sb-24. Another issue I found is the power button on the receiver cannot be reached if you are using a 580ex II, mild issue but noted.
Not satisfied with how the transmitter tend to slip of my camera, along with its use of the same L1028 battery that the cactus used, I was pleasantly surprised to see that a company called Link Delight released a RF wireless trigger that address this issue. The MK-RC7 has a push button release on the back of the tranciever (seen in this photo) that helps the transmitter stay on the camera. It also comes with a very nice screw lock pc sync cable, not bad for being only $21.99.
Both units have 16 channels to work with, and running at a 2.4 ghz bandwidth seems to make both of them more reliable signal wise. These units will act as a wireless shutter release for your camera, so make sure to purchase the right model for your camera type.
Paul C Buff Cybersync –
Starts at $59 for the trigger, $69 for the reciever (both required to run units)
These are Paul Buffs (owner of Alienbee’s) answer to the problematic chinese radio triggers he initially sold.
When I purchased these units in 2009 they were impressive.. They work very well, and though not 100% a pocketwizard, they will probably do 100% of what any photographer needs. They have some weird quirks about them (no off switch, no tassles, no mounting locks) but mine have been 100% reliable even after they took a few spills. The coin size battery in the transmitter can be a pain to replace if you don’t have a spare, and the odd shape of the receiver makes Velcro your best mounting solution. Outside of that they seem to a great value for their price. Paul C Buff is a good company based in the USA so it’s nice to see a quality product home grown, so I endorse this RF solution as a pretty cool one.
starts at $180 a piece (2 required), can be as high as $280 a piece.
Yea! you just bought a $300 strobe…now get a $180 trigger to shoot it! Yes it’s painful, but PocketWizards are the de facto standard in wireless triggering. They have exceptional range, and also undeniable reliability. When doing critical client work, I use my pocket wizards and have been very happy with them. Pocket wizards do emit a constant radio stream when you hold the button down, so I can attach one to my camera and focus with it like it’s a shutter button. MUY BUENO! some creative shots there. There is also a more complex Pocket Wizard called the Multimax that adds a plethora of options to the mix, check out the info site about it to learn more.
So here’s the question, with so many options that are a lot cheaper than PocketWizards why buy them? The answer is more cloudy now than it was 4 years ago when all the other options were pretty much crappy. I use them because they are so standard. While teaching workshops or being involved with other photographers and studios, most of us use PocketWizards. Their reliability has also been a major factor for me. There is no hesitation if they will work in a critical environment such as a wedding. Because of how standard the PW signal is I have strobe units (The Norman ML600R’s) and a light meter that have built in PocketWizard triggering ability. It’s pretty cool having such convenience, but if one sat down and think of the price for that luxury it would make them pale with disgust.
What may be a good source of news is a Company called Phottix has a transceiver unit called the Atlas that is compatible with Pocket Wizards (even kinda looks like them). I’ve a gut feeling these won’t be released in the USA because of legal reason, it’s still possible to order them online. At $120 a pop they shave off a cool 33% from the Pocket Wizards price. I’m currently looking to order the 4 pack for workshop reasons, and will give a review asap.
I have very limited experience with the sky ports other than using them several times for Dave Rice’s Quadra and Ranger AS systems. Most people I’ve seen used them like them as a cheaper alternative to pocketwizards for normal strobes, but a very versatile trigger for Elinchrom branded strobes. When used with Elinchrom strobes certain sky port models can change the power level of lights from the trigger, very useful when lights are up high out of the way. Also the low profile design of the Skyport makes them less intrusive. Personally I think they are pretty good looking. Seemingly it has been fixed with the new ELS Transmitter Speed model, but on some of the older models it was just slide on to the hotshoe, which is prone to slip off if the photographer isn’t careful. Dave Rice also taped over the groups slide option, as these controls were easy to hit on installation and removal of the transmitter.
Other systems including Radio Poppers, Cowboy Studio, and Phottix will be placed up soon.
This was a highly ambitious article that has taken over 8 hours of my time today already. I will cover wireless TTL systems asap. Thank you to all readers and please leave a comment. Thanks again!
This article is written based on my personal experience with flash equipment, testing, and also the opinions of friends and colleagues in the photography field. I want to give a big thanks to several photography friends who went out of the way to help me with this Post. Please visit their site and enjoy.
Many sites were used to reference information, here are a few stand out ones.
Many images on this blog post are from Google Image Search. In an attempt to credit the site in which the images were “borrowed” from, those sites are directly linked.