Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Getting Trigger Happy

I've written this post to tie in with my latest article in D-Photo magazine.
I have been provided with a regular segment in the magazine dedicated to flash photography.

Most of what I intend to do this year will rely heavily on Off-camera flash, and I thought it wise to make flash triggers the focus of my first article of the year.

In the past few years I have become increasingly addicted to the versatility and creative power of Off-camera flash. (OCF)
OCF uses your camera’s speedlight as a light source – a far more affordable and portable alternative to studio lights.

The aim of this post is to provide a succinct source of information on triggering options.
Photography can be a very costly hobby, and buying a pricy piece of gear that does not quite do what you'd hoped is a rather painful experience.

More info after the jump.

Why learn to use Off-Camera Flash?
• Photography with impact depends hugely on the creative use of light.
• Though there are exceptions, the light produced by a flash sitting on top of your camera is mostly flat and lifeless, and does nothing to flatter your subject.
• Being able to move your light source relative to your subject creates magic.
• Most photographers already own a speedlight. The simple act of purchasing a means to trigger it off-camera will open up a range of new creative options.
• Couple that with any one of the many light modifiers available for off-camera speedlights (umbrellas, softboxes, gels, grids, snoots) and you’ll realise that OCF is a tool that can truly unleash your creativity and vision in a big way.
• Learning to control light (and shadow) WILL do amazing things for your photography.

However, it all starts with getting your camera and flash to communicate with each other.

Considerations when purchasing triggers.

Aside from your budget, there are generally only 2 major considerations when deciding on a trigger:

1) Wired vs Wireless
A physical connection between flash and camera can be created using cords/cables, or you can opt for the freedom of wireless triggers (infra-red/radio wave)

2) TTL (Automatic) vs Manual
TTL triggers take a lot of the guesswork out of flash photography, and allow your camera to determine what it feels is the correct flash output no matter where you place your flash.
TTL triggers also allow your flash to retain functions like high-speed sync and second curtain sync.

Triggers without TTL capability require a sound understanding of flash exposure and the variables that affect it.
However, once mastered, they are exceedingly straight-forward to use.

*You may already be able to trigger your flash off-camera and not know about it!
Many digital SLR’s have the ability to use the camera’s pop-up flash to trigger a slaved speedlight.

Each particular method has its own unique advantages and disadvantages.

Cable/Cord Connection
Fairly inexpensive

Tripping hazard.
Limited by cable length.
Entry level radio triggers are only slightly more expensive.

Infra-Red Triggers
Some units can also trigger studio lights.
Good range

More expensive than entry-level radio triggers.
Line of sight only.
Unreliable when used outdoors in bright sun.

Radio Triggers
Not restricted to line of site.
Some units can also trigger studio lights.

Must have a transmitter on-camera and a receiver on every flash.
Many versions are camera-make specific.

Deciding on which trigger to buy can be a difficult decision, and will be influenced by budget, the need for TTL capability and whether you require an option that will also work for studio strobes.

The list below is FAR from comprehensive, but provides both Wired and Wireless triggers with Manual and TTL options, as well as some options for the budget conscious.

(Please note that as a photographer from New Zealand I have focussed on triggers that are readily available locally.
I have also not included the Pocketwizard Plus II or Multimax units. These are amazing units, and absolute stalwarts in the industry, but not units that I possess.
Anyone seeking information on these can easily find it on the web.

I've included some newer models on the list made by Pixel. These are more affordable triggers that were loaned to me by APIX Photographic in Auckland to assist with the D-Photo Article.
OCF use is blossoming, and this increased interest there is an explosion of new products on the market, the Pixel range being a good example of this

Cable Triggers.
Non-ETTL - PC Sync cord.
-These cords can be obtained in various lengths, and are fairly inexpensive.
-However, they are cumbersome, and unless you already possess one (most likely as part of film photography gear) it would be better to invest in an entry-level radio trigger.

ETTL - ETTL cord
-Brand-specific ETTL cords can be quite pricy.
-These are widely used by photographers who have mounted their flashes on camera brackets and therefore need a means of connecting camera to flash whilst retaining ETTL functionality.

Infra-Red Triggers.
Non-ETTL - IR Transmitter.
-Avoiding these triggers is almost a no-brainer - they are much more expensive than lower end radio triggers.
-Paying less to avoid the disadvantages of Infra-red triggering doesn't take much thinking.

ETTL - Use a Master Flash
-This is potentially a good idea if you have the funds for it.
-Having a second flash is good for redundancy, but also means that at some point, when you do purchase dedicated triggers, you have 2 potential light sources.
However at 4 or more times more expensive than an entry level set of radio triggers, depending on which unit you purchase, it may also end up being a no-brainer.

ETTL - ST-E2 Flash Transmitter
-Being a Canon shooter I have to highlight this unit.
-Nikon's version is the SU800 Wireless speedlight commander.
-A good option to be sure, but once again, the drawbacks of using IR can quickly lead to frustration if you end up doing most of your shooting under conditions where IR transmitters are less than effective.

Radio Triggers.
Non-ETTL - Pixel Pawn
-At present, this is what I would call a useful entry-level radio trigger, and the trigger I recommend to my workshop attendees who are looking to get started with OCF.
-At around NZ$130 it certainly doesn't come close to the +-$800 price range of the Radiopopper or Pocketwizard units.
-It also has the ability to act as a wireless shutter release.

Non-ETTL - Pixel Opas
-A little pricier than the Pawn, these are essentially imitations of the Pocketwizard Plus II units.

Non-ETTL - Elinchrom Skyport
-These were my original OCF triggers, which I already possessed when I got started learning OCF. (They are my studio light triggers)
-Not really much of an option as a first line OCF trigger, unless you already possess them or are considering purchasing studio lights.
-My intention has always been to upgrade to Elinchrom studio lights, and this unit will allow me to adjust the power output of the studio strobe from the camera.

ETTL - Pixel King
-Pixel's imitation of the Pocketwizard Mini and Flex, at roughly a third of the price.
-I've had a chance to play with these units, and they seem to function quite reliably.
-However, the poor English of the instruction manual does little to inspire confidence, though these may be a viable option for radio ETTL on a budget, if you're willing to risk the financial outlay.

ETTL - Radio Popper PX

-These units seem to be loved by every photographer I know who uses them.
-Essentially, it intercepts the signal from the camera that controls the remote flash and transmit this to the remote flash using radio waves, which overcomes the limitations imposed by whatever creates the signal. (Line of sight, distance)
-The downside to this is that you need to have something with ETTL capability on the camera generating a signal. (Usually a second flash or an ST-E2 transmitter/similar)
-Very reliable and easy to use, but more likely to be bought by photographers who possess a second flash or other form of IR trigger.

ETTL - Pocketwizard Flex and Mini
-These units are fairly expensive (+- NZ$800 for the transmitter and the receiver), but allow ETTL OCF without the need for a wireless transmitter or second flash on the camera.
-From experience I have found that the biggest headache initially is learning how to set them up and use them.
-They also don't turn off automatically, and the batteries will run down if they are not turned off after a shoot (Which I forget to do from time to time).

What I use, and why.

My interest in OCF began after I had purchased my first set of studio lights.
I was getting more confident with lighting, but, as I had purchased entry-level monolights, I pretty soon found myself frustrated by the inability to use my strobes outside of the studio.
It was then I started looking at using my speedlights off-camera to overcome this problem.

Initially, I opted to get started with as little expenditure as possible, and as I already had a set of Elinchrom Skyports, these became my first set of triggers.
Truth be told, I was exceptionally happy with them, initially.
But as I've mentioned above, there are certain things that ETTL triggers allow you to do, and it was this functionality that led me to purchase the triggers I currently use - the Pocketwizard Flex and Mini.

Essentially, I invested in these triggers to allow me to use High speed sync as Fill-flash for action photography.
(I've written an extensive blog post on that process here)

My current go-to triggers are still the Pocketwizard Flex and Mini combo.
I have sinced purchased the AC3 Zone Controller, which allows me to adjust flash output from the camera, in either Manual or ETTL mode.

The unit has the ability to control up to 3 groups of lights (A, B and C), which are selected on the receiver.
I then have the ability to use the speedlight in either Manual (M) or ETTL (A) mode. (I can also choose not to fire the flash [0], which allows me evaluate the effect of the other light/lights in the setup)

Exposure compensation (-3 stops - +3 stops) in ETTL, or Flash Power (1/64 - 1/1 Power) in Manual are controlled by a dial on the base of the unit.
The addition of this small accessory has made life so much easier, and I honestly enjoy my OCF work a lot more because of it.

I hope this information has been of value.
Getting into OCF can be quite a daunting prospect, but I guarantee it will yield amazing results once you get started.

Feel free to pop any questions you may have into the comments.

Happy flashing

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