Originally appeared in Shutterbug Magazine, November 2007
The first time I met a wireless radio trigger was while writing a review of White Lightning® mono-lights circa 1998. The Paul C. Buff company sent a RadioRemote One® transmitter and four receivers to use with their lights. I decided to give them a try just to see what they could do. By the time I was through I had purchased the lights from Paul C. Not because I needed more lights but because I couldn’t live without the RadioRemote Ones! Since then they have become an integral part of my lighting technique. Even when I take my lights on location, which I often do, each one has a receiver permanently assigned to it.
As good as the RadioRemote One wireless radio triggers may be, every cloud has an 18% gray lining. They are only designed to work with White Lightning and AlienBee™ strobes made by Paul C. Buff Inc. So, where does that leave everyone else? Someone using Elinchrom™, Speedotron™, Profoto™? I decided to investigate and see just what was out there.
It seems I’m not the only one who has discovered the joy of wireless remote triggers. I was able to identify eight wireless remote triggers with universal capabilities, including a new one from Paul C. Buff Inc, the Radio Flash Trigger One™. The other seven are the Quantum™ FireXwire®, MicroSync™ Digital, Morris 4-Channel Radio Flash Trigger™, Calumet LiteLink™, EL-Skyport Universal™, PocketWizard PLUS® II and MultiMAX®. This list does not include those wireless radio transmitters, such as the RadioReceiver One, which are dedicated to a specific make of lights.
Radio Flash Trigger One
What all of these wireless triggers have in common is that they will remotely trigger strobe units. Some will do considerably more. I have assigned each radio trigger to one of three levels based on their functionality. The first level is the ability to simultaneously fire one or more light. The primary difference between these and either a slave device (found on most strobes made today, including hand-held flash units) or an infrared triggering device (IR) is that the radio wireless triggers do not require line-of-sight to operate. In other words, you can place one or more lights around a corner, behind you or suspend them from the ceiling—wherever—and the radio remote will trigger all of them. This can be important if you don’t want light coming from the camera position as well, which would happen if you used a slave unit. Radio triggers which fall into this first level would be Radio Flash Trigger One, LiteLink and the 4-Channel Radio Flash Trigger.
4-Channel Radio Flash
The second level of wireless remote trigger will trigger cameras as well as strobes, and can be set for remote relay firing. What remote relay firing means is that the camera can be triggered remotely along with a flash unit not connected to the camera. Without relay firing, the camera and light will both fire but they won’t be in sync. Some of the uses for this would be: A camera mounted on top of a basketball hoop with a flash unit mounted off to the side or perhaps suspended above; a remote camera placed alongside a bicycle raceway with one or more strobes positioned strategically away from the camera to light the action wherever the bike might happen to be flying through the frame. The photographer, meanwhile, may choose to be at another position further up the trail to capture the action there. Transmitters that will do this include the MicroSync Digital and the PocketWizard Plus II, as well as the level three transmitters, the PocketWizard MultiMAX, FreeXwire and the EL-Skyport Universal.
Professional sports photographers and parents photographing high school events, can attach a camera, using a Bogen Superclamp®, over a hoop, above a field, in the end zone, almost anywhere, to create images from places they can’t always be (imagine sitting in the bleachers and triggering your camera every time your team moves in to make a goal). Other sports photographers, for example, those photographing mountain biking and skiing, have been known to set up wireless triggers on a series of cameras, one set at the end of a runway in front of the athlete, two or three along the route of travel, and trigger each camera as the action unfolds.
Wildlife photographers often find themselves in a position where it is too dangerous to be near the camera, for example, photographing Grizzlies. In the case of Grizzlies, you would create a trap focus area by suspending your assistant, in a bag full of ripe cantaloupes, from a tree branch, just high enough so the bear would have to jump to reach it. You would then manually set your camera to focus just below the “bait” and wait in your Hummer® for the bear to arrive and photograph it as it leaps for your screaming assistant.
In my own case, I have been photographing Hummingbirds for years and never been thrilled with the results. As with any subject, there are problems to be solved. The first is that the feeder has to be raised up high so that the Hummingbirds will feel safe enough to use it (especially since I have five cats). That means, either build a blind eight feet off the ground and use a long lens, or get used to photographing the bird’s belly with the sky as your only background. And if you do have a blind far enough away not to frighten the birds you will need to have a flash that will throw light that far if you wish to use any auxiliary lighting for accent or fill. While this is possible (a Quantum Qflash will do the trick), it will take too long to recycle and Hummingbirds don’t wait.
I decided to try creating a focus trap using two MicroSync Digital transmitters and receivers, a Canon 5D with a 24-70mm lens and a White Lightning mono-light. In order to relay-sync the camera and a remote flash two complete transmitter/receiver sets are required. One transmitter on the camera and one in your hand as a trigger. One of the transmitters is set to Channel 1 the other to Channel 2. The camera also requires a receiver and motor drive cable and the flash requires a receiver as well. Additional lights would not require transmitters, only one receiver for each.
I began by hanging a Hummingbird feeder from an Avenger® Century-Stand (C-stand) and leaving it for a day so the beasts would become used to it. Behind the feeder I placed a dark brown muslin backdrop from Backdrop Outlet™ which I normally use in my studio. On the second day I set the camera on another C-stand with the lens aimed just to the right of the feeder. Because the MicroSync has auto power on/off I didn’t have to worry about running down the battery while I sat at a comfortable distance and sipped iced tea.
Figure 1. Focus trap consisting of a Hummingbird feeder, two Avenger C-stands,
Canon 5D with 24-70mm lens, White Lightning mono-light
and two complete MicroSync Digital Wireless Remote Triggers.
Figure 2. Hummingbird.
The third level are those transmitters which have additional or unique functions which operate universally with most systems: The PocketWizard MultiMAX, FreeXwire and the EL-Skyport Universal. All three of these will trigger both strobe and flash incorporating all of the functionality of the level two units and have additional capabilities such as the ability to delay fire strobes in sequence (MultiMAX), expose using the TTL system of the camera with multiple remote flash units (FreeXwire), or work with multiple banks of strobes (EL-Skyport). Not all three are capable of the same multi-functions so it is important to read their tech sheets to find out if what they do is what you need.
Of the level three units the MultiMAX is perhaps the most versatile. Special functions include 32 distinct frequencies including 16 which will fire multiple banks of strobes; delayed flash firing; rear curtain synchronization; 1600 foot range; quad-triggering (enabling activation of flash or cameras in four separate zones); time interval triggering; multiple flashes and a number of other functions not found on other units.
Earlier I mentioned that there were some wireless radio transmitters dedicated to specific brands of lights such as the White Lightning RadioRemote One. These offer advanced features built into the light units to work with the remote trigger. Other examples of this would be the Quantum FW7Q which is designed to work with the Quantum Qflash and the EL-Skyport RX Transceiver which works exclusively with Elinchrom RX-series lights. Using dedicated units of this kind will greatly increase the versatility of the wireless trigger providing additional light control features. Both the EL-Skyport RX and the Quantum FW7Q are able to trigger cameras as well as lights—the RadioRemote One is for triggering WL lights only.
Most wireless triggers come in sets which include a transmitter and a receiver. The receiver connects to the flash via a sync cord, household plug or mono plug. The two PocketWizards, Plus II and MultiMAX and the Calumet LiteLink come as transceivers, that is, the same unit will both send and receive. While it is more convenient to use a transceiver the down-side is that most photographers want the least expensive units they can buy and while they often only need one transmitter the price of additional receivers is nearly always less than buying additional transceivers.
For my second test I wanted to try using PocketWizard Plus II wireless trigger in a conventional studio setting. The editor of Shutterbug suggested I do a self-portrait to demonstrate remote triggering of the camera, which I thought was a great idea. I also thought it would be more interesting to include a professional model, Rochelle Ikeda, Model Mayhem #166421.
I placed the Canon 5D with a Plus II on a C-stand high and above me, carefully composed the image and stopped down to f/14 for depth-of-field. For the key light I placed a Photoflex Medium HalfDome 2® at camera left. In the doorway I placed a bare bulb WL mono-light to illuminate the left side (camera right) of Rochelle’s face and to spill light on me. By placing the bare bulb inside the door the Plus II was behind a wall and not in line-of-sight.
The set-up required four Plus II transceivers, one on the camera, one each on the lights and the trigger. I set the Plus II on relay firing and triggered the camera remotely. This is a classic situation in which a radio transmitter is invaluable. The camera is out of my reach (even if I weren’t modeling for the image), and at least one light can’t be fired wirelessly by any other means (a cable would have to be run through the door to fire the strobe without the transmitter). By using the wireless transmitter I could compose and focus then assume my position in the scene and trigger everything from behind the wall.
Figure 3. Self-portrait with model Rochelle Ikeda;
Canon 5D with 24-70mm lens;
four PocketWizard Plus IIs;
2 WL mono-lights with Photoflex Medium HalfDome 2.
Wireless radio triggers have advanced tremendously over the last 10 years since I first began using them. While not every photographer needs to use a wireless radio trigger, for those who do there value is inestimable.