Flash Triggers: Which One is Right for You?
Thank you for listening to The Photo Flunky Show, episode 39. I discussed a number of Flash Triggers in this show, each with their own pros and cons.
Choosing a flash trigger depends upon a few variables. Cost is one of the obvious factors, but you may not even need the most expensive trigger on the market for your purpose. Other factors include which camera and flash system you use, whether you need TTL control to change flash power, and if you're going to be around other photographers using flash triggers.
If you need to fire a camera from a distance, some of these triggers will do that job for you, but most won't.
In this episode, I discuss everything to trigger your flash, from a basic cable and optical slaves to some of the most advanced flash triggers on the market.
I mentioned a number of products during this episode. Below are some affiliate links to the products on Amazon. If you found this episode helpful, I appreciate it if you make a purchase through one of my affiliate links. It adds no cost to you, but does provide a small commission to help with expenses for the site and podcast here.
As always, I stand behind any product I recommend. If you have any questions or issues with a product I've recommended, please reach out to me on the Contact page and I'll help you with it.
PocketWizard Plus III
PocketWizard Plus X
PocketWizard FlexTT5 for Nikon
PocketWizard MiniTT1 for Nikon
PocketWizard AC3 Zone Controller for Nikon
Yongnuo Transceiver Pair for Nikon
Nikon 4765 SC-28 TTL 9-ft. Remote Cord
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THE PHOTO FLUNKY SHOW
Welcome to the Photo Flunky Show, episode number thirty-nine.
Today’s topic: We’re going to be talking about flash triggers, from slaves to pocket wizard mastery. Stick around!
Hi, thanks for joining me on the Photo Flunky Show. My name is William Beem and it’s just going to be you and me today.
You can find show notes available at williambeem.com/episode39 and of course there’s a transcript of the show there for free. Just go ahead and send your email address, tell us where to send it to you.
You can find links there or also at photoflunky.com, along with all our other episodes.
When we talk about flash triggers we’re talking about one thing, and this is going to be a really basic episode. We are talking about devices that will cause your flash to trigger. So if we are looking at off camera flash, you need some way to make the flash fire. If the flash is on your camera then you’re going to get a trigger coming from that hotshoe; that’s just by default. There is a little bit of an electrical signal that says when I hit this shutter, you fire. That’s it.
But what happens once you take your flash off the camera? Then you need something else that will help you go ahead and trigger that flash.
The most basic thing is going to be a cable. On one end it triggers to your hotshoe on the camera and the other end your flash. So it sends the trigger signal going through that cable to your flash. You are still wired; it’s off your camera, but it’s probably limited to the length of the cable and for most of us that might be the length of your arm. It is kind of unlikely that you are going to have that going too far, because it gets in the way. It gets kind of constrained when you are tethered with a cable.
The next thing that you’re going to look at is possibly something called an optical slave. This happens when the flash fires, based upon another flash going off. So there may be a flash on top of your camera that fires for the signal directly and when it goes off, the optical slave will cause other flashes that are within the line of sight to trigger.
This is something that’s really basic. I know when I was a kid I had a little electronics kit and there are little optical eyes there and you just kind of connected some of the wires together to make the circuit that when it triggered, something else happened. That is all that’s really going on here. There is a little optical slave just waiting for another burst of light to come on and trigger it.
The problem with that is it’s really going to be only a manual setting and it has to be within line of sight, so it can’t be hiding behind a wall someplace to trigger unless you’re bouncing light around or something.
Basically, there has to be some kind of line of sight where it can see a flash happening and it’s going to be a manual setting. In other words you can’t change the power of the flash; you can’t do anything based upon your exposure. You set the flash power. You set it up someplace and when a burst of light comes through it goes off. That simple.
A step above that is something that’s called – this is for Nikon cameras – the Nikon Creative Lighting System. It is a remote wireless system and it’s not exactly just optical slaves. It’s a little bit above that because there are signals coming through that still must be in line of sight, but you can control power and output of your flash based upon signals metering through the lens, going to the flash and saying, OK I need you to output this much flash power.
It’s a pretty good system for something that is optically based because you can control different groups. In other words you can say Group A, I want you to fire a stop above what I’m going to have Group B fire. So your lighting on your background for example, may not be as strong as the lighting that you’re going to put on your subject.
And so long as you’ve got a line of sight, so long as the burst of light can come out and give it a signal, you are good. And you don’t necessarily need to have a flash on top of your camera. For some cameras like Nikon D700 you have a little pop up flash and you can put that in manual mode. That little pop up flash doesn’t really light your subject; it just sends off enough light to signal the other Nikon flashes and tell them what to do.
And of course there are other devices that Nikon sells that will go on cameras like the more professional ones for like a D5 that don’t have a pop up flash. It will have a commander module that goes up there and it will send a signal off to these other devices.
Going above that, what you’re looking at getting into is radio triggers. The beauty of radio triggers is that you are probably going to get more distance. The Nikon CLS will go quite a way, but first off, it’s Nikon based. If you are a Canon shooter or any other brand, it doesn’t really do you any good.
The other part about radio triggers besides the distance is the fact that they are radio. They don’t have to be within line of sight. You can hide your flashes around the corner of a building. You can put them up in the rafters. You can put them places that maybe you need a background light that radiates up, but you don’t necessarily have to have the flash within the shot. So that’s actually a pretty good thing when you’ve got a radio trigger.
The signal will still permeate wherever you need it to go. There are a few different types of radio triggers. They can come in very cheap; they can be very basic and they can get up a little bit pricier, but also have a lot more capability.
So let’s talk about a few of them.
For my studio strobes I’ve got Elinchrom lights. They come with Elinchrom Skymaster and it sits in your hotshoe, but it doesn’t really get so much from that. It’s a trigger and it’s still going to send electronic signals when you hit the shutter. You’ve got more control, so you can separate your lights into groups and you can also control the power on that little Skymaster trigger in tenth of a stop increments, from its lowest setting to its highest.
In other words, you don’t have to go climb up and change the power setting on your Elinchrom strobes and do that manually, which is a real pain! Sometimes you get the light way up there and you’ve got to go and pull your light stand down or pull your C-stand down, change the light, put it back up and hope you get it in the same spot that you did before, just because you wanted to change the power of the light.
The nice thing about these is they are radio, they work in groups and zones and they let you adjust the power of the light. They are not through the lens. You’ve got to do this manually to change it.
It’s pretty convenient. You can stay in your spot as a photographer and control your lighting.
There are other brands that will do the same thing. I’m pretty sure that most of the major brands will have a simple wireless radio trigger like this that will work for you.
If you want to do this with flash you’ve got a few options there.
The one that I like and use the most is a Pocket Wizard Flex TT5 and Mini TT1. Basically this is a little pair of a transceiver and a receiver. So the transceiver means that it can act as both a trigger and a receiver. So the Flex is the transceiver. It will do everything. You can just buy the Flex version – and it doesn’t matter which one you pick – you can go ahead and put them on all your flashes, on your cameras and it will do what you need. The Mini is only a receiver, but the nice part about the Mini is it costs less. So if you have five flashes and one camera, you need at least one Flex and then you can put Minis on all of your other flashes, and now you’ve got control.
However, it does a bit more than just fire your trigger. It will also work through the lens with your metering. So just like the Nikon CLS does, this will let you do a change of power of your flash to keep you from having to go through and manually set each one of them. It is extremely convenient. Again, if you’ve got a light on your subject and maybe you’ve got some rim lighting and then your background light, you can change those individually.
To do that you have got one other piece you’ve got to buy. I think it’s called an AC3 and that sets up your zones and lets you change your lighting on there.
I love this. It is rock solid, it’s reliable. Pocket Wizard is probably the premier name in radio triggers and they’ve got them for Nikon, Canon and as far as I know that’s all there is. I haven’t looked to find out if there is more. But if you’ve got a Nikon or Canon and you are wanting to shoot with flash and you want the same kind of studio strobe control that you would have, like I mentioned with my Elinchroms, as well as the control that you have with the Nikon CLS remote, this is to me the best thing to have.
If you are on more of a budget there are a number of budget transceivers. Pocket Wizard has one called the PlusX. There are others though that were already on the market. Pocket Wizard came to it a little bit late.
Yongnuo is one and Phottix is another. Mostly these are kind of dumb triggers. Basically all they are going to do is fire. They are not going to control your exposure for you at all, so you have still got to go ahead and make changes to your flashes manually. The PlusX is a transceiver. Yongnuo has a combination. You can get a transmitter and a receiver or you can get a transceiver pair. But the difference is the cost. If you want to get a pair of transceivers for Yongnuo it’s going to run you about $78. If you want to get a pair of PlusX Pocket Wizard transceivers, it’s going to run you about $170 retail prices.
There are other brands. Phottix has a transmitter receiver pair that runs about $130. You can kind of go back and forth with how much you’re going to spend. You can save money off of the Pocket Wizard brand name, but you’ve also got to decide how reliable you need it to be.
These are beginner to intermediate budget things. They are good, they work; some of them are a bit more reliable than others. I found the Pocket Wizard to be extremely reliable. I haven’t worked so much with the Yongnuo. I’ve had a little bit of experience with them.
For the most part they work. I did find a couple of circumstances where some friends were working with them and they didn’t fire when they should have. Maybe that’s a little bit of the trade off. How serious is your shot?
If you are working with a model and you might miss a shot, well you can go back and recreate it. On the other hand, if you are photographing an event like a basketball game and you’ve got lights up in the rafters and you need that shot to work every time, I’d go with the Pocket Wizard.
Speaking of which, if you are going to be shooting events, particularly if there are going to be a number of other photographers around, I think you really want to go with the big daddy. And that is going to be the Pocket Wizard Plus3. These days it is about $150 retail. You can probably find it for a little bit less, but it does everything you need it to do.
Like I said with some of the other ones, it is a transceiver and it can transmit and receive and most of the time that’s exactly what you’re going to be doing when you’re shooting with off camera flash. However it has a number of other modes that you can really get tricky with these things.
Not only does it have a really great range, but you can change it to be transmitter only. You can change it to be receiver only. And if you’re going to be working around other photographers, there are a number of channels out there and you kind of want to be able to isolate what you are doing from what they are doing.
You don’t want to trigger someone else’s flash when you are shooting. So sometimes you may want to do those transmitter and receiver only.
It has a long range mode and basically what that does is it might slow down your sync speed a little bit, but it will go the maximum range of the radio for an environment; and we are talking hundreds of feet.
It has a repeater mode. So if you need to fire a flash further away than what the range of that is, you can set another Pocket Wizard in between and it will repeat the signal that it gets from your transmitter and send it along to the receiver.
If you need to shoot really fast, it has a high speed receive mode. Some of the sports photography that you need to do, you’ve got a burst mode on your professional cameras, up to 12, 13, 14 frames per second. Well in high speed receive mode your flash will keep up with you. So long as you’ve got battery power to your flashes, this transmitter will fire up to about 14.5 frames per second.
That is wonderful speed. It’s going to keep up with all the professional cameras. So long as your flashes have got good, strong battery power and they can recycle quickly enough, you are not going to miss a shot. That is key in some event photography.
Don’t underestimate this next one.
The antenna for this is entirely within the Plus 3. In other words you are not going to bend it, you’re not going to break it, you’re not going to screw it up. This is a nice, solid, sturdy, durable case.
It has a backlit LCD and the nice part about this is if you’re shooting at night and you need to see what you’re doing, you can tell there. Some of these other triggers don’t have anything on them that shows up as what your settings are. You’ve got to pull out a little pocket flashlight and do it and that’s going to probably ruin the atmosphere around you and it means you are taking your eye off your game.
It’s a handy little thing to have that little backlit LCD so you can have a quick look at something in poor lighting conditions.
You can set it up for assignable zones and when it’s on, you can set it up for four different zones and again, for sports shooters, you may have a different requirement for what’s up in the rafters, what’s up on the sidelines and wherever you are going to be shooting. There is a little USB port on it so you can upgrade firmware and change it around.
And the last thing I want to mention about the Pocket Wizard Plus 3 – this is going to sound like a simple thing – but it has little screw locking cords. In other words you don’t just plug in a 3.5 mm jack and you’re done with it. It actually screws in.
That means your cables aren’t going to be coming loose when you are connecting this stuff. You can set this Pocket Wizard Plus 3 up not just for your flashes, but they can also trigger your camera. So if you are at a football game and you are shooting there, you may have a camera mounted someplace, you’re standing off to the side, you’re shooting over here and then the magic of the game moves on, but you’ve got a camera on the other side. You just hit the Pocket Wizard in your pocket and it starts firing your other camera. That is a wonderful little gift to have.
It’s not just for off camera flash. It will fire your camera as well as your flash.
I hope that helps you out. It’s just a little detail to go over the different kind of ways that you can trigger your off camera flash.
What works best for you is dependent upon your needs and how much of a budget you want to put into it.
If you are going to have multiple flashes and go for the Pocket Wizard Plus, $150 each, you’re kind of adding up to what you’re doing, but you are also getting a lot of reliability. And the nice thing about the Pocket Wizard Plus 3 versus the X is it’s going to have a much stronger, much more robust transmitter. And that’s the one that you want to choose if you are going to be in an environment with plenty of other photographers and that way you know that you are going to get your flash firing and it’s not going to be triggered by someone else’s device.
Thank you for joining me on the Photo Flunky Show. I appreciate you.
If you enjoyed listening to this, you can find show notes available at williambeem.com/episode39 and of course there is a transcript of the show there for free.
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Thank you very much everybody! We’ll see you next week.