Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Flash Series - Part 4: Triggering Your Hotshoe Flashes + eBay RF Trigger

Welcome to the fourth part of the flash series, we've already discussed some of the Canon flashes, home made flash gels and reviewed the Rogue grid. Today I am going to talk about how I trigger my flashes, and my experience with non-branded cheap triggers. Click on to read more.

One of the things I was excited about when I upgraded my 550D to the 60D was the wireless flash capability, I saw it first in the 7D and thought that was the best feature of the new camera, but now it's getting more common since it's available in the mid-level 60D and the entry-level 600D, way to go Canon, we need it in every camera!

Prior to the 60D I have bought some cheap Chinese RF triggers which I used on the G11 and the 550D, as expected these only worked in manual mode, so if I wanted wireless TTL I'd use my 580EX as the master flash to trigger my 430EX, (I didn't have the 580EX II back then), so using the 580EX on camera meant that I only have the not-as-strong 430EX to move around freely.

Later on I decided to get an E-TTL cord, and when I bought the 60D I had yet another alternative, so here goes my experience with these different alternatives, I will discuss each triggering method, state the pros, cons and the burst performance. What I intend to show with the burst performance is how fast this triggering method is able to fire the flashes when I'm shooting in burst mode, it is important for me because when I am taking photos of my kids they are moving very quickly, and I am usually using servo focus and high speed shooting.

DISCLAIMER: I am not a working photographer, I don't gain a single pound from photography. I am just your average hobbyist. What I am going to discuss might or might not be of relevance to working photographers who will surely need reliability and consistency in triggering flashes, I am only discussing this from the "better family photos" point of view.

EBAY RF TRIGGERS:

Chinese Trigger - Front View, 2 hotshoe flashes, an umbrella socket and 16 channels

Chinese Trigger - Back View, 2 hotshoe flashes, an umbrella socket and 16 channels

I am calling them eBay triggers but I didn't get them from eBay, I bought them in a local camera store, they are non-branded and the system consists of one transmitter and one receiver. I call them eBay triggers because I saw people buying and modifying similar triggers from eBay, they used to call it the poor man's pocket wizard. As can be seen from the pictures, you can fire two flashes connected to the same receiver simultaneously.

I bought two of them (~ $40) so I have two transmitters and two receivers, when I tested using one transmitter to fire both receivers it worked very well, but when I connected my flashes (430EX and 580EX) they ceased to fire, then I remembered the Canon radio interference issues so I kept changing the Tx and Rx channels until both flashes were working reliably.

PROS:
  • Wireless flash triggering, no line of sight issues.
  • One receiver can fire two flashes simultaneously (useful with high speed sync and strong sunlight).
  • Has an umbrella socket, although it has no screw to hold the umbrella in place.
  • Has a standard tripod mount.
  • When mounted on a tripod, the flash can be swivelled up and down.
CONS:
  • Manual flash only, no TTL.
  • Lots of misfires when the batteries start getting empty, they need to be either always charged or you have to use non-rechargeable batteries that can keep their charge when the triggers are not used for a long time, the Sanyo Eneloops solved this issue for me (they only lose 15% of their charge in one year).
  • One of the receivers started getting wonky, it refuses to turn on until I remove the batteries and insert them again.
  • They suck batteries when forgotten in standby, if you packed it away when it's switched on it will empty the batteries in less than 24 hours.
BURST PERFORMANCE:
  • My 60D can shoot 5.3 frames per second, with the flash set at 1/128 of it's power (so that the flash recycling is not the limiting factor), I got one shot with flash and one without, i.e. half of the shots went without flash.
WORKING DISTANCE:
  • It is firing reliably up to 11 meters before it starts misfiring, there are also some hacks that add an antenna to the transmitter to increase the range, but since I am using flashes mainly indoors this is a non issue for me. If you check the new Pocket Wizards description, you'll find that they only guarantee up to 10 meters reliability with the Canon flashes.
MAXIMUM SYNC SPEED:
  • 1/250th of a second which is my camera's limit, no issues as long as the batteries are charged.
  • High Sync Speed (HSS) doesn't work with this method.
 
EBAY TRIGGERS + MASTER FLASH:

Sometimes when I need to fire both my flashes and one of them is far away from me, I will use the wireless trigger to fire the 580EX, which acts as a wireless master to fire the 430EX, this way I can adjust the 430EX settings remotely from the 580EX.

Pros, cons and burst performance are exactly the same as the triggers alone.

WORKING DISTANCE:
  • For the wireless trigger it's the same, but to fire the slave flash wirelessly using the 580EX as a master you will need the slave flash to see the master flash's head.
  • I have never tested the outdoor performance (hardly use them outdoors) but I never had an issue indoors, even if the master flash head and the slave flash sensor are looking in opposite directions. The pre-flash bounces of the walls and reaches the slave.
MAXIMUM SYNC SPEED:
  • Here's the big downer using this method, because of delay issues (wireless triggering the 580EX then the 580EX wirelessly triggering the 430EX) I can't use shutter speeds above 1/160 sec if I'm lucky (usually 1/100 sec), otherwise the slave flash output will be greatly reduced, which means that I will only catch part of the slave flash firing before the shutter curtains close. Bummer.
  • HSS doesn't work here as well.

ON-CAMERA MASTER FLASH:

This one requires a flash which can act as a master, which in my case is the 580EX, you can disable the output of the master flash, use it as a fill flash or bounce it somewhere (if shooting indoors).

PROS:
  • Slave flash can work in TTL or manual mode.
  • Wireless triggering on the cheap (provided you already have a master-capable flash).
  • You can control the slave flash totally remotely from the camera's menus.
  • The slave flash will follow the master flash settings even if it doesn't have these options on it's own (modeling flash, stroboscopic mode, 1/128 minimum power, 1/3 stop increments, etc...).
  • You can control several groups of flashes, power ratios, etc...
CONS:
  • Slave flashes need to see the master's head, otherwise they won't trigger (not that strict in most indoors situations).
  • You lose the master flash (acting as a trigger only) when you're not bouncing it or using it as a fill.
  • The camera becomes much heavier with the flash on top when all you need is to trigger other flashes.
  • When triggering another flash, to my horror, I discovered that part of the pre-flash occurs during the actual exposure, which results in non-desirable catch lights and it also adds to the exposure, try it in front of the mirror and see how bad it is, here's a post dedicated for the problem, and another for the solution. One quick solution is to use HSS.
BURST PERFORMANCE:
  • Provided that the recycling time is not an issue, the flash was able to fire at the full burst rate of my camera, very important to me.
WORKING DISTANCE:
  • I didn't test it outdoors (might do this weekend), Canon's manual states 8 meters outdoors, for indoors I have no issues at all up to 10 meters.
SYNC SPEED:
  • 1/250th of a second (camera's X-sync speed).
  • HSS works great.

TTL CABLE:

Pearstone 2m Coiled TTL Cable
Using a TTL cable is exactly similar to the flash connected directly to the camera, so you get all the benefits of the on-camera master flash, but the flash is now off-camera, and you have more freedom to move it around and place somewhere useful. The only con would be that you now have a wire that you need to take care of.

I bought the Pearstone 2m TTL cable from B&H because it is cheaper than the Canon one and also longer, there was the 10 meter version (works with Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Fuji and Samsung cameras!), but I recognized that it will be too long and fussy for normal usage. I am not using this cable a lot since I got the 60D.


CAMERA WIRELESS MASTER:

With my purchase of the 60D, I am able to use the camera's popup flash as a wireless master with no need for a master capable flash in the hotshoe, and you can set everything directly from the camera's menus.

PROS:
  • Slave flash can work in TTL or manual mode, this is wireless TTL.
  • No need for a special master flash, a special commander (ST-E2) or any sort of trigger.
  • You can control the slave flash totally remotely from the camera's menus..
  • You can control several groups of flashes, power ratios, etc...
  • No heavy flash on top or a cord or anything, you feel free to move about and the camera weighs less.
CONS:
  • Slave flashes need to see the master's head, otherwise they won't trigger (not that strict in most indoors situations).
  • Same issue with the pre-flash occurring during the actual exposure, which results in non-desirable catch lights and it also adds to the exposure, try it in front of the mirror and see how bad it is, here's a post dedicated for the problem, and another for the solution. I mentioned that it can be solved using HSS, see the next point.
  • Unfortunately you can't use HSS at all with the popup flash as the master, which is very limiting if you want to use a hand held umbrella for example, you have to use a master capable flash or a TTL cord.
  • After several pops, the flash bulb heats up and it prevents me from firing (busy message in the viewfinder and the LCD) until it cools down, it can take up to 10 seconds before you are able to shoot again!!!
  • Using the popup flash consumes the camera battery.
BURST PERFORMANCE:
  • Very bad, since the recycle time of the popup flash is very slow, I am getting something like 2 fps.
WORKING DISTANCE:
  • I doubt that it would be good outdoors provided the low power of the popup flash, but never tried it.
SYNC SPEED:
  • 1/250th of a second (camera's X-sync speed).
  • HSS doesn't work (see the cons).

OTHER METHODS:

The other triggering options that I know of but I don't own are the optical slaves and the radio TTL triggers.
  • Optical slaves are very useful in manual flash, David Hobby has made two posts about them, the Nikon SB-800 and SB-900 have a built-in optical slave which is great to have when you're not using intelligent triggering methods.
  • Radio TTL triggers are the best, but they are very expensive, many pros are using them because of their great reliability. Mic might discuss them in a future post.


CONCLUSION:

So, to sum everything up, here's my own preference:

  1. My first option would be the radio triggers (especially outdoors), whether they are TTL or manual.
  2. Next option would be a master flash on-camera, provided you have enough flashes and are shooting outdoors (because of the HSS).
  3. Otherwise I'd use the popup flash as a master.
  4. The last option would be the TTL cable. But if I am shooting portraits and want to avoid the catch lights caused by pre-flashes, then this option would become number 2 after the radio triggers.
Please feel free to ask any questions in the comments section.



RELATED POSTS

Flash Series - Part 1: Canon Speedlites Chat (580EX II vs 580EX vs 430EX)
Flash Series - Part 2: Home Made (DIY) Gels & Gel Holder
Flash Series - Part 3: Rogue Grid Review