Friday, June 24, 2011

Radiopopper JrX Studio Review


I was looking for a dependable wireless flash solution that would allow me to adjust my flashes from behind the camera.  I considered several alternatives and ultimately decided on a Radiopopper JrX Studio.  Did it perform as promised?  What's it like to use it in real life?  Hit the jump!

A couple of months ago, I agreed to take a portrait of my co-worker's family.  It was going to be at the beach in the middle of summer.  I was also planning to use a softbox or two, which would block the sensors.  I thought it would be a good time to upgrade from my MK-RC7 flash triggers to a much more reliable wireless trigger.  At the same time, I wanted not just a "dumb" trigger but one that would allow remote adjustment.

OPTIONS CONSIDERED
I considered several alternatives, and it seemed that each system had its unique advantages and disadvantages. I chose the Radiopopper JrX system primarily for these reasons:
  • I was planning to use this for setup shots (not candid shots).  I don't need TTL as much.  Plus, in multiple-flash setups, TTL flash exposure has not been very accurate in my experience.  Moreover if I needed TTL in the future, the JrX is compatible with the Radiopopper PX (which does support wireless TTL).
  • I wanted to mix speedlights and one or more AlienBee monolights.  The JrX system would allow me to do that.
  • My budget is limited.  Not only is the JrX system itself one of the less costly wireless remote adjustment systems, it also allows me to use inexpensive old TTL flashes by Nikon (such as the SB-24 or SB-26) or Canon.  No, I can't use an all-manual Yongnuo YN-560 but those old flashes are still much less expensive than current speedlights.
  • The JrX is compatible with any camera that has an ISO-type hotshoe or sync port, leaving open the possibility of using it with a 35mm film camera or a medium format camera (or if you wanted, a high-end point-and-shoot).  It also makes it possible to combine it with other remote adjustment systems (see below).
The JrX system isn't perfect of course, and there are disadvantages:
  • Can't remotely adjust the Paul C. Buff Einstein E640 monolight.  (The PocketWizard ControlTL and Paul Buff CyberCommander can control the Einstein.)
  • Requires an RPCube module or miniplug-to-TTL cable to control speedlights.
  • Can only control 3 groups.  (The CyberCommander can control up to 16 lights!)
COMPATIBILITY
As noted above, the JrX transmitter can be used with any camera with a regular hotshoe or a sync port.  The JrX can remotely adjust:
  • any flash with a Canon or Nikon TTL quench pin* provided you add an RPCube or similar module.
  • AlienBees or White Lightning monolights
  • Zeus pack-and-head
*Note that this is not limited to speedlights.  For example, a Quantum battery-powered strobe with the appropriate Canon or Nikon TTL module can be remotely adjusted with the JrX.  On the other hand, the JrX cannot remotely adjust the Nikon SB-700 or SB-900 because they don't have the TTL quench pin as such.

This also means that even non-Canikon cameras can use a Canikon TTL flash as a slave.

USAGE

Transmitter
The JrX transmitter has a metal foot that fits the standard ISO-type hotshoe.  It stays on my camera's hotshoe just by friction.  I was surprised that there is no locking pin or knurled lockdown knob or anything like that.  Alternatively, the JrX transmitter can also be triggered via its 1/8 miniplug-type sync port, which can be connected to the sync port of the camera or another flash with the appropriate cable.

The transmitter has a power button that serves other functions.  When the transmitter is on, you can press the power button to send a test signal (also useful for dumping excess power from a monolight).  The power button can also tell you the remaining battery life.  If the power button is pressed (as in a test signal), the green LED light beside it will flash.  It flashes quickly when the battery is full, half-speed when it's half and very slowly when the battery is low.  In addition when the battery has less than 2 hours left, the LED will blink slowly.

The JrX transmitter has 3 dials on the side, one for each group that it can control.  The dials are on the left side of the transmitter.  I suppose they designed it that way so you can keep your right hand on your shutter.  Somewhat counterintuitively, the first group is controlled by the rightmost dial, and the maximum power is set when the dial is turned all the way counterclockwise.

The transmitter also has 6 DIP switches (at least they're not piano switches).  The switches can be used to set several options:
  • The first 4 switches are used to set any of 16 channels.
  • The 5th switch sets whether you want a group to be disabled when the dial is at the minimum.  This is useful for selectively turning off groups.
  • The last switch sets whether changes to power levels are set in realtime (each time the dial is turned, regardless of whether the shutter is released).
Receiver

The receiver has two ports: an RJ-11 (telephone type) jack, and a 1/8" miniplug jack.  When using the JrX to control a Paul C. Buff AlienBee, White Lightning or Zeus, you just need a phone cord to connect the receiver to the strobe.  You also need to insert a dummy plug in your strobe to disable the built-in optical slave,  otherwise the strobe will not work (I thought my strobe broke!).

To control a speedlight, you'll need a way to connect the miniplug jack to the TTL quench pin of the speedlight.  The official solution from Radiopopper is to use an RPCube that is specific to Nikon or Canon.  You insert your speedlight on the RPCube just like any other hotshoe.  The RPCube has a cable that connects to the JrX miniplug port.  The RPCube also has two extra ports - an RJ-11 and miniplug jack, which can be useful for daisy-chaining slave flashes.  It has a metal foot for hotshoes and has a 1/4"-20 insert.

However, besides the RPCube there are other alternatives:
  • DIY RPCube.
  • 3rd party equivalents of the RPCube, such as those from flashzebra and bufo1955 (note: at this time, only Nikon versions are available). What I like about bufo1955's cube is that it's based on a Nikon AS-E900, so it has two extra Nikon 3-pin TTL ports, which can be useful for daisy-chaining speedlights (see below).  On the other hand, the flashzebra cube doesn't have extra ports but does have a plastic foot at the bottom.  Both come with a 1/4"-20 insert. 
  • Some Nikon speedlights have the Nikon 3-pin TTL port, such as the SB-800, SB-80, and SB-26.  If you have a miniplug-to-TTL cable, you can connect the TTL port to the receiver's minijack.  I found a couple of sources for such a cable: again, flashzebra and bufo1955.  I haven't tested flashzebra's cable but I have bufo1955's cable and it works as advertised.
  • If you don't have a 3-pin TTL port but have a Nikon AS-E900 adapter, you can also use a miniplug-to-TTL cable to connect the JrX receiver to the AS-E900, and then mount your flash on the AS-E900.  The AS-E900 is available for just $3.95 from B&H (at the time of this writing).
Once everything is connected, you just switch the slave flash to TTL mode (not manual mode) then you're in business.

RELIABILITY
I haven't experienced any failure to trigger with the JrX.  I haven't experienced accidental firing either except for the fact that when the receiver is connected to the flash while the receiver is off, and then you turn it on, the flash usually goes off once.

The claimed range according to the manual is between 300 feet to 1750 feet, depending on conditions.  There are users who report that they have found that the SB800 emits radio interference that reduces the range of the JrX.  I use SB800s myself but haven't noticed any triggering problems.

USABILITY
Conceptually, the JrX controls are simple and intuitive.  Just turn the dial to adjust the power of each group.  For strobes, the power can be set from full power to 1/32.  For speedlights, the power can be set from full power to 1/128.

Compared to not having a remote adjustment system, the JrX makes shooting so much easier and smoother.  Without it, I need to run to each flash and adjust the power.  That can slow the pace of shooting and if you have to do it while the subject is waiting it can be a buzzkill.  (If you can setup the lights beforehand, then good for you -- until you decide you need to adjust or move the lights again...)

However, there are a couple of issues:
  • First, the scale is nonlinear for strobes (see EZset Studio scale below):
Excerpt from the Radiopopper JrX manual
  • Second, the dial is stepless and doesn't click or have any way to indicate where it's set exactly (other than a small raised dot on the dial).
Nonetheless, in practice, I haven't found it difficult to dial the power to a reasonable flash exposure.  In fact, a friend of mine tried it for the very first time and had no difficulties setting it as well (in fact it was also his first time to shoot with a Nikon and with a monolight).  It is not noticeably harder than adjusting the flash with buttons on the back of the flash.  I don't even think in my head about whether the power is 1/4 or 1/8 +1/3 or anything like that.  I just tweak the dial intuitively.

Purists may balk at this seemingly imprecise approach.  In the future, I may get a flashmeter, in which case I'll update this review based on how easy or difficult it is to get the exposure correct to within 1/10th of a stop.  Just don't hold your breath.

SYNC SPEED
The JrX does not support high-speed sync (its brother the PX does though).  However, the camera is never aware when the JrX is attached, thus your shutter speed won't be limited to your sync speed.  Well that's no use unless it can actually trigger above your sync speed, right?  Well you'll be glad to know it can be triggered at up to 1/1600 shutter speed.
D70 + Sigma 50-150. ISO 200, f/11, 1/1000. SOOC JPEG - no adjustments.
On a camera with unlimited sync speed (such as the D70 with its hybrid shutter), this can "multiply" your flash's power relative to ambient light.  In the shot above, for example, ambient was ISO 200, f/20, 1/250.  Yet we were able to provide adequate fill with a 24" shoot-through umbrella 10 feet away.  It testifies to the power of the B1600 but the shot was also made possible because we could shoot at 1/1000 shutter speed.  At that speed, ambient became the equivalent of f/10 (at ISO 200).  Shooting at f/11 we were even able to underexpose the super-bright ambient by a third of a stop while still getting enough light from the flash.

(Note: the unlimited sync speed party doesn't last forever.  At very high shutter speeds, flash duration instead becomes the bottleneck.)

Even on a camera with a mechanical shutter, the ability to trigger a slave above your sync speed can be useful if you don't need to illuminate the entire frame.

OTHER NOTES
Batteries
Both the transmitter and receiver are powered by CR123A batteries, which are not as common as I'd like it to be.  I considered getting rechargeables but went instead for disposables.  The best deal I found was on Amazon (Streamlight batteries).  It was over $2 per battery versus a rechargeable set (charger with 4 batteries) that would cost around $26.  Each battery lasts 40-50 hours of operational time.  Assuming I use 3 batteries at a time (1 transmitter plus 2 receivers), then my breakeven point is around 4 cycles, or 160 to 200 operational hours.  I think it will be a while before I reach that point.  Plus I didn't want to have to remind myself to charge these batteries.

Daisy-chained speedlights
If you are ganging two or more speedlights, you don't need to have a separate JrX receiver for each of them.  You could instead daisy-chain them.  For example, I had 3 speedlights connected on one receiver: I connected the JrX receiver via the bufo1955 cable to an AS-E900 (to which a speedlight was attached), which in turn was connected via the AS-E900's built-in TTL sync cable to another AS-E900, etc.  When connected this way, the power is adjusted for all the speedlights, not just the first one connected to the JrX.

Combination With Other Wireless Systems
The JrX can be combined with other wireless systems.  For example, I was able to use Nikon Advanced Wireless Lighting to control a slave flash while simultaneously controlling an AlienBee B1600.  All I had to do was connect the transmitter to either my camera's sync port or the sync port of my master flash.  Here are a couple of snaps with a JrX and AWL combination (bare SB-800 + B1600 with 60" reflective umbrella):



Another possibility is to combine it with the CyberCommander.  Here's one possible configuration:
  • CyberCommander mounted on camera
  • CSR+ connected to B1600
  • CSRB+ connected via stereo cable to Radiopopper JrX Studio transmitter
  • Radiopopper JrX Studio receiver connected to speedlight 1
  • Radiopopper JrX Studio receiver connected to speedlight 2
The benefits of such a setup:
  • The CyberCommander will be able to meter not only the B1600 but also the speedlights (although the speedlights triggered by the same JrX transmitter will be treated as a single light source).
  • I can use the JrX transmitter to selectively turn on and turn off certain speedlights and the CyberCommander can let me take flash meter readings each time (although only the most recent metered value for the speedlight(s) will be shown at any given time).
  • A CyberCommander alone can't control speedlights, and a JrX alone can't control an Einstein but with this combo you can control speedlights and Einsteins. =D
I haven't tried this yet but I asked the PCB tech support and they didn't see any reason it wouldn't work.  I'll update this review if and when I get a CyberCommander.

[PRELIMINARY] CONCLUSION
The JrX Studio is 100% reliable and is the most versatile remote adjustment option at the moment.  It is also an economical alternative that allows photographers with limited budgets to shoot with flashes that have the best power-to-value ratios: Paul Buff monolights and old Canon or Nikon TTL flashes.  If you're looking for a bulletproof remote adjustment system, plan to use speedlights (with or without monolights), and aren't afraid to shoot with manual flash, then this system is a great fit for you.

(As of now, I've only had the JrX for about a month so I will be updating this review from time to time.)

DISCLOSURE
I haven't received any monetary, financial, economic, or other compensation or consideration from Radiopopper or any other vendors mentioned here for this review.  I however participated in the just-concluded Radiopopper treasure hunt, under the same terms as everyone.  I also have an Amazon affiliate account and from time to time I link to products on Amazon and thereby receive a small percentage of any resulting sales (without any increase in price to the buyer). Thanks!