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Wireless Flash Triggers (aka Radio Slave Triggers) Compared

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Video Transcript

Hi, Phil Steele here. Welcome to another photography Q&A. And today we have a big subject because I'm going to try to cover all the available contenders for off camera flash radio triggers. And I'm going to try to keep it somewhat contained. I'm not going to talk about triggering your big studio lights with these, even though most of these triggers will work both on small flashes or big lights. But there's plenty to say, even just focusing on doing off camera flash with small Speedlite style flashes. And before I plunge into that I want you to know that if you're into this kind of photography I have an entire video course on my website at called "How To Shoot Professional Looking Head Shots And Portraits On A Budget With Small Flashes" where you can see me actually do this kind of photography in the field with live models using these radio triggers. So if you're into that, feel free to check it out.

All right. So let's plunge into this. I'm going to divide it into two categories--a low budget and a pro budget. And I will start with low budget first. Now I have used the venerable Cactus V2S system, which was sort of the first big contender in the marketplace on the low budget end--these little Hong Kong made systems that are around $30--and that one has worked very well for me, as well as something in the low budget price range will. They're not entirely reliable but I had enough success with that that I could recommend that or even better, Cactus has come out with a newer version called the Cactus V4, which is reported to be an update of the V2S. I haven't used it but from what I've read it's an improvement in many ways, especially they have replaced the CR2 watch battery style battery in the receivers with a newer AAA battery system. So it's easier to replace when the batteries go dead. You can just pop out to a 7-11 or maybe you have some in your fridge of the AAA batteries and you don't have to have the weird little CR2 battery. They have also improved the range from about 30 feet to 100 feet and made some other design improvements. So from what I'm reading, the Cactus V4 system sounds like a big improvement and sounds like a good way to go.

In this low budget space, again, these are all around $30 kind of range. There is a Chinese system called "Yongnuo" and it sounds very much like the Cactus V4, looks like a similar design from reading internet reports on it, looks like it has good reliability--at least as good as you can get with these small, cheap systems. There is another one that I've seen on Amazon, coming out from a place called Cowboy Studio. It also looks very similar to the Cactus and the Yongnuo system. You can read the reviews of it on Amazon and I encourage you to read reviews, especially from people who use camera equipment similar to yours because your mileage may vary with all of these systems. Haven't used that one but again, you can read the reports on Amazon. It looks like some people are using it very successfully.

And finally, I am hearing from my customers in the UK good things about one called iShoot Wireless. Now apparently this is widely available on EBay but it's especially popular in the UK because they're selling it on the Amazon UK. And I've also seen good reports about that. Again, it looks very similar to the others.

They all seem to be kind of clones of each other in this range or near knockoffs. So I encourage you to do your research, specifically look for people who are using camera equipment like yours and see what their experience is with these systems because it can vary from camera maker to camera maker with the different setups. And in particular among these, I would look for one that has the receiver batteries as some kind of readily obtained battery as opposed to a really specialized battery because those do tend to run down, especially if you forget and leave them on. So that's the low budget end.

Now going up to the pro budget level. There are sort of two categories within the pro budget also. There is the older style of what we call "sync-only," meaning it will synchronize your camera shutter with the flash and the industry standard there has long been the Pocket Wizard Plus2 system. That's these guys here--these tall Pocket Wizards that are kind of annoying in the way they stick up from the camera. But they are incredibly reliable and that's why they've been the industry standard for a long time. I use them successfully and they work well and there's hardly any reason to consider anything else if you have the money. But if you don't have the money there are a few options that cost a little less.

There's one called Cyber Sync by Paul Buff, sold by Alien Bees. It costs about half of what the Pocket Wizards do but from what I've read the reliability is not up to Pocket Wizard standards and again, your mileage may vary. It depends on what kind of camera system you're using and all kinds of other factors. But my feeling is if you're only going to save half the cost, I would probably go with the industry standard--the Pocket Wizards. There is another one made by the Swiss company Elinchrom, which is their Skyport Universal System. All of these are still sync-only systems. You're using your flashes with manual power settings--not through the lens metering.

So the Elinchrom is a third in the options for the sync-only systems and from what I've read about that one, it's good, reliable, widely loved. It has one big disadvantage though, in my book. And that is the receivers for the Elinchrom use a built in rechargeable battery. And that rechargable battery, if it goes dead when you're out in the field shooting, well, there's no way to just open it up and pop another battery in. You need to take the thing and plug it in somewhere and recharge it. And that, to me, is a huge strike against it. Now if you're shooting in a studio where you can plug something in--not so bad. But for that reason alone, I probably wouldn't go with the Skyport, even though it costs kind of like the Paul Buff system, about half of what Pocket Wizards do.

So stepping up from the sync-only systems--radio systems--we go up to the top of the line, which are the through the lens metering--the TTL radio trigger systems. And there are two main contenders here, in my book. There is the new Pocket Wizard system, which is called Pocket Wizard Control TL, which uses a little transmitter called the "mini" and a receiver called the "flex." And this looks on paper like the ideal system. They not only do everything you can imagine doing to… have through the lens metering just like when you have your flash on your camera. They have even improved on various aspects of what the cameras and the flashes can do together by souping-up some of the features. So it looks really cool. There is only one catch, which is with the Canon flash systems--and I am a Canon shooter--there have been reports of unreliability with this, probably caused by the fact that some of the Canon flashes put out a lot of radio noise and it happens to be radio noise on the same frequency spectrum that the Pocket Wizards in North America work on. If you're outside North America you may not have these issues. So while some people are saying that these new Pocket Wizard Control TL through the lens metering systems are great, there are a lot of people who have had trouble getting them to work reliably with the Canon flashes in particular. So until they get the bugs worked out of that system, I may not spend the huge amounts of money to go up from the old, sync-only Plus2 Pocket Wizards that I'm using to that system.

Now there is one other option that I think is a serious contender in the through the lens metering radio triggering and that is the one called Radio Popper. And Radio Popper takes a very different approach and a pretty clever approach to this. They really have a way of sort of bridging the built in wireless system that both Canon and Nikon use with their flashes. This system you can use without any sort of radio triggers where you require line of sight between the flashes and they can't be at great distances but you have total through the lens control, having a master flash controlling slave flash and it works pretty well if you've got the right conditions. Well, what Radio Popper has done is made a radio bridge between the master flash and the slave flash so that you no longer have that line of sight requirement and you no longer have the distance requirement. You can put one around the corner in the other room and use these things as if you were using that built in through the lens wireless system that the camera manufacturers created, which is really cool but it has its limitations. Well, Radio Popper has found a way to take away the limitations. And it's not cheap, you know? It's another expensive pro price kind of system. But if you like shooting with the built in wireless systems from Canon or Nikon, then the Radio Popper may be just the solution you need if you have been frustrated by the limitations in that built in system and you want to get rid of those limitations but still have all that kind of control.

So anyway, that's the basic breakdown. Just to sort of recap, if I were starting today, what I would probably favor… If I were on a low budget I would probably go with the Cactus V4. If I was on a pro budget and wanted extremely reliable with manual sync-only triggers I would go with the Pocket Wizard Plus2. And if I wanted very reliable through the lens metering I would probably try the Radio Poppers until the day when Pocket Wizard gets the bugs worked out of their new flex system, in which case I'll probably upgrade to that. So anyway, there you have it. I'm out of breath so now I'm going to go have a beer.