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Thursday, December 1, 2005

Gadget Bag: Wireless Tools For The Outdoor Photographer

New technologies cut the cables and give us expanded creative options


Wireless Tools For The Outdoor Photographer  Although photography is my medium of choice, I’ve always admired the simplicity of the painter's toolbox. Canvas, brushes and paint—it doesn’t get less complicated.

As photographers, we're increasingly burdened with an array of highly technical tools and the spaghetti system of wires that connect them. Digital photography has added even more cables to the tangle, and you might be feeling like the wires are closing in.

If necessity is the mother of invention, we suspect convenience to be its father. Recent advancements in wireless technology have improved and expanded the wireless options for photographers who work with flash, solving practical problems in the field for sophisticated lighting setups, but also making flash easier to use in less-demanding situations. New products have improved the reliability and range of wireless flash solutions and allowed the miniaturization of components to help lessen the load we carry in the field.

Wireless technology is also helping to cut the cords in the post-capture process. Wireless Fidelity, or WiFi, lets us build networks at home or in the studio, which offers many possibilities for more convenient photo storage, management and editing. More recently, camera and printer makers have begun to offer models with WiFi capability built in or available as an option, further reducing our umbilical dependencies.

Wireless Flash AndCamera Control
While not new in concept, wireless flash and camera triggers have come a long way in recent years. There are three basic types of wireless flash systems: optical, infrared and radio.

Optical triggers were the first and remain the most basic and affordable solution for wireless flash. A small sensor on the slave, or secondary flash unit, detects the firing of the master, or primary flash unit, that's typically connected to the camera body, either via a cable or hot-shoe. When the slave detects the master flash, it triggers simultaneously. Although generally reliable, optical triggers do have limitations. The slave flash must be close enough and angled appropriately to the master flash to detect when it fires, and bright sunlight or the flash of nearby photographers may cause problems.

Infrared systems have an advantage over other triggers in that two-way communication is possible between the master and slave units. This enables the camera and all flash units to work in harmony, and some systems are even capable of sharing exposure information and allowing you to adjust the output of slave devices from the camera, a feature unique to infrared thus far. Infrared allows greater working distances than optical triggers and is a more reliable solution in general. Like optical triggers, though, infrared requires line of sight between master and slave units for the system to work properly. Like the remote control for your television, the sensor only works within a limited range of degrees from center.

Radio triggers are the most reliable of the wireless control technologies. They don't require line of sight between master and slave units and can operate over far greater distances than optical and infrared devices. These solutions also allow you to fire your camera remotely—indispensable for photographing timid subjects such as nesting birds. Like all optical triggers and some infrared systems, however, you'll have to do your own metering calculations for each slave flash and make manual output adjustments. Radio systems also require carrying additional gear—unlike IR solutions built into the flash head, you'll need a transmitter for the camera and a receiver for each flash.

Wireless Flash Solutions
Canon Speedlite 580EX and 430EX flashes have IR wireless capabilities built in. Pair them with Canon EOS cameras for full E-TTL control. You can arrange an unlimited number of flash units in up to three groups for main, fill and background lighting effects with custom settings for each group. Attach either a Speedlite 580EX or the Speedlite Transmitter ST-E2 to your camera's hot-shoe to serve as the master control. Estimated Street Price: $389 (580EX); $279 (430EX).

Several of Nikon's flash offerings, including the SB-600 and SB-800 Speedlights, feature IR wireless i-TTL technology. The SB-800 functions as the master and can control up to three groups of as many SB-600 and SB-800 Speedlights as needed in each group. Most functions of the SB-600 can be controlled remotely by the master SB-800. Alternatively, photographers using the Nikon D70s and D50 digital SLRs can opt to use the camera's built-in Speedlight to control slave units. Estimated Street Price: $319 (SB-800); $189 (SB-600).

The Sigma Electronic Flash EF-500 DG Super is compatible with many of the most popular cameras' wireless flash systems, including models from Sigma, Canon, Nikon, Pentax and Konica Minolta. Estimated Street Price: $149.

The Konica Minolta 5600HS(D) and 3600HS(D) flashes also can offer wireless slave capabilities when paired with the Maxxum 7 and Maxxum 5 35mm SLRs. Estimated Street Price: $299 (5600HS); $159 (3600HS).

The PocketWizard MultiMAX is unique because a single unit can serve as a transmitter or receiver at the flip of a switch. Control cameras and flash four groups from up to 1,600 feet away. Inter-valometer capability is built in for time-lapse work. Estimated Street Price: $295.

The MicroSync Digital from Tamrac is an amazingly small wireless solution for simple remote flash- and camera-triggering within a 100-foot range. You'll need adapter cables to connect the receiver to your flash. Four-channel operation protects against interference and misfires. Estimated Street Price: $299 (kit includes one transmitter and receiver; additional receivers retail for about $179).


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