Wireless Flash Triggers Compared
Wireless flash trigger technology changes almost daily, so periodic updates are necessary to keep abreast of the latest devices and trends. This article is adapted from a video course update provided by Photographer Phil Steele at SteeleTraining(dotcom).
Starting at the low-budget end of the spectrum, the venerable Cactus V2s trigger has now been replaced by a newer model, the Cactus V4, which introduces several improvements in physical design. It also replaced the previous CR2 receiver battery with the more commonly available AAA battery, a great idea, since it’s easy to accidentally leave the receiver turned on and run the battery down.
Also in the low-budget space we have the Chinese Yongnuo RF-602, the latest in a series of inexpensive triggers from this company. Internet reports indicate good reliability, but as with all inexpensive triggers, build quality may be questionable.
A third low-buget option is the Cowboy Studio flash trigger currently being sold on Amazon.com in North America. Readers are encouraged to read Amazon reports from users with camera equipment similar to their own, since the reliability of all these systems can vary when paired with different camera gear.
Finally, many UK readers are reporting success with the iShoot Wireless PT-04 trigger, widely available on auctions sites, but also being sold on Amazon UK, making it a popular choice there.
In all cases, Steele recommends that readers seek out triggers that use readily available batteries in their receivers (such as AAA) rather than specialized batteries such as the CR2 which are not as easily obtained in the field for emergency replacements.
Moving up to gear designed for professionals, or amateurs with big budgets, the first category to consider is the sync-only radio triggers. These synchronize the flash with the camera shutter, but do not offer through-the-lens metering of the flash power.
The longtime industry standard in this category is the PocketWizard Plus II system. These large sync-only triggers have a solid reputation among professionals for reliability and range under all kinds of field conditions. For photographers with the budget for them, Steele says there is little reason to seek any other brand of sync-only trigger.
However, for those on a lower budget there are slightly less expensive alternatives which still represent a big step up from the low-budget triggers described above.
The Cybersync trigger by Paul Buff (sold by Alien Bees) costs significantly less than PocketWizards, typically about half the price, but its reputation for reliability is not as well established. As with all of these systems, your mileage may vary, so look for reports by users with camera gear similar to your own.
Another pro-level system priced below PocketWizard is the Elinchrom Skyport Universal system. Elinchrom also makes TTL trigger systems for their dedicated line of studio flash units, but the Universal system can work with any brand of flash.
The Skyport has a good reputation for reliability, but according to Steele it has one drawback that prevents it from being a contender for his use. The Skyport uses a built-in rechargeable battery in its receivers, which is economical, but which makes it impossible to replace a discharged battery in the field. If you shoot in a studio where you can plug the unit in, this may not be a problem for you.
Moving up from the sync-only triggers we reach the state of the art in radio flash triggers, those offering Through-the-Lens (TTL) metering of the flash output power.
Steele ranks two systems as serious contenders in this space. The first is the PocketWizard ControlTL system, the latest offering from the company which has long been the leader in sync-only triggers.
The ControlTL system has many slick features and does everything you could ask from a TTL trigger system, giving you tremendous control over exposure from single or multiple flashes. It even improves on the native performance of the Canon flash system, increasing the sync speed and boosting performance with clever digital processing tricks.
However, at the time of this writing, there is one drawback to the PocketWizard ControlTL system with Canon flashes. Some of the Canon flash units put out a lot of radio noise, which unfortunately falls into the same part of the spectrum used by the PocketWizard triggers. Some Canon users report poor reliability as a result, although the makers of the PocketWizard system claim that recent improvements have largely fixed these issues. As this article is written it remains an open question based on Internet reports, and readers are encouraged to do diligent research and obtain the latest reports from users before committing to this system with Canon flash gear.
The other contender in the pro-budget category for TTL radio triggers is RadioPopper. This system takes a different approach and, rather than directly interpreting the commands sent by the camera’s hot-shoe to the flash, it creates a radio bridge between the master flash and the slave flashes. This of course requires sacrificing one of the flash units which might otherwise be used as a slave.
The RadioPopper system could be viewed as an enhancement to the built-in wireless system offered by both Nikon and Canon. Both of those camera makers offer built-in wireless flash triggering, but with limitations: there must be a line of sight between the master and slave flash, the distance cannot be too great, and lighting conditions must be favorable (for example, outdoors in bright sunlight can be challenging because the flashes use pulses of light to communicate).
RadioPopper has essentially removed these limitations by replacing the line-of-sight light communication between flashes with radio communication.
If you like shooting with the built-in wireless system provided by Nikon or Canon but are frustrated by the limitations, then the RadioPopper system may be for you.
Summing up, Steele says that if he were starting today on a low budget, he would favor the Cactus V4. On a pro budget and seeking rock-solid reliability in manual sync-only triggers, he would choose the PocketWizard Plus II. And for high-budget TTL triggers, he would try RadioPopper until PocketWizard gets the bugs out of the Canon compatibility in the new ControlTL system.