Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Let there be Light! Part Two

The classic low tech optical slave and perfect backup when hi-tech Radio slaves goes wrong

Now the big problem with having so many strobes in your lighting kitbag and moving them away from the hotshoe (strobist style), is how do you trigger them?  Back in the day, sync cords and optical peanut slaves were the only viable option and as long as you had line of sight and watched where you stepped, these worked OK, alas with said limitations.

The ubiquitous PC flash sync cable
Now I still would NEVER leave home without a means of manually triggering my flash using either of these two methods. Why? Because they are a simple, reliable and cheap way of remotely triggering your flash when other more modern methods go belly up. For backup alone they have earned their place in my arsenal of lighting equipment and have saved me more than once. Ironically I use both methods in my new Photo Booth, as it just works, all the time, every time.  

If on the other hand ( you don't own a photobooth and) you want to bring your off camera flash photography up to a new level, then as good as sync cables and optical slaves are, these are not the way forward.  Sooner or later manual triggering with lengths of wire and optical slaves that can't see round corners (and trust me on this, it is pretty time consuming going back and forth, setting up flash #1 then flash #2 & #3) is just going to cramp your style and get in the way of those creative juices.  This brings us nicely to the freedom and the technical wonder of modern Radio Slaves and inevitably the industry standard in remote off camera triggering, The Pocket Wizard.

The legendary Pocket Wizard

The Bowens Pulsar.

At the time that I was putting my original kit together (after I had left the employ of Trident Communications), money was tight and I had to make it stretch and as good as Pocket Wizards were amongst my peers (and special mention must go out to Neil Turner), I just couldn't justify the expense to either myself or my wife.  Pocket Wizards were and are an arm and leg to procure but they worked, straight out of the box, all the time, every time. Looking back now, Neil was right and I would have been better served saving my pennies a little longer and getting a basic set of PW's but even the cheapest PW options came with strings attached. For a two light setup, you would have needed  two receiver units, one for each flash and a transmitter unit for the camera. And god forbid if you lost the transmitter unit because that would  have landed you up in a boat on a very stinky creek without a paddle and without a means of sending a radio signal to the receiver units. If that wasn't bad enough, add to the equation that this option was at least four to five times more expensive than anything else on the market and you could see my dilemma. The Pocket Wizards were truly the Rolls Royce amongst radio triggers and an essential tool to any photographers kitbag but way too rich for the likes of me.  What I actually ended up with was a set of four Bowens Pulsar transceivers (the difference being that each unit were in theory, both capable of sending and receiving an encoded radio signal). Alas they were no Pockets Wizards, not even close. Apart from sitting flat in the hotshoe where the PW's would be poking out your eye, these Pulsars were more miss n miss than hit. It took many trips to Calumet's Euston store in central London and one very memorable trip to Bowens UK HQ and factory in Clacton on Sea for me to finally get the Pulsars to work (kind of) when they were attached to my studio strobes or my Lumedyne kit.  Even now, ironically I wouldn't recommend using them as a radio trigger solution as they were originally designed by Bowens. Rather I would purchase one of these: A Bowens Pulsar Transmitter unit. When you think of it, it's kind of a step backwards, along with all the limitations that implies but it does work and works well, just don't loose the transmitter!

The Bowens Pulsar Radio Transmitter. A step backwards?
Radio slaves were great when they worked (apart from PW's which always worked) and could be used anywhere within reason and working tolerances but both the early Pocket Wizards and the Pulsars along with other makes had two BIG disadvantages.

1. You couldn't adjust the output of each of your flashes remotely via these devices.
2. They were (and still) attract the attention of those more sticky fingered amongst us (especially in an Event Photography environment, where if they weren't nailed down, they would walk and I've known of many a PW to have taken that long walk into somebody else's kitbag). Sharon once caught some tea leaf red-handed trying to remove one of our Pulsars while we were shooting an event in Swiss Cottage. Said "leaf" wasn't so pretty after Shaz had finished with him.

My solution (to keeping one eye open) was to ditch the Pulsars altogether and consign them to strobist duties and purchase some very simple and cheap "in line" radio slaves from Photomart and ebay. As long as I had access to mains power, (which equated to 99.9% of the event photography jobs that I attended) these radio slaves were for me a no brainer. They were often known as ebay slaves, because they were dead cheap, even cheaper than the Pulsars (as in throw away cheap) and they only came in two flavours. They either worked or they didn't. Plain and simple. Better still, they were very hard to steal when working as part of an event photography studio because of the fact that they were mains powered and phyiscally attached to the strobe. Even if they did go walkies, they were easy and cheap to replace.

Mains Powered "In Line" Radio Slaves.
Alas these in-line radio slaves were only really usable with mains powered studio strobes and you still couldn't adjust the power output remotely but when they worked, oh mama! They took a licking but just kept on ticking. I keep several sets in my lighting kit bags and again I wouldn't leave home without them but like all things, technology moves on.........This time to a little known ebay entity called Yongnuo.

Yongnuo! Nothing short of a giant killer!

After the death of my wife and the start of my recovery in South Africa, I decided that I wanted to update my then elderly Vivitar 283 based strobist kit with something a little bit more modern. It didn't take too long for the Yongnuo YN 560 Mk2 to come to my attention because quite frankly it ticked all the right boxes. It was a manual only battery powered strobe just like my Vivitars (but unlike my Vivitars because of it's very low voltage output it wouldn't fry anything attached to it). It could be triggered any which way you liked, either via a simple dumb PC sync cable or at the other end of the extreme, a intelligent radio slave (more about this later). Last but not least it even came with a built in intelligent optical slave. Anyway you cared to look at the Yongnuo, it was quickly becoming a viable alternative to the Vivitar in a whole heap of ways, especially given it's rather contra dictionary excellent build quality and low low retail price. 

The best part was yet to come, in the shape of the Yongnuo 622c radio slave. I didn't know it at the time of purchase (I paid a little over a £100 for a set of four transcievers) but these slaves were set to become massive game changers in the field of  radio triggers and when I say 'massive" I mean Pocket Wizards. Why? Because Yongnuo had finally figured out a way of  bringing the concept of reliable radio triggering and putting it within the reach of mere mortals like myself. With the Yongnuo YN 622c the ordinary Joe no longer needed to burn a hole in his pocket in order to keep up with the pro's. You just plug n played and it works 99.99% of the time! I would hate to be the one to survive on the difference between a Yongnuo 622c and any Pocket Wizard in terms of outright performance and reliability but for the majority of jobs that I do,  it simply wouldn't be an issue. Where once I would think twice before bringing a Pulsar along on a professional paid for shoot, I would have no problems whatsoever with the 622c. You have to forget about the price and simply regard it as straight up bit of professional kit! But wait there! The 622c is a radio slave that just keeps on giving.

The Yongnuo 622C Radio Tranceivers or PW giant killers?

If you attach the 622c to Canon's later series of DSLR's (50D onwards) you are able to access a function which comes as part of it's drop down menu to remotely control any compatible externally mounted off camera flashguns (eg: the Canon 580EX mk2's). In short, you can now remotely control both light output and light ratio's of both compatible Canon and Yongnuo flashguns from the back screen of your DSLR. WOW! No more wasted shoe leather going back and forth, setting this and checking that. You need high speed sync. No problem! Not enough light and your camera can't focus. Yongnuo once again comes to the rescue with a nifty little focus assist LED so you can dig yourself out of that black hole.  Along with a couple of Canon 580 EX Mk2's and Yongnuo YN 560 Mk2's  you can now build yourself quite a kick ass off-camera flash system for very :little money. Chuck in a couple of sets of Sanyo Eneloop rechargeable AA batteries or a Godox external power packs and you're good to go but you don't have to take my word for it: (update: 25/09/2015, I no longer regularly use the Yongnuo 560mk1's or mk2's speedlights, even though I still own them because I had made a mistake in their original purchase. You see both the Mk1 and Mk2 versions of the Yongnuo 560's only came with a single pin hotshoe (as opposed to the multi pin hotshoes found on ETTL enabled speedlights), which meant I couldn't remotely control the 560's from a YN622c radio trigger.  Yongnuo was to later fix this with the introduction of their third generation YN560mk3.  I  now use a couple of these instead: The Shanny SN 600sc speedlites. Again more later on this recent development. The older 560's are now used with my Fuji X-system, so nothing was wasted.

The Shanny SN 600sc Speedlite (please note 'sc" and not "c")


I now wouldn't touch the Canon 600 EX RT with a barge pole but you can make up your own mind as well as do the maths. Just in case the prospect of digging into your camera's back screen menu isn't to your liking, Yongnuo have just introduced (at the time of writing this blog) a 622c TX which moves all the functions that you would have found in the drop down menu to a much more accessible LCD panel mounted in the hotshoe on top of your camera. I haven't tried it yet but from all the reports that are coming back to me, I am optimistic that I won't be disappointed. I cannot stress just how BIG the arrival of Yongnuo has been to the world of remote flash and camera radio triggering. In the space of a little over four years they have managed to totally change the name of the game forcing others such as Pocket Wizard, Pixel King and Bowens to respond and I for one think that this can be nothing but a good thing.........(Update: Recently I've found that the Yongnuo 622c-TX together with the Shanny SN600sc speedlight works a treat with my new baby, the Fuji X-Pro 1 but more about this later, but keep away from the Shanny SN600c as it's simply a piece of crap that will let you down sooner rather than later).

The Yongnuo YN-622c TX

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