Entering the World of Wireless Flash Technology

Entering the World of Wireless Flash Technology


If you are an avid reader of DPS, you have probably gleaned that many of the professional photographers that contribute are relying more and more on wireless flash technologies.

Wireless Flash Image by Pieter Baert

Wireless Flash Image by Pieter Baert

There is so much to be gained from getting the flash off your camera, losing that boring straight at you lighting, and moving it about the room or venue at which you are shooting. Well, if you have yet to venture into the realm of remote lighting, here is some good news. Being a somewhat early and rapidly advancing technology now might be the perfect time to jump in. When you decide to cut the cord, there are three popular choices for you to consider. Here we briefly introduce recent product releases from these big players and hopefully arm you with some additional information to help you decide where to go.

Choice #1: Nikon/Canon built-in wireless

Chances are you may already have a camera and a flash that has some wireless functionality built in. If you have never experimented with wireless and directional lighting this would be the place to start. Usually this is accomplished by having one flash be a controller attached to your camera hot-shoe. Other compatible unites would be placed around the room and would be triggered by the controller flash. Worried that you aren’t knowledgeable enough to dial in all your remote flashes to get a proper exposure?

Not to worry. These systems feature TTL metering. This is a method in which the camera intelligently measures the light in the scene based on the light coming through the lens. It’s the same flash metering system you’re used to with one on-camera flash. The camera is smart enough to meter the subject, do some quick calculations and then tell each remote flash how bright they should fire. This is great for dynamic situations where the lighting or the subject is changing and it makes for the easiest way to setup and start shooting quickly. Did I mention this is the most affordable way to get into off-camera lighting?

So you’re sold on this setup, right? Well there are some limitations to their proprietary systems. There are three. First is range. Because the Nikon/Canon flashes are communicating with infrared light, (as opposed to radio signals) you will need to have your remote flashes in line-of-sight of the controller flash. Secondly it means there will be a distance limitation since that infrared light will only travel so far before it becomes to weak to communicate with the remote flash. The final drawback is that, as these systems use TTL flash, they generally won’t be able to keep up with a sports shooter blazing along at 8fps. This is no different to the limitation you find using TTL flash on camera though, so it can’t be considered a problem with the wireless system per se. If you are a fellow nikon user, a new book was just released that covers the basics. In the end though, whether you are using Nikon or Canon, there are some very powerful options there.

Choice #2: RadioPopper

Until RadioPopper came along there was no good solution for using TTL with off-camera lights, unless you stuck with what was offered through the camera manufacturers. With some extremely clever engineering that we won’t get into, the folks at RadioPopper took TTL and married it to radio communication and created a new hybrid product. They didn’t sit still long and are now back with a completely redesigned offering called the PX. It boasts 1500 feet of range, sixteen unique channels and if you are using high speed capable flashes (called FP flash for Nikon) then you can sync at 1/8000th of a second. Wow! Rather than go through all of it’s features, check out the video below. As Radiopoppers are transmitting the TTL signals though, you will have the same limitation on frame rate as you do shooting with a TTL flash on camera.

Choice #3: PocketWizards

PocketWizards have been the choice of professionals for some time. They are extremely rugged and can communicate at huge distances and will support insanely fast sync speeds as well (if you use a medium format camera with a leaf shutter for example, then traditional PocketWizards will let you sync with manual flashes at effectively any speed). Used with flashes set manually (i.e. not using TTL) then radio triggers like PocketWizards will keep up with all but the fastest framerates too, making them great for photographers shooting action. What they have been missing however is that quick and dirty TTL metering that is nice to fall back on in a pinch. That is, until now. Tired of missing out on the TTL action they just released their new offering called the PW Flex and the PW Mini. They kept all their trusted reliable features and packed in a whole lot more including what they call ControlTL, effectively providing the same functionality as the RadioPoppers described above. These new offerings will be sure to keep this one of the top choices available. Again, check out the video below to get the full scope of what’s in store.

I know others have mentioned finding more affordable yet capable such as the Cactus Trigger which has a growing fan base and is much cheaper than the products above. I haven’t used any of these personally, and I’m sure we’d like to hear some user reviews. Hit us up in the comments and tell us what you use.

Updated for accuracy – Thanks to DPS reader Matt Cope for clarifying some of the info here. If you’d like a more hands on type of wireless article, let us know.

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Chas Elliott is a freelance photographer in the Northern Virginia and DC area. See more of his work at www.chaselliott.com.

Some Older Comments

  • sonicboom December 27, 2011 06:49 pm

    Not to diminish the greatness of Nikon and Canon but how come most photo magazines and websites such as these don't recognize how great Pentax is with its current models and its features such as wireless flash capabilities? I know it's obvious the big two have majority of the market shares but don't count out pentax there's a lot of us Pentaxians out there we believe Pentax is just as great and will have a bright future. Can't wait for the new K-5 successor.

  • sonicboom December 27, 2011 06:42 pm

    Wait a minute, wait a minute...Pentax has wireless flash capabilities in their cameras and flashes...I've had the K200D and upgraded to the K-7 both had wireless flash options to the Pentax FGZ-360 and 540. Pentax doesn't boast about it unlike Nikon and Canon in their marketing schemes and Pentax technology is just as great as the big two, it's underrated but great that's why I'm sticking my loyalties with Pentax.

  • Eric December 17, 2011 07:01 pm

    Yeah, surprised Sony isn't mentioned, given that Minolta (now Sony) invented wireless flash a decade before Canon and Nikon finally caught on...

  • MicheleF December 16, 2011 06:37 am

    Is it possible to pair a wireless flash with a wireless remote? Do they stack on top of each other or is it a one or the other choice?

  • steve June 15, 2011 02:16 am

    I just got a screen protector from xoskins for my 5D. Will these work with that camera? If so I found my next accessory. That and a glidecam

  • Mark Cullenane March 27, 2009 12:31 am

    A Pro friend I have used cactus triggers and found them to be very unreliable even in direct line of sight with limited range, and almost unusable when the out of line on sight.

    Both my friend and I have both purchased multiple sets of Pocket Wizards and have found them to be very reliable over large distances this means we can use them to fire multiple 580EX2 Canon flashes and Studio Strobes to light large building interiors this set up works very well alowing us to shoot major events as a team. this lets us use one set of strobes to light the room with off camera lighting without having to worry about getting in each others way.

    As a bonus the pocket Wizard is much lighter on the camera than and more flexible than a single on camera flash, particularly when you are carrying multiple cameras for several hours.

  • Bert Shure March 10, 2009 01:59 am

    Thanks for the article. I have a Canon Rebel XSi and Powershot G10, along with a Canon speedlite.

    Will either camera fire the flash remotely with infrared, or do i need to buy the Canon wireless adapter?



  • Michael March 7, 2009 03:05 am

    This is quite possibly one of the best posts ever on DPS. Thank you.

  • WolverineX March 6, 2009 11:56 pm

    it's funny how everybody disregards Olympus and it's ability to control up to 5 wireless units divided into 3 groups, not only with newer models of dSLRs but also with ultra zoom point & shoots like SP-560UZ and newer

  • AA March 6, 2009 08:04 pm

    I have had great success with my Cactus V2s triggers that I ordered from gadgetinfinity.com. I have yet to have a misfire, but I must say that I don't use them at great distances either. Build quality isn't that great but they work. For a non working photographer like myself there's just no justification for the Pocketwizards or anything else.

    Cactus are also releasing their new improved V4s in a week or so which will retail for around US$40 for a receiver and transmitter.

    Also you missed out the Elinchrom Skyports and AlienBee Cybersyncs

  • stephen March 6, 2009 10:41 am

    Sigh, I was hoping this article would be good and have some decent tips. But it didn't cover anything beyond "hey, these things exist! They're neat; look into them more, but not here at DPS."

  • Jenn Lee March 5, 2009 11:23 pm

    In regards to the Alien Bee/Paul C Buff Cyber Sync's I read a few comments above about the flash sync speeds with Nikon SLRs that I thought I might add test tips on.

    When experimenting with high speed sync speeds...a D300 would only get a shot that wasn't cropped by the shutter at 1/320 with the triggers. The 1/8000 high speed sync available in CLS does not work with triggers. When experimenting with the D70S...it can go to 1/2000 without any problems with the triggers.

    The Cyber Syncs are as sturdy as the Pocket Wizards, yet smaller/more compact. The easily pushed power button can be easily fixed by keeping them in a case that keeps them from banging around (I have four + the transmitter + three pc hotshoe adapters in a case that doesnt take up any more space than a SB-600 carry case in my bag) The CSRB transmitter doesn't lock into the hotshoe, but it fits very snug, so IMO there is no issue about it not locking into the hotshoe.

    The Cactus had issues of not firing consistantly. As well as being very flimsy mounted to a flash & lightstand. Also being made the way they are, they are easily cracked and unstable when mounted to a light stand.

    We tested the range on the Cyber Syncs, and out in a field, were able to extend past the 400 ft. limit with no problems. Inside a building we were able to trigger them through four walls at approximately 250 ft. We would have liked to try it from further but ran out of walls and hallways in the house.

    I purchased two CSRB Transmitters + six CST receivers = $539.60 before shipping....not too shabby IMO.

  • Chase Adams March 5, 2009 09:23 pm

    low shutter speed (no tripod) + petzl headlamp + icy leaves & limbs = http://www.chaseadamsphotography.com/portfolio/lightsoutoverlynchburg1.php

    When you look at them it's kind of hard to make anything out of them, but there are some of a pine tree where the needles were frozen (1-3 & 6), my friend smoking a cigar with my headlamp on (4 & 5) oak leaves, and an A & W rootbeer can stuck in the remains of a tiki torch (15-17).

    My headlamp is one of the most important pieces in my kit...It kept me from stumbling off the edge of a pile of boulders late one night when I was trying to get some shots of stars.

  • Dennis March 5, 2009 06:33 pm

    It seems everybody is forgetting optical slaves. At EUR 8,00 or USD 10,00 it's definately a cheap option. and reliable too 9except for bright sunlight and around corners). But still; definately the cheapest option.
    http://www.dealextreme.com/details.dx/sku.2321 this one even works with red-eye reduction.

  • Danne March 5, 2009 06:31 pm

    I've used the radiotriggers from Cactus for over a year now, and I must say that they work really good for beeing so cheap.

    Yes, sometimes they trigger the flash unintentionally, and sometimes they don't trigger the flash at all, but at 98% of the time, thet do what they are supposed to do.

    I would recommend them to anyone that don't want to spend alot of hard earned bucks och PocketWizards or such.

    I use them alot, and some sample images can be found at http://www.carlbomphotography.com/blog/2009/02/att-fota-med-extern-blixt-udda-sjalvportratt/ (text in swedish)

  • Martin March 5, 2009 06:03 pm

    I have a set of Cactus V2 triggers, and reviewed them here.
    Although they're cheap, they are very good value for money, and I can definitely recommend them to anyone who wants to get their flash off the camera's hot-shoe, but doesn't want to spend a lot of money!

  • Chas March 5, 2009 04:49 pm

    Chase: Sounds cool. Do you have shots posted somewhere?

  • Chase Adams March 5, 2009 02:05 pm

    I hate to say it, but with the economy on the fritz, and only REALLY getting into what I do, I use a Petzl Tikka headlamp for lighting. If you're wanting to get some really cool effects, it works well. I have a collection where I went out with a headlamp after an ice storm at 2 in the morning and got some really crazy abstract photos. It's not really sophisticated, and probably highly frowned upon by anybody who knows what they're doing, but boy is it nice to use the headlamp (read $30) I already have to get some really cool lighting effects.

  • Chas March 5, 2009 12:55 pm

    Wow... Ok, some blunders there on sync speed issues. I feel sheepish. For those of you who would like the technical details explained fully, this link should suffice:


    Thanks for the corrections everyone.

  • Kevin March 5, 2009 10:37 am

    What about Elinchrom Skyports?

  • Alan March 5, 2009 08:22 am

    I too have a Nikon D40, and use the Cactus v2 triggers with my SB-600. It works well for my use and is very cost effective since photography is only a hobby for me. I could see the Pros using triggers with more range and more reliable though.

  • Lars March 5, 2009 08:18 am

    "The second limitation is what’s called sync speed. If you are firing your camera at say 1/500h of a second or faster, there is just no way the camera can talk to the remote flashes and time their firing accurately with this system."

    This statement is simply wrong. The challenge is how to illuminate the entire sensor when the focal plane shutter only exposes the a part of the sensor when the flash fires. As @chuck writes, the D70 uses an electronic shutter (and a mechanical shutter for lower sync speeds), and this eliminates the problem the focal plane shutters have with high shutter speeds.

    On higher than usually 1/250th of a seconds the entire sensor is *not* exposed to the flash light. Nikon solves this with their Auto-FP High Sync mode that fires the flash multiple times so that the entire sensor is exposed with the light from the flash. The great thing about this is that it is possible to use shutter speeds of up to 1/8000th of a second. The drawback is that you must either use a wide(er) aperture or use multiple flashes.

    I did some testing with three Nikon speedlights and added the test images to Flickr (with descriptions):

  • Deirdre March 5, 2009 07:33 am

    I have a Nikon D40 and wanted to do this on the cheap. I read a lot of bad reviews of the Cactus transmitters, so instead of going wireless, I took my speedlight off-camera the old-fashioned way -- wired. Neither my D40 nor my SB-600 speedlight have sync ports, so I bought adapters for each of them and a long cord to go between them. I now have to use my speedlight on manual (will not work with TTL), but I am not finding difficult at all. I'm pretty amazed at the photos I am getting by just moving my flash off the camera.

    I'll probably try the cactus at some point, but I am quite happy with this set up. It's very reliable!

  • Matt March 5, 2009 07:10 am

    This article is rather misleading in parts.

    1) The second limitation is what’s called sync speed. If you are firing your camera at say 1/500h of a second or faster, there is just no way the camera can talk to the remote flashes and time their firing accurately with this system.

    Nikon CLS (infrared TTL control) is able to sync up to the fastest shutter speed of the camera. You get reduced power (because the flash is pulsing) but there is no problem with the speed. Straight wireless triggers on the otherhand will usually be limited to the sync speed of the camera (usually 1/200-1/350), often a little slower due to tranmission delays.

    2)the PX. It boasts 1500 feet of range, sixteen unique channels and can sync at 1/8000th of a second.

    Radiopoppers extend the range of CLS (or the Canon equivalent) through radio. You can only sync at 1/8000th if the camera and flash both support focal plane (pulsing) flash. I.e., Radiopoppers just do what CLS does, if one is limited to 1/500, then so is the other.

    3) PocketWizards have been the choice of professionals for some time. They are extremely rugged and can communicate at huge distances and feature insanely fast sync speeds as well.

    Again, the only way PWs can support sync speeds faster than the nominal speed of the camera is if they are relaying TTL Focal Plane control signals. It is only the very newest PWs (the Flex and Mini) that are capable of this.

    The upshot of the above, is don't decide against CLS because it "won't be able to communicate quick enough". That is just not true. However, if you need radio (i.e. not short distance/line of sight control, then look at one of the other options.

  • Paul March 5, 2009 06:16 am

    Wireless TTL isn't just for the "big guys". :)

    Pentax also have wireless TTL capabilities with the AF360FGZ and AF540FGZ flashes. All of their current DSLR lineup (K2000/K-m, K200D, K20D) can use the pop-up flash as a commander. Both the 360 and 540 can also be used as commander units.

    I believe Olympus also has a wireless system, but I know very little about it.

  • Demens March 5, 2009 05:39 am

    Well, actually the cheapest method is to buy this amazingly cheap wireless trigger and remote.

    I have it strapped in to a 20 year old flash. Works like a charm. It does not use TTL and is just a trigger, but i can live with it.
    Here is a shot taken with it http://demens.smugmug.com/gallery/5153645_JdGv7#434011763_YCmcu-A-LB
    This shot also has my other 20 year old flash that has an light-trigger in it. It senses the other wireless flash. I think i am going to buy a second reveiver for it in the future.

    Little bit of warning though, the part that connects to your flash wont work with too modern "smart" flashes like nikon SB-400.

  • JCurtis March 5, 2009 05:03 am

    Cactus units are great for anyone looking to experiment with wireless who doesn't want to throw down some serous bank for PW's.
    If you are pro or thinking about going pro anytime soon, PW's are the 100% correct choice: they are much more professional, dependable, and future safe (PW provides automatic software updates for life).

  • Alan Nielsen March 5, 2009 04:51 am

    Thank you!. I've been getting ready to make the move, but have been quite uniformed and can't really find anywhere that gives you good help with this apart from Strobist.

  • Nathan March 5, 2009 04:21 am

    I agree with mainfr4me: Pocket Wizards are really expensive, unless you're already a "pro," making money off your work.

    I've enjoyed my Cactus V2 "Poverty Wizards," and they've held up fairly well for most applications. However, the sync cord input is a little less than stable. I would recommend using some epoxy to make sure the outer screw ring doesn't move when attaching the sync cable; otherwise, you risk breaking the small wire lead on the inside, at which point, the flash has to be mounted via the hot shoe.

    Pocket Wizards = $150 per unit (2 required)
    Poverty Wizards = $30 for transmitter and receiver, $15 per extra receiver

  • chuck March 5, 2009 02:27 am

    Regarding (1)

    - you failed to mention that all but the cheapest Nikons have remote flash controller built-in. So the cheapest setup for a Canon is some $700, while for a Nikon it's some $200.

    - flash sync speeds have NOTHING to do with CLS. It's the camera shutter that's the weak spot. Say my Nikon D70s has no problem whatsoever syncing 1/500 with external flashes since it has a cheap electronic shutter.

    - for cameras with mechanical shutters there's 'high-speed sync' option going all the way to 1/8000.

    WHY LIE?!

  • Phil R March 5, 2009 01:36 am

    I really love my Cyber Syncs. I have had just about 100% sync rate with them. I was able to sync up two strobes for the price of one Pocket Wizard.
    I've gotten 1/320th shutter speed from them, and easily 50 yards distance. (haven't tried more)

    The only cons- the tranmitter does not lock on to the hotshoe, and the recievers can be 'turned on' by accidently hitting the activate button. (no on/off switch)

    But for the cost difference, I am more than willing to overlook that. They are the bees-knees.

  • Chas March 5, 2009 01:35 am

    Paul: I've heard good things about Sony's wireless options. This website gives a few tutorials on using it: http://www.alphastrobist.com/

  • Ed Z March 5, 2009 01:33 am

    Don't forget the AlienBees "Cybersync" - same functionality as the pocketwizard at a fraction of the price (60-80 bucks/unit) The upcoming models will also have the ability to control the levels on alienbees and whilte lighting studio strobes, same as the radiopopper JrXs. I got a chance to play with them briefly and was impressed, and everyone who owns them seems to rave about 'em.

  • Chas March 5, 2009 01:33 am

    dcclark: Good point. For those with these camera models, you could always get the SB800 flash and use that as your commander.

  • dcclark March 5, 2009 01:03 am

    It's worth mentioning that the intro-level Nikon DSLRs (The D40/x, D60) don't have a "commander" mode, which lets you use your flash to control others externally. I live my D40x anyhow, but it is an unfortunate exception.

  • Ted W March 5, 2009 12:57 am

    I am quite pleased with my Cactus V2s - no TTL, but I would normally manually meter any serious off-camera flash work anyway, and for $40 I have a two-flash set-up and a tiny camera-shoe attachment that work great together.

  • mainfr4me March 5, 2009 12:51 am

    The Cactus units are good - limited in range, but a great starting point. I recommend them to my friends to experiment with.

    Pocket Wizards a DANG expensive - but for just a bit less range and very similar performance, you can pick up Paul Buff's Cybersyncs. I've used them since September and so far, I've been very impressed with them. Range, reliability, battery life, all knockout good. And half the price of Pocket Wizard.

  • LisaNewton March 5, 2009 12:42 am

    Well, add another item to my growing list of photography needs...........................:)

    Thanks for the great introduction to flash.

  • Paul Johnston-Knight March 5, 2009 12:39 am

    ahem [cough] Sony, bought out the inventor of wireless flash, Konica Minolta, forerunner of the Nikon and Canon systems by decades not just years ... and the new Sony updates, HVL-58AM is fabulous!