Off-Camera + TTL = Better Flash Photography
The number one opportunity to improve your flash photography is to unbolt your Speedlite from the top of your camera and move it… anywhere. If you rely on your camera to calculate the proper flash exposure or if you want to dial the flash exposure up/down independently of the ambient exposure from your camera, you have to shoot TTL (“Through-The-Lens”) flash. So, how to you combine getting your Speedlite off your camera and still maintain a communication link for TTL-flash? That’s the journey that led me to discover the incredible RadioPoppers.
The Basics of Wireless TTL Flash
Corded, Off-Camera TTL Flash
There are a couple of ways to get your flash off your camera and maintain TTL communications. The simplest is to use a special cord. Both Canon and Nikon make them. The cords are rather expensive ($65 to $75) and a bit short (2′ to 3′ coiled). They come in very handy when I’m moving quickly and want just an arm’s length of space between my camera and flash. I carry two with my Speedlites. (You can get amazing mods to off-camera cords here — but warm up your wallet beforehand).
Wireless, Off-Camera TTL Flash
The wireless approach to TTL-flash is based on having a direct (aka: “line-of-sight”) path between your camera and flash(es). You need a Master flash or flash-less Commander unit on your camera or you’ll need one of the Nikon bodies with a pop-up flash that can operate as a Commander. The sensor on the Remote unit (which everyone else calls a “Slave”) has to be able to see the signal sent out from the camera-mounted Master/Commander. When you venture off into the land of Wireless-TTL flash, you’ll quickly discover what I mean by “Speedlite Yoga” as you twist the head of your flash into obscure positions so that it’s pointing at your subject while the sensor is pointing at your camera. As you’ll read below, the line-of-sight issue is the Achilles Heal for Wireless-TTL Flash and the reason that so many pros loath it. It’s also the reason that RadioPoppers were invented.
Three other quick points about Wireless TTL Flash: 1 – Most of the time, I set my Master flash to that it communicates to the Remotes but does not actually fire during the exposure. 2 – There are 3rd-party flashes that claim to work with Canon or Nikon systems. I advocate that you should have the same brand of camera and flash. 3 – When Canonites say “e-TTL” and Nikonians say “i-TTL” – both are talking about their brand of wireless communication between camera and flash.
Off-Camera, Non-TTL Flash
There are a number of other techniques that enable you to fire your flash when it’s not parked on top of your camera. All of these break the TTL communication link and require you to set the power level on your flash manually (not bad, just different). Radio triggers, like PocketWizards and Skyports, are fantastic and expensive. Optical triggers and really long PC-cords are low-tech and less expensive options. As today’s focus is RadioPoppers and the future of wireless TTL-flash, I promise that I’ll write about off-camera, non-TTL flash soon. In the meantime, head over to Strobist to fill your head with great ideas on this topic.
Wireless TTL Flash Is Finicky
I admit it. Wireless-TTL Flash can be problematic to absolutely infuriating. It’s not that the concepts are faulty. It’s the gear. Wireless TTL is relatively easy IF the Master and Remote units can see each other and IF there’s not too little or too much distance between them and IF the sun is not too bright or at the wrong angle. That’s a lot of IFs.
Here are situations where traditional Wireless TTL Flash falls apart:
- I’m moving around the subject and not giving any thought to the need for the Master to be pointing directly at the Remote.
- The Remote is being moved around by an assistant who is not paying attention to the Master-Remote connection.
- I’m switching the camera from vertical to horizontal to vertical – which means that my Master is, then isn’t, then is pointing at the Remote.
- I want the Remote to be parked around a corner or directly behind the subject.
- I stuff the Remote unit into a softbox or hide it behind a shoot-through umbrella.
- I wander more than 30′ or so from the Remote.
- As seen by the Remote, sun is coming right over my shoulder – effectively blinding the poor guy.
RadioPoppers To The Rescue
RadioPoppers are the brilliant idea overlooked by industry giants and invented by a regular guy in Arizona. Rather than rely upon a visual connection between the Master and Remote, the RadioPopper system captures the electronic pulses being emitted by the Master and converts them to radio waves. The receiving unit then decodes the radio signal and delivers the TTL-flash message to the sensor on the Remote via a fiber optic cable.
With RadioPoppers, I don’t worry about much — other than staying creative with my camera and lights. I maintain full TTL control – including high-speed sync and flash exposure compensation – without getting shutdown because there’s not an absolutely perfect, line-of-sight path between the Master and Remotes. With RadioPoppers, I’m free to stick my Remotes into awkward locations. I’m free to wander a good distance from the Remotes. I’m free to strap a wide range of light modifiers to my Remotes and not worry about blocking the sensors. I get all these options without giving up the ability to dial my flash up and down from my camera.
RadioPoppers Are Not Perfect… Yet.
As of mid-November, 2008, RadioPoppers are still a first-generation product. Is this new technology rather expensive – yes. Is this new technology a bit buggy – sometimes yes. Is this new technology able to do something that no other gadget can do – YES! That’s why I remain a huge (and patient) fan of the Poppers.
If you’ve tried Poppers and not been satisfied, implement the following and give them another go:
- You have to have a roll of Black Gaffer Tape (“BGT”) to make Poppers work reliably.
- The clear plastic sleeve that holds the ball to the end of the fiber optic needs to be permanently attached to the fiber optic with thin strip of BGT.
- The placement of the fiber optic probe onto the Remote sensor is critical – especially with smaller units like the Canon 430EX. If your flash is not firing, it’s probably because the little white ball is not exactly on the sweet spot. Study the Popper manual for the details. Move the ball around until you find the sweet spot.
- Once you find the sweet spot, use the BGT to securely tape the white ball in place. Don’t use a tiny piece of BGT for this. Use a big piece of BGT, because you also need to…
- Black out the entire sensor with BGT. Take no chances with a bit of sneaky sunlight getting in.
- Make sure the other end of fiber optic has not pulled out of the receiver – even just a bit. A small strip of BGT can help with this.
- Make sure you have fresh batteries and make sure the Poppers are turned on… seriously.
There are a number of RadioPopper mods discussed on the web. Many will void your RadioPopper warranty. My suggestion is that you break out the BGT in the near term and keep an eye on the RadioPopper blog for news about the introduction of second-generation models.
Poppin’ Reno With RadioPoppers
Last summer, shortly after I received my RadioPoppers (a transmitter and three receivers), I did what any normal shooter would do – I headed to Reno. Land of the free and home of the strange (at least just before and after Burning Man). Actually, Reno is a great place to shoot. Brilliant, high desert sun. Forests and peaks nearby. The Truckee River and Lake Tahoe. Weathered and abandoned buildings out in the desert. Colorful people. My good friend, MD Welch, who I met through a Joe McNally workshop, lives in Reno and set up a number of shoots with… colorful people. [That's MD in the white shirt serving as my stunt double for the demo shots.]
Shoot #1 // Truckee River Woman – Shooting Beyond The Range of Traditional Wireless TTL Flash
When you’re shooting an avid kayaker who likes to wear large sequins, it makes sense for everyone and everything to be in the water at the same time. Right? Here’s where I got my first taste of RadioPopper joy. The two Remotes were winged out on stands as shown above. Without e-TTL, I would have had to change the settings manually as the sunlight continued to fall. Without e-TTL, I also would have had to make more trips across the slimy and treacherous river bed. One wet slip was enough for me. Without the Poppers I would have had to stay within 30′ or so of the remotes. So, thanks to the Poppers, I was able to back up a considerable distance with my 70-200mm to shoot long and create a narrow angle-of-view while still controling my Speedlites remotely.
Shoot #2 // True Love – Forget About Where The Remote Is
It’s not everyday that I meet a young woman who has “Mommy” tattooed beneath a heart on the inside of her arm. Sunlight was blasting in from everywhere during this mid-afternoon shoot. In order to settle the viewer’s focus on the truly interesting part, I had to create some dramatic falloff by moving the flash in real close. As shown above, the Speedlite was “fishpoled” in over the top. Here’s another example where e-TTL shines. I could dial the intensity of the flash up and down without touching the Speedlite or breaking up the flow of the shoot. Thanks to the RadioPoppers, I could also jump from horizontal to vertical and move in and out without having to stop and point my Master back at the Remote with each switch.
Shoot #3 // Battle Born Derby Demons – 2nd-Curtain Sync, Popper-style
Catching the essence of the Battle Born Derby Demons (Reno’s flat-track roller derby team) proved to be another great test of the RadioPopper system. Imagine mixing a cocktail of Olympic speed skating, mud wrestling and a rock concert in a downtown park. You’ll get close to the feeling of a Derby Demon bout.
Two things quickly became evident as I tried to create photographs that portrayed the experience: 1 – a static (think “sharp”) image would not do and 2 – I had to catch the skaters as they passed through my slice of light light rather than try to chase them with it. As for for #1, it was evident that 2nd-curtain sync and a slow shutter speed were perfect. As for #2, my solution was to hoist a Speedlite and Popper atop a tall stand and zoom the head out to the max of 105mm. Thanks to the Popper, I could dial the intensity of the flash up and down until I found the right combination of slow-shutter and strobe — which continually changed as twilight merged into night. The Popper also allowed me to wander along the track and shoot my lit zone from a variety of angles without any concern about the Remote being able to see the Master.
Other Random Thoughts About RadioPoppers
Canon or Nikon should have invented this technology a long time ago. If you take out the AA battery, the electronic workings of a Popper aren’t that big. I hope that one of the big guys licenses this technology and builds it right into their Speedlites / Speedlights. The enthusiasm about e-TTL / i-TTL would explode.
RadioPoppers do things that Pocket Wizards, Skyports and other “dumb” triggers can’t do and vice versa. As you’ve already read, Poppers can do something that no other device can — namely deliver TTL flash control beyond the boundaries of normal e-TTL or i-TTL. What Poppers cannot do is control a wide range of devices like studio strobes or trigger remote cameras. Even if you get Popper-fever, you’ll still want/need another form of wireless triggers to use with other types of flash. $orry.
I’ve no doubt that RadioPoppers will continue to evolve and that many of the current quirks will go away. As much as I love BGT, I believe that it won’t always be necessary to have a roll handy when shooting with Poppers.
Have You Popped?
If you’ve used the Poppers, for better or for worse, add a comment with your experiences, insights and feature requests. I’ll make sure that the guys at Popperland see them.
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