Radio Triggers for All! Take Creative Control of Your Lighting

If you're just starting out with flash photography and you want to up your game, the fastest and easiest way to improve your lighting is to move your flash unit off of your camera. There are really only ways to do this: cords, optical sync units (also called slaves, peanuts, or magic eyes), or radio trigger. Radio triggers are the best, most flexible option. In this article you’ll learn everything you need to know about them, if they're right for you, and how to get started using them.

Studio portrait of a man
Softbox front camera left. Bare flash back camera right. If you mainly use flashes in a studio environment like this, any triggering option, corded, optical, or radio, could work well for you.

Before we get to radio triggers, let's take a quick look at the corded options. These are generally inexpensive and reliable, but have limited flexibility. If you are using speedlites you can use a hot shoe cord, but that limits your flash to 3-4 feet away from your camera. You could use a PC sync cord to any strobe unit, but again, you are limited by the length of your cord.
Longer cords also tend to get crimped or broken, reducing their reliability. You have to deal with having a trip hazard on set, too,  that could potentially bring your lights crashing down. Clearly, wireless is the preferred way to go.
The next option is the optical slave. An optical slave works by sensing a spike of light, then triggering when it sees the spike. The trigger is generally made with an on camera flash unit. There are three main problems with using an optical slave:
  1. You have to have line of sight. If the second flash can't see the first flash go off, it won't fire. If it is around a corner, it won't fire. If the sensor is facing away from the first flash unit, it won't fire.
  2. The trigger works from a "spike" in light. This means that if you are in a dark room, and a big white pop goes off, no problem. But what if you are in a well lit room, or even outside? When the light level rises, then it makes it that much harder for your first flash to actually create a spike needed to trigger the second, especially if there is some distance between them. This means inconsistency in your flash performance, if you can even get it to work at all, in lit environments.
  3. If someone else takes a photo with flash, the optical slave doesn't know you didn't take a picture, and it will fire anyway. Besides simply being annoying by firing when you don't want it to (which will also drain the flash battery faster), this means that someone else can trigger your light and it might not be ready to fire again when you need it. If you shoot concerts, weddings, or really any event, then optical slaves create a headache by going off when you don't want them to, and not being ready when you need them. Even if you are the sole photographer at an event, how many people have phones with flashes?

Wedding couple portrait
The sun was high in the sky, just peeking over the building top. They were completely in shadow, so it was lit with an umbrella camera right, about 6 inches from their face, with a speedlite at full power. A different exposure was taken without the umbrella to fill in the building behind them. With strong sun like this, it would have been impossible to trigger using an optical slave.

Radio triggers solve every problem listed above. You do not have the hazards of having cords, you do not have to have line of sight, and you can use them in bright sunlight without problem. Their biggest advantage is that there is really no disadvantage to using one.

Lit with an umbrella camera left. Could this have been done with a cord? Definitely not since the flash was so far away from the camera. Could this have been done with an optical slave? The answer is maybe? Between the bright sun and the umbrella blocking line of sight, it would have been frustrating without radio triggers.
The biggest disadvantage of radio triggers is the hit to your bank account. Radio triggers are vastly superior to the other forms triggering off camera flash, and have a price tag to match. Beginner or weekend warrior, fear not! Later in this article, we'll cover a few budget-conscience options that make off-camera flash with radio triggers accessible to everyone.

I have used Pocketwizards, the most popular radio trigger, going on 4 years now (at time of writing). There is really only one catch: radio triggers work like the radio in your car, and have different channels they can use. If you have your Pocketwizard set to channel one, and another photographer at your event is also using Pocketwizards set to channel one, then if either one of you fires, you set off both sets of lights, since they are all on the same channel. Pocketwizards have a really easy work around. Just like tuning the dial on your car radio, you can change to a different channel on your radio triggers. Just like that, no more interference.

Basically, if you decide that you need a versatile, wireless, off camera flash trigger that works reliably in any condition, then radio triggers are for you. Find a radio trigger that fits your budget and you're up and running.
The basic principle behind radio triggers is that you take a photo, your camera sends a signal to your flash, then your flash fires. To get started, you need two compatible radio triggers, one as a transmitter and one as a receiver. The transmitter attaches to your camera, usually on the hotshoe. Then you put the receiver on your flash. Most brands make transceivers: a single unit that serves both functions, so it doesn't matter which end of the connection a particular unit goes.

Woman cooking in a kitchen
Hiding flashes inside your photo is the perfect reason to use radio triggers.
This one was a bit complicated, so here's a diagram to help you out. The key light is the softbox front camera right, which also lights the cupboard. The softbox front camera left is set to the same power, but is slightly darker since it is slightly farther away. There are two lights outside. One is aimed at the model, giving her a rim light, most visible on the arm. The other is aiming to light the background. Under perfect conditions, we would have used simple window light, but it didn't work out that way. Two flashes are hidden in the scene. One is next to the model, aiming up at the back, to highlight the fruit bowl. The final one is aimed at the back cupboards, giving the soft flare, halo look. The light fixtures in the photo have no effect on the final exposure.
How many radio triggers do you need? You need one for every light you plan on triggering, plus one for your camera. One light? Two triggers. Six lights? Seven triggers.

Depending on the model you get, your radio trigger may or may not be able to transmit TTL information, or be able to set your flash to an automatic power. If your model doesn't do TTL, it's honestly not much of a loss. With enough practice, you can dial in a manual exposure that is quite accurate.

To get started, it really is as easy as attaching one to your camera, one to each light, turning everything on, making sure everything is running on the same channel! Again, different brands may require specific switches to be set, but you can refer to the manual for the brand you choose.
Generally the range of radio trigger options runs from $30 to $200 per unit. On the low end are $40 units (wait until they go on sale, you can snag them for $30-35). On the high end, you have Pocketwizards, with their Plus III ringing in at $150, or the TTL capable FlexTT5 unit for $230. Below I will give you the scoop on both a low and high end option I have personally used, along with equivalent options I have not personally used, but heard good things about. I am in no way paid to endorse Pocketwizard. They are simply the product I use and feel works best.

Cactus radio trigger
When I first started in the world of off-camera flash, this was the trigger I used. The first time I used it, it actually didn't work because there was this tricky switch where you have to tell it whether it is supposed to act like a transmitter or a transceiver. (I used an older model, so I cannot say if this is the case on the latest models.) Once I figured that out, it was like a dream come true, for about a month. There were times where it just wouldn't fire for a few shots. I put up with it, and during that month I learned a lot about how to use off camera flash for the best effect. This really was a great option for the student who couldn't afford anything better. One day the light fell over and this guy was a goner. Then during another shoot, the other ones just stopped working and died for good. My own frustration caused me to bite the bullet and upgrade to the Pocketwizards.

From my personal experience, the bottom line on the entry level triggers are that they simply that: entry level. They are a perfect fit for students or hobbyists. They are cheaply built and prone to temperamental flares, but they will get the job done and leave money in the bank. If you absolutely need 100% reliability, though, pass on the entry level triggers.

I have not personally used RadioPoppers, but recently they have been taking the industry by storm. Significantly cheaper than Pocketwizards, and supposedly the same reliability. Like any product, there are users on both ends of the love/hate spectrum, but this looks like a nice balance between quality and affordability.

Welcome to the Cadillac of radio triggers. As I mentioned, I use Pocketwizards. Assuming you do everything correct as a user (properly seating in the hotshoe, everything set to the same channel, etc.) they will simply not fail you. I've crashed my Pocketwizards into the ground a fair amount of times and they all still work like new. Above is the Plus III which runs for $150. This is a manual only trigger, so you will have to set the power levels yourself on each flash.

This is the Flex TT5, which was designed to be used with speedlites, and has full TTL capability. It runs $230 for Canon or $220 for Nikon. You can also get the smaller, cheaper Mini TT1 which sits on your camera and is a transmitter only. I use these and are very happy with their performance. It hurt the first time I had to shell out for a set, but they have lasted many years, and I plan on using and abusing them for many more to come.

Pocketwizard also has triggers that are strobe specific to different manufacturers. I use Paul C. Buff Einsteins, for which Pocketwizard makes the MC2, which only costs $100. From my research, many of these strobe specific units come in around $100, but you will still need another Pocketwizard unit for your camera.

Pocketwizard is also very quick to add firmware upgrades to new cameras. I only had my Canon 5D Mark III for about two months before I could use the TTL units with the new firmware update. Are they expensive? Very. But if you can afford them, I would recommend them in a heartbeat.
Dramatic portrait of a woman in a quarry
Softbox camera right. Bare speedlite camera left. Shot at sunset on the side of a cliff.

Simple to use, radio triggers are the best way to get your flash off camera and take your photography to the next level. Do you use radio triggers? Let me know your experience in the comments.


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