It's Time for the PC Jack to Die.
As a lighting photographer, I have long been grateful for the fact that Nikon has included an external Prontor/Compur (PC) jack on most of their speedlights. But while I love the synching ability, I hate the connector.
Nothing against Nikon -- they are among the good guys when it comes to synching flashes. Fact is, I also hate the PC jack on the camera itself.
There is simply no reason to continue the use of a proprietary connection for such a simple circuit. There is a better way, which will not only save photographers -- and manufacturers -- money but add a valuable capability to hybrid still/video DSLRs.
The Prontor/Compur connection goes back -- way back -- to the days of the Speed Graphic and beyond. It's long been a standard for no reason other than, well, it's long been a standard.
Conveniently, the mere existence of this proprietary connector perpetuates a little cottage industry / sync cord mafia. And no offense to sync cord manufacturers themselves, the design of the connector means that it is not that easy to manufacture a good version in a cord.
Crappy PC cords are, of course, the bane of our existence as photographers. They get loose. They fail intermittently. We even buy little key chain fob tools to bend them back into shape. And even then, decent (>$20) cords that have to be periodically replaced amount to what is basically an ongoing -- and inflated -- tax on photographers.
The Better Solution
The PC jack carries exactly one electrical circuit. It is simply a mechanism to close a switch and fire a flash. This could be accomplished by just about any type of connector, but the most logical candidate for replacement is the cheap, lowly reliable 1/8" (or, 3.5mm) audio jack.
If the camera industry were to standardize on the 1/8" jack, proprietary sync cords would become a thing of the past. Audio patch cords are much cheaper, and just as reliable.
Case in point: My AlienBees and PocketWizards both use standard, 1/8" jacks. (Thank you both, Paul at AB and Jim at PW, for that.) Cords are always going to be cords. They get moved around, blown around, serve as lanyard (I know -- I've seen me do it) and get strained. Eventually cords are going to go bad.
But with a 1/8" based cord as a sync cord, the easy solution is to buy them by the dozen. You can get them for next to nothing all over the 'net. So each of my AB head cases have four or five brand new 1-foot sync cords, still in plastic. Thus, will I never have a sync cord issue.
Not so with my PW-to-SB800 connection. The SB800 speedlight has a PC sync, which means that even short cords are $10-$20, depending on the brand. SO my solution is to hope they continue to work. Which, of course, one day they will not.
A Logical Transition
It appears that flashes already want to go 1/8". PWs are there. ABs are there. Several other brands of studio flashes are there.
When MPEX came to me for design input for the quad-sync LP120, the first thing I suggested was a 1/8" sync jack. Moishe being Moishe, he also included the hot shoe, PC jack and a slave. It's a "guy" thing -- sync overkill. Gotta love it.
The next step was to create the Universal Translator, which mounts on a camera or flash, passes sync through bottom to top via the shoe, and adds but PC and 1/8" sync to either.
The LP120 is, as far as I know, the only hot-shoe-sized flash sporting a 1/8" jack. And that has been responsible for much of the exposure it has gotten on widely read blogs such as WIRED Gadget Lab and BoingBoing, among others. It is cool, logical and next-step thinking.
I know of one other flash in the works which will support 1/8" sync, too. Tell ya more, but I'd have to kill ya.
In short, the transition is starting to happen, and the desire for a non-ridiculous sync is proving that the 1/8" sync is seen as a value-added feature. And the 1/8" jack is cheaper to add than is a PC jack. So take away a PC jack in the process, and you actually save manufacturing costs by making the flash better.
Not surprisingly, there is even a cottage industry in making (for example) Canon flashes better after the fact by adding a 1/8" sync jack. It doesn't take Fake Chuck Westfall to see that this is a logical feature.
Double Duty for MultiMedia
One of the additional beauties of the 1/8" standard is that it does not have to be a single-circuit connector. It can carry two or even three circuits. Think stereo audio cord, or full A/V coming out of your iPod headphone jack.
Woooo, high-tech, huh? But still ahead of the sync cord folks. And even 3-circuit 1/8" cords are cheaper than PC cords.
With just one extra circuit included in the 1/8" jack on the RadioPopper JrXs, Kevin and the guys are adding the ability to remotely dial in a flash's power level.
So why not add a 1/8" jack on a DSLR? Amazingly, many models already have a jack on the camera. It's just being used for output to a video monitor, for viewing stills (or movies) on your TV.
Think about it. By just keeping the pre-existing hardware, camera manufacturers could use software to configure the jack based on menu choices or sensing the voltage in the cord that is plugged into the jack.
A single, 1/8" jack could be a video out in play mode, a mic in (hello) in video record mode and a much better sync jack in still photo mode.
Poof -- proprietary PC cords are obsolete, cameras are improved and costs are reduced on both ends.
We Can Help
I think it will be the hot-shoe flashes that will transition to the new standard first. It is not expected that they include the stupid, legacy PC connector. And I would love to do whatever I can to help to speed the changeover.
To that end, if your company announces a hot shoe flash in 2010 that includes a 1/8" sync jack, I will use this site to tell hundreds of thousands of people in your exact target audience about it.
Two caveats: First, your flash must be available internationally. And if it is a total piece of crap other than the 1/8" part I am not going to omit that little tidbit.
Long story short, 1/8" hot shoe flashes will get noticed here.
Ditto any new cameras that either add a 1/8" hard sync jack or repurpose an existing 1/8" AV jack to function as a sync jack in still mode: I can promise you, when cameras start releasing photographers from the hot shoe and/or PC mafia, that will be news here, too.
This PC cord monster is a snake with a head at both ends, and we pretty much have to kill it twice. If you support this idea, please do what you can to spread it. Blog it, tweet it, Facebook it, nail it to the door of the PC Church a la Martin Luther -- whatever.
I'd love for us to help make this happen.
New to Strobist? Start here | Or jump right to Lighting 101
Connect w/Strobist readers via: Words | Photos
Got a question? Hit me on Twitter: @Strobist
Save some cash: Browse the Weekly Deals Page