Thursday, February 02, 2012

Core Knowledge: Working With Remotes

There are two things you should always remember about radio remotes:

One, radio can be fickle. This is true whether you are using your time-honored PocketWizards or a brand new Chinese offering.

Two, radio waves -- and success with your remotes -- are all about the physics. So a little knowledge can go a long way toward ensuring good range and reliability.

Some basics that every lighting photographer should know, inside.
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Orientation

I personally use PocketWizard Plus II's, so tI'll use them as an example. They are very reliable, as radios go. But to use them successfully, it really helps to understand how antenna orientation and environmental factors affect range and reliability.

Antenna design -- and the corresponding antenna orientation choices -- is a huge factor in both range and reliability of signal. Because of this, any remote manufacturer worth their salt will give you some explanation of their antenna design and how to use the remotes to best exploit that design.

As an example, the Plus II manual shows that the transmission and reception from this model is concentrated on a path perpendicular to the orientation of the physical antenna.

So I am always going to get better reception if I couple the antennae on my remotes by pointing my receivers and transmitter straight up. PW even provides an idiot-proof diagram:



This stuff really matters for both range and reliability. If you cross-orient the antenna, the range (and/or reliability) will decrease. If the two antennae are pointed right at each other, this is worst possible case. I.e., they pretty much won't work.

Having learned this lesson the hard way, I now orient my receiver antenna at a 45-degree angle, giving me the best compromise for shooting horizontals and verticals with my camera. That avoids the "poor" pairing (seen at 2nd from right) that would happen if I was shooting verticals (where the shooting PW is now horizontal, with a vertical receiver.)

Excessive? Maybe. But a little knowledge and good craft goes a long way in the field.

(To be fair, I do sometimes ask for a LOT as far as range goes, and have even been known to try some pretty wacky range-extending solutions.)


Environment

And speaking of mounting the antenna, environmental factors come into play, too. First and foremost, you want your receiver to be off the ground.

For monobloc and speedlight shooters, this is usually not an issue as we tend to hang our remotes from the light stand with the light. But for pack-and-head shooters, this is a big red flag.

For instance, I am pretty sure that's what killed me on this assignment. I was new(-ish) to pack-and-head lighting, and had the PW just sitting on the ground. For all I know the antenna could have been pointed right at the shooting position, too.

Why? Sheer ignorance. And I paid the price that night with an impromptu available light shoot.

Since then I have learned to mount the PWs up near the head. Or, if the head is low to the ground, on its own stand. Fortunately, they use a 1/8" sync port, so getting a long sync cord for stand mounting is a very cheap proposition.

The other big killer for radio waves is water. That includes plants and people, which are … mostly water. Water absorbs radio waves. So if you are trying to remote through woods, going for line of sight between units is your best defense. In a crowd, get that receiver antenna up high. And if the ground is wet, getting your receivers away from the ground will help you avoid a double whammy.
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Your Results Will Vary By Model

I am taking PWs as an example here, because that is what I use. But no matter what brand you use, take a moment to dig into your instruction manual and see just what you are dealing with. It'll make a big difference in the range you get out of your units.

As a convenience to readers who use other brands of remotes, I'll be happy to pose links to any online remote instruction manuals that give out antenna and/or orientation information. Just throw them into the comments and I will bring them up here:

:: PocketWizard Plus II manual ::


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47 Comments:

Blogger Tova said...

Great info, thank you!

February 02, 2012 9:10 AM  
Blogger Rikk said...

Water is a killer. I did a shoot in an pet store one time and the many aquaria were nearly a deal breaker on the flash firing. I never thought about it at the time but in retrospect it made perfect sense.

Once I realized this, I moved my wireless router from its place next to a 55 Gallon aquarium and improved wireless throughout the house.

February 02, 2012 9:31 AM  
Blogger M. S. Kirk said...

Interesting, so how does this work with the TT5's that have their antennae to the side? I had several misfires when I used the TT1's as transmitters and the TT5's as receivers so I switched to all TT5's...but I still get this issue every once in a while. Anyone else?

I will need to pay attention more to my orientation now.

Thanks for the heads up.

thanks for the heads up.

February 02, 2012 9:37 AM  
Blogger rpccube said...

Had intended to remain silent but couldn't.

I use RadioPoppers, not commercially but I push them on distance and obstructions. I have not tried dense woods but I have never had a failure except when I forgot to switch them on. The receiver often ends up hanging awkwardly from the cord but never lets me down. The "Studios" have the added advantage of being combined with the RP hot shoe (cube) of giving remote ttl settings on Canon or NIkon.

February 02, 2012 10:15 AM  
Blogger Linu said...

Finally some great insight to why my pocketwizard plus IIs sometimes just don't work. Will definitely check the orientation and keep 'em off the ground next time round. Thank you so much!! Sometimes they make me go crazy, and i hate losing face and patience in front of clients. Thanks once again!

February 02, 2012 10:18 AM  
Blogger Paul S said...

Hi David, your information is spot on as I found out the hard way a few years ago. I hard previously had some great results using PW plus II's in city environments, including a job were I had been accidentally triggering a fellow photographers triggers over 500 metres away through several other buildings.... Being fairly confident about just how good they were I agreed to shoot a job on a farm set deep in the countryside. I had a nightmare triggering my lights which were only about 20 meters away until I realised that the radio was being blocked by a simple haystack.
I have six PW Plus II 's , purely because they are so good but occasionally get frustrated that they force me to work in a totally manual way, as in some situations I need to be able to change the settings without having to move to my lights from the shooting position. I recently invested in a set of Pixel King triggers which I have found absolutely brilliant. In my experience I have had great results at ranges up to 400 metres and been able to shoot with HSS and Hypersync and been able to change settings without walking back to the lights... When I get chance I want to perform a more detailed test to post on YouTube.
Thanks for your post David, great info as usual.

February 02, 2012 10:24 AM  
Blogger John Leach said...

Any info on the new TT1 transmitter. The antennae appears to be internal. At basketball, I shoot a lot of vertical shots. I was using built in arena house strobes at our university last weekend and noticed at one corner of the court, I dropped a trigger every few exposures. The other end of the court was ok. I am assuming the receiver for the lights was nearer that end of the court. Didn't think to test horizontal in those locations.

February 02, 2012 10:35 AM  
Blogger Blanche Liston said...

Thanks for the excellent instructions. Sometimes my PWs make me crazy. What about very large conference/banquet rooms? I've had bad luck in very large spaces.

February 02, 2012 11:09 AM  
Blogger Southern Skies Coffee Roasters said...

The reason that placing a PW on the ground can give such bad results is because of reflections. The direct wave and the reflected wave can hit the receiver out of phase, effectively cancelling out the radio signal.

The antennas are monopole, which radiate in a plane perpendicular to the length of the antenna. Sort of like a donut with the antenna shoved through the hole. As long as the PW's antennas are parallel to each other, you should get good flash sync.

February 02, 2012 11:16 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

I use Elinchrom Skyport triggers and have had good luck with them in most situations. The antennas on the Skyports are actually movable which I never gave much thought about until reading this article.

February 02, 2012 1:02 PM  
Blogger Phil said...

Anyone shed some light on remotes with no obvious aerial...ie: PixelKings?

February 02, 2012 1:20 PM  
Blogger Jon-Mark said...

Thanks for the write up David.

I use the Radiopopper JRx system and I have to say, their reliability is pretty unbelievable. The one time I found them ineffective ( in 14 months of commercial use ) was on a concrete boardwalk in the ocean, from approx 600 feet away, with them on the ground. Not sure if it was the water, or the receiver being on the ground, but it would only fire 1 in 3 times or so. I've found their reliability to be unmatched, but have yet to discover any literature regarding antennae orientation.

February 02, 2012 1:21 PM  
Blogger John said...

Hi Dave, very cool post as always. You brought up a few things that would have never occured to me but fortunately, I haven't had any issues ...yet.

I use the Paul C. Buff Cybersyncs and I have to they seem rock solid. I've triggered speedlights with them as far as 350 ft away.

The online manual for the whole Cybersync system is here:

http://www.paulcbuff.com/manuals/cybersync.pdf

February 02, 2012 2:10 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

Hey John-

I saw their manual, but did not see any info as to antenna design / orientation advice. Is it there?

February 02, 2012 2:44 PM  
Blogger Rick Yeatts said...

I shoot basketball in an 8500 seat arena. I suspend two two MultiMax 10 feet down from the rafters as receivers . I do this for the miss fires with one single radio which cane be 15 to 20 a game. The transmitter is mounted on the hot shoe for the suppended radios.

I have a remote set up in the catwalk surrounded by metal I beams ect. everything that could be going against you except water is there. I use a Michael Bass trigger to fire the remote and may get one miss fire in a game. there is no line of sight with the receiver and transmitter. With the on camera transmitter I still get about 10 miss fires in a game sometimes more. the Michael Bass trigger almost never fails and I have mixed the radios to see if it made a difference and there were none.

February 02, 2012 2:44 PM  
Blogger Architectural & Commercial Photography said...

Recently, I have been using PWII+'s outdoors. The distance hasn't been too far, but I've still had issues. One thing I discovered was a loose antenna on one unit. The fix was a quick and simple solder job. Another thing I've done to extend range is mount the PW on a light stand and run a longer cable to whatever I'm triggering (lights, camera, etc.) I'm planning to experiment with a PW on a light pole, jacked up in the air about 13', to act as a relay.

February 02, 2012 2:50 PM  
Blogger Nic Vilceanu said...

I keep trying to be nice but I cannot lie: PW is a weak company when it comes to radio part.

I do RF engineering for a living and I am pretty familiar with the radio waves and propagation.
You will not find any orientation instruction in the PW competitors instruction manuals because you don't need any. Most of Chinese companies, Radio Popper, Pixel, Phottix,... are using antenna diversity and/or higher frequency bands. They are using competitive modulation schemes and frequency hopping spread spectrum. Some of them are using full duplex communication so if no feedback is getting back from slave units, the transmitter is firing again.

In indoor near field communication there is no need to align antennas. The polarization is changing easily and eventually after several reflections on the walls the signal gets to receiver antennas OK.

I am using successfully Pixel Knight TR332 and RadioPopper JRx with a mix 580EXII, SB28. No misfires at all, never!!! No special alignment on RX-TX antenna.

I dropped PW Mini TT1, Flex TT5, after I tried many firmware releases. The RF shield AC5 is a workaround because they have poor RF design. The forums are full of complaints due to AC5 effects: 100 USD repairing cost after you are using HSS.

PW was a nice start for off camera flash. In the mean time there are many other options which I suggest you to try. You will not be disappointed.

February 02, 2012 3:12 PM  
Blogger DanW said...

The TT1 has the exact same issue and a similar diagram in the literature. The antenna is internal but the correct orientation is the same as if it had its antenna sticking out of the top. That is, if TT1 is mounted on your camera with the camera in a typical landscape orientation and pointing towards the TT5 then the 'best' orientation for the TT5 is with the antenna straight up. Turn your camera to portrait and the same positioning of the TT5 is 'acceptable'. Fold the TT5 antenna down and point the TT1 in the opposite direction gives 'worst' positioning.

It may just be physics but given that you can adjust and trigger your flash from camera position - even with full TTL features and enhancements with TT1 and TT5 - but change your camera position and you might still need to walk to your receiver location to tweak the antenna position!

February 02, 2012 3:52 PM  
Blogger Tim Munro said...

Great info. I too have had problems on location when turning the camera to shoot vertical cover pix. Speedlights were on the ground too from memory. TT1/TT5 combo is worse for this than PlusII BTW, as I have switched in the field to get by.
Is the best answer to make the receiver horizontal as well so orientation is the same?
Ta, Tim

February 02, 2012 5:21 PM  
Blogger EP-DESIGNS.COM said...

Regarding the TT5 PocketWizards, range has been a serious issue for some people.

I redesigned my flash brackets to keep all antennas facing upwards, and above the flash unit, and its giving the best results by far.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/15168416@N00/6141925833/

February 02, 2012 6:57 PM  
Blogger EP-DESIGNS.COM said...

Also regarding most of the other 2.4GHz triggers without an external antenna like Pixel Kings, Phottix Strato/Odin, RF-602 etc -

Compared to the TT5's at least these 2.4Ghz have incredible range to start with so at regular shooting distances orientation is hardly an issue, but if your trying to squeeze the most out of them...

The antenna is part of the circuit board inside them, and the orientation still matters. Its best to keep them both sitting the same way. When you turn your camera to portrait for example the range drops off slighlty. I've checked this many times when doing range test for reviews etc.

And (unlike the PW PlusII) having the triggers actually facing each other gives the best result.

Again thats only for squeezing the most out of them. These triggers are so good now, at normal working distances you hardly have to worry about it.

February 02, 2012 7:10 PM  
Blogger Simon Barber said...

I too use the plus 2's and midweek had some big issues with a conceptual football team shot involving the team, the owners, directors and staff and about 140 school kids. We shot this in the stadium, the team and extras in the semi-circle in the center of the pitch, I was way up in the stands and had remote camera mounted in the donut structure used for the panamerican games thats still hung above the stadium. On the pitch I had 2 sets of 2 speedlites each with a 1 PW plus2 (2 flashes and 1 PW) for some fill.... I hoped. But as things can get pear-shaped and they usually do when the clock is ticking! it just didn't come together. Yeah I had the PW's mounted right, but one set of speedlites were firing out of sync, then the 5D up in the donut stopped firing too!, maybe I need a pre-trigger as I think the camera went to sleep for a short time even though I had turned off the feature beforehand.

I had good line off sight to the camera in the donut and the flashes on the pitch, not sure how far in away they all were but i'm sure that they were well within the capabilities of the remotes.

My doubts are; I bought them in the US, ... I use them in Mexico, could it be that the frequencies used in the plus2's are being affected by frequencies used by TV, Radio, Nextel? which obviously are not the same frequencies as the ones in the US and which the FCC license. For their use in Mexico do I need another version?? There were a lot of press, maybe about 50, (none use PW's) plus all the kids parents, so a lot of mobile phones and the stadium wifi.

What could be interferring with the PW's?

Thanks for all the great info over the years

February 02, 2012 8:20 PM  
Blogger Cricket said...

Very interesting- thanks for the information. I'm new to radio triggers and have a related question (problem) that perhaps those with more experience can answer. I have a set of Phottix Strato II Multi (for Sony.

Preface- I have a Sony a350 body and a Sony HVL-F42AM flash.

To get get them to work I have to turn on my camera and flash (with flash mounted on-camera) then separate them and put on the triggers turning on the camera trigger, then the flash trigger (flash stand mounted). Only then will they work. BUT I've had them stop working while shooting and have to repeat the process (flash back on camera, repeat). This has happened even after turning off the 'sleep'mode for the flash.
It's a tad aggravating - the set up process- but what bugs me more is when it inexplicably stops working. Any ideas out there? I will say I have found it pretty difficult finding Sony-specific info/help.
Thanks!

February 02, 2012 10:40 PM  
Blogger Eric the Red said...

Yahoo! So that's what it is. The last 2 times out I have had this very problem. PW's hanging all a-kimbo, people in their path, no wonder I've had problems. Thanks David, you have prevented a couple of energetic disassemblies here.
Eric

February 02, 2012 11:20 PM  
Blogger bT said...

Yongnuo, $20 on eBay, works in any position.

February 03, 2012 12:20 AM  
Blogger Bryan said...

I think this article should be retitled 'Pocket Wizard Limitations' because I have yet to have the orientation/misfire problems with other solutions (currently on RadioPopper JrX and loving it) like I did with Plus II's. Even the cheap Cactus and old Paul C Buff which use a simple u shaped 2" length of wire inside the case for an antennae have no issues like the PWs do.

February 03, 2012 1:56 AM  
Blogger Katrin | LonesomeTiger said...

Any comment as to *why* a PW (or remote of your choice) should be away from the ground?

February 03, 2012 3:35 AM  
Blogger wjl (Wolfgang Lonien) said...

Like bT said: Yongnuos work - and I don't even have the 2.4GHz models, just plain simple CTR-301P with 433MHz. Outdoors, with flash & receiver (almost) on the ground? Not a problem at all...

February 03, 2012 4:08 AM  
Blogger stan chung said...

Thanks David for this article-Timely- I'm fed up with IR from my speedlites. Moving on to radio.

Would be grateful if you could post something on an elegant solution to mount the PW's to speedlites like SB800's.


Gaffer tape is not. LOL

February 03, 2012 6:42 AM  
Blogger John said...

Dave,

Sorry, I should have read a little more thoroughly. The link I provided to the Cybersyncs does not list any info on how to orient them for optimal performance.

Which, kinda surprises me really.

February 03, 2012 8:12 AM  
Blogger Cher Ping said...

hi Cricket,

the HVL 42AM is known to be abit quirky (as in, you usually need to mount it and fire off one shot first). However, what you mentioned shouldn't be happening if you turned off the sleep mode.

I don't use the 42 so much, so I can't really say anything more about it. However, you can post in any of the three groups listed below. Someone might be able to help.

http://www.flickr.com/groups/sony_alpha/
http://www.flickr.com/groups/alphastrobist/
http://www.flickr.com/groups/sonycameraclub/

cher ping

February 03, 2012 8:48 AM  
Blogger Heipel said...

PW offers this in the flex and mini manual.

http://wiki.pocketwizard.com/index.php?title=Long_Range_Performance

And David, thanks for this post. My flexes and mini have worked almost flawlessly -- the almost bits have left me confused until now.

February 03, 2012 9:21 AM  
Blogger steve said...

Great site David and thanks for the valuable info. For a while now I have used the cheapo Ebay triggers and receivers with my Canon set up without any problem after I made some RF screening socks for my flash unit. Until then I experienced interference on the images from my 5D. A simple mod (check youtube) increases the range of the transmitter and changing the batteries from those supplied increases the reliability. Hope this helps others.

February 03, 2012 9:34 AM  
Blogger Cricket said...

Thank you, cher ping!

February 03, 2012 2:05 PM  
Blogger Chad said...

Adding a ferrite choke, or two, to the sync cord between a flash head or power pack can also cut back on interference travelling back up the line.
This was suggested to me by a Pocket Wizard support rep when I'd tried essentially all of the tips you have listed above. I'm shooting with a Broncolor Grafit pack and the RF interference is awful. It did the trick.

February 03, 2012 7:13 PM  
Blogger Headshotz said...

Never had a problem in any orientation at any usable distance with Cybersyncs....ever!

February 04, 2012 1:29 AM  
Blogger we11ington said...

Hi David, I wonder what you thought about these?? they look kinda familiar and the build quality looks pretty good..
http://www.aputure.com/en/product/trigmaster_versatile_trigger_for_strobe_speedlight_camera.php

February 04, 2012 6:56 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

Never used them but I have heard mostly good things about them.

I will give them credit for one thing: They did not just ape someone else's existing case design, like a knock-off Gucci purse. That puts them ahead of a few other new Chinese companies, IMO.

Only caveat is 2.4ghz is *very* crowded spectrum - wifi, cordless phone, even microwave ovens. Something to consider.

February 04, 2012 4:42 PM  
Blogger Jeff Hopkins said...

just thought folks might be interested in this mounting setup for the PW2's, I've seen a lot of wacky solutions out there so just came up with this which I'm happy with, it uses a standard quick release clamp allied to a Bismat pipe clamp. The threads have enough tolerance to angle the PW.
see here, http://gallery.me.com/jeffhopkins3#101825

February 05, 2012 1:37 PM  
Blogger MortonPhotographic said...

The problem I had with my Pocket Wizards... when I laid on the ground to shoot motorcycles from a worm's-eye view, triggering would be intermittent. When I pulled my head away from the camera/trigger, it would get better. Standing up would make them even more reliable. Do you think this goes with the water and keeping them up off the ground issues mentioned above?

February 05, 2012 3:30 PM  
Blogger Stephen Caissie said...

I bought a set of Elinchrom Skyports a few years ago, and while I've never had any issues regarding placement or orientation of either the transmitter or receivers, I do find that the transmitter will intermittently cut out on me for no reason that I can see. I even brought it back to the place I bought it to have them test it out and they couldn't replicate the problem.

There was, however, one time when I tried to shoot a band on a beach at Lake Ontario when the transmitter died on me and there was absolutely nothing I could do to get it back. Later in the day, shooting the same band in a laundromat, it worked perfectly. Makes me wonder if I should go conduct some tests.

February 06, 2012 9:59 AM  
Blogger Caleb said...

I had a shoot at the base of a waterfall and no matter what I tried I couldn't get the radio triggers to work, I ended up using a flash on camera, as soon as we got back to the car they worked fine. Thanks for pointing out the limitations and answering the lingering question as to why they wouldn't function.

February 06, 2012 4:41 PM  
Blogger Laraine Weschler said...

I have been going crazy trying to get my Elinchrom Skyport triggers to work. I never thought about orientation, but they are completely unreliable. I can stand right next to my flash and trigger it and it will work for one or two shots, then it just stops. My cheapo Chinese backup triggers work better. Sometimes the flash will go off, but out of sync with the shutter. After I ended up hooking up my Alien Bees to my flash with a hard sync cord, tripping over the cord, and breaking the flash, I decided to buy Pocketwizards. I've used them before, but only in a studio. Now I wonder if I was just orienting them incorrectly? If so, they must be awfully picky. I also use them for wedding receptions with lots of people, but I always put them up high and it doesn't seem to matter how close I am to the flash. Any Elinchrom users have any ideas?

February 07, 2012 12:51 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

I had a bit of a problem just over a month ago. I was shooting Santa giving out presents to kids at a local sports club. Camera in one hand with PW TT1, SB900 through an Orbis ringflash in the other hand with a PW TT5. After some to-ing and fro-ing, zigging and zagging, the flash stopped firing. It took a little while to realise that I was resting my flash-holding hand on a 4" x 4" steel pillar that was probably acting like a big RF sponge!

More to-ing and zagging solved the problem PDQ.

February 09, 2012 12:00 AM  
Blogger lankynibbs said...

Being aware of the limitations of radio will save tons of headaches when using remote flash in the field. Antennae orientation, radio interference of the flash itself, distance from the ground, interfering bodies and substances, battery charge, are all additive factors.

I use TT5s with Canon gear, having decided the mini-TT1 is practically useless. Upgrading to the 6.0 firmware made a world of difference. But in any case, I am fully prepared to go infrared or do without flash if the PWs cant deliver.

February 09, 2012 5:16 PM  
Blogger FireguyBry said...

Bryan-in NJ
Im researching a set of radio triggers for my speedlights. I have used pocket wizards in the past when assisting other photogs. Now as a semi-pro trying to get the most out of a small light set up cost is an issue. Any thoughts on the impact powersync 16 setup? The limited reviews Ive read peg them as well made, low cost and rock solid reliability. Anyone out there have an opinion? Id like to do some cross lighting setups in a local gym for basketball and think I may go with four to light the whole gym.

February 15, 2012 2:21 PM  
Blogger Puggle said...

Great post! I only had problems with my Pocket Wizard Plus II's once. I was on the Brooklyn Bridge shooting a couple and my remote flash would not fire. I was completely stumped. Ended-up shooting available light that one instance. I don't know why, but I'm guessing there was a lot of RF interference on the bridge.

February 24, 2012 11:55 PM  

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