Should You Consider an IR Remote?

Most people sync with a cord, radio or some version of a proprietary system—i.e., CLS or E-TTL. But infrared (IR) remotes are another, if much less used, option.

They are compact, cheap and wireless so there's a lot to like. But they also have some weaknesses. Today we'll be taking a look at whether an IR remote may be a good choice for you.

The IR remote shown above is the Wein Sync-Link. You can get them for about $70. I stuck it on a Fuji X100 for testing, which is very relevant as you'll see in a minute. But first, some basics.

Like all IR remote triggers, the Sync-Link is essentially a small flash with a strong IR filter in front. You see it fire, but really have no sense of how much light is blasting out because you can't see infrared light.

So don't look straight at it when you pop it because that IR blast can definitely fry your eyeba… kidding, kidding. They're safe.

You hear a pretty good pop, but you see a tiny one. However, the slave on your flash (which is sensitive to the infrared portion of the spectrum) sees it quite well. To the slave it is as if you are blasting a direct flash right into it.

For this reason they are very effective triggers within the circumstances where straight flash and slave would also work. But this on-camera IR flash does not affect your exposure.

Indoors, these things rock. The light, even if not direct, bounces off various surfaces and is very efficient—even if the slaved flash is in the next room. And it should go without saying that your lights need to be slaved to work with an IR remote. It should also go without saying that in 2012, you should really not consider buying a flash that does not have a (damn good) onboard slave. Seriously.

I used an IR remote for several years early in my career (no money for good radios) and can vouch for them in just about any moderate-distance situation. But they're not perfect—what is?—so you should be aware of the pros and cons before you take the jump.


They are smaller, lighter, cheaper and less expensive than a dedicated, onboard flash to trigger other slaved flashes. If you have several slaved flashes, the addition of an IR remote gives you a complete remote triggering system.

It's also a compact setup. When traveling, I might take a body and two flashes with an IR remote. I can always trigger flash #2 with flash #1, but if I want to use both flashes off-camera the remote will let me. Also, if one of my flashes goes belly up I still have a light and a remote trigger.

They are fast enough to not add a limit to your sync speed. Radio remotes can introduce small-but-critical delays for people who like to sync way up in the range with special cameras like the Nikon D70s or, in my case these days, the Fuji X100.

The (leaf-shutter) X100 syncs at any speed, and IMO is the best fast-syncing chip out there without spending crazy money. This snapshot was synced outside in light-cloudy weather at ISO 400, f/4, 1/2000th of a second with the Sync-Link.

That last zero is not a typo, Canon 5D or Nikon D600 users. The flash (a LumoPro LP160) is just at a quarter power, but is still manhandling the overcast ambient because of the super-fast sync speed.

This is about a 35 foot range, which is the outside envelope for reliable outdoor syncing with this IR remote. (If you are using multiple lights, that range goes up because of the cascading effect of multiple slaves.)

But the point here is that the IR remote is not limiting the ability of the camera to full-pop sync at 1/2000th.

(Oh, and don't tell Susan I ran a grab shot of her working in the garden. She'll kill me.)

"What are you doing?"

"Nothing. Just testing a remote."


So, indoors, portrait range outdoors, even in fast-syncing situations these things are pretty spiffy. But nothing is perfect…


It's a flash, meaning all of the flash-based disadvantages apply. Line of sight is pretty important outdoors. As in don't try without it. But you can always get around this if using multiple lights, as they will cascade.

For instance, I can trigger the backlight, which itself then triggers the key, which could well be behind me. Just something to bear in mind.

Also, recycle time comes into play. Running on 2 AA's, the Sync-Link needs about 1.5 secs between pops. Generally not an issue, as you are presumably using flashes in your shot that need to recycle, too. But still, no quick double-taps.

A Cheap DIY Hack

For those of you with a pop-up flash in your camera, you may already be most of the way to an IR remote as it is. (Remember, we are talking about dumb sync with any slaved flash or combo of slaved flashes here, not CLS/E-TTL triggering, etc.)

You'll need a IR-passing, visible-light-blocking gel to cover it, and use it on manual (so no TTL pre-flashes). But it should in theory work well. I can't find a cheap IR gel in Rosco's catalog, but something like this might work.

Also, many slide films can serve this function if developed before being exposed. (Or use the developed, but unexposed strip at the end of the roll and near the canister, for instance.) But I have never tried this, and doubt it would be super-efficient. Love to hear it if anyone else has.

So, who uses IR remotes? What models do you like/dislike, and why? Comments welcome.


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Blogger Mic Ty said...

If you can find an old diskette (3.5 or 5.25 inch), the magnetic diskette can be cut up and act like an IR pass-through filter.

September 27, 2012 3:11 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

PIXEL KINGS for me from here on out. Cheap, TTL and High-speed sync, change setttings from camer amenu. Everything I need. The IR triggers are okay, but optical works with the equipment I have now out of the box as a backup.

September 27, 2012 3:32 PM  
Blogger Steve Bodayla said...

You can layer red, blue, and green gels from a sample pack to make an effective IR-pass filter for your flash.

September 27, 2012 3:35 PM  
Blogger Steve Bodayla said...

You can layer the red, green, and blue gels from a Rosco sample pack to make an effective and fairly efficient IR-pass filter for your flash.

September 27, 2012 3:37 PM  
Blogger Daniel Moore said...

The Kodak #87 Opaque IR Gel is just the ticket.

I tape a strip of this over the on camera flash with a tab of clear tape so I can flip it out of the way when necessary and close the flash with the filter in place. This works almost miraculously well with the SB-80DX, so well in fact that I dial down the on camera flash to save on battery. I also use the Wein Pro Sync and SB-80DX with excellent results.

September 27, 2012 4:11 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Nikon has the SG-31R gizmo for converting a pop-up flash to an IR trigger. Not as cheap as scrounging up a bit of IR-filtering gel, but not all that much, either.

September 27, 2012 6:21 PM  
Blogger Kurt Jürgen Lindner said...

A 'Congo Blue' gel should work.

I read a blog once, describing how 2 or 3 layers of 'Congo Blue' over olde school welder's goggles will allow you to see IR in real life (don't look at the sun) because it's the correct wavelength to .
It works, -and it's pretty sweet. It should have the same effect on a flash.

September 27, 2012 6:58 PM  
Blogger Al Gervais said...

With my x100 I've been successful with one corded flash. I use canon flashes so the built in slave feature has not been an option. But when I try firing more than one flash by way of pc sync cords and splitters I can't get it to work.
Your solution is much cleaner but I'll have to find some reliable slave cells for the canon flashes.
Any suggestions on a good slave cell for us poor canon users Dave :)

September 27, 2012 8:03 PM  
Blogger martybugs said...

I used to use a Canon ST-E2 trigger a lot. While it works well indoors, it struggles outdoors.
I replaced it with a set of Phottix Odin TTL wireless triggers, and have been loving the functionality they provide, as well as the reliability and significantly improved range outdoors.

September 27, 2012 9:30 PM  
Blogger Reid Bowie said...

Brilliant! The thought just never crossed my mind that a Wein-sync would work! The X100 was getting so clunky for me that I was thinking about selling it. The firmware is so ill-designed for this type of thing that the on-board flash is non-adjustable in commander mode. I've got the thing wrapped in GT with tiny slivers of tung and ND so I could add the appropriate amount of units to color correct/drop the flash out, this really sucked despite the added fill. I feel like an idiot for not thinking about it before...

September 27, 2012 9:52 PM  
Blogger Jyrki K said...

I use IR-remote on a daily basis on my studio portraits at work. It is very reliable and fast recycling if you have fresh batteries in it.

September 28, 2012 12:01 AM  
Blogger Nionyn said...

Heh, I was using an IR trigger before I knew radio triggers existed. Bought it as soon as I got sick of using my hand or a piece of card or foil to deflect the pop-up flash for triggering Vivitars.
I still use it too (no idea what brand it is, it's a rebadged boxy generic thing), and always carry it as a backup to my radios.
As you suggest in the blog post, in the right situation they can actually be the most sensible type of trigger to use. These days it's often my choice indoors with monolights, especially if I need to carry the kit from one location to another (such as when doing a shoot for a school in numerous different classrooms). Simple and totally effective, and fewer cables, connectors and other bits & pieces to worry about.
I like mine. :-)

September 28, 2012 12:20 AM  
Blogger John Ha said...

Nice post. I've been using the E6 film trick for years. My Ricoh GXR 50mm has a piece of it taped permanently to its onboard flash. Has never failed me.

September 28, 2012 5:31 AM  
Blogger Joe Holmes said...

As "Unknown" said, the 3G-3IR is taylor-made for IR screening, and not really pricey at $12 street price. And I think it may have been covered here in Strobist at one point, but there are times when Nikon's CLS allows the built-in flash to illuminate the subject a little even when all you want is a trigger. The 3G-3IR solves that problem handily, so I always use it when CLSing...

September 28, 2012 8:54 AM  
Blogger jpablo said...

I use exposed film. Surprisingly it's very efficient! I used it with the popup flash of a D7000 and it works fine at several meters.

September 28, 2012 11:08 AM  
Blogger Antares said...

$70 sounds about twice as much as it should cost for an IR trigger. I used to have a JTL (which worked very well to the day I sold it after I went radio). I picked it up on ebay for $30 bucks or so.

$70 is a looong way toward a decent set of remotes (like CyberSync), even some with more functionality (like Pixel Kings). $30 is a long way to a useable set of remotes (like Cactus V5's).

September 28, 2012 11:10 AM  
Blogger alohadave said...

@Kurt Jürgen Lindner, you wouldn't be seeing the IR, just heavily filtered visible light. Your eyes cannot see IR at all, no matter how many filters you put on.

If you want to use gels, several ND gels will do the trick. They will filter visible light, but not IR.

September 28, 2012 9:51 PM  
Blogger RealGigReel said...

I second @jpablo :

Using an off-cut of exposed developed film taped over pop up flash works very reliably up-to several metres indoors.

And it's (almost) free :)

Nikon's CLS doesn't work reliably as far as excluding the commander from contributing to exposure.
Filtering out most of visible light with IR-passing filetr solves the problem.

Some great information from all posters !


September 29, 2012 12:43 AM  
Blogger Michael Quack - Visual Pursuit said...

I am a burnt child in regard to Wein products. I have discarded two out of three ultra slaves, that stopped working after two years of use. When the third one also died, I decided to open it to have a look inside. Well....... see for yourself:

Had I known that a fresh battery would likely have fixed the two before. Wein of course never replied to my complaint about the misrepresenting "batteryless" sticker.

This is enough reason to put them on my personal blacklist forever.

September 29, 2012 1:26 AM  
OpenID Rhombus said...

I use a few layers of Rosco Medium Grey (cut from a $6.50 sheet) on the pop-up. It's 25% transmission, so 3 layers cut down the visible popup flash by 6 stops, but still let through most of the IR. And two layers are sufficient to effectively eliminate the D90 popup CLS commander afterglow.

The nice thing about this approach is that the filter is color-neutral and has controllable transmission (by choosing the number of layers), so you can use the pop-up simultaneously as a full-power IR/CLS trigger and low-power color-correct fill light.

September 30, 2012 10:36 AM  
Blogger William Huff Photography said...

An additional con is that it won't work in direct sunlight, at least the Canon IR trigger I tried years ago didn't.

September 30, 2012 11:04 AM  
Blogger Kevin said...


There's some funkiness with the canon flashes and standard optical slaves and cords. Try one of these instead:

October 02, 2012 1:50 PM  
Blogger belfox said...

Nice try, David, but I don't buy it.

Of course you're using a gazillion Wattseconds ProFoto at full power, powered off that nice solar panel set-up on your roof (I can see the thick mains cable just at the foot of the light stand) Hope the missus didn't get a sunburn in the process ;-)

As always, interesting and to-the-point post. Thx for sharing.

October 04, 2012 5:00 AM  
Blogger belfox said...

Nice try, David, but I don't buy it.

Of course you're using a gazillion Wattseconds ProFoto at full power, powered off that nice solar panel set-up on your roof (I can see the thick mains cable just at the foot of the light stand) Hope the missus didn't get a sunburn in the process ;-)

As always, interesting and to-the-point post. Thx for sharing.

October 04, 2012 5:00 AM  
Blogger Louis Brooks said...

I haven't tested this yet so I have no idea if it works, but I'm going to buy an infra-red led and simply wire it up to the hot-shoe mount on my camera. I've tested my flash with a TV remote (which work on infra-red) and it fired no problem. And they're available for under $5 too, so they're cheap as hell!

November 05, 2012 1:51 AM  
Blogger Nick Linton said...

After a lot of looking, I found a cheap IR filter to cover the flash on my X100s ... just to let others know ... search for HAMMOND - 1593PIR10 - PANEL, INFRA RED

June 25, 2014 10:59 AM  

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