If you’ve started using off-camera flash at all, you have probably started to see the benefit of having wireless flash transmitters. Wireless transmitters allow you to get rid off the clutter of wires connecting all your gear and give you extended possibilities due to the range allowed. There are a variety of types and price points on the market.
Several different brands of transmitters.
Here is a guide on what to look for and the features that you will need.
There are two kinds of transmitters—infrared and radio. Infrared is starting to become a thing of the past (so we won’t talk about it much) and is built in to many flashes. Infrared requires a line-of-site, so the transmitter and receiver need to see each other, within a reasonable distance, to work probably. Radio transmitters have the advantage of increased distance and the ability to work through walls. Radio transmitters have fewer limitations so this technology is being built into many new flashes.
Four things to look for in a wireless flash transmitter:
1. Wireless range
Radio transmitters are typically going to have a better range than infrared and can be anywhere from 100 ft to 1500 ft. Of course, the longer range transmitters tend to be more expensive. Be realistic about the range you will actually use. Most photographers use their transmitters within 15 feet of each other in a studio setting. The range is also dependent on the conditions of your environment and the radio frequency noise that your other equipment puts out.
2. Channel settings
When you are on location it is helpful to have a few channels to choose from, in the event that one channel is receiving interference. Many wireless radio transmitters have at least four channels to switch between. I have found this to be enough to keep from getting interference from other photographer’s equipment or random interference.
3. Sync speeds
Your camera and flash combination will have a certain maximum sync speed, typically around 1/160 to 1/250 of a second. This is the length of time the camera needs to absorb the full amount of light coming out of the flash. Using a radio transmitter can affect this time, and limit you to shorter shutter speeds, depending on the equipment you are using. This is something to consider when purchasing a wireless transmitter.
4. Compatibility and versatility
Depending on the system you buy, you may be getting transmitters and receivers or transceivers. Just like it sounds, a transmitter sends out a signal and a receiver receives a signal. A transceiver has the ability to do both and to be used interchangeably as transmitter and receiver. Transceivers have more versatility as it doesn’t matter which side is attached to your camera and which is attached to the flash. As you consider your purchase, look into other uses—for example some transmitters can also be used as a wireless shutter release—and what adaptor cables you need to use for those functions based on the capabilities of the transmitter. If your camera has TTL you may want to consider a TTL system with a dedicated transmitter and receiver to allow you to control your flash that way.
The good news is that the technology is continuing to improve and get less expensive. There are many options to choose from and of the dozens, I’ve only tried a couple out. I really like the Yongnuo 603s (made for Canon and Nikon systems). They are basic tranceivers but super cheap and have been very reliable for me. I have also used Paul C. Buff CyberSyncs for many years with both Alien Bees strobes and Canon speedlights. They are also very reliable. I have also used PocketWizards for some shoots with great success. They are the industry standard, very reliable, come with many additional features, and continue to drop in price as more and more competition comes from Chinese companies.
For even more off-camera flash techniques that will help you capture professional portraits be sure to check out the online Bluprint class Off-Camera Flash Photography!