Apr 07 2011

Flash Trigger & Battery Packs … minor update

Posted by Seth in Drag Racing, Photography

I had a chance to hit the track finally and test out the new Phottix 4-in-1 flash triggers that I told you about a few weeks ago.  I set up my flashes where I usually do and pointed them down the wall so that I could do a range test.

Full sync from over 1/8th mile away? I'll take it.

The above picture was taken from the 1/8th mile blocks, and that flash is 10 feet behind the starting line.  That’s 670 feet folks!!  Not bad for 100 meter advertised range. I didn’t feel like walking any farther nor do I have a lens long enough to make use of that range, so I stopped there.. who knows what the actual range is.

I also did plenty of running around and had no problems with the flash on the hotshoe on top of the transmitter.. everything nice and secure, and NO sync cords any more ! Lovin it.

Battery packs, suspended from the light stands

Just a minor change to the battery packs that I have been meaning to do for a bit – I put a small hole in the case so I could attach a tether and hang them from the light stand. Helps with stability, it was a real windy day and I’ve had flashes knocked over in the wind before, not this time!  Also, no need to bend over and pick up (and hold) the packs when I have to move them, I just grab the light stand and go.

Mar 21 2011

More Wireless Flash Trigger Testing (Phottix Strato)

Posted by Seth in Photography

If you read my last post on radio flash triggers, you would have gathered that it was time to retire the RD-616’s and pick up some new gear.  I started using the RD-616’s back in 2008, since then the technology and quality of the cheaper radio trigger systems has vastly improved.  I still want to stay away from Pocket Wizard, I simply just can’t afford them and don’t need to have to worry if I will be overlapping channels with anyone.After spending  some time reading Strobist and POTN, I was up to speed on the latest and greatest.  I hit Ebay and picked up some Yongnuo RF-602’s.  Because I have 4 flashes and 2 camera bodies, I picked up one pack with a transmitter and 4 receivers, and 1 extra transmitter. Total cost was about $140 shipped. (edit: go figure, Yongnuo has since released the RF-603’s, which I have not had my hands on)

They arrived from Hong Kong in about two weeks. I’ll spare you the nitty gritty as dozens of people have already reviewed them on various photography review sites – what I will share with you is my impressions of these and why I will be using these from now on.

The Yongnuo’s are solid – great build quality. The showstopper in my case was sync speed.  I shoot fast cars, I need the ability to have a fast shutter speed to stop motion if I want to, and the flashes have to be able to sync. The Yongnuo would sync just as fast  as the RD-616’s at 1/320 without banding when mounted on the hotshoe.  I always shoot with my 580EXII on the hotshoe in case I need some extra fill or I am shooting something that the flashes are not pointed at.  This means the Yongnuo would have to go on top of the flash and connect via PC cord, like I did with the RD-616.

Unfortunately for me, the Yongnuo’s have a wakeup  function where if the transmitter is in the hotshoe, and you half-press the shutter, it (this is my terminology) prepares the receiver for the upcoming signal, or wakes up the flash if it’s asleep.  The 1/320 sync speed I enjoyed on the hotshoe dwindled down to 1/200 when connected via PC port.  Coupled with the funny batteries on the transmitter, no locking collar on the transmitter, and not being able to reach the power switches when a flash is mounted – showstopper for me.

Don’t get me wrong – these are great radios, if you’re not running around a drag strip and needing high sync speed. I  HIGHLY recommend these for just about everyone besides myself.  (edit: go with the Yongnuo RF-603’s if you want to have a flash connected to a hotshoe-mounted transceiver.  However, they STILL don’t have locking collars – WTF Yongnuo?)

Phottix Stratto 4-in-1 Boxes

Dejected that the highly regarded RF-602’s wouldn’t work for me, it was back to the drawing board.  After lots more reading, the next system to try was the relatively new Phottix Strato 4-in-1.  Like the Yongnuo RF-602’s, this system also operates at 2.4ghz, as opposed to 433mhz like my old RD-616’s.

The benefits of the Phottix Strato’s over the Yongnuo’s are:

I ordered them on the 3rd of March and they arrived from HK on the 17th.  Total cost for 2 transmitters and 4 receivers from the Phottix store: $280.  Ouch.Testing Results  Scenario 1:Canon 40D, Transmitter on hotshoe

Results: Full sync at 1/250 and 1/320.  What I call ‘good enough sync’ at 1/400, good enough meaning I can shoot a car a little wide if I want, and the dark band will be on the drag strip – no big deal.    I’m very happy with these results – I now can sync at a higher speed than I previously could with the RD616’s.  FYI 1/500 looks like this.  On top of that, NO sync cords and a fully capable ETTL 580EXii on the hotshoe.  Scenario 2:Canon 40D, Phottix Strato connected via PC port

Results: Full sync at 1/250 . An extremely minute bit of shutter encroachment at 1/320, and a tiny bit more of it at 1/400 versus connected to the hotshoe. 1/500 looks like this. Again, I’m happy with the results, as the Yongnuo RF-602’s could not sync past 1/200 via the PC port. It seems that Phottix has figured out how to get around that ‘wake-up lag’ and go straight to firing, a big feature over the Yongnuo’s in my book.  Luckily, due to the trusty hotshoe on top of the transmitter, I won’t be using the PC port on the transmitter any time soon!Scenario 3: Canon Rebel XTi (400D) with Phottix Strato on the hotshoe (remember, XTi’s don’t have PC ports)Results: No need for pics. Same results as the 40D connected via PC port. Barely noticed banding at 1/320.  Not bad!

 Overall impressions The Strato’s are everything I was looking for, and even at double the price of Yongnuo RF-602’s, they are still worth it in my book.  Equivalent Pocket Wizard equipment would cost over $1000.  I bought them direct from the Phottix Store.  When you buy the transmitter + receiver combo, it comes with a shutter release cable specific to your body- it does not mean that a transmitter branded as 400D compatible will not work on a 40D hotshoe.Note that after all of this, Yongnuo released the RF-603’s.  Like the Strato’s, they also have full TTL passthrough to a flash on the hotshoe.  Great! Except they still forgot a mechanism to lock the transmitter on the hotshoe – WTF ???  The price is still great, but I can’t use them because I’m running around a drag strip all day and don’t need my $400 flash flying off the top of the camera body.

Mar 20 2011

Homemade Flash Battery Packs

Posted by Seth in Photography
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Battery packs, charging up. 2 of them with case off so you can see the guts

Charging and keeping track of 30+ rechargeable AA batteries got old for me REAL fast at the track.  Again I hit the Nerds on the Internet for a solution that would be cheap and reliable.  Quantum batteries were out of the question, I was not going to spend $250 for a battery on a $85 flash (I use cheapie Vivitar 285HV’s as slaves)


Quantum did have a product that I knew I wanted though – their battery cables. I kept my eyes on ebay and after a month I collected 4 Quantum flash cables for the Vivitar 285HV’s I use, and the Canon 430EX.  Retail price is over $50, I didn’t pay more than $20 a cable shipped.

4 AA batteries = 6 volts, so I went on the prowl for some big 6 volt batteries. Luckily for me, there is a Batteries Plus store down the street and they had quite a big selection of 6V batteries. I found waterproof plastic project enclosures and brought them with, and grabbed the battery that fit the best and also was rated high enough for my liking. 

For connections, I went over to the shack and grabbed some 4-pin plugs that also had screw locks so they wouldn’t disconnect unexpectedly on me.  Finishing up the enclosures was a fused link and a power switch.

The guts of the boxes

To charge these, I picked up 2 six-volt battery tenders and modified the packaged cable to charge 2 batteries at a time in parallel.  When they are not in the case, they sit on the charger at home, maintaining a charge.

Impressions? After 2 years of abuse, these things are still kicking.  No problems whatsoever, except for minor user problems like forgetting to plug the chargers in once!   The only time I actually killed a battery was at a two day race, I had at least 1000 full power pops on the 285HV’s before having to change to the next set.

Total cost? About $200 for four battery packs + cables.   Not bad considering I’d spend the same for ONE retail or Al Jacobs battery pack. Don’t get me wrong, those products are awesome, but I’m a DIY’er at heart.

The Quantum cable, with my end on it

Parts List (links to examples, where I can)

Mar 16 2011

Poverty Wizards – Ebay Radio Triggers

Posted by Seth in Photography
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RD616 Radio transmitters/receivers for flashes

My RD616 radio transmitters/receivers

When I started shooting drag racing back in 2008, I quickly realized that I’d need flashes to complement my photography equipment.  My requirements were to keep it cheap and reliable, which unfortunately in the photography world, do not go hand in hand.

I spent a good bit of time perusing photography catalogs such as B&H, and drooled over the cadillac of radio triggers at the time – Pocket Wizards.  At over $200 per device, though, these were out of the question for me.

I spent a good bit of time reading POTN and Strobist, and decided to go with some Ebay ‘Poverty Wizards’ care of our friends in China.  I went with the RD-616 transmitter/receiver combo, with some modifications.  The original source for my modifications is located here, along with a parts list. I’ll list the components you’ll need anyways (more for my reference, as I keep losing the original link).

Be sure to follow the original instructions regarding wire length to keep the wavelength correct.

My impressions?  I used these triggers for 2.5 full seasons of racing, and for what I paid, they worked (still do work) great.  You have to realize that 433mhz radios around concrete and electronics (read: the drag strip) are doomed for failure, but I learned what I could and could not get away with, and adjusted my techniques. My max sync speed with no banding was 1/250, while I could easily get away with 1/320 as the band would only be the bottom 10% of the frame.  Range was a good 150 feet.  All of the real photogs have pocket wizards and not enough channels to use, with these, I never had any sort of overlap problem.

Here’s a thread on YellowBullet where I was talking to the other guys about how I use my slave flashes..  easier to link than type it all again!! YMMV, that is just the way *I* use them.   Side flashes give me the versatility to shoot at night in many different ways, I’m not just limited to a hotshoe flash with the camera at ISO 5 million.  During the day, they are perfect for fill, removing unwanted shadows from the fronts of cars. Shots come out of the camera great, without having to touch anything up.

Flashes in use at Englishtown

Flashes in use at Englishtown

The Cons: Sync cables.  I think they are a pain in the ass, personally. I found whatever I possibly needed at FlashZebra (don’t get me wrong, the products themselves are GREAT from FZ) but eventually with my hard use and storage of the cables, I’d have to get new ones once a year.  The 1/4″ connection from receiver to flash sync cord is “goofy,” sometimes I would have to rotate them or push on them for the flashes to fire properly. On a windy day, this became annoying, especially if I was far away.  I tried cords that go directly to the sync port on the 285HV’s, hot shoe adaptors, and while they worked 90% of the time, the other 10% when I had to screw with them was annoying.  In cold weather they seemed to get weird on me.  Also, having the transmitter hanging off a sync cord from the camera and dangling by velcro means sometimes I’d knock it off by accident.

If I were in a studio, or inside, these triggers are awesome for the money – I have 2 transmitters and 5 receivers, and I think I paid $80 for everything.  Not bad considering the price tag of Pocket Wizards.   I adapted to them at the drag strip, and yes they worked great, but time to move on.

The future? Some new gear has come out of China since 2008 when I started using radio triggers, I have some new ones on the way and will post up when they are put through my testing.

Lebanon Valley Dragway

Taken from the roof of LVD tower (4 stories)

Tommy Kasper

Flashes in use, night time at MIR World Cup 2010