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.