Wireless Radio Triggers; What No Studio Or Location Photographer Should Be Without

The first time I met a wireless radio trigger was while writing a review of White Lightning monolights, circa 1998. The Paul C. Buff company sent a RadioRemote One transmitter and four receivers to use with their lights, so I decided to give them a try just to see what they could do. By the time I was through I had purchased the lights from Paul C. Buff, not because I needed more lights but because I couldn't live without the RadioRemote Ones. Since then they have become an integral part of my lighting technique. Even when I take my lights on location, which I often do, each one has a receiver permanently assigned to it.

As good as the RadioRemote One wireless radio triggers may be, every cloud has an 18 percent gray lining. They are only designed to work with White Lightning and AlienBees strobes made by Paul C. Buff, Inc. So, where does that leave everyone else? Someone using Elinchrom, Speedotron, or Profoto? I decided to investigate and see what was out there.

It seems I'm not the only one who has discovered the joy of wireless remote triggers. I was able to identify a number of wireless remote triggers with universal capabilities, including a new one from Paul C. Buff--the Radio Flash Trigger One. The others are the Quantum FreeXwire, MicroSync Digital, Morris 4-Channel Wireless Radio Trigger, Calumet LiteLink, Elinchrom EL-Skyport Universal, Bowens Pulsar, PocketWizard PLUS II, and PocketWizard MultiMAX. There may be others out there, and this list does not include those wireless radio transmitters, such as the RadioReceiver One, which are dedicated to a specific make of lights. What all of these wireless triggers have in common is that they will remotely trigger strobe units. Some will do considerably more.

(Top): Focus trap consisting of a hummingbird feeder, two Avenger C-stands, Canon EOS 5D with a 24-70mm lens, White Lightning monolight, and two complete MicroSync Digital wireless remote triggers. (Above): Hummingbird.
Photos © 2007, Steve Anchell, All Rights Reserved

To help you sort out the differences I have assigned each radio trigger to one of three levels, based on their functionality. The first level covers the ability to simultaneously fire one or more light. The primary difference between these and either a slave device (found on most strobes made today, including handheld flash units) or an infrared (IR) triggering device is that the wireless radio triggers do not require line-of-sight to operate. In other words, you can place one or more lights around a corner, behind you, or suspend them from the ceiling--wherever--and the radio remote will trigger all of them. This can be important if you don't want light coming from the camera position as well, which would happen if you used a slave unit. Radio triggers which fall into this first level would be the Paul C. Buff Radio Flash Trigger One, Calumet LiteLink, and Morris 4-Channel Wireless Radio Trigger.

The second level of wireless remote trigger will trigger cameras as well as strobes, and can be set for remote relay firing. What remote relay firing means is that the camera can be triggered remotely along with a flash unit not connected to the camera. Without relay firing, the camera and light will both fire, but they won't be in sync. Some of the uses for this would be: a camera mounted on top of a basketball hoop with a flash unit mounted off to the side or perhaps suspended above; a remote camera placed alongside a bicycle raceway with one or more strobes positioned strategically away from the camera to light the action wherever the bike might happen to be flying through the frame. The photographer, meanwhile, may choose to be at another position farther up the trail to capture the action there. Transmitters that will do this include the Bowens Pulsar, MicroSync Digital, and the PocketWizard PLUS II, as well as the level three transmitters, the PocketWizard MultiMAX, Quantum FreeXwire, and Elinchrom EL-Skyport Universal.

The third level are those transmitters which have additional or unique functions which operate universally with most systems: the PocketWizard MultiMAX, Quantum FreeXwire, and Elinchrom EL-Skyport Universal. All three of these will trigger both strobe and flash, incorporating all of the functionality of the level two units and have additional capabilities such as the ability to delay fire strobes in sequence (MultiMAX), expose using the TTL system of the camera with multiple remote flash units (FreeXwire), or work with multiple banks of strobes (EL-Skyport Universal). Not all three are capable of the same multifunctions so it is important to read their tech sheets to find out if what they do is what you need.

Of the level three units the MultiMAX is perhaps the most versatile. Special functions include 32 distinct frequencies, including 16 which will fire multiple banks of strobes; delayed flash firing; rear curtain synchronization; 1600-foot range; quad-triggering (enabling activation of flash or cameras in four separate zones); time interval triggering; multiple flashes; and a number of other functions not found on other units.

Self-portrait with model Rochelle Ikeda. (Canon EOS 5D with a 24-70mm lens; four PocketWizard PLUS IIs, two White Lightning monolights with Photoflex Medium HalfDome2.