Before the rush

Before the rush
by evan-pak

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I'm trying to get into using a wireless setup instead of a wired setup for triggering my off-camera flash, and this seems to be wading into a lot of products with very little clarity. There are a lot of manufacturers that make wireless triggering systems, and there are some flashes that are rigged up to be able to natively accept a wireless system. For instance, I have a Nissen flash that says it can get a signal from "Channel 1, Group A". The Yongnou YN-560 III also has a receiver (but I have not bought this unit yet).

If TTL is not involved (I'm not a great photographer, but I do like directly controlling the power of the flash), have all the manufacturers agreed on the "Channel X, Group Y" protocol and can, for instance, a CowboyStudio transmitter trigger a PocketWizard receiver? If they are not compatible, is there a good place for me to go to find out what is compatible?

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up vote 4 down vote accepted

It's all proprietary, I'm afraid, and interoperability is pretty much in-brand when it's there at all. (Though you may expect third-party makers to a least try compatibility with Canon's RF system at some point.) Some pro-level equipment is compatible with the PocketWizard system, or at least versions of it, but that seems to be licensed. (I'm sure the good folks at PocketWizard have nothing against convenience, but they'd probably just as soon you bought another of their units rather than simply copy their signalling system. Oh, and you wouldn't be able to say you're "PocketWizard compatible" without violating their trademarks either.)

As for the cheaper RF triggers/receivers, the compatibility is pretty much within a model range. Cactus V5 triggers, for instance, are not compatible with V4s, which are not compatible with V3s, and so on. It's the same situation with Yongnuo and Phottix -- unless they tell you that different units are compatible (usually with a common "name" for the range of devices), they won't be. Frequencies vary (newer units tend to work in the 2.4GHz band, while older ones are in the 900MHz range), as do signal encoding schemes and so forth. At the low end of the market, there's no real requirement to protect the users' investment in your old technology.

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That's annoying, though not at all surprising. They don't have all that much reason to cooperate on standards. – Savanni D'Gerinel Jun 24 '13 at 19:47

Wireless systems are triggered in one of two ways: optically by either infrared light or the visible light from the master flash unit or via radio signal from the transmitter to the receiver(s). In both cases there are systems that are capable of TTL when the various camera/flash combinations are all compatible with a single manufacturers system, and there are other systems that are only capable of triggering flashes set using manual controls. A Pocket Wizard trigger capable of using Nikon's i-TTL, for example, will not be able to control TTL functions for a flash made for Canon's E-TTL system, even if the receiver is on the same radio frequency. It should be able to trigger the flash to fire using manual controls on the flash.

If a flash is capable of being triggered by an optical flash of bright light, it should fire regardless of the source of the light. The limiting factor is the brightness of the source light in certain environments. When working in bright sunlight the range of the master unit will be less than in a less bright environment. Optical triggering can also be problematic if you are trying to photograph an event and your flashes are triggered every time someone takes a picture with their camera phone.

Radio triggers allow different photographers to use different frequencies so that each can discreetly trigger only their own system. Some triggers have the radio frequency they use labeled on the transmitter and receiver(s). If all you are going for is manual control, then any trigger/receiver combo should work if they are on the same frequency unless the signal to "fire" is encoded within that frequency.

In practice, if all you want is a way to tell a manually controlled flash to fire, start out with a cheap set of triggers like the Cowboy Studio NPT-04 plus extra receiver. If you find the range is too short for your needs or the durability is not up to what you will put them through, you're only out about $30 and you will have a better idea of what additional features are important to the way you want to use them.

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The majority of radio triggers are not compatible with each other, even if operating on the same frequency and from the same brand. There may be some semi-capability, such as Yongnuo's YN-560-TX transmitter being able to set off Yongnuo's RF-602 triggers, and the inter-operability of the RF-603, RF-603II and RF-605 triggers, but generally, do your research on the specific trigger you're interested in. The best site I've seen for doing research on triggers, lights, and compatibility is the Flash Havoc blog.

The "channel/group" protocol can be either on the trigger side (as with the above-mentioned triggers) or the camera/flash side (as with Canon's groups, channels, and ID codes in their infrared wireless and RF protocols). So, again, these can change depending on the triggers or brand of camera gear you're using. Don't assume compatibility of groups and channels unless both the trigger/receiver model match and the hotshoe protocol of the camera/flash match.

However, there are a few notable trigger choices that can get past the same-model restriction.

Canon's RF radio protocol is being cloned by Yongnuo and Shanny. Whether other 3rd party makers will follow is unknown, but Yongnuo has clones of both the 600EX-RT and ST-E3-RT Canon units that are supposed to play well within the system, if not with all the same capabilities. Shanny's RT units have yet to hit the market at the time of this writing (Jan 2015).

PocketWizard, RadioPopper, and Phottix all make triggers that interoperate with each other within the brand. You can mix both TTL and manual-only triggers, and they will all sync together, sometimes with group control.

And there is a new class of triggering systems coming up that are manual-only but manage to afford some type of remote power control either through a built-in receiver in a same-brand light, or through a quench pin hack for TTL speedlights. Yongnuo has the YN-560-TX and YN-560III/IV speedlights for this, with group on/off control with the RF-605. Cactus V6 triggers can control Canon, Nikon, Pentax, and selected four-thirds TTL flashes, and the Cactus RF60 speedlight. Similiarly, the RadioPopper JrX units can use an RPCube for flashes with quench-pin signals. The Godox Wistro and V850 can be power-controlled with Godox's FT-16 triggers.

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