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I have been reading up on the different kinds of lighting kits out there. I read about using optical triggers for external lighting kits. This would allow me to use my on-camera flash (or a mounted flash) without having to invest in TTL compatible parts. I use a Nikon d50 which doesn't support that out of the box.

What are the pros and cons to using this method of triggering external lighting?

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5 Answers 5

up vote 13 down vote accepted

Pros:

  • Many small strobes and studio lights already have optical triggers built in, so you may already have them.
  • Because optical triggers are often built in, this reduces the number of items you need to carry, as well as the number of interconnects. Fewer parts leaves less room for failure or error.
  • Optical triggers are inexpensive if you do need to add or replace them.
  • Many optical triggers are built in or powered from the strobe's triggering circuit, so you don't need extra batteries.
  • Optical triggers (visible light, rather than infrared) just detect the burst of light, so you don't need a system made up of compatible triggers from the same manufacturer. You can mix and match.
  • If you travel, optical triggers can be used anywhere. Radio triggers operate on licensed frequencies which do vary from country to country.
  • They can work reliably in a studio environment where conditions can be controlled.

Cons:

All these cons boil down to the issue of the reliability of detecting the triggering flash or detecting something other than the triggering flash.

  • Optical triggers can fail in bright sunlight, as there's not enough contrast between the sun and the triggering flash.
  • Optical triggers are limited in the distance the trigger must be from the triggering flash - the flash needs to be bright enough by the time it hits the trigger.
  • The triggering flash may be set to a power level for creative purposes that is too low for the trigger to detect. This can force you to change your lighting scheme.
  • Any object between the triggering flash and the optical trigger can prevent the flash from being detected. This includes modifiers (umbrellas, softboxes etc), flags, the subject, and solid objects like walls. (When shooting interiors, it's common to hide a light on the other side of a doorway or behind a sofa, for example.)
  • An optical trigger usually needs to be facing the direction of the triggering flash, even if there are no blocking objects in between. Otherwise you're relying on reflected light, which may not be powerful enough to trigger the strobe. This can limit light placement options.
  • Optical triggers are prone to false-positives and can flash with e.g. the reflected light from a passing car. This can cost battery life and cause you to wait for the strobe to recycle.
  • Optical triggers can be falsely triggered by other people's flashes. If working alongside other photographers, or just members of the public with point-and-shoots, any flash will trigger your lights. If this is happening, you have no options other than to eliminate the source of the flashing or move away.
  • If any of your equipment issues a pre-flash (used variously for auto-focus assist, red eye reduction etc) an optical trigger will fire before the main flash, often not leaving the triggered light enough time to recycle to flash again for the shutter. The result in your photo will be as if the optically-triggered lights did not fire.

It's for reliability reasons that many people choose radio triggers, even inside the studio. Those are not without their problems (most pros for optical triggers are cons for radio), but I think those are out of scope for this question.

Optical triggers are a good, less expensive solution if you can either control the environment in which they're used, or are happy to deal with a few reliability issues.

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Con: I've had problems with lighting modifiers (specifically, a shoot-through umbrella) altering the light enough to not reliably trigger the optical hotshoe on my second flash. It's a lot more finicky this way.

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You can't really have complicated setups with just optical trigger E.g. if you are using one flash to illuminate a person's face and another flash to illuminate the wall on the back, which you won't be able to do because the flash is not facing the primary flash. Just go with the affordable alienbees.. believe me those ebay optical triggers don't last that long.

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I prefer radio. You a have a shorter range on optical, but more importantly, your sensor and your trigger need to be "face to face" - which can be a pain if you are using 2 strobes, one on camera. Alienbees has a nice, medium priced radio system called "cybersync"

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I have not seen this problem using manual controls. Perhaps the Nikon CLS or Canon's equivalent are more sensitive to this. With manual strobes like a LumoPro LP160, any bright flash in the room triggers it, no need to have the strobes look at each other. –  Pat Farrell Aug 8 '12 at 3:52

Couple of cons:

1) It can be hard to trigger strobes in say a Westcott 43" Orb optically, because the strobe is inside the modifier.

2) If there is another photographer shooting, his/her flash can set off your strobes.

For a couple of years, I used a PC-Sync cable and optical triggers built into my LP160s. Worked well.

Recently I have moved to Cactus V, they are inexpensive and solve both #1 and #2

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