Being a digital wedding photographer for the past decade, I have had the pleasure (and displeasure) of using pretty much every different kind of wireless flash system ever invented for these types of photojournalistic situations. Off the top of my head, I have owned or at least extensively used the following systems:
- Pocket Wizard Plus / Plus II / Plus III
- RadioPopper PX / JRX
- Pocket Wizard TTL / Flex
- Generic Ebay etc.
- And of course, good ‘ol infra-red built-in wireless. (Nikon CLS, and Canon)
Did I miss any? Suffice it to say, it’s been a long, long road. I have learned to abhor dead batteries and unreliable cables / ports with a passion, as any other veteran “OCF” (off-camera flash) user will understand.
So the question is, as a wedding and engagement photographer, what trigger system is currently my favorite? After ~10 years of searching, I have finally perfected a system that is truly a delight to use. I’ve got all the right flashes, triggers, cables, and batteries. It took a little bit of MacGyvering, of course…
This is not so much an official review. In fact this system is nothing new, it has been around for a few years now. So what I am writing is simply an in-depth demonstration of how I personally set up my radio wireless flash system for wedding / event / portrait photography, using nothing but regular (old) hotshoe flashes and a compact, reliable radio triggering system.
I believe that the exact details of this setup make it one of the best systems out there for wedding photographers, or any type of portable, on-location shooter. If you’re into power packs and beauty dishes and C-Stands, this review may not be for you. I have never tried using these triggers with studio strobes… However if you like having a minimal, affordable kit at least some of the time, then read on!
The RadioPopper JrX System
The core of the system are the RadioPopper JrX units. They’re small, rugged, and reliable. As a Strobist would say, “they go pop every time, what more do you want?” True dat! Actually however, there is a little more that I have indeed always been wanting. First, a little bit of history:
Almost everybody started out with wireless flash by using a built-in infrared or optical triggering system that came with their camera and/or flashes. I had this feature on my Nikon D70 in 2003, with my Nikon SB800 and SB600. The cool part was, I could change the power of the remote flashes from the back of my camera! This definitely spoiled me.
From the day I started using more advanced radio triggering systems, I hated the fact that I had to walk over to the flashes to change the power. It’s not that I hate exercise, it’s just extremely time-consuming to do during a wedding day or portrait session, especially if you don’t have an assistant or if they are busy doing something else at the time.
But of course built-in infrared flash control, as advanced as it is, is highly unreliable. Okay let’s be honest, in bright sunlight or on a packed dance floor, it is a complete joke. This is why most professionals stick with radio triggers. I use infrared wireless in a pinch, but only on rare occasions.
But radio triggers come with additional annoyances. A bad cable or a dead battery can be incredibly frustrating if you’re on the job and all of a sudden your flash reliability drops to 50%. PC sync ports and cables in particular are the bane of my Strobist existence, to put it nicely!
In 2007, the Strobist community began to hear rumors of a new radio trigger system, one that didn’t require any cables, and offered the one thing I missed so dearly: on-camera control of wireless flashes! Kevin King started the RadioPopper project on his kitchen table, and slowly grew the product from grassroots to mainstream. Pocketwizard jumped on the bandwagon and came out with their own TTL “piggyback” system. It was slow going at first, with lots of bugs and frustrated early-adopters on both sides. I tried both systems briefly, but the price was pretty steep for either system considering the initial reliability and functionality. Heck, it took them like a year to even come out with a Nikon version! So I stuck with what worked for a few more years. The RadioPopper JrX sytem came out, but it sounded like an oddball product considering its price and seemingly limited functionality. However there were whispers of a magic “cube” device that would come later, and allow advanced wireless control of things like Alien Bee strobes.
I didn’t do a double-take until just a couple years ago, when details became more widely known- With the JrX system and the long-awaited accessory “RP Cube”, you could indeed control the manual flash output of certain Nikon / Canon hotshoe strobes. They even managed to almost completely do away with the need for a PC Sync port/cable. Hallelujah!
The JrX system is semi-straightforward: You have a dedicated transmitter unit and a dedicated receiver unit, instead of “transceivers”. I don’t mind this, because I usually just leave my receivers permanently velcro’d to my flashes anyways. Then, the receiver unit can either connect directly to the flash via the flashes PC sync port, (boo! — they do make hotshoe adapters though) …or you can buy the RPCube, and use a standard 3.5mm audio cable.
Here is where it gets awesome. With the right RPCube unit and the right hotshoe flash, you can now use your transmitter unit’s 3 knobs to manually control the flash power of up to 3 different groups of wireless flashes!
My favorite hotshoe flash is the Nikon SB80DX. You can always find them on Ebay for about $130 or so in good condition. The reason I like the SB80 is because it is Nikon’s oldest and cheapest flash that still has a metal foot. The older Nikon Flashes, such as the SB24 and SB28, all have plastic feet. Plastic feet were about as dumb of an idea as the PC sync port was.
There are newer flashes out there, some are cheaper or more functional, however I like the SB80 because it is just so dang rock-solid. As they say, “they just don’t make ’em like they used to!”
Speaking of which, I am delighted to report that the RadioPoppers, although they’re not ancient like the SB80, are also still built with that rock-solid feel, on-par with the latest Pocket Wizards and far above all the cheaper “budget triggers” out there. Initial tests and early reviews mentioned that RadioPoppers felt a little more cheap, but whatever they’re shipping now in 2013 has got that nice feeling of solid craftsmanship.
Anyways, the Nikon SB80 works beautifully with the RadioPopper JrX system, and the power control knobs on the JrX transmitter control the SB80 flash power fully from 1/1 power to 1/128 power.
I have always disliked PC sync ports and cables. The connection is just always un-reliable under heavy use, due to the pinch-style design of the cable’s critical connection piece. Yes, a brand new sync port and cable will work flawlessly, but it inevitably wears out and the connection gets loose. Even if you have a screw-lock PC sync cable, the port itself is prone to eventually getting a bad connection within it’s own housing. That, and the long cables always seem to snag on something!
Actually, most triggers don’t use PC sync ports, it’s the flashes and cameras that are to blame. Most all hotshoe flash ports are PC sync, such as on all the old Nikon Flashes that are so popular with Strobists…
Of course you can work around the PC port by purchasing a special cable that adapts from your trigger’s port to the hotshoe of the flash itself.
This is essentially how the RadioPopper RPCube functions, but it has a little bit of added circuitry to allow the main receiver unit to send more than just a “fire” signal to the flash. The awesome thing is, both units use audio jacks! Bye, bye, PC sync!
I had to search high and low, but I managed to find the perfect 3.5mm audio cable for this setup: a 6-inch right-angle cable. They fit perfectly for a setup that has a JrX receiver velcro’d to the side of a hotshoe flash similar to above. The 6″ length with right-angle ends is perfect for keeping a low-profile. The receiver unit ships with a regular audio cable, but it pokes straight out from the unit and the Cube which is just begging to be bent or snagged. Throw ’em in your backup bag, and get a set of these! The right-angle cables are usually just $7 each, but are not easy to find. Sometimes Buy.com has them…
The Control Knobs
The control knobs on the transmitter unit function beautifully well, but unfortunately they are completely un-labeled right out of the box. This is because they’re designed to function with all manner of different flashes, and the different knob positions don’t always correspond to the exact same flash power.
I went to town with a P-Touch labeler, some scissors and a pair of tweezers. I was able to mark each knob, plus add a rough increment gauge for one of the knobs. I got lazy after that. If you think this is slick, you should check out THIS custom label created by a Strobist group member on Flickr!
At first I felt like the labeling was essential. After a while though you just kinda get used to the simple operation, and the general increments. Clockwise = darker photos, and counter-clockwise = brighter photos!
RadioPopper does include a diagram in the PDF manual as well, which shows the potential difference in overall power settings from one flash unit to another. Again, these markings are not on the unit itself out of the box, but once you get the hang of it you’ll be dialing in your flashes perfectly in no time.
So at the end of the day this isn’t too annoying for me; although I would indeed openly recommend to the folks at RadioPopper: consider at least marking the knobs a little bit, even if you can’t put exact numbers on them arkings or even if the markings can’t even correspond to whole stops on every single brand of flash out there.
While they’re at it, if they’re making design changes I think the knobs could stand to be a little bit more low-profile. I haven’t seriously bent any of them yet, but I’m still fearful.
The RadioPopper JrX units don’t take AA or AAA batteries, but that’s a lot less annoying than it sounds. The CR123 batteries are pretty awesome; they seem to last forever! (2-3 whole weddings = forever in the radio trigger world ;-)
I was fortunate enough to procure a set of Tenergy brand CR123 rechargeable batteries with my set of RadioPoppers. They aren’t lithium or Ni-MH, but the “LiFePO4” technology does seem to be very “low self-discharge”, like Eneloop Batteries etc. You can get a set of 6 batteries and a 2-bay charger for under $20 on Amazon or Ebay! When the JrX system first came out a few years ago these batteries were harder to come by, but now I don’t see it as an issue and I really appreciate the more compact size / weight!
BTW in case you didn’t know, yes the SB80 flash does still take AA batteries, so you have to carry both kinds of batteries.
How does the setup work when you have to use a hotshoe flash on your camera during a wedding etc? Like most other trigger systems, you have to connect the transmitter to your camera’s secondary flash sync port. Usually this is a PC Sync port. I dislike PC Sync ports as I have mentioned already, however I’ve been getting great results with screw-lock PC cables such as this one below:
Of course the more important question is, where on earth do you mount the transmitter? Over the years I have seen pretty much everything under the sun. Some people velcro / rubber-band massive pocketwizard triggers to the topmost flash head section of their on-camera hotshoe flash, but that just adds to the weight of the flash in a way that really stresses out the camera hotshoe. Other people use a side-bar style bracket to mount the transmitter just to the side the camera body, however this causes it to stick out and snag on things and if you’re not careful the metal shoe can cause flash interference and/or even interfere with your image quality at high ISOs!
Despite being quite bumpy and tough to find a good spot for velcro, I settled on the side-mound situation that you see above. It barely catches the corner of the underside of the transmitter unit, but it isn’t going to fall off. Yeah, the velcro might need to be replaced every year or so, but that’s a small expense for what I feel is the perfect low-profile and easy-access to the knobs.
The JrX system has sixteen channels, controlled by small dip-switches. The dip-switches also control a few other functions, such as the ability to change the lowest power setting to be “off completely” which is very handy, or the ability to disable flash control from a second or third transmitter unit, for when you’re shooting a wedding with a 2nd or 3rd photographer and you want to be the only one who can adjust the flash power.
Since the Nikon SB80DX flashes lock into place on the RPCube via a single switch, I took some extra caution and put a bit of tape over the switch, and in between the RPCube and the flash base itself. They’re not going anywhere!
As you might have noticed in the other images, I also clearly labeled my flashes “main flash” and “back flash” etc. so that I could remember which dial to turn on my transmitter. If you don’t do this, you’ll find yourself constantly forgetting which flash is which and adjusting the power of the wrong flash!
I haven’t explained a few other things yet: Yes, Nikon SB80 flashes can be controlled wirelessly no matter what camera system you have. The JrX system works independently of your camera’s signals, and all you have to worry about is getting a Nikon-model RPCube if you use SB80’s etc, or a Canon-model RPCube if for example you want to use your spare 430EX or 580EX flashes. Just put the flashes in TTL, and the RPCube sends your manual control signal to the flash!
General Wedding Lighting Tips
First of all, you might be wondering why my SB80 flash head is turned backwards. This is because it makes it easier to see the controls on the flash when it is backed into the corner of a room. ;-)
When I set up wireless flashes for a wedding day, I have two basic lighting concepts. Earlier in the day and for general indoor portraiture, I simply set a flash in the corner of the room and point it up at the wall and ceiling, provided they are close to white in color. This gives me beautifully soft overall lighting, as if I had simply turned up the overall ambient light but without the nasty harsh shadows that a bunch of desk laps etc can cause. Using the JrX system with small hotshoe flashes on a compact Light stand in this case is awesome, because there’s hardly ever any room in a bridal suite, and the ambient light is often a bit, well, yucky.
Later in the wedding day however, I start using two or three flashes, and I point them directly at the subjects or at the peak of the action. (Dance floor, etc.) Since most of the images are almost full-length and pretty much all candid, I don’t need to diffuse the flashes or anything. Besides, diffusion would only cut down the flash power, and I already need as much flash power as I can get if I’ve set my flashes off in the corner or against the walls of a medium-large venue. It helps to set the SB80 flashes’ zoom setting all the way in, so the beam of light is more focused. If the light is still spilling everywhere, I use a simple snoot made of black craft foam.
Unless the up-lighting and ambient lighting in the reception is super blue, I always gel my SB80 flashes so that the light roughly matches the color of all the other ambient light in the room. (warm colored chandeliers, etc.)
RadioPopper JrX Pricing
Transmitter & Receiver kit: $169
Transmitter Alone: $89
Receiver Alone: $99
Misc. Other Items:
Cables: $7 ea.
Nikon SB80DX: $130 ea, used
Thin-roll Gaffers Tape
Velcro dots / roll
CTO (orange) lighting gel sheets
Manfrotto Nano / LumoPro LP605 compact light stands
Anyways, that’s about it folks! There are innumerable options out there when it comes to wireless flash, and many of them are equally robust and/or reliable, but considering the value and functionality of the RadioPopper JrX system, I’m totally confident that I have settled on the ultimate wireless flash system and I plan to continue using it for the foreseeable future!
Take care, and happy clicking!
Without remote flash control, certain images would be extremely difficult to capture. Using the RadioPopper JrX system I find myself pursuing more increasingly difficult shots because I know I don’t have to worry about accessing my flashes to change power!
Being able to adjust remote flash power on the fly also helps you to manage your wedding reception lighting, to get the perfect amount of accent lighting on your dance floor action shots.
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