I am always looking for the best solutions for automating my night photography. In fact, I recently reviewed a litany of products. At the time I didn’t know about the CamRanger product – my friend Rob C. told me about it.
I am now the owner of a CamRanger. Here are my first impressions:
- I ordered from the CamRanger website, selected two day delivery. The box came all the way across the US. From Virginia to California and it arrived in two days. Woohoo! Great store and interaction. It’s also available through Amazon, but doesn’t qualify for Prime. I figure if I’m going to pay for shipping I’ll order it directly from the company and hope they keep a bit more of the cash. By the way I paid with PayPal. Sweet.
- The packaging is reminiscent of the iPhone. Everything is nicely tucked into a little box. I was worried briefly because I also ordered two extra batteries. Thankfully they were tucked into the same box.
- Included were: Quick start instructions, a charger (wall wart), charger cable, USB to mini USB to connect to the camera, Ethernet cable (for upgrading the firmware), the batteries, a cigarette sized-packet with the CamRanger unit, and a carry pouch with a velcro closure and a carbiner clip.
The CamRanger is an incarnation of the TP-Link portable wireless router. It even says so on the batteries and under the case. Really clever approach! Kudos to them. Of course the firmware has been customized, and they are using the USB connector to drive the camera. With that arrangement they can do a WHOLE lot more than you can do with a lowly intervalometer.
Essential is the CamRanger application for iPad and iPhone. They are planning to roll out other applications, including one for the PC. Since the device is a portable router, theoretically they could even provide some simple browser driven connectivity. I loaded the app long before I received the box. You can’t get to square one without the device, however – it won’t show you any of its glorious features until it can talk to a camera. Makes some sense since what you can do depends on the camera it connects to. I found some blemishes with the application which I’ll enumerate in just a moment.
What Can the CamRanger Do?
Before I criticize, let me first explain what you CAN do with this clever device. And this is just scratching the surface.
- Focus stacking – let CamRanger control incremental focus for maximum depth of field with your macro (or other) shots.
- Remotely adjust focus (camera auto-focus must be turned on for this).
- True HDR using exposure time, ISO or f/stop increments. Up to 7 exposures are allowed. Intervalometers with this feature can only work in low light since they can only crudely control the camera shutter.
- Monitor “live view” and captured images. Even delete them when they suck. I am slathering at how this will improve my Astrophotography. Have you ever tried to adjust focus of a telescope pointed nearly straight up – it’s a neck breaker.
- Intervalometer functions: timelapse, and bulb exposures.
- Complete control of settings (how complete depends on your camera). Nearly all of the settings can be changed remotely including ISO, f/stop, exposure time, metering mode, image size and type… and more. I even moved the connection from my Canon 5D Mark II to my cohort’s Nikon D800 and had immediate control of his camera and its unique settings.
- Some features do require manually changing the camera mode knob. For example to get bulb exposures you must be in Manual mode on a Canon 50D or in Bulb Mode on the 5D Mark II. These peculiarities vary by camera.
- CamRanger can do everything the EyeFi can do for sending images. EyeFi isn’t supported on CompactFlash media cameras so CamRanger is a great replacement!
- Focus by touching the iPad screen.
- Provides a Live View Histogram.
What Could Use Some Improvement
I’ve ordered my complaints according to how much they affect the way I do most of my work which is night and astrophotography. Some of these are nitpicking, I know.
- There is no sub-second interval for long exposures. I’d love for them to add a “star trail mode” and select the shortest possible interval between shots based on the camera type and behavior. The company says this is a limitation in what they are able to do through the USB connection to the camera.
- There appears to be no way to know if a timelapse is running nor can you stop a timelapse in progress. The CamRanger can continue to run a timelapse sequence without an app driving it. That’s a plus. But not being able to tell if it is running or to abort a sequence in progress is annoying. CamRanger tells me they are planning to address this in an upcoming release. Yeah!
- The pouch for the CamRanger could be improved to:
- Hold all the items that come in the kit. The pouch can only hold the CamRanger device, USB cable and perhaps an extra battery – not the additional cables or plug-in charger.
- Add velcro straps so I can wrap them around my tripod leg and secure the pouch to my tripod,
- Provide a closeable window so I can see at a glance the unit status (i.e.those LEDs which are too bright, see below).
- The timelapse settings use spin dials to select the number of exposures and exposure times. The keypad would be more efficient. It would also be great if the App automatically calculated your elapsed running time based on the number of exposures and a configurable frame rate (like TriggerTrap does). CamRanger is adding the calculation.
- The LEDs on the device are pretty doggone bright for night work. Would be great if they were dimmable. Of course that can be achieved by putting the device in the pouch or by putting some semi-opaque tape over the LEDs.
- To interact with the CamRanger, you have to switch your iDevice to the WiFi network generated by the CamRanger. Unfortunately that means you can not use your iDevice browser to surf the internet. If there were some fast-switch way to do it, I’d like that. Or better yet, I’d like to integrate the CamRanger into an existing network.
- The CamRanger itself comes with a serial number sticker. I’m SURE it will come off or get lost, but you need that serial number to connect to the device. The same serial number can be found on a sticker under the battery cover, though.
- The Access Key to join the CamRanger network is all in upper case. All lower would be easier to type.
- My buddy Rob noted that he felt like he was going go have to break the battery cover off. Mine seems to come off quite easily if you hold it correctly.
- The CamRanger battery is a custom lithium-ion form factor. You can charge the battery in-device, but there is no additional charger provided.
- Sometimes when switching functions, for example when switching to Timer it told me “must turn off live view” which seems a bit strange since it knows how to do it!
- I ended up with both my iPad and my iPhone attempting to connect to CamRanger. It caused a problem that was not obviously solvable (Communication Error) until I realized both of my devices were trying to get CamRanger’s attention.
As I noted, some features depend on the way your camera interacts with the USB connection. I didn’t figure out, for example, how to cause my camera to meter the scene for me so that I could manually adjust my exposure – i.e. what I’d normally do with a half-press of my shutter button.
I haven’t tested the range or battery life as yet. Claimed battery life of the CamRanger is 6 hours. There is, however, no on screen indication of the CamRanger’s current battery condition.
Now That I’ve Used it More…
The problems with not being able to see if or stop a timelapse are more than irritating. The only way to stop a timelapse in progress is to turn off the CamRanger device and turn it back on. It takes about a minute to come back up and meanwhile since the WiFi from CamRanger goes away, my iPad or iPhone will by default switch back to another known network (my home in this case). That means I have to remember to also switch WiFi networks or I get “unable to communicate”. I also noticed that for bizarre reasons which are not quite clear I could start a timelapse, but the camera did nothing. However I *could* use the Capture button.
But that’s not the end of the pain, unfortunately.
- The Bulb and timelapse settings are not saved. All settings reset to 0 when a timelapse completes. If you want to re-run the same program – as I do when I take darkframes after my astrophotography sequences – you have to reprogram everything. That’s tedious.
- Apparently the interface is not smart enough to know how to do HDRs that exceed the camera settings 30″ exposure time. On my 50D, for example, an HDR sequence that should shoot at 15, 30 and 60 seconds will not be accepted. However that sequence can easily be achieved by using bulb mode for the last shot and that does not require changing the dial on the camera – so the app could figure it out. I even tried doing this in “Bulb” mode, but it still didn’t seem to work.
- The biggest pain in the butt is that the “Autofocus” behavior is not preserved. What this means is I leave the AF button on on the lens, carefully fine tune the focus, turn it to MF (manual focus mode) on CamRanger and take my shots. If, however I am forced to cycle the CamRanger power it reverts to AF mode by default so the first shot will try to autofocus in the dark – which prevents the camera from shooting. I’d like to set the default behavior to NOT AF even though I have set AF on the lens.
- It also appears the timelapse is not aware of the drive mode for the camera. I often set my camera to the 2-second (or 10 second) delay for two reasons: 1. it lights the self timer on the camera so I know when a frame is about to fire, and 2. In delay mode, an Autoexposure bracket (AEB) will automatically complete from a single press of the shutter. The timelapse settings could know that the minimum delay will be the length of the camera self timer delay (plus perhaps a second). But it doesn’t use that information.
The good news is that the biggest pain points can be fixed in the app. I suspect some of the more advanced things would require the app to know more about the camera – and are thus less likely to be supported.
The other good news is, it really does save me from breaking my neck trying to get my eye down to the view finder or to view the LCD – when objects are high overhead I’ve had to lay down on the ground to see the LCD – blecch. And it’s great fun to watch the images roll in as the timelapse runs – even from indoors while my poor equipment is out shivering in the cold.
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After further use, we’ve found several cases of frustration where the timelapses failed for unknown reasons. Theoretically once you start a timelapse you should be able to walk away. We know several cases that sometimes cause a failure: switching the camera mode between exposures (to manually snap an exposure), Switching to live view to fine tune focus between exposures, and sometimes it appears that changing any of the exposure settings cause the device to lose it’s mind.
All of the above are perfectly possible when using a regular intervalometer.