Welcome to another investigative report on… devices to control cameras.
My readers will already know about intervalometers. No? Ok, you can read about them in this moldy old article. Reduced to its simplest form, an intervalometer is a device that electronically presses your shutter button and releases it. Fancy intervalometers have many other important and useful features including those described in that aforementioned article.
In this article I will compare four devices I have with one I don’t own. The devices I am comparing are all for use with a Canon 5D Mark II but most have variations that make them suitable for wider use with other cameras and brands. Here are the devices in question:
- $60: Satechi Wireless Intervalometer
- $50: Trigger Happy dongle and free application for iPhone (Android available, too)
- $30: Trigger Trap dongle and free application for iPhone and Android.
- $320: Promote Control and camera attachment cable
- $14: Shoot Intervalometer (cheap knock-off aka Neweer)
There is one obvious difference: price. In my opinion the somewhat unreliable cheap Shoot Intervalometer is worth the price as a sacrificial device for use in a harsh environment but not something I would recommend for a critical shoot.
It is also a little unfair to compare the two smart phone based products on price alone since they require a smart phone to operate them. Both the Trigger Happy and the Trigger Trap are picky about what phones they support. Neither supports an iPhone 3G – each requires at least an iPhone 3Gs, 4G, 4Gs or 5. That’s unfortunate since I have an old iPhone 3G which I would gladly convert for use only as a camera control device. What I am hinting at is that you may want to consider the cost of an iPhone or Android phone to drive these devices.
If you’d rather that I just “cut to the chase” and tell you which of these devices I recommend… Here is my ranking from best to so so:
- Trigger Trap
- Satechi Wireless Intervalometer
- Promote Control
- Trigger Happy
The Promote Control is the unit I don’t own and its ranking is based on three things: the cost (high), the features (many) and the usability. As a dedicated device the Promote Control is almost the most versatile. Indeed it is the only device I investigated that can control the camera – using a USB connection – not just the shutter. But they bill themselves mostly as an HDR device. Watching their videos and following the many modes and button presses made my head hurt. The smart phone based products clearly have a leg up. They can present the data more intelligently and allow more features through upgrade than the few buttons available on the Promote Control. The Promote Control screen is reminiscent of those multi line text pagers of yesteryear.
Because it has direct camera control the Promote Control can perform several features that the others on this list can not touch. The Promote can: shoot real extended HDR shots, not only long-exposure HDR. It can also control the focus to do focus stacking. In various modes it can do timelapse, star trail and “bulb ramping”. And it *might* have a method to be dormant for a while and start running the configured program in the future… however it can never be as clever as the Trigger Trap which is able to take advantage of all the other goodies on a smart phone like GPS location, tilt/shift, on board cameras, and WiFi. Being this is a dedicated device, you may not have to worry about choosing between a timelapse and and important phone call.
I learned that there is another device like the Promote Control that uses WiFi to allow extended control of the camera through the USB link: the CamRanger ($299). What is enticing about the CamRanger is that it says you don’t need to keep your i-device connected after you set up the shooting program – that would be very nice!
If you are a Nikon shooter, there is the curiously named Zesty or ZGR-1 ($70). I downloaded the ZGR-1 app – it looks like a bad hack job – especially the translation of the manaual (as they called it) from Chinese to English. The ZGR-1 app seems pretty limited, too, but it’s hard to tell since it only connects to cameras I don’t have.
This device is the newest in my arsenal and is perhaps the most promising. The funny thing is that I was able to test it without having the dongle… because the TriggerTrap and the Trigger Happy dongles both work on the same principle: they attach to the headphone port of your smart phone and control the shutter button by playing sound through that port. If you have an alert, or incoming call, it may make the camera do strange things – I’ve noticed that behavior with the Trigger Happy product, and unfortunately an incoming call during my star trail test with TriggerTrap terminated the current exposure even though I didn’t do anything to the call. Indeed, selecting the home screen on the iPad or iPhone seems to terminate TriggerTrap’s signal – it doesn’t continue to run in the background like the built-in Music Application or White Noise do.
The TriggerTrap application exploits features of your smart phone or iPad in very clever ways not only can you configure it to do normal timelapses, star trails, bulb ramping and long exposure HDR shots. TriggerTrap can fire your camera when it:
- determines you’ve moved x meters from your previous location
- notices movement in the smart phone camera
- notices faces in the smart phone’s camera
- detects that the device is moved
- hears a sound of a configurable volume (clap, bang, whistle)
- detects magnetism / metal (presumably using the built-in compass)
- gets a wi-fi signal from a master – that is it can become a remote control device.
The TriggerTrap application is well done, has copious help, lots of little features, and clear definition of functions. If it lacks anything, it is the ability to save a particular camera or shooting setup. I really appreciate the ability to set times and duration using a slider with a pop-up spin control to fine tune the values that are hard to hit via the sliders alone. And it supports sub-second intervals, timeouts, etc. It also calculates and displays the results of your changes on the fly so if you increase the number of photos that will be taken in timelapse mode, it shows you how many seconds the timelapse movie will last, and automatically calculates the photo interval.
It really only lacks ONE very useful feature that I would use… the ability to set an initial delay or an ending time. I’d like to app to “sleep” until 20 minutes before moonset and THEN start my star trail sequence, or set it to end 40 minutes before sunrise, etc. It has the built-in intelligence to know when the sun will rise or set for your current location so it’s just a small matter of code to add the delay function or the cut-off function.
Some functions are a little too cute. The Cable Release mode, for example, has an odd little spin-wheel to select functions. A pull down would be easier to use than the mostly useless single letters on the wheel. The area you press to start the exposure is both small and it does not light to show when it is exposing. In the diagram at the left the exposure has been started but nothing is counting down and nothing has changed since pressing the small gray “start” button.
One problem with this app, and the Trigger Happy application, is that it must be dedicated to use for the purpose it is intended to serve. I made the mistake of leaving my Bluetooth on and with my car parked nearby my phone paired with the over-visor Bluetooth speaker in my car and could not drive the camera (but I got strange buzzing noises in the car). Turning off Bluetooth solved the problem. BUT a phone call or pressing the home button to return to the main screen effectively ends your exposure. Oh, and the cable is short – about 1.5 feet total – so you’ll need something to hold your iPhone or iPad close to your camera. And the app spills light which may affect your shot. Oh, and an inadvertent touch may stop whatever you’re trying to do. But it does do sub-second delays between exposures. I got mine down to 250 milliseconds between shots without missing any exposures on my Canon 5D Mark II – that’s 1/4 of the time you can do with the run-of-the-mill intervalometer. Indeed, I set my exposures to 26.63 seconds and delays to 250 milliseconds. 45 shots took 20 minutes, 10 seconds which works out to 26.88 seconds per shot.
Trigger Happy ranks near the bottom of my list not because it is unreliable, and not because it is more expensive than its TriggerTrap cousin, which it is, and not because many people are reporting months long delays in receiving a working product. No it’s near the bottom because the iOS application (version 1.03) that was released to control it is… maddening. It seems to have features I want (timelapse, Bulb Ramping, HDR Bracketing) but its sophomoric interface feels like it hates me. For one thing, the many screens are all “single purpose” but you MUST select things in the order the app expects or it will both complain AND ignore you. For example, you must start by setting the Interval. If you then try to set a shutter time that is longer than the interval it refuses to let you go ahead – you must go back and change the interval. Moreover when you try to set the Shutter time, it doesn’t TELL you what the current Interval is. A better application would add a “Star Trails” mode where all you do is set the exposure length and it ASSUMES a 1 second or less pause between shots. And a MUCH better application would either adjust or offer to adjust the other parameters for you. A good example of a better application is the TriggerTrap. TriggerTrap shows the settings together on the same screen and doesn’t divide them across screens.
If you switch e.g. from “Timelapse Normal” to “Timelapse Bramp” it pops up an annoying dialog box “Bulb Mode Required”. Switch the Shutter mode from “Auto” to “Manual” and guess what dialog box pops back up! Blecch. A little on-screen reminder would have been fine, but why pop up a box I can only say “OK” to? Thankfully it has sub-second exposure and interval lengths, but it could be made MUCH better if it asked you what camera you are using and initialized the settings for you… or if you could create a profile for a specific camera. There are many other problems with the interface… for example in “Single Shot” mode the banner across the top on my iPad still reads “Time Lapse” what? A One shot timelapse? The good news is that a release of a better app could dramatically improve the usability and usefulness of this device. I have tried to persuade the makers to do a better job with their application, but the very young adults who started this project long ago on Kickstarter and apparently have had a falling out after collecting $221,000 in starter money.
Rather than expend a lot of energy writing about it, you can read my (rather glowing) review of the device on Amazon (its the topped ranked favorable review). One thing to note: the device I received was labeled “Young Nuo” not “Satechi”.
This devices is a cheap knock off of the manufacturers device. Like the Satechi, there are different connectors available to fit different cameras. I bought three of them for loaners with my workshop participants and one of them developed the problem I described in the review.
|F E A T U R E||Trigger
|Price $ USD (3)||30||320||50||60||15|
|Delay Before Start||No||No||No||Yes||Yes|
|Ease of Use (6)||Great||Fair||Poor||Good||Good|
|Bulb based HDR Bracketing||Yes||Yes||Yes||No||No|
|Full HDR Bracketing||No||Yes||No||No||No|
|Wireless use (2)||(1)||No||No||Yes||No|
(1) Can use WiFi with Master/Slave for remote control.
(2) Theoretically all audio jack based controls COULD be operated via a BLUEtooth audio device.
(3) Includes the cost of an application and a cable or cables to connect to the camera.
(4) Computer and USB cable required to upgrade the firmware, but not for programming/use.
(5) The android application has fewer fancy controls, but the timelapse, bramping, and star trails work fine.
(6) My subjective evaluation of ease of use.
(7) I ran both the Trigger Trap and the Trigger Happy applications on my older iPhone 4. Each ran for over 4 hours and consumed less than half of my battery – and that was with all phone functions left on (WiFi, Bluetooth, and cellular). Of course your battery life may vary. I did not test the battery life of the Satechi in Wireless mode.
Yet More Control Ideas
- DSLR Remote (Homebrew Hardware)
- CamRanger ($299). Wireless (WiFi) control with USB support. Allows you to view photos like you can with the EyeFi card but you can also control focus, and much more.
- Zesty or ZGR-1 ($70, Nikon models only)
- Timelapse+ ($210) In development – also a Kickstarter Project. Currently only shutter control, but it looks like it may be a serious competitor to the Promote Control with USB support *and* an iPhone application to control it.
- Rubberband. Yep, rubber band. Set the camera in continuous exposure mode and hold the shutter button down with a rubberband. Works in a pinch – trust me!