Radiopoppers review — a trial-by-fire field test

Radiopoppers. I now have five of them, and they are awesome. What follows is a field-test user review from Brandy and Tony’s awesome Bahamas wedding. A slideshow of their day will come later this week!

To sum it up, I think Radiopoppers are the best thing to happen to flash photography since the invention of the flash.

For those who don’t yet know, Radiopoppers are little flash gadgets that combine ETTL with the radiowave goodness of the trusty Pocket Wizard. That’s pretty amazing. Until now it’s been basically impossible to have reliable ETTL off-camera flashes.

When I first started with off-camera flash photography, I’d use my ST-E2 infared trigger and put my 550EX and 580EX flashes on slave mode. Basically I had fully automatic ETTL flash. It was point and shoot, and it was oh-so-easy. This setup was awesome, or so I thought…

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I loved having spot-on flash exposures every time, but I soon grew annoyed. I couldn’t shoot outdoors at all, since the bright sunlight usually interfered with the infared sensors on the flashes. I was creatively stifled because I couldn’t hide the flashes behind rocks, behind people, behind walls — the infared beam only works with line of sight. If I wanted to shoot wide angle, I’d have to basically put the flashes way off to the side, and usually that just didn’t work. To be out of the frame, they’d have to be at such extreme angles that the infared beam couldn’t get to them. I mean, try using a master-slave IR setup with a fisheye. Impossible, unless you don’t mind having a flash, a flare and a light stand in your image.

Inside, and in the right conditions, the ST-E2 was marvelous. I loved shooting weddings in tents or white rooms, where the IR beam just bounced all over everywhere. But it never was all that reliable, so I eventually stopped using the combination and just used my ST-E2 as a very expensive autofocus assist beam.

Then I discovered Pocketwizards. I loved them because I could put my flashes everywhere. They were reliable. I could hide a flash behind a rock if I was shooting a bouldering image, like this one:

Radiopopper1

I could hide flashes behind dancing couples during weddings, like here, to produce a nice rim light, like here:

Radioppper2

The PWs unlocked a lot of hidden creativity, and I could even use them in conjunction with my ST-E2 (so I could trigger the flashes but still use the ST-E2′s autofocus assist).

But with this reliability came a few huge limitations. First, when you use a Pocketwizard, you have to have your flash on manual mode. This is fine if you’re shooting in a controlled environment, but I found it could be difficult when shooting something like a wedding, which is an organic, free-flowing, sometimes chaotic event with rapidly changing lighting conditions. Wedding photographers don’t really have the time to run around and change the outputs on three separate units all the time.

More importantly, the Pocketwizards can’t do high speed sync. On my 5d cameras, the fastest shutter speed I could shoot at outdoors was 1/200th of a second. If I was at ISO 50, the lowest setting on my camera, I would need to be shooting around f/11. That means that unless it was almost dark out, it was basically impossible to get the beautiful, smooth bokeh I love from my 135 f/2 or my 200 f/2.8 or my 85 f/1.2. My images would have to have a totally uncluttered background to have the look I wanted. Sometimes that’s just impossible.

So then along came the Radiopopper. When I first heard about them I thought they were some sort of cruel joke, but no, they’re real. I have five of them and just used them for the first time in the Bahamas, at a destination wedding at the Atlantis Resort. I was astounded. Here’s one of the first frames I captured with them — there were two flashes going off at once. This frame was taken outside in extremely dark conditions.

Radiopopper3

I get automatic flash exposure, I can dial up or down the flash output from my camera, I can change the flash ratios from my camera, I can hide the flashes behind rocks, behind people, or behind walls for cool lighting effects, and I can shoot with huge apertures to get that awesome low depth of field — all in broad daylight. I even dropped one of my transmitters in a swimming pool, fished it out, dried if off, and it worked perfectly. What more could I ask for?

Check this out — a shot done with two flashes, fully automatic. Very nice! I actually used radios to dial down the right hand flash — all from my STE-II on the camera.

Radiopopper4
Here’s another one, just a few hundred feet away in The Dig at the Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas.
Radiopopper6

Basically, the Radiopoppers sense some sort of electronic signal made by the infared beam, convert it to a radio wave, and send it to the receiver. The receiver converts the radio wave back into an infared beam and sends it to the IR receptor on the flash via a little fiberoptic cable that you have to tape onto the front of the flash. Brilliant.

And get this: here’s a shot done with two flashes, outside, broad daylight, shot at 135mm @ f/2.0.

Radiopopper8

Like everything in life, nothing is perfect, but these things are an excellent solution that I will be using at basically every wedding and social event from now on.

The first problem I experienced was that there was some sort of sync issue whereby the flashes weren’t being triggered reliably. I, of course, didn’t read the instructions — but once I did, I realized that it was the result of the fact that there are many different flash and camera manufacturers out there, and that I needed to adjust the Radiopoppers to work with my system. I pushed three buttons and fixed it. So that’s not really an issue with the Radiopoppers. Then there were the occasional misfires, where I’d get way too much flash juice. That’s an unfortunate byproduct of the actual ETTL system. It happens without the RPs, too.

There were two minor issues with the RPs themselves. First, I didn’t like having to attach the fiber optic cable to my slave flashes with gaffer’s tape. It was a little problematic in the Bahamas, where the hot air seemed to loosen the stickiness of the tape. Now I’ve got goop all over my flash. I wish there were a way to somehow attach the fiberoptic cable better (perhaps a little plastic clip that I could attach to the flash that would hold the cable in place strongly – hint, hint!). Anyway, I am now over having sticky stuff on my flash, and I’m such a convert that I now think that the fiberoptic cable will be permanently attached since I’ll be using the Radiopoppers so much, so no biggie.

I also didn’t like having to screw the battery case onto the back of the unit. It’s a pain to have to find a screwdriver to get the batteries in and out (I wound up using a steak knife), and, if you drop the unit in the pool, you’re not going to have that much time to find your steak knife, unscrew the back plate and remove the battery before the circuits fry. But of course, if the unit can survive a splash in the pool, what difference does it make?

All in all, I give the Radiopoppers a 9.75 out of 10. Certainly one of the best pieces of photo-related equipment to come out in a long time. I think they’re going to permanently change my approach to event photography, and like I said before, these might be the best thing to happen to flash photography since the invention of the flash.

 

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Radiopoppers review — a trial-by-fire field test was last modified: May 11th, 2008 by Dreamtime Images

  • http://realphotography.com/blog/ Traci

    Great review! I posted a fix to the gaffer’s tape problem on my blog here that you might find useful (uses velcro instead of tape): http://realphotography.com/blog/radiopopper-review/

  • John Glose

    I ordered the RadioPopper and should have them soon, And the more I read the happier I get about that decision. Your review was inspiring and you photos brilliant. Thanks for taking the time to put this together.
    All the best,
    john

  • Derek

    Great review, but you need to get better gaffers tape! I’ve been in temps that could cook a goose and never had an adhesive problem.

  • http://www.brettbuttersteinphotography.com brett butterstein

    once a gear head, always a gear head. thanks for the info

  • Rex Larsen

    I just started testing RadioPoppers with my Canon 550 strobes and noticed FEL doesn’t work properly. To my great surprise I contacted RP and was told they have never tested FEL with their product.
    Canon ETTL is not very good so I often rely on FEL.

    Do you or other photographers you know have any experience with FEL and RP ?

    Thanks
    Rex Larsen
    Senior staff photographer
    The Grand Rapids Press
    Michigan

  • http://www.hollye.com hollye

    thanks for the info on radio poppers. I’ve been wondering about them. I also agree with you about PW’s. They can be such a pain if you’re shooting fast and a little uncontrollable at times. I’m going to try out the radio poppers at my next event.

    Great shots on your blog, BTW!

    cheers,
    hollye

  • http://www.sindark.com Milan

    It’s annoying that they don’t make a transmitter that connects to the hotshoe or PC port on a camera.

    Having to use both IR and infrared seems like a pain.

  • http://www.leehammondphotographer.com LeeH

    >

    The RP model Jr X goes on the hotshoe directly. This gives manual control, though, not TTL.