The most useful gadget not in your bag

November 05, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

This gadget can help you take bad, cheesy family Christmas portraits OR turn you into a National Geographic wildlife photographer. Choose wisely!

 
When I first started to really get serious about photography, I was always watching other photographers to see what kinds of gadgets they used. Some of it was gadget envy, but mostly I was just really curious to learn about all the tools of the trade.
 
A friend of mine had a small photography studio, use mainly for engagement, baby, and family portraits. He'd be right there in the middle of the scene, posing teddy bears, scootching people over, rotating shoulders just a little to the left, fluffing backdrops or blankets, and moving strands of hairs out of faces.
 
And instead of running back to get behind the camera, hoping the scene stayed intact long enough for him to focus and snap the shutter, he just stood off to the side and magically the shutter went off.
 
I thought maybe he set the timer on his camrea, and was just really, really good at working with scenes and talking while counting down in his head. "I don't know how you seem to get out of the frame right before the shutter snaps," I told him. "You could probably be the drummer for Rush." 
 
He laughed, and pulled a little doohickey out of his pocket - about the size of a pack of gum. "Wireless shutter release, dude. Get one."
 
So off to Google I went. My camera (at the time, a D80), had a built-in infrared receiver and so, for a few bucks, I could buy a compatible wireless shutter release.

Middlecreek Wildlife Preserve

I used it for all kinds of things, including shots with such long exposure settings that even the physical act of depressing the shutton button on the camera with my finger would introduce enough vibration in the camera body and tripod that sharpeness suffered. 
 
I also used it for taking pictures of my kids. It's amazing how much their demeanor changes when you start pointing the lens at them. They stop being natural and go into this "here we go again, dad's got the camera out" mode, complete with those fake,  ham-it-up smiles that aren't nearly as beautiful as their real ones. With a wireless shutter, I could interact with them naturally, nothing between us, and just keep snapping away.
 
Somewhere down the line, I lost the wireless remote and bought a second one. Then I ran the second one through the wash. And I never bought another one. Not sure why. Maybe because around that time I was really into sports photography, and didn't need a wireless shutter as much?
 
Anyways, fast-forward many years later. I'm shooting a D800 and really enjoying the benefits of a full-frame, high-resolution body. I've been doing lots of interior work lately, including real estate photography requiring ultra-wide shots from a tripod in such tight spaces that there's not enough room for me behind the tripod.
 
So - yes, you guessed it - I got a new wireless shutter release the other day. Holy cow, these things have come a long way! This unit, the Nikon RFN-4s, has a discrete little receiver with an antenna that plugs into the shutter release port in the front of the camera, and a very nice shutter release device with a sliding cover on the front which keeps you from accidentally depressing the button. The receiver has two indicator lights, one to tell you that the unit's on and ready for business, and one to tell you that the camera has acquired focus (from half-pressing the button. A single AAA battery powers the whole thing.
 
 
I spent about half an hour testing it. My verdict? Even if you don't anticipate needing to control vibration on long exposure shots, I'd consider getting one anyways. Within just a few minutes of testing this thing, ideas for more creative uses started popping into my head. 
 
First thing I thought of was our cute little dog, Sophie. I've been trying to get some good snaps of her (she's such an expressive character!) but not having much luck. She never sits still for long, and for some reason the camera seems to make her skittish. As soon as I pull the camera up to my face and start to focus, she skittles away. And because she's all-black with just a whisp of white on her chin and chest, it takes a little time to acquire focus.
 

Wireless shutter kit

With my wireless shutter release, I can set the camera on my coffe table, sit back in my Lazy Boy, and wait for her to move into the frame.  If I get lucky, she'll put her nose right up to the lens and I'll have a really cool, distored doggie photo of this nutty little pup. Only downside is, if she's extra curious I might have to wipe nose prints off the lens. I can live with that.
 
Now that I think about it, wildlife photographers often use wireless shutter releases for pretty much the same reason. They can set up a cover screen or hide in a blind, and position themselves far enough away that they won't scare off animals or birds. Or, if they're taking photos of potentially dangerous beasties, they can get up in a tree or stay in their cars for safety.
 
Another great use a for wireless shutter release: self portraits.  Self portrature is incredibly popular these days, but for different reasons and with different standards than in the past. Every day, hundreds of thousands of smartphone self-portraits end up on Facebook, dating sites, and other places on the Web. And the vast percentage are not taken in any sort of artistic or creative way. They're just instant-gratification Polaroids, really. 
 
The worst of them come happen in bathrooms, with crappy LED flashing into mirrors over vanities. You may or may not also get to see people's smartphones, forarms and fingers, dirty showers, towel racks, baskets of cluttered personal care products, and - I kid you not, this photo made the rounds about a year ago - disgusting unflushed toilets. Sadly, back in the day - including my college photography classes - self-portriature was thought of as a distinct photographic art form.  Today, not so much.
 
Yes, you can use your camera's timer feature for self-portraits. But a wireless shutter release really opens up the possibilities. It's how I took the photo of myself used on this site and my Facebook business page. You can move ever-so-slightly and get photos from all sorts of different angles and sides, change clothing, and so on.
 
Christmas is coming up, and depending on your criteria for what constitutes a good stocking-stuffer (i.e., cost, size, and/or edibility of items stuffed into aforementioned stocking), this might be a good one for the photo nerd in your family. 
 
Or, if you're the type to send out family portraits with Mom, Dad, baby, brother, and sister all in front of the tree, wearing awful sweaters and reindeer hats, get one before Christmas. 
 
Just don't put that picture on Facebook, please. I can't guarantee I'll be able to keep my comments to myself.

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