Four channel radio triggers
Update: The Jinbei GT301B that is the the subject of this review was the first low cost radio trigger widely available. It caused a sensation in strobist circles when it first appeared on eBay in the spring of 2005, and became the original “poverty wizard”. It is no longer available, but the design of the Jinbei GT301B is very similar to the cheapest 4 channel 315 MHz/433 MHz triggers still available on eBay and elsewhere.(Search eBay for low cost triggers).
When it comes to battery operated wireless slave flash systems, PocketWizard is the top brand. With 500 meters (1600 feet) reach, and super reliability, they provide very powerful capabilities. The downside of PocketWizard is cost, the top of the line MultiMax costs around $ 295, and the budget model, Plus is $ 165.
There now exists low cost alternatives to PocketWizards with a more limited range and without the bells and whistles. These are sometimes referred to as Poverty Wizards or FleaBayTriggers. The subject of this review is one such low-cost alternative.
The first of these to become available was a simple 4-channel radio slave made in China by Shanghai Jinbei Photographic Equipment Co., Ltd., sold on eBay under the name GT301B and YHDC-B. I first noticed it on eBay in the spring of 2005.
Price for this unit vary between vendors. At eBay, you usually pay amount $20 for a new transmitter/receiver pair (the actual amount vary from auction to auction). However, some vendors may charge as much as $130 for the same item.
As far as I am able to tell, all the vendors sell a similar unit, from the same Chinese manufacturer. However, several versions exists with small design differences, and with different channel signatures.
The items reviewed in this article (one trigger and five receivers) is a 433 MHz, 4-channel model designated GT301B, and was purchased from eBay in April 2005.
Do not expect different versions of the same unit to be compatible with each other, even if they bear the same model designation.
For instance, there exists both a 315 MHz version and a 433 MHz version of the GT301B. These are not compatible with each other. The simplest way to ensure compatibility is to order all the units you need with from the same vendor at the same time. Otherwise, you will need to communicate with the vendor to make sure that any additional units you buy are compatible.
There are additional user comments about compatibility in the comment section below.
The phot below show the box he unit came in:
Most of the text on the outside of the box is in Chinese, and reads (thanks to peter for the translation):
Product Features: Microprocessor encode/decode; very good interference rejection ability; microprocessor controlled; long distance remote controlled; low trigger voltage and current; trigger current only 0.01 mA; will not hurt camera; standby sleep mode; super low power consumption; long lasting battery; can standby for 1 year or trigger 20,000 times.
The transmitter uses a 23A/LRV08 alkaline 12V battery (included) rated at 20 000 flashes. The receiver uses two standard AA/R6 1.5V alkaline batteries (not included) rated at 30 000 flashes.
The trigger voltage of the GT301B transmitter is less than 6 V (my unit measured 4.96 V), which makes it safe for all modern digital cameras. According to the vendor, the receiver is capable of handling old flashes with high trigger voltage up to at least 200 V. It worked fine with my old Vivitar 283 that has a 107 V trigger voltage, as well as my Nikon SB-600 (2.7 volt) and my Canon 550EX (around 6 volt).
While being made from plastic, the unit appear to be of good quality and well constructed for the price. When I accidentally dropped one of the receivers from a height of about one meter on to a hard, wooden floor, it broke open at its joins. However, there was no breakage and after I've reassembled it, it was as good as new.
Some users has reported that dry soldering has stopped units from working. Opening the unit up and re-soldering dry connections has fixed the problem.
Below is a picture of the four items that comes with the basic kit:
The item on the left is the transmitter. It normally mounts in the camera's hot-shoe, but also have an 3.5 mm mono-plug socket for cameras without a hot-shoe. Included is also a 30 cm (12") cord with 3.5 mm mono-plug at one end and male pc-plug at the other. The item on the right is the receiver – it does not have a hot-shoe, but has a cable with a 1/4" mono-plug for studio flashes. There is also a 1/4" to 3.5 mm mono-plug adapter included in the basic kit.
On the back of the receiver unit is there a standard 1/8" pc-socket (close-up image image of the pc-socket on the left). The pc-socket can be used to connect the receiver to most portable flash guns.
There is no manual included – just an one page “Troubleshooting”-guide. I had no trouble setting it up. After I'd loaded fresh batteries and connected the units, I was ready to shoot.
Operation is simple and intuitive. There is no on/off switch. The transmitter has a “test” button on top (which does what you expect), and the only other controls are two micro-switches which selects one of four channels.
The units seem, however, to be sensitive to battery voltage. There is no “low battery” indicator. Even freshly charged rechargeable NiMH batteries, and slightly run-down alakalines, give poor reliability and reduced firing range. If one experience problems in these two areas, replacing the batteries should be the first thing to try.
It should be noted that the GT301B can only be used to trigger the flash remotely. There is no way to remotely control flash power, as with the more expensive radio systems and Canon's E-TTL II and and Nikon's i-TTL systems. This is an obvious limitation. When you use this unit, you will to work out the flash power settings by hand or by using a flash meter. If you want a complex lightning layout, you also have to walk around to adjust each flash by hand.
The receiver is obviously constructed with studio lights with 1/4" mono-plug socket connector in mind, as is evident from the non-detachable cord with a 1/4" mono-plug at the end.
However, to connect the receiver to portable flash units, there is a standard 1/8" female pc-socket at the back of the receiver.
The image on the left shows how to connect the receiver to a standard portable flash unit (as opposed to a studio light) via the pc-socket.
Connecting the Vivitar to the pc-socket works well as far as trigging the Vivitar goes, but it leaves the non-detachable 1/4" mono-plug exposed. When I do this, all 107 volts of trigger voltage appear on the exposed metal of the mono-plug, and will give me a nasty shock when I touch it. I've resolved yhis by putting insulating tape over the metal on the exposed plug.
If the flash does not have a pc-connector nor a 1/4" or 3.5 mm mono-plug socket, you need some sort of adapter to get the receiver connected to the flash.
I use a simple two-contact shoe hot-shoe adapter with an 3.5 mm mono-plug-socket. The image on the right above shows a set-up using such a mono-plug to hot-shoe adapter. You plug the receiver's mono-plug into the hot-shoe adapter by means of the 1/4" to 3.5 mm mono-plug adapter.
For studio lights that uses a HH-prong, Paramount Cords sells various adapters.
I've noticed that newer types of cheap radio triggers now come with a standard hot-shoe as part of the receiver. This is obviously a much better solution if you want a trigger for portable flash units.
All tests uses as its subject an ordinary indoor scene (my living room, with a nice white ceiling for bounce). The tests were conducted after dark, so that the flash was the sole source of light. I use the histogram in Photoshop CS to judge exposure.
For my first, simple test, I used a vintage Vivitar 283 and a Canon Powershot G5 with a central shutter. The G5 was set up in manual mode, f=7.2mm (35mm FOV equiv.), ISO 100, shutter speed set to 1/250 second (the maximum x-sync or flash synchronisation shutter speed according to the G5 manual), and aperture f/2.8. The Vivitar was set to bounce against the ceiling in auto mode with an aperture f/2.8.
The GT301B radio slave kit performed as advertised. The exposure was spot on. Lowering the shutter time resulted in identical histograms, which means that the unit is fast enough to keep up with at least a shutter speed of 1/250 second. Increasing the shutter speed beyond 1/250 second resulted in more and more underexposure.
I then tested the kit with a Nikon D80 with a focal plane shutter. This camera has an x-sync speed of 1/200 second. Firing a Nikon SB-800 Speedlight with the camera's shutter speed set to 1/200 second worked fine. However, firing a Nissin Di866 with the camera's shutter speed set to 1/200 second resulted in an image where part of the flash was blocked by the shutter blade. I had to lower the shutter speed to 1/160 second to to be able to use the GT301B kit to synchronise with the Nissin Di866. This is because the Nissin Di866 is slower to respond than the Nikon SB-800, and with the extra delay introduced by the GT301B, this makes a difference.
Here are some other timing tests: Dan Jeter, using a Nikon D2x with a focal plane shutter which has a x-sync speed of 1/250 sec., has posted test images (now gone) that shows that setting shutter speed to 1/250 sec. results in a noticeable shutter blade shadow, and that 1/200 sec. is the top speed that produces reliable results on a Nikon D2x. J.R. Sprawl, using a Nikon D70 with an electronic shutter writes: “With the radio slave, usable sync speed is limited to 1/640 sec. – at 1/800 sec. there is about a 1-stop exposure loss.”
Again, I used the Vivitar 283 and Canon Powershot G5. The G5 was set up in manual mode, f=7.2mm, ISO 100, shutter speed set to 1/250 second and aperture f/2.8. The Vivitar was set to bounce against the ceiling, auto mode, and aperture f/2.8. As in the previous test, the exposure appeared to be correct.
I then changed the head position of the Vivitar to provide direct flash. This, however, resulted in a 1/2 stop overexposure with noticeable burnt out highlights.
Conclusion: Auto does not always result in the right exposure. If you have the time, make a test shot and check the histogram. If necessary, adjust the exposure.
The units are not reliable if placed to close together. You need at least two feet between two receives, or a transmitter and transceiver, to stop them from interfering with each other.
My range tests for long distance was conducted outside with fresh alkaline batteries in the receiver. I sat the flash with the receiver attached on a tripod and then moving away from it. Distance was measured by counting paces (not a very accurate method, I admit). I found the unit to work reliable up to about 100 meters (300 feet). Beyond that, it became more erratic and stopped working altogether at around 200 meters (600 feet).
Indoors, I found it capable of working through at least three wooden walls, which is the maximum size of my apartment.
With worn-down batteries, range and reliability is significantly reduced.
While its range is clearly more limited than PocketWizard (500 meters) it is also much better than its rated range (25 meters). I find the range it offers adequate for my needs.
For a more accurate range test, see this user report by FotoFlip posted in the DPreview Lighting Technique Forum. He uses GPS to measure distance accurately.
The GT301B slave transmitter and receiver appear to be reasonably well constructed (for its price) and it works as advertised. The top synchronisation speed is less than advertised, but adequate for most users. You may need to work with the histogram or flash meter to get correct exposure in some situations.
With fresh batteries, the units are very reliable. With run-down batteries, reliability is significantly reduced.
In the connections department, the receiver is a bit of a kludge if you intend use it with something that does not come with a 1/4" mono-plug socket or a standard pc-connector.
The main utility of this item is to let users of modern digital cameras use old, cheap and powerful auto flashes such as Vivitar 283 without having to worry about high trigger voltages damaging the camera. It also lets you move the flash unit away from the hot-shoe for more flexible lighting technique.
For complex lighting arrangements using multiple triggers it has obvious limitations, in particular when compared to more sophisticated and expensive flash systems. If you are a professional photographer requiring absolute reliability in all situations, this is not the solution. However, the price is nice. If you are on a tight budget, the low price may more than make up for its lack of bells and whistles.