I’ve been testing a set of Cowboy Studio Wireless Flash triggers on my Sony Alpha with the Minolta/Sony Auto-Lock hot shoe. I am fairly happy with these inexpensive radio triggers, especially since I don’t have to mess with a hot shoe adapter.
With the A99, NEX-6, A-58 and other new models, Sony has embraced the new Multi-interface hot-shoe design. This is essentially the same hot-shoe used by other manufacturers, meaning Sony Alpha owners can access numerous third-party accessories if they upgrade to the newest Alpha hardware.
Owners of older Sony Alpha designs, however, still have the less compatible auto-lock hot-shoe originally designed by Minolta. In addition to older, discontinued models, many of the current top sellers in the Sony catalog (A-77, NEX-7) still use the auto-lock shoe.
I’ve gone on record to say I prefer the auto-lock shoe because I think it is far superior to the slip-on multi-interface shoe. Still, there is no denying that the multi-interface design is much more compatible with third-party accessories. Going forward, Sony users will have many more choices available to them for flashes, radio triggers and other hot shoe accessories.
Which still leaves users of older hardware and those purchasing new cameras with the auto-lock shoe at a disadvantage. One of the biggest concerns is using radio triggers with the auto-lock shoe.
Still No Sony Brand Radio Trigger
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I have questioned why Sony hadn’t introduced a Sony Alpha branded radio trigger set. With Sony’s vast experience in the radio communications area, this would seem to be a logical move. Several years later, I and the rest of the Sony Alpha world are still waiting.
I considered going with another solution like Pocket Wizards, but this would involve some form of adapter, and really didn’t want to start messing with hot-shoe adapters. It might work fine, but it seemed that the adapter would be just another link in the chain that could cause problems.
So I waited, watching while Sony experimented with translucent mirrors, mirrorless cameras and other innovations, but pointedly ignored the need for an Alpha radio flash trigger.
A few months ago, I was listing to Frederick Van Johnson’s round table podcast called This Week In Photography. TWIP is way too focused and Nikon and Canon for my taste, but all-in-all it offers an excellent look at current photography trends. The guest list changes weekly, and here have even been a few Sony shooters among them.
One of the recent guests was Derrick Story. While I have never met Mr. Story, I have been listening to his own podcast for years, and reading his articles in Macworld for much longer. I was surprised to hear Story recommend Cowboy Studio flash triggers. Everyone knows that cheap, Chinese flash triggers are a waste of money. But Story claimed the inexpensive Cowboy Studio flash triggers worked flawlessly for him. Hmmm.
A couple of weeks later, I listened to Story’s own Podcast, The Digital Story. Once again, Story praised the Cowboy Studio units as reliable, affordable and well-made flash triggers.
Selling for less that $25 for a set, this seemed like it might be worth checking out. I figured I would still need an adapter, but for less than $25, what did I have to lose?
When I checked Amazon for Cowboy Studio units, I was excited to see a model designed for the Sony Alpha auto-lock shoe. No adapter needed. With Story’s recommendation, and the knowledge I wouldn’t need an adapter, I ordered a set.
Actually, I ordered two sets. The first is the NPT-04S1, which provides a transmitter for the Sony auto-lock hot shoe and a single receiver that accepts a auto-lock style flash.
Because I have a collection of older Minolta 4000AF flashes, which use the common slip-on flash foot, I also ordered the NPT-04 set. This gave me two receivers designed to accept the multi-interface flash foot. It also included a multi-interface trigger, which I have no real use for at this time. But Amazon had a sale going on and I got the NPT-04 set for less than the cost of a single receiver.
Despite Story’s recommendation, I didn’t know how well this would work, When the trigger sets arrived, however, I turned on the trigger, slid it into the flash shoe of my Sony Alpha, installed two AAA batteries into a receiver and attached one of my old 4000AF units. I touched the shutter button on the Alpha, and POP — there was light
I’ve tried these triggers on several assignments so far. Overall, I am pleased, but there are a few limitations.
Short Range Radio Triggers
My biggest gripe concerns range — or lack of it. According to the specs, the triggers are supposed to have range of 30 meters — roughly 90 feet. I am only seeing about half of that. When the trigger is less than 30 feet from the receiver, everything works fine. At 35 -45 feet, the reception is spotty. The flash only fires part of the time. Beyond 45 feet, forget about it.
This isn’t deal-breaker. At 30 feet or less, the Cowboy Studio triggers are perfectly reliable.
Although I doubt it will make much difference, I intend to test the triggers with different batteries. The trigger came bundled with a A23 cell. Batteries that are supplied with new electronic equipment are notorious for being old and weak, so I intend to replace the included cell with a fresh A23 battery to see if it makes a difference.
I may also try other cells in the receivers. The receiver uses two AAA batteries. I am using 800MA NiMH rechargeable batteries. NiMH cells usually work perfectly a replacement for alkaline batteries, but they only have a voltage of 1.2 instead of the the 1.5 voltage you get with alkaline batteries.
I doubt this will make a huge difference, but I will try some alkaline batteries to see if they improve the range.
Cannot wake Sleeping Flash Units
A second concern is using Sony and Minolta flash units with the system. These flashes are designed to conserve battery life by going dormant when the flash is unused for a time. Used on the hot shoe or with a sync cord, the camera is able to wake the flash from its battery-saving nap. The radio triggers don’t have that ability. If the flash goes dormant, the trigger cannot wake it. You have to physically turn it off and on again. Depending on circumstances, this can be a pain. Besides the nuisance of having to physically turn the flash on and off, it also resets the flash to full power. If I have the flash set to a lower power setting, I have to remember to adjust the level again. It is a little thing, but when you are engrossed in making a series of important shots it is one more detail to remember.
I haven’t tried the Cowboy Studio units with my Sony HLV-F42AM flash as yet. I have heard that you need to attach the flash to the camera first, then attach it to the receiver. Otherwise the flash will not be recognized by the receiver/transmitter. If true, this sounds like a real pain. Anytime the flash goes dormant, you would have to mount the flash to the camera to get it working again. Fortunately, the Minolta AF4000 doesn’t require this step, but you do need to turn the flash off and on to wake it when it goes dormant.
No TTL Flash: These Triggers are Manual Flash Only
The Cowboy Studio triggers do not support TTL flash. I wasn’t too concerned about that, because my main flash is the 4000AF, which doesn’t support TTL flash with the Sony Alpha.
I quickly discovered there is a big difference using manual flash from a bracket on the camera, and firing your flash from a distance with a radio trigger.
Using the 4000AF with a sync cord at the camera, it is a simple matter to manually adjust power levels to suit the conditions. It only takes a second to adjust the power up or down if my LCD preview indicates the power is too high or too low.
When the flash is on a light pole some distance away, however, it is no trivial matter to adjust the flash. You have to leave your position, lower the flash and adjust the power level. If the flash is located in an inaccessible place, you may have no access to the flash until the event is over. In this situation, you have to live with the flash setting, even if the light levels at the scene change. Obviously, TTL flash would be a great option in this situation.
I was pleasantly surprised at the build quality of these units. I am accustomed to see poor quality control from inexpensive, off-brand electronics from overseas. That is not the case with the Cowboy studio flash triggers. It is true, the casing are plastic, and might be damaged in hard use. But what do you want for $25.00?
The seams in the receiver bodies line up well, the trigger foot clicked into the hot shoe perfectly and all the screws were in place and appeared to be tight.
One nice touch was the tripod attachment on the bottom of the triggers and receivers. Although the bodies are made of plastic, the attachment point is metal. This makes sense, but it is surprising how
many inexpensive photographic accessories attempt to get away with a plastic tripod socket. The metal attachment gives me confidence that the Cowboy Studio components were well engineered.
I plan on a more exhaustive test in the near future, I am sure I will have a lot more to say at that time, In the meantime, if you have always wanted to experiment with a radio flash trigger. I join Mr. Story in recommending the Cowboy Studio flashes — especially for Sony Alpha shooters with auto-lock shoes.
You can find Cowboy Studio radio flash triggers at Amazon.com.
Model: NPT-04S1 on Amazon
- 1 Sony Alpha Auto Lock Hot Shoe Transmitter
- 1 Sony Alpha Auto-Lock Hot Shoe Receiver. Includes umbrella mount
Works with Sony and Minolta dSLRs with the Minolta Auto-Lock hot shoe
Receiver accepts Sony and Minolta Flash Units with the Minolta Auto-Lock shoe
Model: NPT-04 on Amazon
- 1 Conventional Hot Shoe Transceiver
- 2 Conventional Receivers
I haven’t tested these on a camera, but the transceiver should work with new Sony Alphas such as the A99, A58 and NEX-6. Should fire any flash with the multi-interface hot shoe. They work well with my twenty year old Minolta 4000AF units.