Updated: October, 2014 – I completely rewrote this review, updated it with new photos, and added in a few videos to provide overall more in depth information. I have been using these triggers since 2010, 4 years and counting and have had no problems! Triggers and lighting are critical for my type of photography and these triggers offer exceptional value.
These Cowboy Studio NPT04 Radio Triggers radio triggers are really slick and are a lot of bang for the buck ($30 for a set – for real). The only gotcha is you are going to have to go full manual to use them, but that’s no different than most triggers costing a LOT more.
CowboyStudio NPT-04 Wireless Trigger with 1 Trigger and 2 Receivers
When I first bought these in 2010, I bought a transmitter/receiver kit from amazon.com for $30. Its no coincidence that it’s currently a #1 best seller on Amazon. For $30 you get 1 transmitter (mounts to the camera) and 2 receivers (these connect to each flash unit). Back in 2010 Pocket Wizards didn’t have the low cost options they have today in 2014. However if you price out a the low cost PlusX Pocket Wizard, it will still cost you $99 for one (yes one) transceiver. That $99 will get your camera hooked up, but you’ll still need to buy another one for each strobe/flash you want to use. Want to hook up two lights, thats a total of three PlusX’s. By the time you get what Cowboy Studios is offering for $30, you’ll be well over $250. I’ll talk quality and reliability later.
These triggers are standard vanilla triggers, meaning they literally just fire the flash with no exposure information being transmitted from your camera. You have to manually select (on the flash unit), the flash power level you want the flash to fire at. For an AlienBee, its a slider on the back, for my Nikon SB-600 you set the flash to manual mode and adjust the power manually on the back of the flash unit using the LCD and buttons. Most triggers including the PlusX work this way.
Depending on your skill level and what you are doing you will need to also meter the lights with a light meter. For all the photos in this post I did not meter, I eyeballed it with my Histogram and LCD with final adjustments in Lightroom.
Another huge advantage of these triggers is they have a built in hot-shoe. My Nikon SB-600’s and Vivitar 285HV’s don’t have a jack on the flash to connect them to a trigger via a wire. That means connecting via the hot-shoe. No additional adapters are needed as you can see from the photo of my SB600 being fired while the picture is being taken.
Each receiver uses two standard AAA batteries. They do not auto shut off, so after a shoot you’ll need to remember to turn off the receivers. The transmitter (camera hot-shoe mounted) has no off button. If your camera’s shutter goes off with the transmitter mounted to the hot-shoe of the camera, the trigger then transmits a signal to the receivers to fire. You don’t need to tell your camera that you have a flash attached (Nikon), it just works this way every time regardless of camera settings. Hit the shutter button, the transmitter detects it via the hot shoe and transmits to the receivers to fire the flashes.
The transmitter also has a test button so you can simply press to get your studio lights to fire. This is hugely helpful because it allows you to meter and adjust your lights without having to take a photo. Since I have so many of these now, I usually just keep a spare transmitter in my pocket during a shoot. That way I can set my camera down, meter and fire the lights at will. The receiver also has an LED so you can test trigger them with or without a flash attached. Hit the test button on the transmitter and you’ll see a red flash of light on the receiver and transmitter letting you know its all working.
As I mention above, the transmitter transmits every time the shutter is actuated regardless of camera setting, Auto, P, S or M modes (Nikon, I need to test Canon). This is an added bonus on my Nikon’s because they will still trigger the transmitter if its attached to the camera, even when the camera is in “P” mode. That allows for some interesting back lighting if you are in a hurry – lets say an adjoining room that isn’t really part of the exposure. The camera exposes what it thinks is correct in auto mode and I add a little in the background that isn’t accounted for in the camera exposure. This is also useful for fill light.
The transmitter uses a special mini 12v 23A battery and requires you to unscrew the unit to replace the battery. I would not recommend doing this on a shoot. The batteries are common and I found a supply of these at my local supermarket for a few dollars a cell. I have only had to replace one or two of these batteries ever and I have 5 or 6 transmitters that I own. Don’t bring spare batteries, bring a spare transmitter.
The red switches on the transmitter and receivers are the channel select. 4 different channel combinations. You need to have the transmitter and receiver set to the same settings for it to work. Just make the switches all look the same across units. Press the test button and make sure all the red LED’s go off at the same time.
In terms of distance I’m sure this is not a Pocket Wizard. I have used theses transmitters at least 40 feet away indoors and outdoors without issues. I haven’t had the need for much further so I have not tested the max distance. One small gotcha is when you turn the receiver on, it triggers the flash. My eyes are still recouping from that. Don’t look at your flash while turning the receiver on.
The hot shoe mounts on the bottom of each unit are plastic (not the top with metal pictured). If I were hard on my equipment or especially if I were renting these out, I think these would not hold up to that kind of abuse. You would need to decide if you were going to just buy a lot of them or buy something more durable like a Pocket Wizard which also has great range. If you want the best, these are not the units for you. If you want something that works well for cheap money and will get the job done then you are in luck, buy these.
If you want to use these when it counts, then I recommend buying more than one kit. Even buying a total of three kits, you will still only be at the cost of a single Pocket Wizard PlusX. Three kits and you’ll have three transmitters and six receivers. Sounds like overkill, but if I’m on a shoot and I’m having any kind of problem at all, I simply stick the transmitter or receiver giving me problems in my bag to sort out what is broken later, then pull a spare out. Talk about redundancy. I don’t even bring spare batteries since I have complete spare units with batteries and all. The spares account for all issues, broken electronics, dead batteries, wrong channel selected, etc.
I have not encountered any interference problems either. Every once in a while I will get a random misfire (1 in 500 or so) and a strobe will go off (maybe interference, maybe static since this seems to happen in winter more). In a studio this is not a problem if this happens, but if you are in a situation where that matters (someplace where you can’t annoy people until you need the shot) these might not be right for you.
If you want to hook these up to an AlienBee, the 15 foot cable that comes with AlienBees work, but I highly recommend buying the 12″ cable (pictured) for $7.95 from Paul C Buff with all the money you are saving with these triggers. Remember its wireless from the camera to receiver and if you are not using a studio strobe you don’t need the cable. 15 feet just means you have to coil it up and hang it on your lightstand.
I don’t do a lot of reviews, but these triggers are integral to all my off camera flash, either on location or in the studio. In photography terms, you can’t beat $30 US to hook up two flashes to one camera. Once you get a set and start using them, buy a few more and you’ll always have a working one with you.
Equipment I have personally used these with:
- Nikon D90, D7000, D7100, D700
- Nikon SB-600
- Vivitar 285 HV
- Nikon SB400 (DOES NOT WORK – this flash has no “manual” option)
- Paul C Buff AlienBee 400, 800, 1600
- Paul C Buff Einstein Flash Unit
CowboyStudio NPT-04 Wireless Trigger with 1 Trigger and 2 Receivers
This the first time I have have made a video and published it on my site. This was shot with my iPhone 5 and uploaded to YouTube without any editing. Be Gentle on me. . Stay tuned, I’ll improve over time. Question, how many times do I use the word tripod in place of lightstand?
Video Preview of the CowBoy Studio NTP-04 Trigger