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The spirit of the strobist is big light from small flashes. What it typically means is that you can get very nice pictures from small portable flash units designed for camera’s hotshoe. To make that happen, you will most likely need to take the flash off the camera and possibly use a few of them to get the desired results.

How to fire the flashes and have them sync perfectly with the camera’s shutter is the problem strobists have to work out. This is typically not a problem if you use the latest flash systems designed by Nikon or Canon that supports wireless remote flash. Nikon’s Creative Lighting System (CLS) supports Advanced Wireless Lighting (AWL), which appears to be superior to Canon’s system. Up to 3 groups of remote flash units can be used in the Nikon CLS AWL setup with no limit on how many can be in each group. The system maintains TTL flash metering capability and each flash group can be set up in TTL, M, or AA modes, and flash exposure compensation dialed in, all without walking up to the remote flash.

In many cases, the official solution work perfectly well and it is very capable. However if you are in the following situations, you may need to consider something else:

  • You need more range than the optical communication system Nikon or Canon units offer or you need to trigger a flash that is not in line-of-sight. The optical signals work fine in open space up to a few tens of feet but they won’t go through crowds or walls.
  • You want to use old, third party, or other flashes that are not compatible with the latest flash system. Most people want to do this for cost reasons. For example, for the price of single Nikon SB-900, you can buy 3 Vivitar 285HV flashes, plus a couple of light stands, umbrellas, and umbrella holders.
  • You have problem with the so-called monitor pre-flashes causing issues (most commonly the blink/closed eye problem), or you want to take high speed continuous shots with flash. The delay cased by the commander-remote communication will make it difficult.

Like there are Ferrari and Hyundai Accent (or other cheap cars) in the car world, there are the expensive Pocket Wizard and various  cheap triggers in the strobist world. The cheap ones typically come from eBay so they are sometimes called eBay triggers. Today, we will review one of them, the iShoot Wireless Flash Trigger PT-04 CN.

I purchased the one transmitter + 3 receiver package from eBay seller lilyrst. The package was shipped from Asia but it didn’t take too long to arrive. I suspect it might be even faster than ground shipping from east coast to west coast. Each receiver and transmitter was inside a plastic bag and wrapped in pages from what appeared to be a Chinese language photography magazine. There is no product package or manual in the shipping package.

Package contents

  • One transmitter
  • Three receivers
  • On 12″ PC sync cable with 2.5mm plug on one end and male PC plug on the other end

Transmitter

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Overall build quality is good. The whole unit is very light but the construction is solid. Nothing moves or squeaks when twisted.

On the top side, you will find a LED indicator light and a test button. The indicator LED flashes once when the test button is pressed. When mounted on a camera hotshoe, the LED blinks when the shutter is open. On the bottom side, there is a set of DIP switches for selecting the channel. The options are: both switches on, 1 on and 2 off, 1 off and 2 on, both off. The system uses the 433MHz frequency for communication, which is commonly used by many remote control devices. If you see signs of interference, you can change to a different channel.

One the side of the unit, there is a 2.5mm socket. If your camera does not have a hotshoe but a PC sync socket, you can use the included PC sync cable to connect the transmitter and the camera. Another interesting way of using the cable is to hook up the transmitter with a flash light meter. A push on the measure button on the light meter triggers the flash and measures its light output. This allows me to take multiple readings quickly around the subject. Many flash light meters do have a wireless flash mode but you have to push the measure button on the light meter, then trigger the flash. By using the corded mode on the light meter, the operation becomes a single button action.

You can also use the transmitter and the PC sync cable to fire a flash with a PC sync port. This can be useful if you happen to have one less receiver than you need but have a male-to-female PC sync cable that is long enough. You can set the transmitter on the hotshoe of your camera, plug in the 2.5mm end of the included cable, then extend it with your long cable to a remote flash or strobe with a PC sync port.

The transmitter has a plastic shoe and a turning knob for securing it on the camera’s hotshoe. For such a light weight device, the plastic shoe should be sufficient. Actually you may find many flashes with a plastic shoe.

The transmitter takes a single type 23A battery. It ships with one pre-installed in the transmitter. This is the type used often in remote controls. My garage door remote has one like this. It is not very expensive. The claimed trigger life is 50 thousand times so you probably don’t need to worry about it even though carrying a spare is always a good idea just in case you cannot find one when you need it. There is no power switch on the transmitter. I guess it doesn’t need one, just like there is non on my garage door remote.

To change the battery, you need to remove a screw to open the case. It is inconvenient but most likely you don’t need to do this often.

Receiver

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The build quality of the receiver is also quite good. The battery door is a little flimsy but is OK. It can be completely removed from the receiver so make sure you don’t lose it.

On the top of the receiver, there is the standard flash shoe. It has 4 extra contacts besides the X-sync contact. I am sure those extra contacts are useless at this moment. It has a lock hole in the hotshoe socket for securing the flash. Some Nikon flashes have the lock lever and a lock pin. The flash goes on the socket securely without the danger of falling off when properly locked. It does wobble somewhat. But the same Nikon flash wobbles on my Nikon D200 so it is not really a problem.

The receiver has the same set of DIP switches for selecting the channel. To make the transmitter talk to the receiver, both need to on the same channel.

There is a PC sync socket on the receiver as well. This is a two-way PC sync socket. You can use a male-to-male PC sync cord (not included) to couple a pair of flashes using only one wireless receiver. Or you can try to trigger a studio strobe light that has a 2.5mm socket using the included 2.5mm to PC male sync cable. Or you can trigger the flash sitting on top of the receiver.  The last application isn’t a very useful feature for a wireless receiver but it is good to know it works. It provides a PC sync interface for flashes that doesn’t have one built-in, for example, the SB-600.

The bottom of the receiver has a standard 1/4″ mounting socket. The same eBay seller is also selling a stand to 1/4″ screw adapter so you can mount the receiver in a flash stand such as the Nikon AS-19. A mini ball head mount is also available if you need the flexibility of pointing the flash to any directions you want or use it on a light stand.

The receiver takes standard sized AAA batteries. No battery was shipped. Alkaline batteries work fine but rechargeable batteries do not work. With rechargeable battery installed, the receiver has to be within a few inches of the transmitter to work.

Sync speed

The specification says it syncs up to 1/500 sec. I don’t have a camera with 1/500 maximum sync speed. On my D200, I have no issue with sync speed up to 1/250s. At 1/320s, I can see a black border (shutter) but this is not the problem of the trigger.  This appears to be better than another popular eBay trigger, the Cactus V2s. I know someone who got the Cactus and he could only sync up to about 1/100s on his D80 without getting black border on the photos.

Range

Maximum operating range is specified as 30 meters or ~100 ft. I didn’t test the range but it does work well through a few walls. If you want a longer range, you may want to take a look at this antenna mod.

Usage

It is very easy to use, that’s probably the reason for not including a user manual.

After installing the batteries and selecting the same channel for the transmitter and all receivers, you are able to immediately test the units. The transmitter has a test button and a LED indicator light. When pressed, it should trigger the receiver which also has a small indicator light that blinks when a trigger signal is received.

Unlike with a real flash on the camera’s hotshoe, the camera does not know the presence of the mounted transmitter on the camera. So the shutter speed will not change automatically to the flash sync speed. Unless you are working with slow sync flash, you will need to put the camera in Manual exposure mode so you can control both the ambient and flash exposures.

Whatever flash units you want to use with the receiver, they need to be put in manual mode so you can control the amount of light output. Forget about TTL flash, you need to dial in the flash exposure using trial and error, calculation, or by using a flash light meter.

When I tested the iShoot PC-04 CN triggers with Nikon SB-800 and SB-600 flashes, I initially got many black frames. It turned out that the flashes went into standby mode  and would not fire when the receiver asked it to. The flash worked fine again starting with the 2nd shot until one of the flash unit went to sleep again. I never had problem like this with Nikon CLS AWL. The light pulse communication seamlessly wake up the flash in standby and no shot will be missed. In order to avoid the black frames, I turned off the standby function on the SB-600 and set the standby delay on the SB-800 to a longer time. After that, the system worked nicely. It would be great if the triggers can wake up the flash from standby mode.

If you mount the flash on the receiver, turn on the flash then the receiver, the flash will fire. The flash will fire if the on/off switch on the receiver is toggled from off to on. This can be a feature but it can also be an annoyance. Don’t point the flash at your eyes when turning it on.

I tried continuous shooting with D200 firing at 5fps and the exposures were quite consistent from frame to frame.

And finally another cool trick: I can mount my Nikon flash on the camera’s hotshoe and set it to TTL mode. I then plug in the PC sync cable with transmitter on the end to My D200’s PC sync port. What this does it that you get to keep the TTL flash on the camera. And when the flash fires, a signal is also sent out to trigger remote flashes for background light or hair light.

Conclusions

The built quality is good for both the transmitter and receiver. Most importantly the low cost iShoot PT-04 CN wireless flash trigger system works quite well. In my tests it syncs up to 1/250s without any issue (spec is 1/500s). You do have to disable the standby function on your flash to avoid misfiring. Not being able to use rechargeable batteries in the receiver is a negative point. The transmitters and receivers are easy to use. Built-in PC sync port on the receiver and the 2.5mm sync socket on the transmitter are two-way ports that offer very versatile setup options. Overall I am very satisfied with the cost/performance ratio of the iShoot PT-04 CN wireless flash trigger.

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