Using RadioPopper PX system with Nikon

Let me start this review of the RadioPopper PX system by saying that, in general, I love RadioPoppers and they have made a dramatic difference in how easily I can work on assignment. They're great: reliable and with tremendous range, they make it much easier to shoot out there in the field.

That said, I'm gonna have to declare that I'm not crazy about how these were redesigned from a physical standpoint (their electronics have also undergone a major revision, it seems) and they way they interface with my Nikon gear.

There are some good aspects to the redesign. Both the transmitter and receiver are smaller than the RadioPopper P1 units. Any time I have to carry less stuff, and when it doesn't stick out as much on the gear I have around my neck, I'm happy. The PX receiver is considerably smaller than the P1, and you now have the choice of mounting it on top of your SU-800 or on the front of it (so you don't have as much height projecting upward from the hotshoe, which is important if you're carrying the camera over your shoulder rather than around your neck.)

You can now get to the batteries without having to unscrew the whole unit! This is a fantastic change. The P1 units that I mailed back for my refund (that's coming, right? Soon?) were pretty much held together with duct tape by the time I was through with them, and hardest on them was having to change the AA's inside. But I'm willing to put $5 on the notion that in a few months the new battery doors on at least one of my units will break or fall off. Because it is only a flimsy piece of plastic that detaches completely, it's inevitable that as the clips weaken with repeated use the door will go missing at some point. I would have been willing, frankly, to sacrifice a little bit of compactness for better construction here.

So far, none of this stuff is really Nikon-specific. But I think it's fairly clear that the receivers, at least, were designed primarily with Canon flashes in mind and that your SB-800's were a bit of an afterthought. In fact the default system setting on the transmitter and receiver is for Canon, so you need to change that first thing if you're a Nikon user. On Canon flashes, the receiver fits snugly on the front of the flash with very little, if any, overhanging area where you could accidently yank the receiver away from the strobe. On the SB-800 and SB-900, the receiver hangs precariously on the side of the flash and creates a conglomeration that is inelegant at best.

To be fair, the argument could be made that this is really a result of the Canon flashes having a better design to start with. I can only respond there that I don't shoot with Canon gear, and as a result it must be inferior. (Okay, okay, I'm kidding.. hold yer hate mail.) But with either flash you suffer some tradeoffs by having to put the PX receiver right over the sensor area. I suspect a lot of people complained about the fiber-optic tubes in the P1 units, but those did have the advantage that you could put the receiver in a number of different places on the flash and then run the tube over to that little Mouser clip. If you had to stick your flash in to a tight space, which isn't all that uncommon, you weren't constrained by having the receiver in a fixed spot.

Having done away with the tube, the exchange of information for i-TTL involves having the receiver unit placed right on top of the sensor on your flash. Another factor here is that because of some subtle timing changes, your flash could get "confused" if it sees the actual pre-flash from your commander flash AND the pulse from the PX receiver, resulting in the unit not firing when you want it. So, not only does it have to be right on top, it has to seal out the ambient light that might hit the sensor, which is accomplished by a little piece of foam that fits over the connection. So far I've had trouble with that foam (it compresses too easily, meaning that if you accidentally don't center it properly you risk squishing it over to the point where it covers the connection. Result: no flash.) I'm thinking of trying to apply some of my leftover craft foam to replace the sponge provided with the system.

With the revised electronics comes new flexibility: you can choose from a wider array of channels in case you're shooting alongside several other photographers using the units. Smart. You get an instant read-out of the battery level. Very, very useful. On the transmitter you can choose three different groups of flashes to fire at different manual power (this is above and beyond what you can do wiht i-TTL): that's gonna be super once the JrX units come out. (Soon, right?)

And you can adjust the brightness of the LED's, which so far I have found to be a hindrance more than a help. When I first got them, I took the light level down to 2 (where 1 is dimmest, 5 is brightest) and it wasn't any problem indoors. But when I got outdoors, I couldn't see the lights at all. Even cranking them up to 5 didn't really gain me a lot. Conclusion: I'm gonna just leave them as bright as they come, and I never really considered this a problem in the past with the P1's.

Speaking of the P1's, the new PX transmitter is backwards-compatible with the P1 receivers, but I was a bit let down here. In order to make this happen, you have to set not only your PX transmitter to P1 mode, which cuts down on your options a lot, but you also have to set ALL your other PX receivers to P1 mode. Originally I had thought I might keep my one remaining unbroken P1 receiver and use it in tandem with the PX system, but having to change all the units every time I wanted to add it in to the mix seemed a bit onerous.

Why all this griping about the design? Because that's really all that's wrong with them. When they work, and if you're the least bit careful and attentive they will work very well every time, they are amazing. But for all the super-brilliant behind-the-scenes stuff that happens, they don't yet interface as smoothly as they need to for working professionals or even enthusiastic amateurs who are going to abuse these puppies. I could put up with that for the P1 units, because you know there are a lot of bugs to be worked out with a first-generation product, but I expected a little more from the second generation. In truth, these folks are trying to put a piece of hardware on top of a system that isn't supposed to have any extra hardware on it, but I'm just hoping the next generation ends up being a better solution.

The photos of Jessica & Matt were shot with a Nikon D700, using SB-800 & SB-900 flashes triggered by the new RadioPopper PX transmitter and receivers.


Serge said...

Thank you Thomas for sharing!
I'm about to place an order for couple of those.

Dan said...


Thanks a lot for your posts. I've been following a fellow Baltimoron's lighting blog. I'm glad to find another local person with useful lighting information to share. Your local pictures are inspirational. Too bad you also shoot Nikon. :-). Seriously I have found a lot of valuable information from your blog. Thank you and please keep it coming.

I have been in quandary between Radio Poppers and the new Pocket Wizards. with the JrX units advertised at so "economical" I was hoping to start with them then get the TTL upgrade later.

However recently reading more about the efficiency of the PW HyperSync. I like the Idea of controling the Sun and getting more power out of my 550s. I hear the RP also to Hyper sync but I wonder of the light loss.

My biggest negative of the PW is I cant use my 550 as an on camera (TT1) master. Only the 580II are compatible currently. I don't own any 580s. Maybe a later PW firmware release will resolve this.

Also with the fact that Tom at lightandpixels talked to RP and they are now delaying the JrX to later this month. After they announced a release date of Feb, then April, then June 8th, Now another delay. Then I have to wait on reviews of the functions I want. Pockets Wizards are looking better every day.