The Camranger wireless system is not my first foray into the tethered world. The actual introduction to tethered shooting for my commercial and portfolio photography came late last summer. For some time, I was jonesing after the ability to display what was on the back of my camera’s small lcd monitor, not only to get a bigger, zoomable view of the image exposure/composition I was creating, but to also to get those around me really involved with the shoot in progress. An investment into the TetherTools USB wired solution for my laptop, with support from the company’s Aero Table and other accessories had me, ‘hook, line and sinker’ immediately.
Camranger Wireless Pro Shooting
Back to this review then – so, what is Camranger? In essence, it’s the first pro photography system that utilises an ad-hoc wireless network (no internet connection needed for actual use, only initial set up), allowing fast and efficient ‘Wireless N’ (up to 150Mbps) tethered shooting with an extensive list of Nikon and Canon cameras, to an Apple iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch (plus evidently, come sometime April 2013, Android tablet’s too). The hardware, with internal battery recharged by a (UK users) USB computer port or (US) AC adapter, comes in the form of what looks like a mini wifi router, ironically smaller than the iPhone it potentially would transmit to.
The software that is the partner of equal (if not more) importance, is the ridiculously logical and user-friendly application, downloadable free from the iTunes store. Connection between the Camranger hardware and your Canon or Nikon camera of choice is by way of a supplied ‘black’ USB cable (some cameras may need the cable supplied with the camera by the way). The unit also has an ethernet connection port for future possible firmware upgrades and in addition is supplied with a handy, slightly padded carry-case (the latter can hold the Camranger safely by the way, with no recognisable adverse affect to the wireless signal strength). The system is capable of shooting video too on compatible cameras, though for the purposes of this review, and limitations of my D700 camera, focus (excuse the pun) is on still image shooting.
Setting Up Camranger System
After charging the battery up to full strength with the supplied, and specific, ‘white’ lead inserted in the socket closest to the power on/off switch (image above), initial set up takes literally ten minutes. The previously downloaded Camranger app (default screen below and for the purposes of this review, on an iPad 2) is authorised for use via internet connection (and paired later with the hardware) using the unit’s 8 character serial number, printed on the case. Following on with the simple instructions of the supplied quick start guide, a wifi initialisation period of between 30~60 seconds officially (my first and successful attempt took far shorter than that) is followed by targeting the new ad-hoc local network connection in iOS ‘settings’ and I was up and running.
The camera used for this review incidentally, was a Nikon D700, supported on a tripod with the Camranger, and admittedly, not too elegantly gaffa taped to the tripod legs (well, it served the purpose). Much more practical and aesthetically pleasing solutions for mounting and securing both iPad and Camranger are of course available, but this was a unit kindly loaned to me by a UK supplier - so gaffa tape it was! Had the camera been hand-held (as would be for a large percentage of shoot scenarios outside etc), the Camranger could be ‘pouched’ and stuck in a pocket or belt-attachment for example.
Wireless Photography With Camranger
The Camranger app default user interface (above) is very logically laid out with main image screen occupying the most screen real estate, with camera mode/settings bottom right and a choice of function windows above. The latter are categorised to show ‘Data’ (histogram etc), ‘Focus’ (fine-tuning and stacking) and some rather neat ‘HDR’ capabilities. Once the D700 was connected to the app and iPad, it was time to do some test shots. My initial question when I first read Camranger’s press release introduction, was ‘how quick does the image appear in the iPad screen?‘. Wireless shooting convenience aside, if the system took an eon to grab the image and turn a thumbnail into a zoomable decent res version, then I for one would stick to cabled tethering thank you very much – my goodness though, was I in for a pleasant surprise?
The Nikon camera was set into ‘Camera’ mode, which allows changes to most settings (aperture, ISO, shutter speed, white balance, metering, auto-focus and shutter triggering etc) from both the iPad and the camera itself. The alternate, ‘PC’ mode pretty much disables the actual physical use of the camera body controls with no advantage other than ‘more app control’ (a quote from the user guide). I’d recommend leaving the camera in the aforementioned non-’PC’ mode for most shooting scenarios.
Additionally, and I believe it’s not applicable for Canon camera’s, but Nikon users can’t transfer their images to Camranger when shooting RAW files only. Stop right there – it’s cool – why would you want to?! Yes, don’t panic, just flick the Nikon body into shooting either just JPEG (shame on you) or, plumb for RAW+JPG (that’s more like it you goddang ‘pro’!) and the latter format’s preview will be your quite glorious source for image monitoring. The Nikon RAW .NEF file can however be downloaded to the iOS device sometime in your workflow should you wish. Whatever your choice, session image files are retained on the camera’s CF or SD card throughout (unlike cabled tethered shooting to, say, Lightroom where the photographer’s laptop would record the images, bypassing the memory card completely).
Image Transfer Speed Test
Let’s get down to the initial deal-breaker, nitty-gritty then. Just how fast is Camranger? I wanted to find the optimal JPG setting for speed of image transfer, zoom resolution and quality. JPG settings are ‘Basic’, ‘Normal’ and ‘Fine’ (basically, and in resolution terms.. ‘OK’, ‘Better’, and ‘Best’) with a further category split into image actual pixel size as ‘Small’, ‘Medium’ and ‘Large’. The following speed-test results use a system of timing the moment the camera shutter closes, to when the Camranger app on the iPad shows the recorded image thumbnail. Four shots at each setting gave an average.
JPG Basic: S: 2.5 secs – M: 2.6 secs – L: 2.6 secs
JPG Normal: S: 2.3 secs - M: 2.7 secs - L: 2.6 secs
JPG Fine: S: 2.8 secs - M: 2.8 secs - L: 2.6 secs
There was the odd periodic fluctuation where one exposure may take something like 5 or even 6 seconds to transfer. I’d assume that those (not even 5%) capture to download results were the result of a ‘quick dip’ in the local network Mbps speed, or just general normal signal interference, and certainly nothing to be overly concerned about. Soon after the above thumbnail test, I found a preference setting later on that enables the thumbnail to auto-display the full resolution image (which is probably most shooter’s preferred usage), with this feature adding on average only around 1/1.5 seconds to each of the above results – sometimes even quicker than that.
Get Zoomed In!
When shooting more focus critical, narrow DOF images, the ability to really zoom in on a previewed image on the iPad is vitally important. The ‘double tap to zoom’ feature of the Camranger app allows just that – one level of zoom to 100%, then touch/drag to pan around the full image. After that, the second double tap zooms out. The three JPG file sizes have differing maximum zoom capability with the smallest naturally giving less zoom resolution than the larger file.
Let’s take a look then at three iPad screenshots showing the ‘double tap zoom’ result of, firstly, a ‘Small’ file size, then a ‘Medium’ and lastly a ‘Large’ (on JPG Normal) setting (the camera lens by the way was around 4 feet from the colour checker, with a 50mm lens).
Clearly, for more critical shooting situations, it’s probably best to choose the ‘Large’ JPG file option. As for the download times and image quality that results, there seems no major discernable difference between preview images during a session being ‘Normal’ or ‘Fine’. I did see a minuscule drop in image preview quality in ‘Basic’, but it’s so darn small that it’s hardly worth mentioning really. Conclusion then, JPG for me is Large (for maximum 100% zoom detail) + Medium quality, and personally I’d recommend adding that extra half second or so to have captured images auto-display straight to main image size. Hit the ‘expand’ icon too and the image fills most of the iPad screen, which adds further to the whole visual experience of tethered shooting.
Camranger Live View and Focus
Tapping the ‘eye’ icon gets the user into Live View shooting mode. The resulting image is somewhat grainy (illustrating something in the region of 7~18 fps) but certainly usable. Double tapping the screen zooms in on an area and repeating that, zooms back out. Gently touching the iPad screen on a desired focus area sets AF (auto-focus) for that, but the cool thing is that this functionality works when in standard view or when zoomed in also – great for those low DOF, critical eye focus situations.
Live View offers up a real-time histogram feature, which can be toggled on or off to maximise the frame rate usage. I noticed shooting the Nikon D700 for my review testing, that neither the preview image, nor the histogram changed when I adjusted the real-time exposure of the monitored image. I shot a quick email over to Camranger tech support and the report back said that this was an inconsistency between certain Nikon camera bodies, and that Camranger only showed what the currently used camera body was capable of. Furthermore, “..for many of the Nikons the exposure doesn’t actually change when the settings are changed and instead just shows a reasonably well exposed image. Canon have a setting called “Exposure Simulation” that you can turn on or off, however, there is no such option with Nikon”
Save, Rate, Comment
Camranger can save the JPG image at any time to the iPad iPhoto app by hitting the floppy disc icon. Also, images can be deleted from the camera memory card too by tapping the interface delete icon. A nice little feature too is the ability to rate an image on the fly (1~3 star) and also to enter a quick note about it too (see below). The latter is useful for when perhaps shooting a repeated look with a subject and you come across a series of shots where a particular one stands out as the ‘killer’ – just make a note of it for later use in your post-production session.
Focus Fine Tuning & Stacking
The top right hand side of the Camranger interface supports the additional info tabs for more specialist ‘Focus’ usage, some neat ‘Timer’ applications and the flexible ‘HDR’ capabilities. Focus Adjust is basically a lens focal plane coarse/fine adjustment for use in Live View mode, when zoomed in. Once one gets used to the array of further/nearer adjustments, usage becomes quite intuitive. Focus Stacking is just below this section, and employs a [distance] step-adjustable size range and changeable shot number to take multiple macro images for enhanced depth of field. The user focuses in on the nearest defined focus point, then the app records the desired number of images further away from the lens from that start point. It should be pointed out that Camranger doesn’t internally blend these images together though, so usage of an external software stacking solution would be required. - Not having a suitable macro lens for my D700, I wasn’t able to fully check out this interesting Focus Stacking feature – I’ll try and grab a suitable lens and update this review later with findings if so.
High Dynamic Range Bracketing
Camranger’s Advanced Bracketing section houses yet another useful function of this system – HDR. High dynamic range photography is utilised in numerous fields and styles of today’s photography world, so bringing wireless tethered shooting capability into it has exciting possibilities. It’s a simple, straight-forward process using Camranger for this purpose. The property for adjustment is selected, in the case above, shutter speed, then a start value for this variable parameter, the number of actual shots and the EV increment size. Should an initial shot delay be needed, that can be entered too, then just hit start and let Camranger do the work for you. Incidentally, and useful to boot, is that using the advanced settings tab, you can set the initial start exposure of a sequence to user preference – ie: Midtones, Highlights or Shadows. Take note however, that the Camranger app leaves your camera at the last exposure setting of any set sequence, so a start point readjustment would be necessary to re-take the sequence or return to normal shooting conditions.
An additional Time Lapse function is also offered up by Camranger. Again, this intervalometer would prove useful for numerous shooting situations, such as an event set-up, where taking unattended remote snapshots of a long duration scene was needed. This feature can be adapted into HDR and Bulb shooting usages too, where the camera model supports. As a PS to this theme, flipping back to the main Camranger UI bottom right area, the Exposure Compensation feature shouldn’t be ignored and will indeed be useful for a quick series of standard bracketing shooting needs, however this seems a tad overshadowed by the earlier mentioned and quite comprehensive HDR feature.
Additional operational attributes and some useful shooting aids can be found in the Advanced Settings options. A handy rule of thirds grid, a highlight (shown in red) and shadow (in blue) over-exposure warning, and the super-cool ‘Client’ mode are selectable. The latter enables the safe handover of the session’s iPad to a client/art director etc, and allows image viewing only with camera controls disabled completely. Other selectable options include watermarking, the ability to show a filename on image preview, aspect ratio changes, the in-depth offline user guide and even a direct email access to Camranger support whilst at your session, and more.
Having shot numerous sessions with a cable tethered solution, I was keen to see how Camranger faired in speed and efficiency of wireless image transfer, and whether or not I missed any of the Lightroom RAW image adjustment aspects. What did I do with the images once shot via this method? I looked at overall composition, exposure check (with histogram), zooming in for fine detail/focus and [rarely perhaps], a quick white balance adjustment to get a cooler/warmer view. Granted, a 15 or 17 inch laptop has glorious screen real-estate, but cables are required (always a trip hazard - but tamed via Tether Tools ‘jerkstopper‘) and higher spec’d laptops add factors of considerable expense plus a touch more bulk to gear mobility. For educator’s though, who need to edit images with the power and flexibility of the likes of Lightroom and Capture One etc, this is positively the way to go.
Camranger is fast – as the speed test above gives evidence. Setting up a local ad-hoc wireless network is quick, easy and has you shooting within minutes. The system gives you literally total control of your camera aside from actually picking it up and moving the tripod for you. It can shoot in Live View whereas Lightroom can’t (though Capture One Pro Vs.7 now can), it keeps your images safely on your CF/SD card (Lightroom for example, doesn’t) and the app itself is tailored to be a flexible, comprehensive remote control allowing the photographer to operate a camera discreetly and safely. The additional HDR bracketing, Time Lapse and Stacking features add considerable bang for buck and the tactile AF and fine-tuning are a dream to use, resulting in consistent accuracy of in-focus results. Not once during my review session did a shot mis-fire and I was able to trot downstairs, into another room and stil trigger and operate Camranger efficiently. The only indication that reminded me occasionally I was shooting wirelessly was if an image ‘capture to display’ took maybe 5/6 seconds – but as mentioned, rare indeed.
I found Camranger a joy to work with and can only imagine the buzz of it being used on a shoot where hair/make-up artist’s, models, client’s etc can check out the live happenings on a statically stood/mounted, or ‘passed around’ iPad. This really is the first hardware/software wireless shooting solution that meets ‘Pro’ demands – and it’s still in the infancy stage of its lifespan. Once the Camranger system has grown in popularity and allowed to mature in features, speed and other improvements, goodness only knows what it will be capable of in the next year or so. I honestly can’t say I’m disappointed in anything about Camranger – the occasional letdown seems to be in camera brand/model inconsistencies and the general, sometimes fluctuating ‘drops’ in wireless signal strength. The wireless tethered photography dream has finally come of age.