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Long distance camera trigger uses walkie-talkies to send signal  
Thursday, November 27, 2008 | by Rob Galbraith
Long Shot: Robert Benson's long range camera triggering device. Click to enlarge (Photo by Robert Benson)
A camera trigger device, developed by photographer Robert Benson, enables an unmanned Canon or Nikon camera to be fired from miles away using walkie-talkies to send the signal. The idea for the device germinated from a problem Benson experienced firing a remote camera at an air show earlier this year. He has turned the solution into a US$90 product that he builds and ships from his home base in San Diego.

The device itself is pretty simple. It consists of a small circuit board and three attached wires: one goes to a nine volt battery, another to the walkie-talkie's miniphone jack and the third to the remote release port of the camera.

The apparatus isn't built into a housing, it's a bare board plus wires that you're buying, as shown in the photo at right. Benson includes a cell phone pouch to hold the device. Essentially, it's a do-it-yourself project, except that Benson is doing the work for you.

With the triggering device hooked up to the camera and the receiving walkie-talkie, tripping the shutter is as simple as holding down the push-to-talk (PTT) button on the sending walkie-talkie. After a brief pause - Benson estimates the typical trigger delay time to be less than one second, and is a by-product of the way walkie-talkies work - the remote camera will fire. Holding down the PTT button is equivalent to holding down the camera's shutter button: the camera will fire continuously, up to its buffer limit, as long as PTT is pressed. The trigger signal is the ambient noise being broadcast from the sending walking talkie to the receiving one when the PTT button is activated. As long as the trigger device detects incoming audio, it keeps on tripping the shutter.

The triggering device doesn't send back a notification that the camera fired, though Benson says that some shooters have attached a flash to the camera so that they would have the visual confirmation of the flash lighting up as their cue that the whole process worked (this trick is obviously only useful if the remote camera can be seen from the sender's position).

The practical range is dependent on the capabilities of the walkie-talkies plus the usual things that impact radio range. While triggering is possible over distances measured in miles, this will require a strong radio link and a minimum of range-reducing obstructions. In the video below, Benson shows the camera triggering device working at an estimated distance of three miles, using inexpensive, off-the-shelf Motorola handheld radios. If you've read this far, chances are you've already thought of an application for this, one that extends well beyond the reach of all-in-one, minimal-delay wireless camera triggering systems such as LPA Design's PocketWizard line.

Going the Distance: A video demonstrating Benson's long range camera triggering device (Video courtesy Robert Benson)

Perhaps the only tricky part of using Benson's device is selecting a walkie-talkie. The trickiness is more legal than technical: in the U.S., for example, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules likely prohibit the use of Family Radio Service (FRS) and General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) walkie-talkies for this sort of transmission. That precludes almost all handsets you find at Big Box electronics stores and outfits such as Radio Shack, though many of these units, as long as they have an audio-out miniphone jack, will work just fine. The key, really, is the miniphone jack for hooking up headphones, a VOX headset or similar, and of course the handsets you choose need to have sufficient range for your intended use.

Another type of radio, Multi-Use Radio Service (MURS), does allow for this type of communication, doesn't require the user to be licensed and there are walkie-talkies with miniphone jacks available. MURS handsets tend to be found in more specialized wireless and outdoors shops and are more expensive than the US$40-80/pair FRS and GMRS handsets that are ubiquitous in the U.S. If you're in the U.S., and you want to use Benson's camera trigger device, it looks like you'll want to use MURS equipment if you want to stay on the right side of the law.

Regulations vary worldwide, the above fully applies to one country only. You'll want to get sorted out what radio type is the right choice in your backyard before you make a purchase.

Benson has tested the camera trigger device with models in both Canon's and Nikon's digital SLR lineup, and can build it with the Canon or Nikon connector type of your choice (he sources an aftermarket part for this). Starting in October 2008, he began building his device on a per-order basis, at a price of US$90, including the circuit board and trio of necessary wires, plus a soft-sided cell phone case to hold everything. Shipping is on top of that, and is US$3 via USPS to anywhere in the U.S. Shipping to other countries is possible, says Benson, at a higher shipping cost.

At the moment, Benson has a small backlog of units to build for customers, and anticipates an ongoing turnaround time of two-to-three weeks from the date an order is placed. You can read more about the camera trigger device, and begin the ordering process, in this blog entry.
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