Review: Alpine Labs Pulse Camera Controller

“Late December” is a great season, with Christmas, Hanukah, and various other gift-giving opportunities. Especially when Santa brings presents. And Santa brought me presents this year—did he ever!

For starters, my son Daniel bought me this:

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Superb.

But hardly as interesting to my readers as one of the gifts Jason, my other son, brought me from California—namely, the device I am reviewing here. Here it is:

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This $99 (US) device is the extremely cool Alpine Labs Pulse camera controller:

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What does a camera controller do? Um… It controls your camera. Duh.

Let me explain. First, here’s how you operate it:

  1. Mount this controller on the flash hotshoe on your Canon or Nikon (but not Sony) camera.
  2. Connect the cable to the mini USB/micro USB input on the camera. Unlike traditional remote triggers, this one uses Bluetooth, and it connects to your camera using the USB port, not the trigger port.
  3. Install the “Pulse Camera Control” app on your phone/tablet (search for it under that name). Both iOS and Android are supported.

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You can now pair the device and use the app:

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(That pairing, incidentally, could be handled more elegantly. Rename your device and yet it often returns to the default name. But that is a minor issue, and even during my testing I received at least one firmware update, v.1.21. The iPhone app I tested with is v1.3.0.506e570. More about bugs later.)

The device had no trouble recognizing my Canon 5D Mk3 or 1Dx. The Alpine Lab web site has a list of cameras that will work: most current Nikon and Canon cameras are supported.

You can now use the app to control your camera in the following way. First, set the camera to manual focus and preferably to manual exposure mode.

Now use the app to:

  • Set exposure: i.e. set Aperture, Shutter and ISO (your camera should ideally be in Manual mode, and it should be set to manual or back-button focus).
  • Take pictures by pressing the “shutter button” on the app. After you take a picture, you get a preview, which although it is small, low-resolution, an blurry, is very useful. You can also get a histogram, which is also very useful.
  • Take Video, the same way.
  • Make Time Lapse sequences. This is an extremely cool and easy-to-use feature; see the screen capture below. Easy and flexible: It allows exposure ramping, and you can even pause the exposures. Don’t forget to turn off picture review on the back of the camera when using this mode, or you will drain your battery unnecessarily quickly.

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Exposure Ramping is a very cool feature:

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  • Take Long Exposure pictures. Without this, all you can do is up to 30 seconds, or use the “Bulb” mode, where you yourself have to hold down the camera’s shutter for the required shutter time. Now, you can easily take 35 second exposures, or 55 second exposures, or any exposures up to an hour and a minute. (You can still use “Bulb” mode also, if you wish, and you can start with a delay).
  • Take HDR combinations. Take 3-9 images, up to 7 stops (!) apart from each other. Pulse allows you to take the pictures; it does not combine them for you. You can do that in Lightroom or whatever app you use.
  • Photo Booth: a very simple photo booth mode where the app takes 1-10 pictures when you hit the shutter; 5-10-15-20-etc seconds apart.

Here’s the selfie, taken with the Pulse, whose preview you saw in the earlier screen shot:

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This great app does have a few little bugs, but seeing the frequency of updates I am sure they will be fixed soon. Bugs I observed included:

  • The “LED brightness” setting did not work reliably (or at all? Hard to tell).
  • The LED stays on sometimes. Just constant, i.e. non-flashing, blue. At other times, it is completely off. Perhaps these states mean something, but if so: I have no idea what.
  • Several times, the “OK” button on the app screen was obscured by the iPhone’s keyboard. Resetting was the only fix, since there was no down arrow “remove keyboard” key.
  • The “select an accessory (this may take a few seconds)” screen takes up to 20s to appear sometimes.
  • Cosmetic bug: see the camera name in the first screen shot above?
  • The app (or device?) went to sleep sometimes. At these times, a complete reset of camera, device, and app were sometimes necessary to get everything working properly again.
  • When I connect the Pulse to the computer, every few minutes I get this warning:

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These are relatively minor issues, most of which will no doubt be fixed soon. None of these stop me from using the camera, and some may well have been the result of me trying out all the modes. Still, robustness could be improved.

Overall

Many devices do some of what Pulse does; few or none do all; and none do it in such a simple and, I dare say elegant, way. This device will have a permanent place in my bag, and you can expect to see time lapse photos etc in my future.

EDIT: Jan 15, 2017: a firmware update fixed at least some of the issues I mention. Stand by for more updated information soon.

Stars and stripes

A technical post today—after all, this is a technical learning blog.

When you see a picture with details like this (from my Mac’s background picture)…
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…then you know that a small aperture was used for this photo.

The only way to get the sharp star shape you see here, you see, is to use a small lens opening. Meaning a small aperture (“aperture” means “opening”). Meaning a high “f-number”. In this case, I used an aperture of f/22. The reflection is from my flash, which was aimed straight at the car.

I have other clues. Other detail in the picture includes:
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That is at least proof that the lens was not wide open. If it had been, the polygon at the top would have been not a polygon, but a circle.

Other notable facts: the lines (there’s your stripes) all converge where the sun is. And finally, the lens is probably an expensive one: the polygon has seven sides. Most have five or six sides. The more sides, the more the lens approaches the ideal, a circle. That ideal gives you great bokeh.

Bokeh

THE TERM BOKEH, by the way, when used correctly, is used to describe the quality of the fuzzy background. “I want bokeh” is not a correct term: when people say this, they usually just mean “I want a blurry background”.

Correct usage: A lens that has great, beautiful bokeh is a lens whose blurry background is wonderfully smooth and evenly creamy. A cheap lens, on the other hand, has bokeh (especially “fully open” bokeh) that is more like clotted cream: much less smooth, more uneven. I can tell a cheap lens from an expensive one immediately, and I bet you can, too, when you see them side by side.

And that concludes today’s lesson. For more, attend one of my many upcoming workshops: scroll down to read more.

 

Doggone it

I have dogs on my mind, it seems.

Why? Because I did an outdoors portrait session of two dogs today. A little challenging, because it was cold (-9ºC), and it was bright, and the dogs would not sit still.

I started with flash held by an assistant (in casu, the dogs’ owner) and the standard outdoors settings. That gave me:

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But TTL is not easy here, because of the dark subject offset against the reflective snow, and “manual” means “keep the distance of the flash from the subject constant”, which is near impossible. So on to additional ways to shoot:

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Additional advantage: fast shutter speeds are now possible. When you use flash, 1/250 or 1/200 sec is all you can do. Without flash, this limitation is removed. Note that I use back button focus, and this means I need to keep pressing the button as I point at the subject. Having first, of course, selected AI Servo (Nikon calls this AF-C).

After this, I did some with simple on-camera flash, which can be perfectly OK if, as in this case, you mix with lots of ambient light:

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And finally, I did some standard bounced indoors shots:

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The lesson here is threefold, namely that you must know a multitude of techniques; that you must be prepared, willing and able to switch between them; and that you must be able to do so quickly.

This, incidentally, is what I teach in my workshops; including the January 28 one in Toronto, for which there is still space. See http://learning.photography for details and to book. If you know the starting points, the magic formulas that match the situation at hand, you can easily and quickly vary from them: your starting point will already be close enough to get acceptable results. Also, you will feel more confident.

After the shoot, I sat in traffic for a few hours, then downloaded and finished the images in a few more hours, and finally I uploaded a preview web site for the client to look at.

If you have every considered hiring a photographer, you now know why this costs some money. Knowledge, experience, expensive equipment, spares, and time all combine.  “My nephew has a camera too, so he can shoot this to save money” simply does not work except in the simplest cases. And as today showed once again, the world rarely consists of simple cases.

And yes, I do pet pictures too.

Quick! Flash!

Speedlighter.ca. Speedlighter. Speedlighter!

So yeah, let me talk about speed for a moment. Speed as in “fast exposure speed, in order to freeze movement”. Fast exposure speed = short exposure time. 1/2 second is a long exposure time, i.e. a slow exposure. 1/1000 second, on the other hand, is a short exposure time, i.e. a fast exposure.

So how so you get a fast exposure time? One of two ways, it turns out. Either one of:

  • A short shutter time, or
  • A short light flash.

You see, what matters is the duration during which the light reaches the sensor. Whether that is short because the shutter only opens for a short time or because the light itself only flashes for a short time makes no difference at all. It is the same thing. A short exposure.

So let’s say I’m taking a fresh picture of a rapidly spinning spinning top. And let’s say further that I want to freeze the motion, to see the spinning top detail. Since I’m using a flash, I cannot use a fast flash shutter speed; The fastest I can go with my 5D camera is 1/200 of a second. So I’m going to have to achieve a fast exposure by using a short flash of light.

Fortunately, that is exactly what a flash fires. At full power it fires a flash of about 1000th of a second, or 1/4000 second at 1/4 power. Nice. Assuming that ambient light plays no role, your effective shutter speed is now nice and fast: 1/4000 second.

But not fast enough:

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(1/200 sec, 400 ISO, f/32, 1/4 power flash)

OK, it’s still blurry, because it is spinning rather fast, so even 1/4000 second cannot freeze that motion. Now what?

The solution is in the sentence above: “At full power it fires a flash of about 1000th of a second, or 1/4000 second at 1/4 power”.

Because how does a flash set its power? Simply by shortening the time that it is on. Full power means 1/1000 second on a typical flash (small or large). Any longer and it overheats and burns out. So:

  • Half power means 1/2000 second, half the time.
  • Quarter power means a quarter of the original time, so 1/4000 second.

Oh wait. So “lower power flash” means “shorter duration flash”?

Yes! So if I set the flash to 1/128 power, I get an effective exposure time of 1/128,000 second. That’s like a really, really fast shutter:

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(1/200 sec, 400 ISO, f/5.6, 1/128 power flash)

Now, as you see, with an effective exposure time of about 1/128,000 second, the top’s motion is completely frozen. So while my shutter speed is unchanged, it does not matter. The light is only on for 1/128,000 second. So that is my effective shutter speed.

The lesson? To freeze motion, use low power flash. The lower the better.

 

The Clouds

The Clouds is, in fact, a play by Aristophanes. He who also wrote “Lysistrata”. And who said, famously, that “under every stone there lurks a politician”. If you want to understand ancient Athens and its parallels to today, read Aristophanes’ plays (and their explanations to a modern audience).

But if you want to store your images away from home, there’s the cloud. Singular.

Alas: while The Clouds is ancient history, the cloud is not quite ready. It offers great advantages, of course. Backups that actually get done. Off-site storage. Storage that is accessible from everywhere. One place for your files. Unlimited storage.

But the drawback in today’s world is simple: speed. An image can easily be 15-20 MB, and a shoot can contains hundreds of such images. Until we all have fast fibre right into the house, and all the routers are fast, it is just not practical. The infrastructure does not quite support it. Yet. Try moving a year’s shoots to another provider (you cannot be locked in)—you will see it will take days or weeks or even longer. So the cloud is not there yet for us.

It will be, of course—this is one area where Moore’s Law still holds. As long as human law does not protect the Telco’s and we have a reasonably open, competitive market, speeds to the home will increase

Until that time: store all your images on a hard disk. And back them up onto another disk. And then back them up onto another disk, which you keep off-site, in someone else’s home or studio. Only then can you relax. Each image must be in at least two places, preferably in at least three, one of which should be offsite. Don’t lose your images – every hard disk fails. Not IF, but WHEN.

And if you fail to heed my advice, like the Athenians failed to listen to Aristophanes’ anti-war message, then so be it—just don’t say I did not warn you.