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.

Learn Topics: Going Wide!

Time to start the new year with some special camera techniques!

Another hands-on seminar. In Brantford; Jan 4 at 7pm, repeated Jan 8 at 1pm.

I often see people who have a good overview of all the theory, but who lack detailed knowledge of some advanced or special techniques.  So rather than “going deep” with a topic like “macro photography”, this time let’s get together and “go wide”: I cover a whole bunch of these special topics.

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Topics for this hands-on , in studio session will include:

  • Setting up your camera: in-camera editing, custom controls, copyright/owner, personalized menus, optimal playback options, and a settings review for your camera.
  • How to get super fast flash to freeze super fast motion.
  • Stroboscopic Flash (see the picture above).
  • First or second curtain: the differences, when to use.
  • Video with DSLR: How to set up your camera for video.
  • Simple HDR: High Dynamic Range without hassle. We cover both “in camera” (like in a Canon 5D) HDR, or HDR in Lightroom.
  • Panoramas: how to do them in Lightroom.
  • Off-Camera Flash: How to get your flash off camera using [a] built-in light control, or [b] simple Pocketwizard radio triggers, or [c] Yongnuo advanced radio triggers.
  • Using a Pulse camera remote as a remote trigger, or for time lapse, long exposure, and HDR.
  • Q:A session: As time allows, anything you want to ask.

These sessions are hands-on ,so they are limited to 6 people each time. Go here to book:

Hope to see you there!

 

Fill, but not too much.

When doing a portrait, you use a main (“key”) light, a fill light, and optionally, a background light and a hair/edge light.

The purpose of that fill light, oddly, is to be darker than the main light. This introduces depth into your picture, and it narrows the subject’s face.

OK, so fill is darker than key, But perhaps not completely dark, like here:

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Nice and atmospheric, but perhaps a little too much drama.

So we add that fill light, but set it, say, two stops below the main light (so if your meter reads an aperture of f/8 for the main light, it should read f/4 for the fill light). Now we get what we wanted:

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If you make it too bright, i.e. you do not set it two stops below the key light but you set it at the same brightness, you might get something like this:

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As you see, the face looks wider now, and it loses that “real”, three-dimensional look.

So you should probably start at –2 stops for the fill light, and then adjust to taste: you are the artist, after all!

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Learn to do it yourself! Michael teaches portrait lighting and many, many other photography subjects at Sheridan College in Oakville, and to small groups or individual students all over the world, in person or via Google Hangouts. See http://learning.photography for details. 

 

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.

 

Available light

Yes, available light rocks! Beautiful, colourful, soft, and so on. But when a photographer says “I am an available light photographer” or “I am a natural light photographer”, that usually means “I don’t know flash”.

Because it is often in the mixing of available light and flash light that things get interesting. Certainly in daylight.

Also–hiring a pro pays. Yes, you can get it done cheaper by Uncle Fred, but would you get pictures like these, from yesterday’s family shoot? (Hint: “no”.) A few hundred dollars and you have memories for life:

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If you can see these pictures, there’s plenty of available light. But had I not had my assistant hold the flash off the side near the subjects, they would have been silhouettes! Or I could have exposed for the subjects – in that case, a very bright, blown out background–with very little colour.

So you hire a pro for this. Right equipment (that super sharp lens); Right technique:

You have heard this from me before:

  1. Use the magic outdoors formula, and only vary f-number.
  2. Use long(-ish) lens (85mm prime in this case).
  3. Subjects away from the sun: means no squinting and the sun becomes hair-light.
  4. Fill with flash, off to the side for modelling.avoiding “flat” look.
  5. Flash fired in this case with radio triggers (Pocketwizards), and on manual, 1/8 power, with Honlphoto 12″ softbox (click on the small ad on the right to order, and use code word “willems” to get an additional 10% off).

BUT THERE IS MORE. If I print, I ensure that the print is perfect. Permanent photo paper. Pigment printing (not dye, which can fade). If a face is too pale, I selectively increase colour saturation in the face. And so on. That takes time, and it is exactly what Walmart et al do not do.

All this is what I teach in my live or online workshops: contact me to learn more, or see http://learning.photography .

And take some fall pictures, or have me do it!