Product: CowboyStudio NPT-04 Wireless Transmitter & Receiver Set
For: Using hotshoe flash off-camera (click here for studio strobe model)
Price: ~$25 at Amazon.com
Amazon Customer Reviews: 4.5/5 stars (144 customer reviews as of 1/10/2011)
Included in Box: Transmitter with 23A 12V battery installed, receiver (requires two AAA batteries, not included), sync cable (usually not needed), instruction manual
Tested With: Canon Rebel t1i, 430EX II Speedlite flash
Major Specs: 4 channel receiver, flash sync up to 1/250s, four-channel operation on 433MHZ frequency, 30m working distance (note: I’ve used them at 1/500s with my Fuji X100 with no problems)
Compatible With: Almost every flash from Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Pentax, Sigma, Sunpak, Vivitar, other flashes with trigger voltage of 12V or lower)
As you may know, I recently made the jump to using off-camera flash. I actually had a bit of fear jumping into this world, but after my first experiments, I’m basically hooked.
However, one thing I haven’t been happy about is my wired setup. Here’s how I initially put things together:
It’s actually been incredibly reliable, though PC cables are notoriously prone to failure. However, this setup is:
1) Complicated – troubleshooting will be a pain in the @$$ if and when something goes wrong.
2) Limiting – wired connection means placement is limited.
3) Potentially Unsafe – eventually someone is going to trip over a cable, and that someone will probably be me.
The only solution to these problems was to go wireless, so I did what my late mother would have done when presented with the same set of obstacles – head straight for the cheapest possible solution.
That solution was the CowboyStudio NPT-04 Wireless Trigger and Receiver set, which retails for about $25 on Amazon. This price range puts the Cowboys right in the “Poverty Wizard” category.
Eventually, I’d like to upgrade to Pocketwizards, Paul C. Buff Cybersyncs, or Elinchrom Skyports, but since I have other pressing gear needs, I decided to go the cheapskate route. Besides, when I do move up to a more-expensive solution, these Cowboy jobs can serve as a backup. And if they suck completely, I’m only out $25.
Setting Up the CowboyStudio NPT-04
I figured out how to set up the system without the instructions (not that this is rocket science):
1) Put the Transmitter on your camera’s hot shoe (transmitter includes a pre-installed 23A 12V battery)
2) Pop two AAA batteries (NOT included) into the receiver and place your flash in its hot shoe
3) Make sure the dip switch settings on the transmitter match those on the receiver
4) Turn the receiver on
6) Flash goes off!
Finally, something that works the first time I try it. Simple enough, right?
Okay, now on to the next phase of the review:
Durability/Build Quality Test
To test the NPT-04’s durability, I accidentally dropped the receiver onto my kitchen’s linoleum floor from about 5 feet up. Just for the hell of it, I then purposely did the same with the transmitter.
I do not recommend you do the same with any of your equipment.
No problems – they still work just fine.
I can’t possibly imagine that for $25, these things are remotely as tough as Pocketwizards, but in my accidental test, they survived just fine.
Both items are very, very light and feel a bit flimsy. But who knows? Maybe the fact that they’re light actually helps them survive falls.
In my real-world test below, I saw first-hand how the NPT-04 system works in sub-30 degree snowy weather.
Okay, I’ve never tested out wireless flash triggers before, so I decided to improvise and make my own set of tests to see how these things work in random situations.
Basic Line of Site Test
From a distance of 16 feet indoors with no obstructions, the flash successfully fired 25 out of 25 times, at various shutter speeds up to my camera’s 1/200th sync speed.
Basic Line of Site Test 2
From a distance of 32 feet outdoors with no obstructions, the flash successfully fired 25 out of 25 times at various shutter speeds.
I put the flash in my bathroom two feet away from the the door. I stepped outside, fully closed the door, and stood eight feet away. The flash successfully fired 25 out of 25 times. Thank you to my sister for standing in the bathroom watching it go off!
In another test, I set up the Cowboys inside a Photek softlighter that was 20 feet away and went into a bathroom that was around a corner, and it fired perfectly 25 times in a row.
So I don’t imagine that you’ll be away to fire the Cowboys successfully across football field, but for most people, range should not be an issue.
Aluminum Foil Test
I wrapped my 430EX II in aluminum foil to test the system’s… …I don’t know… …ability to penetrate aluminum foil or battle interference, or something. I don’t know. I cut a tiny hole in the front so I can see the flash go off.
It failed pretty much every time – I got two pops from 2-3 feet away, but failed about 10 tries further than that. If the foil was unwrapped a little bit so I could see the trigger, it worked perfectly.
Brrrrrr! Somehow I convinced a lovely young lady (seen at top of post) to join me for a photo shoot out in sub-30 degree Manhattan!
The Cowboys performed admirably – I took 230 shots and didn’t have a single misfire.
I also had a moment that gave me some confidence in the receiver’s build quality. A gust of wind took my light stand down, and the receiver’s hotshoe connections weren’t stressed one bit by the fall.
Another time, I was working in the snow and the receiver got a little bit wet, and didn’t have any subsequent problems.
In fact, I barely thought about the Cowboys at all, partially because I was too busy mentally cursing my Canon’s autofocus performance. The last thing I want when I’m taking pictures is to be worrying whether my flash trigger is about to fail because I was such a cheapskate.
As far as sync speed goes, I’ve had zero problems using the Cowboys at 1/200s with my Canon DSLR. In fact, they worked perfectly at 1/500s with my Fuji X100!
Comparison with Pocketwizards, Cybersync, Elinchrom Skyport, Cactus V4 & V5 etc.
The Cowboys are really really really really really cheap. They’re working amazingly well for me so far, but it’s safe to assume that the more expensive competition is way more reliable. That’s all you need to know.
A Word on Batteries
The receivers take AAA batteries, which can be found anywhere. However, the transmitters take 23A 12V batteries, which may be tough to locate in a pinch. I found that two popular NYC photo stores did not carry them, but a Rite Aid drug store did, at inflated prices.
Now when my transmitter’s battery started dying, it didn’t stop working altogether. The transmitter kept firing, but it wasn’t able to sync properly. Even at 1/125th of a second, part of my image was black. A fresh battery fixed the problem instantly.
The CowboyStudio NPT-04 set is a great buy, especially if you’re just getting your feet wet with off-camera flash. $25 just isn’t a whole lot of money to risk, and when you decide to upgrade to Pocketwizards or something similar, the Cowboys can serve as backup.
In fact, if you’re using Pocketwizards or even something like a Canon ST-E2 Speedlite Transmitter right now, you might want to consider picking up the CowboyStudio set or something similarly inexpensive as a second option in case of device failure.
So far, the Cowboy set is working great for me, way better than I expected, and I’ve used them in some very nasty cold and snowy conditions. I estimate that I’ve popped off over 3,000 shots with them and I haven’t had a single hiccup of any kind. There’s no doubt that my $25 (plus another $21 for a second receiver) was money VERY well-spent. In fact, the Cowboy solution was far cheaper than my wired solution, and I get far more range and versatility by being wireless.
However, I’m keeping my wired setup in the bag just in case the Cowboys screw the pooch during a shoot. These things are $25 for a reason. Don’t expect magic or perfect, endless reliability out of them. Bring a backup (even if it’s just a second set) or beware!
If you’re shooting with money or your reputation on the line, you don’t want to be worrying about whether your strobes will fire because you cheaped out on triggers.
Don’t forget to pick up some AAA batteries (none included in the box), and extra 23A 12V batteries for the transmitter. There is a 23A installed in the transmitter, but make sure you have extras, because you may not be able to find them in a pinch.
Full List of Compatible Flashes
Canon SpeedLite 580EX II, 580EX, 550EX, 540EZ, 520EZ, 430EZ, 430EX, 430EX II, 420EX, 420EZ, 380EX; Nikon SpeedLite SB900, SB-800, SB-600, SB-28, SB-27, SB-26, SB-25, SB-24; Olympus FL-50R, FL-50, FL-36R, FL-36; Pentax AF-540 FGZ, AF-360 FGZ, AF-400 FT, AF-240 FT; Sigma EF-530 DG Super, EF-500 DG Super, EF-430; Sunpak Auto 2000DZ, 622 Pro, 433AF, 433D, 383, 355AF, 344D, 333D; Vivitar 285HV, DF-400MZ, DF-340MZ, 2700; Other flash models with a trigger voltage of 12V or lower
CowboyStudio NPT-04 for Sony Cameras (heads up – awful user reviews)