Before I ever started out in photography, when I was just about to buy my first “real” camera, I made a list of all the extra accessories I’d need. Above nearly everything else was a remote shutter release.
It’s no surprise that these are popular accessories, especially for landscape and nature photographers. And, on the face of it, remote releases – i.e., a way to capture photos without pressing the camera’s own shutter button – seems like a logical idea.
Yet I’d argue that not all photographers need a remote release, including a lot of landscape photographers. And other photographers may need one even if they’ve never considered such an accessory before. Here’s why.
Benefits of a Remote Control Shutter Release
Before anything else, here’s a list of the most talked-about benefits of remote releases:
- Pressing the shutter button on a remote does not move or shake your camera, while the same cannot be said of the camera’s own shutter button.
- Remote releases let you shoot ultra-long “bulb” exposures with practically no upper limit on shutter speed.
- Some remote releases – wireless ones – allow you to stand farther away from your camera while taking a picture.
- Some remote releases have additional options like intervalometer, lightning trigger, remote control of camera settings, and so on.
Not all photographers care about the whole list, but each of these four benefits can be very important to certain types of photography. However, it’s worth noting that many remote releases cannot do all these things; features vary from one to another.
The Four Types of Camera Remotes
Remote releases come in four main varieties:
- Cable releases with a wire directly to your camera
- Wireless camera remotes that can trigger your camera from much farther away
- Smartphone-based remotes, where you can trigger your camera via an app on your phone
- Specialized camera triggers, including products like lightning triggers and motion detectors
The simplest is a cable release, which connects to your camera with a wire. These have the benefit of setting up quickly and often costing less, but they also obviously limit how far away from your camera you can stand while taking pictures.
The most popular type of shutter remote is a wireless release, which works either with infrared or radio, depending on the remote and camera you have. IR remotes don’t have as great a range as radio remotes, but they are often significantly cheaper. Also, a number of cameras have built-in IR receivers already, another reason why this is such a popular route.
Next, smartphone-based remotes are becoming more and more prevalent over time. These are compatible with most WiFi-enabled cameras today. They’re useful for a few reasons – namely, they’re convenient (most photographers carry a smartphone with them) and they let you see a live transmission of the camera’s live view image to time your photo. However, most of these apps do not allow the use of bulb mode, eliminating one of the main benefits of a remote release in the first place.
Last are specialized camera triggers. Often, these remotes are essentially automatic – they control when the camera takes a photo, not you. The most popular example is a lightning trigger, which detects bright flashes of light and commands your camera to take a photo when it does. Other examples include intervalometers, motion triggers, sound-based triggers, and even drones.
Who Doesn’t Need One?
All of the benefits above seem pretty useful. So, which remote release should you get? Well… perhaps you don’t need one at all.
Let’s reexamine the four benefits of a remote release. They let you:
- Minimize camera shake
- Shoot “bulb” exposures with no shutter speed limit
- Stand away from your camera during image capture
- Use features like a lightning trigger and an intervalometer
Some in-camera features can replace these functions, depending on the camera you have. For #1, rather than using a remote shutter, you’ll often be able to use a simple 2-second self timer. For #2, a lot of cameras today offer a “Time” shutter speed – supplementing “Bulb” – with no shutter speed limit (which works by pressing the shutter button once to start the exposure, once to end it).
#3 is a bit trickier to accomplish without a remote shutter release. However, depending on your requirements (and assuming your camera has WiFi), you might be able to get away with using your smartphone to trigger your camera from afar. I’ve done this when photographing close-up scenes at difficult angles, where I couldn’t otherwise see my camera screen. Yes, this still counts as a remote release, but at least it’s not a separate accessory you need to buy or carry along.
As for #4, it really depends on your requirements. If you need to photograph lightning strikes with an automatic trigger, there’s no in-camera setting to replace it. But if you’re going for something more basic, like shooting a timelapse, cameras with a built-in intervalometer might do the trick.
Where does that leave us? Quite simply, a lot of “if your camera does this” and “if your requirements are that.”
I don’t know what your exact needs are. What I can say is that photographers whose requirements aren’t too exotic – maybe just a timelapse from time to time, or a couple instances where you need to trigger the camera from a distance – can often get away with what the camera natively offers.
That said, remotes are pretty cheap (at least for a lot of cameras). If you think there’s a chance you’ll use it, and the cost is low, just buy one.
Which Remote Release Should You Get?
My recommendation up front is to get a wireless infrared remote release, unless you know your requirements are more specific.
The reason I recommend wireless is because it nets you the benefit of “shooting at a distance” compared to cable releases. The reason I recommend infrared rather than radio is simply because they’re almost always far less expensive (though they don’t have the same range).
In fact, if your camera has a built-in IR sensor – true of most entry-level cameras and a number of advanced ones – you’ll be able to use a sub-$9 IR remote. At that price, I’d recommend one even if you’re not sure how often you’ll use it.
However, some higher-end cameras, especially from Nikon, do not have a built-in IR receiver. In that case, your price will be about $40 or higher ($40 being the cheapest I’ve seen). Still not terrible, but not as good as $9.
That said, the two I’ve linked so far are shutter releases without many bells and whistles. If you have more specialized requirements, these won’t cut it. For example, infrared won’t cut it if you’re a pro sports photographer with remote cameras arranged around a stadium; radio is the way to go. Or, if you shoot a lot of timelapses, you’ll probably want a remote with some dedicated intervalometer settings (here’s a $47 option for most Nikon, Canon, Sony, and Fuji cameras).
I recommend a MIOPS trigger for highly specialized trigger applications (see our review). It has modes for lightning, sound, and laser sensitivity, among a few simpler options like timelapse shooting. A less expensive MIOPS competitor that also gets good reviews, but not one I’ve personally used, is called Pluto.
Personally, although I do have a standard infrared remote release for my camera, I haven’t used it in years. Instead, I use my camera’s exposure delay mode to minimize shake, “Time” shutter speed for long exposures, and intervalometer shooting for timelapses. I do use my lightning trigger from time to time, but it mostly just sits in my bag. (How often do you get caught in a storm and decide to start taking pictures, rather than find shelter?)
Still, remote releases are pretty unobtrusive, as camera accessories go. If your camera has a built-in IR receiver, I recommend buying one of the cheap $9 remotes and keeping it in your bag just in case. (If you want to splurge, camera-company-brand remotes tend to be more like $15.) Even if yours doesn’t, spending $40 or so on a remote isn’t a bad purchase by any means.
But there is something to be said for simplicity. If you can take all the photos you need using your camera itself, that can save time in the field, plus cut down on the gear you need to bring along and organize. And for ultralight expeditions, every ounce counts.
The bottom line is that remote releases have more benefits than you might have realized – yet, in turn, there are also more ways to mimic their effects using the camera’s native options. The route you should go depends on your needs, but it’s good to know what options you have.