Let’s say you really love shooting bracketed images so that you can tone map and process them to see all of that glorious high dynamic range. Let’s also say that you have spent a lot of hard-earned money on a great camera, that beautiful lens you’ve always wanted, and a solid tripod. Now you’re set. You are ready to be an HDR-shooting machine. You have even scouted out this really awesome abandoned structure and you go to shoot inside of it at high noon because, who cares, you welcome that massive shift in tonality. So, you get there, compose, and shoot. But wait. Your camera only fires three exposures. This isn’t right. Even though you auto-bracketed at two full stop intervals, you still haven’t captured enough detail in the shadows to properly get a good tone mapped image. And, because you are limited to three exposures, you missed out on some exposure value within that two stop range that you just skipped to. What are you left to do? Who will come along to save you?
The answer lies with the good folks at Promote Systems and their product, the Promote Control. I was first turned onto this product by my good friend, Peter Zielinski. As soon as he told me about it, I did as much research as I could on it. I really needed to know if this was the product that I had been waiting for. The Promote Control is much more than a shutter release controller. Yes, it has the all of the features that you’d expect to find in a $300 remote (including a timer-based exposure release, an intervalometer, and a time-lapse mode). But, the real joy for me is its High Dynamic Range mode and that is what I will focus on exclusively in this review.
While I had dramatized the opening of this review, the reality is that if you are a Canon shooter, it is not altogether very easy to get the series of bracketed exposures necessary to compose a good HDR image. I am not saying that it is impossible to get great HDR images (quite the opposite), I am simply saying that there are limitations. Due to software restrictions imposed by Canon, notably limiting you to three exposure auto bracketing and a max exposure interval swing of 2 stops (you would have to invest in the Canon 1Ds Mark III to jump these hurdles), you are cornered into what you can expose for without having to touch your camera and fumble around to change settings. And if there is one cardinal rule in HDR photography that I do my best to abide by, it is to not touch the camera at all during a bracket sequence. This is where the beauty of the Promote Control becomes apparent.
When you set the Remote to the HDR mode, you are greeted with three very simple and evident settings:
- The first setting is your mid-range exposure. This is your ’0′ exposure and the remote will calculate the remainder of the bracket sequence based on this value. I almost always use my Live View display to meter off of a neutral portion of the scene and find my mid-range exposure value based on the aperture that I have set.
- The second setting is the stop interval that you wish to increment up and down in your bracket series. You can bracket by 1/3, 2/3, full stop, 2 full stops, etc. This is invaluable for HDR photographers, especially if you are intending to bracket a scene that has a HUGE dynamic range shift like, say, a dark abandoned structure with windows exposing the high-noon sun.
- The third and final setting is the number of brackets in your series that you wish the remote to expose for. With Canon, you are limited to three Auto Exposure Brackets. With the Promote Control, you can shoot 29 images, should you so desire. While this is a bit hyperbolic (but functional), I usually shoot between 7 and 9 bracketed images.
The combination of these three settings gives the Promote Control the information it needs to instruct the camera on how to expose for each image in the bracket sequence. One of my favorite features is that it will also display the exposure time range from the fastest to the slowest images in the sequence. This is indispensable when you are trying to budget your time and each minute counts.
When you purchase the Promote Control, you are supplied with the actual unit, a pair of AA batteries (for which you will need a flathead screwdriver or a coin to remove the battery door to install), and a USB cable that connects the unit to your Canon camera. One HUGE recommendation that I will make is that you spend the extra $15 and get the optional shutter release cable for the Promote Control. It will significantly reduce the time to fire off your bracket sequence and is worth its weight in gold. You’re much better off with it than without it.
In the few months that I’ve used the Promote Control, I can say without a shadow of a doubt that the quality of my HDR images has increased notably. That is not to say that it has made me a better photographer. No piece of hardware can do that. But, it has given me the ability to feed my HDR Tone Mapping software (in my case, Photomatix by HDRSoft) with so much more exposure information. This has translated into less noise, more shadow detail, and removed just about any trace of chromatic aberration (that funky, sci-fi blue color that appears when you don’t have enough exposure information in your shadow areas).
In spending all of this time with the Promote Control, I have also come up with some best practices and some limitations that potential buyers should be aware of. I hope it help you make a more informed decision to purchase and help you get the most out of it.
- When shooting your bracketed images with the Promote Control, make sure your camera is in Manual mode. Set your Aperture and ISO setting and adjust your shutter speed until you reach a ’0′ exposure metering on the spot of the scene that you have chosen (either through your optical viewfinder or on your rear LCD with Live View)
- Make sure that your lens is set to Manual Focus before initiating the bracket sequence. You do not want your camera re-adjusting focus in between brackets. Either visually focus using Live View or auto focus on a specific part of the scene, recompose, turn off the Auto Focus, and then execute the bracket sequence.
- If you do buy the optional shutter release cable, make sure you go into the settings section of the Promote Control (Hold the Left and Right arrows of the Direction Pad simultaneously) and selected ‘Yes’ to the option of “Use a separate cable for shutter release”. Until you do so, the Promote Control will not know that the shutter release cable is there.
- Ensure that the camera’s drive mode is set to Single Shot (not timed exposure or rapid fire). Failing to have it set to single shot will likely lead to misfires by the unit (I can pretty much guarantee it)
- If you use Live View to compose and focus your scene, absolutely make sure that you turn it off before beginning your bracket sequence. Failing to do so will lead to skipped exposures in your sequence.
- If you are bracketing a scene that is very dimly lit, I strongly recommend that you utilize the Mirror Lock-up function with the Promote Control. To do this, you first have to activate Mirror Lock-up in the Custom Functions section of your camera. Then, select the M-Up option on the unit and toggle it to ‘On’. This will further reduce any shake introduced by the camera mirror slapping up and down.
I am truly happy to report that Promote Systems has released a firmware update for the Promote Control that directly addresses the Hardware Bulb limitation found on the Canon 5D Mark II and 7D. The current process with the new firmware is: when the Promote Control detects that the next bracket in the series exceeds 30 seconds, it will pause the sequence and display a message instructing you to switch to Bulb mode and press any key to resume the sequence. It is the most elegant solution that I can think of and it was implemented quite nicely… plus it finally gives me the flexibility that I have been waiting so long for.
IMPORTANT REMINDER: When you switch your camera to Bulb mode, make sure that your aperture matches what you had it set to in Manual mode. The habit that I’ve gotten in to when I know that I will have to switch to Bulb mode during my sequence is to pre-set the Aperture in Bulb before I start firing. This way, all I need to do is switch to Bulb and resume the sequence.
So, there you have it. The good and the bad, the ups and the downs. Overall, I could not recommend this product enough. If you are remotely serious (get it… get it? :) ) about HDR photography, then you owe it to yourself to at least consider the Promote Control. Again, it won’t make you a better photographer (an HDR one or otherwise) but it will help you get what you need as you are on your way.
I hope that this missive slash review was useful to you, especially if you made it this far along. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or concerns about the Promote Control. I am a huge evangelist of theirs and would be glad to drive business their way.