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Untethered Tethering with the CamRanger

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You may recall a previous post in which I talked about a solution for light-weight tethering using a tablet as an external monitor. It works very well, because it is quick to setup and carry around. But as good as it is, there still needs to be a cable running between the camera and the tablet, which means that you must stay fairly close to the camera, and there's still the occasional accidental (and risky) unplugging.

Going completely wireless would be ideal, but what can you do if your camera doesn't provide Wi-Fi connectivity? One solution to this problem is to use a little device called CamRanger.

The CamRanger, hidden away in its pouch, in "real world" use

It is not my intention to write a complete review, nor to provide a thorough list of features, but merely to sing its praises a little. As you know, many products seem at the outset to be great solutions only to reveal themselves as disappointments once you look closer—and manufacturers often find clever ways to avoid discussing their shortcomings. My recent acquaintance with the CamRanger, though, has been overwhelmingly positive.

I can think of many ways a "wireless camera control" solution could have failed in practical use: It could have been a hassle to establish or maintain a connection, it could have been annoyingly slow, the battery could have died too quickly, etc. Luckily, the CamRanger does pretty much everything right—and it does more than the typical stuff you would expect from a tethering solution (like changing camera settings and reviewing images).

The Basics

The first thing you must know is that the CamRanger is at its core a repurposed TP-LINK TL-MR3040 battery powered router with a custom firmware. This means that the "wireless connectivity" part of the equation is very reliable—the developers of the CamRanger didn't have to reinvent the wheel here. What you are paying for isn't so much hardware (the original router is sold for about $50), but the software that makes the whole thing tick.

When turned on, the CamRanger becomes a wireless access point you can connect to with a phone, tablet or computer, just like you would connect to any Wi-Fi hotspot. This means that when your device is connected to the CamRanger, you can't also go on the internet via Wi-Fi (you can still use the internet through your mobile network, if applicable), which is one aspect you might consider inconvenient. It doesn't bother me, because when I'm shooting I don't need it, plus I'm on location and I don't have internet over Wi-Fi anyway. You then launch the CamRanger app on your device (or computer) and you're up and running.

The Litmus Tests

Here's a number of ways the solution could have fallen apart, but doesn't. Bear in mind that I am using this product in the context of working on location, with or without clients present during the shoot. If a solution has quirks, you can endure them when working alone, but when clients are there, it has to run smoothly.

  • Is it a pain in the rear to establish a connection? No, it's pretty much instantaneous. If the camera dies (when you change its battery, for example), the link is reestablished seamlessly when the camera comes back to life, so you don't even have to intervene. What happens when the phone/tablet goes to sleep? Nothing—just wake it up and you're good to go.
  • How's the battery life? Let me put it this way: I was on a shoot that lasted about six hours the first time I put the CamRanger to the test, and the battery showed no sign of depletion—I had a backup battery anyway, but didn't need it. You do need to use the CamRanger as the charger, unfortunately, but worst case scenario, you can still use the CamRanger while it is charging. It uses a standard Micro-B USB port to charge, so it's very easy to accommodate.
  • Speaking of battery life... There's also an additional benefit over the wired tethering solution: The phone/tablet/computer isn't the one maintaining the connection to the camera, it is merely using a typical Wi-Fi connection, so its battery is not drained the way it would if it was tethered to the camera. The camera, of course, still drains more juice than when it isn't tethered, so you have to bring along spare batteries, but it means your wireless device will last significantly longer.
  • How cumbersome is it? It's really small, and it's really light. I've used it in the context of architecture photography, so it's simply hanging from my tripod (as shown above), which doesn't get in the way at all. It ships with a USB cable that has an angled connector (at the camera end), so shooting with the camera mounted vertically is no problem. It would certainly be reasonable to shoot handheld with the CamRanger in a pocket, should the need arise.
  • Is it future-proof? There, of course, lies a question mark. As it is, the CamRanger supports a vast array of cameras, and a vast array of phones/tablets (iOS 5+, Android 3.2+), and also works with Mac or PC, so chances are that you're covered. The apps are frequently updated, and the device itself can have its firmware updated—since I've had it, a few short weeks ago, there's been an update that now allows the viewing of Canon raw files, which means I don't even need to shoot raw+JPEG anymore. Of course, if the company goes out of business and/or stops supporting the product, it'll be the end of it, as it cannot be used without a dedicated app—should the day come, we can only hope that they would have the good sense to make their protocol/source code open so other people can keep the project going...

In Use

Working with the CamRanger has been a surprisingly pleasurable and liberating experience. When setting up a shot, you can simply walk around in the scene with your tablet in hand looking at the LiveView feed as you move the furniture and props around, validating immediately if the composition works. If you like to use light to supplement what's available, you can walk around with a flash and immediately review what you've done, tweaking as you go. When you're ready to take the shot, there's a customizable bracket shooting mode (among others) that'll save you time...

Now that I've experienced working like this, I wouldn't want to go back. Clients love it, too, as they can follow along without being in the way—and you can still operate the camera normally while they review images. It's not the cheapest solution there is, but it works so well that you soon forget about that.

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