Remote Controls Aren't Just for Television Sets
For many people, remote controls are for TV sets so they can change channels without getting up from the couch. For photographers though, remotes allow them to fire the shutter without risking bumping the camera. But just as TV remotes have gotten fancier over the years, so too have camera remotes. If you haven't looked into what's available now to remotely control your camera, you should.
Gone are the days when the typical camera used a mechanical cable release that functioned as a simple plunger to let you push the shutter release at a distance. These were cheap and almost universally standard on manual focus film SLR cameras but just as with all things that are too simple and too cheap, they've been replaced by more expensive, proprietary solutions. Ahh, progress.
These days, every camera brand has their own version of an electronic remote cable. The cable I use on my Nikon camera won't fit a Canon camera and vice versa. Interestingly, neither will it fit an earlier generation Nikon SLR that also used an electronic release since Nikon added extra wires to the cable some years back. Other Nikon SLR models exist that use an infrared trigger and don't support the use of a cabled remote at all.
Although some remotes of the past performed only the simple function of triggering the shutter, some could do more. One of the best for Nikon a decade ago was a program for Windows called SoftTALK made by Cocoon Creations that let you adjust all the custom settings on supported Nikon film SLR cameras. You connected it to your computer either with a ridiculously expensive Nikon cable or Cocoon Creations' own equivalent. With it, you could even enable recording of f/stop and shutter speed data, something that was quite advanced in its day but is commonplace nowadays.
These days cameras have become computers and contain powerful CPU's of their own. Options for interfacing to them have gone far beyond what was once possible. Some still interface using the proprietary connectors for each brand but some now make use of the increasingly common USB interface.
One of the most full featured third-party remotes is the Promote Control made by Promote Systems. The Promote connects via a simple USB connection for full functionality you may also need a brand specific shutter cable as well. In addition to basic remote functions, the Promote supports time-lapse sequences and high dynamic range exposure sequences. You can program the Promote to shoot a series of shots at different exposures for later merging as an HDR image. Canon HDR shooters in particular love the Promote since Canon bodies don't natively support as wide a range of exposure bracketing as do Nikon DSLR's. At just over $300 the Promote isn't cheap but for what it does, many consider it priceless.
If you're willing to connect your camera to a laptop computer over USB the possibilities open up even more. Nikon for instance makes Camera Control Pro 2 that provides far more than remote triggering of the shutter. You get full control of aperture and shutter speed, exposure and flash compensation and more. And better yet, cameras that support LiveView allow you to see what the sensor is seeing before you take the shot. All from end of a standard USB cable. Camera Control Pro 2 doesn't have the most user-friendly interface, but if you learn its quirks it does work well.
A number of third party options exist as well. Breeze Systems makes the excellent DSLR Remote Pro for Canon DSLR's as well as NkRemote for Nikon DSLR cameras. Breeze has always catered more to the Canon crowd than to Nikon users, but both products feature excellent exposure bracketing and live image previews. The Canon version adds a Photobooth mode that now even lets you shoot against a green screen and automatically replace the background with whatever you want on your computer. I really have no need for such capability, but at least some studio photographers will love this feature.
Perhaps my favorite remote control program is Helicon Remote, a program that comes bundled with some versions of the Helicon Focus focus stacking program. Much as a series of images at different exposures can be merged to form a resulting image that goes beyond the brightness range possible in a single shot, focus stacking allows you to merge a series of shots taken at different focus distances to create a result with more depth of field optically possible in a single shot. Perhaps the biggest challenge of macro photography is overcoming the limited depth of field high magnification gives you. Focus stacking solves that digitally and can be done in Photoshop now as well as in Helicon Focus and other third party programs. But Helicon Remote is excellent for HDR as well and has probably the easiest to use interface of any exposure bracketing program I am aware of.
Plenty of smaller players exist in the camera remote control marketplace as well and I'm sure plenty of new companies will pop up as well. Depending on the brand and model of your camera you can likely find other options if you do a bit of searching online. Many offer trial modes via free download so do some research to find one that works well for you.
And for the record, the remote that I use most often is still the electronic version of the basic cable release that provides just the means of remotely triggering the shutter. I love having the option of doing more when I need it, but sometimes you can't beat simplicity.