How To Remotely Control Your Digital Camera To Take Better Photos

Most cameras have a range of remote control capabilities that we don’t even realise exist. If you’ve ever wanted to take a nice self-portrait, dive into time-lapse photography or just get a different perspective on your images, you can do all of it with a variety of wired and wireless options. Here’s how you can control your camera remotely to expand your photographic tool set without spending a bunch of money on accessories you don’t need.

What You Can Do With Remote Photography

There are plenty of great reasons to remotely control your camera, but the most obvious is to include yourself in the photo. Whether you’re with a group or you just want a nice self-portrait, working with a remote shutter is almost a necessity. Not only can you remotely trigger your camera’s shutter, but many options provide a means of seeing the photo you’re going to take of yourself before you take it.

On top of self-portraits, remote-controlled and automated photography takes a lot of tedious work out of creating time-lapse images. Time-lapse photography can be tedious, but it can also be difficult to accomplish well without the aid of a timer. On top of that, you run the risk of moving your camera out of its designated alignment by triggering the on-camera shutter. A remote option makes the entire process less error-prone, and with automation you hardly have to do any work.

Remote-controlled and automated photography also gives you the opportunity to step away from the small screen or tiny viewfinder to compose your photos from a different vantage point. It can allow you to set up a home photo studio for practically no investment beyond your camera as well. While your options will depend on the type of camera you have, pretty much every digital camera from the primary manufacturers offer some way to use a remote. In this post we’re going to look at your various options, how to put them to good use, and get some great photos you couldn’t achieve by just pointing and shooting.

Use (or Build) a Remote

The easiest way to remotely control your camera is with — surprise! — a remote. If your camera has a built-in infrared receiver you can build or buy a remote to click the shutter from afar. While building a remote can be fun and a pretty cool weekend project, there’s really no cost advantage. If you’re a skilled electronics-building hobbyist, you might even be able to make a more functional remote than you can buy. But for most people, purchasing a simple remote will be the way to go. Opteka sells remotes for nearly any camera and they’re all pretty much under $US10 (if not half that). For the most part, these cheap remotes will only provide you with a couple of options: clicking the shutter remotely and clicking the shutter remotely with a two-second delay. Nonetheless, for basic remote control that’s probably all that you’ll need.

This option is cheap and simple, but it’s really only great if you want to take basic pictures of yourself, of you with other people, or set up the camera and press the shutter from a distance. It makes remote photography possible, but you can’t control all aspects of your camera. If you’re looking to do much more — and you really should, because it’s awesome — read on for the more complex solutions.

Use Your Smartphone

Smartphones are fantastic controllers but also have varied support for different types of cameras. If you have a Canon DSLR you’re in great shape, as they’re controllable by just about anything. Nikon DSLRs have slightly fewer options, but there are still some great choices. If you have a DSLR with an infrared receiver, you can do more with your smartphone than you could necessarily do with a purchased remote (unless it’s a particularly expensive controller), but your options are definitely more limited. Point-and-shoot owners are unfortunately out of luck in this category. Let’s start with the stuff mostly everyone can use and work our way up to the infinitely controllable Canons.

Infrared Controllers

We’ve previously looked at how you can build an infrared controller for your smartphone and use it with an app to control your camera. If you’re willing to drop a few bucks, you can buy one that fits in your smartphone’s headphone jack, but you’ll save a lot of cash by doing it yourself. Before you go either route, however, make sure your smartphone doesn’t have an infrared controller already. You won’t find one in an iPhone, but a fair amount of Android phones can send and receive infrared signals. Check your manual if you’re not sure.

Once you’ve got your infrared setup, you’re going to need an app. iPhone users can grab DSL.Bot for $5.49 and Android users can download DSLR Remote for free. All you have to do to start shooting remotely is plug in the infrared transmitted to your smartphone, put your camera in remote shooting mode (if necessary — it’ll say in your camera’s manual), and open the app you downloaded. From there you can just start pointing your smartphone at your camera from (generally) up to 9m away and press the resulting buttons to snap a picture. It’s about as simple as using a hardware remote, but the software often offers significantly more features like high dynamic range imaging (HDR), timed exposures and more.

Wi-Fi and Tethered Controllers

Things get really exciting when you start using apps that interact directly with your camera. Your options are limited, but if you have Canon DSLR and an Android device you’re really in for a treat. DSLR Controller ($8.05) allows you to tether you Canon DSLR via USB and control practically every feature and setting. You’ll be able to change your lens’ aperture, the camera’s shutter speed, the ISO sensitivity, how many photos the camera takes in succession, and almost anything else you can think of. If your camera supports Live View mode, you’ll even be able to see what your camera is seeing from your Android device and tap on the screen to focus. It’s pretty amazing, and all you need to buy is a female USB adaptor for your device if it doesn’t already have a USB port. You just hook up your camera, turn it on and launch the app. You’ll be able to control everything from there.

iPhone users can control Canon and Nikon DSLRs via DSLR Camera Remote. It isn’t a cheap app, running you $US20 on the iPhone and $US50 (yikes!) on the iPad, but it’s pretty great. It controls virtually every aspect of your camera over Wi-Fi. To reach your camera you’ll need to tether it to a computer via USB and run server software so your iPhone can find it on the network, but you can just leave the tethered laptop near the camera and go anywhere you want. Just like DSLR Controller, DSLR Camera Remote can use Live View, touch focusing and video mode with many cameras. It can even copy images and videos to your computer as you shoot so you don’t have to transfer them off the card later.

The primary advantages of using these smartphone apps is that they can let you see your image before you shoot it. This is extremely useful when shooting self-portraits or photos with others. They can also help you program your camera for time-lapse images via their intervalometer features. If you can use these apps, they’re pretty much your best option.

Tether to Your Computer

If you don’t need the mobility of a smartphone (or tablet), tethering to your computer can provide you with more control over your camera than practically anything else. This is especially the case for Nikon and Canon DSLRs, but some point and shoot cameras can be controlled as well.

Canon cameras offer the most control for the least cost, as almost every Canon DSLR comes with a free software application called EOS Utility that is an incredibly powerful tethered shooting tool. (You can see it pictured to the right.) There is almost nothing about the camera you can’t control via this software, and photos you take can be saved to your camera’s card, on the computer or both. Some cameras with Live View mode can transmit the Live View feed directly on your screen. You can alter any settings, preview and take shots, and even adjust focus. It’s really great, and the software is included for free. Even some Canon point and shoots offer a less-robust camera version of this utility, allowing you to still shoot tethered with your computer via USB. Don’t ignore the disc that came with your camera. It’s got a few powerful apps on it that’ll provide plenty of control, and they work on both Windows and OS X.

Nikon cameras have Camera Control Pro, which must be purchased and is kind of pricey. It offers pretty much everything you get with Canon’s free software, and you can control your camera over Wi-Fi (if your camera supports it or if you’ve added on a transmitter). Currently this software is only available for Windows. If you’d prefer something free, Photo Remote is an option. Adobe Lightroom and/or OS X users will want to check out Studio and Lightroom Tether, which is also free.

Using any tethering option can make it easy to set up a photo studio in your own home or anywhere you’ve got a laptop. You’ll need to supply your own lights and, potentially, a backdrop, but you’ll have the ability to take portraits very easily from your house since you can preview the image on the computer. You’ll also be able to take photos of yourself or put together a simple time-lapse setup. There’s so much you can do when you’re not tied to your camera and you can view what it sees on a bigger screen. It makes it easy to compose, check focus and avoid any common mistakes you might make by only being able to look through the viewfinder. Since there are free options for most popular cameras, there’s no reason not to give it a shot. Decide on a project, set aside an hour or two and have fun remotely controlling your camera.

What kind of neat stuff have you done when remotely controlling your camera? Share your projects in the comments.

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