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My Short History of Pushing the Button

Getting ready to take photos involves numerous actions and choices involving what to shoot and how.
And there's typically more work to be done after your images are safe and sound inside your camera. Sandwiched in between lies the critical act of pressing the shutter release button. While it remains fundamentally the same, the details have evolved.

In the old days, the shutter release was a simple mechanical button on the camera. That's all that was possible, given that cameras themselves were purely mechanical. As cameras began accepting a battery, the original purpose was to power the light meter.

When pressed, the shutter release button opens the shutter to allow light to pass through, and then closes it after the specified duration had elapsed. With the advent of Single Lens Reflex (SLR) cameras, the act of tripping the shutter also caused the reflex mirror to swing out of the way temporarily. Subsequent generations of camera bodies added a linkage to stop the shooting lens down to the chosen aperture automatically. But for many years, the shutter release button remained a simple button atop the camera.

For longer exposures, care was necessary when firing the shutter in order to minimize the chances of bumping the camera and blurring the image. Telephoto lenses complicate things further by magnifying the effect of even the slightest movement. A remote cable release became a recommended accessory to address these and other challenges. Progress had to start somewhere.

Given the mechanical nature of vintage cameras, it was understandable that remote release cables of the era were mechanical as well. If you've ever shot with an older film body such as the popular Nikon FM2n, you know how it worked. A cable release consisted of a sheathed wire with a plunger at the end. The whole affair screwed into the shutter release button and pressing on the plunger at the opposite end forced the wire down through the sheath where it operated the button remotely. If your hand did shake at all during the exposure, the movement wouldn't make it to the other end.

Once cameras became electrified, cable releases could as well. Rather than a mechanical wire remotely pushing through the cable sleeve, electronic cables contain wires that carry a signal. Over the years, Nikon released various iterations of electronic cable releases, not all of which were compatible with every Nikon body. Over the same period, I accumulated quite the collection of these things. I suspect the two trends are related.

My first Nikon DSLR was the legendary D100. For some inexplicable reason, Nikon required users to buy a battery grip to gain access to an electrical cable release port. The body itself included only an old-school mechanical release socket in the middle of the shutter button. Not wanting to carry the added weight of the MB-D100 battery grip, I resigned myself to the limitations of the mechanical cable. On a trip to Canada, I found out how fragile this solution was when the thing broke off, leaving the screwthread end deep inside the hole in the button. I suppose it could have happened with an electrical release cable, but it never did to me at least.

On higher-end DLSR bodies, Nikon returned to including electronic release sockets, but switched to the use of infrared remotes for consumer cameras. Even though they extended the range beyond what a wired remote could reach, I never liked the IR remotes. I always had to enable the IR port via the camera menus before I could use the remote, an added step that I often forgot at the worst possible moments. It was also a curious choice to put the IR sensor on the front of the camera rather than the back where the photographer typically stands.

A common workaround for cable release headaches is to use the self-timer instead. Look ma, no cables. Unfortunately, by having to predetermine how soon the shutter will fire, you can't respond to what is happening when it finally does. If you're looking for an exercise in frustration, try shooting outdoors with the self-timer in a light breeze. Even if you start the self-timer when the coast seems clear and the wind is calm, there's guarantee how gusty it will be a few seconds later when the shutter fires. Try as you might, you're going to lose some shots when using the self-timer this way.

As the years progressed, Nikon also released a radio frequency (RF) remote solution that was expensive but useful. No longer requiring line of sight as infrared remotes do, and working over much greater distances, it very convenient. I never owned one, but I did go through a series of third-party RF remotes that were far less expensive and worked almost as well. But even the Nikon versions had one significant drawback. Not being built into the camera, they connected to the electronic release socket via a short cable, and the RF receiver itself sat atop the camera in the flash hot shoe. I've never been a big user of flash, but I do rely on sliding a bubble level in the flash shoe to keep the horizon straight. And two things can't occupy the same space at the same time.

Thankfully, progress has continued its march, and today we have better options. Indeed, we have more options today than ever. If you want to stick with one of the above solutions, you can. But the history of pushing the button has reached fruition, and you can do better.

Most prosumer and above cameras released over the past few years feature built-in Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or both. If you have an Android or iOS smartphone in your pocket, you have a remote. With the right software, your phone can control your camera. For Nikon shooter, the official standard has been SnapBridge, but there are third-party options. Canon and Sony shooters have numerous alternatives, too. And if you tried SnapBridge back when it first came out and found that what it lacked in features it made up for in bugs and glitches, fear not. The quality has improved considerably in newer releases.

Programs such as qDslrDashboard, Helicon Remote typically allow free trials, so feel free to see which one you like best. No one application works best for every need and every camera. And last Fall, Nikon officially abandoned its practice of locking Wi-Fi users into SnapBridge. Updated firmware can allow many Nikon photographers to use even more third-party apps. Now that's what I call progress.

Date posted: June 14, 2020


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Related articles:
The One About Buttons and Knobs
The Act of Pressing the Button

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