Adding Functionality to DSLRs

by John Rettie

John Rettie

Nikon’s small WU-1b Wi-Fi adapter works with an Android smartphone or iPhone.

February 20, 2013

Have you ever noticed how many features that were first developed on non-professional cameras are just now finding their ways into pro cameras? Take, for example, Wi-Fi. During the past couple of years, my iPhone has become one of my most useful cameras, partly because of its ability to let me immediately send an image to someone or post it on Facebook. I will often take a photo on a DSLR camera only to wish that I could immediately e-mail it. In most cases, it’s not a big deal to wait until I have access to the Internet through a computer. Nonetheless, it’s a desirable feature that has been lacking in DSLRs unless you were able to create your own wireless setup or use an expensive setup such as those used by newspaper and wire photographers on deadline.

Another feature found on many cameras—except for pro-level Canon and Nikon DSLRs—is a rotating rear screen, which can prove to be quite useful when photographing objects from a low or high viewpoint or even around a corner.

Not surprisingly, these missing features have opened the door for aftermarket companies to come up with several products to provide a solution. I’ll take a quick look at a couple of them in this column, the first being a low-cost solution from Nikon that works if you have an Android-based smartphone or an iPhone.

Nikon D600 and WU-1b Wi-Fi

A few days after I returned the Nikon D600 I had on loan to review, I was in Costco and saw a big box with the same camera and two kit lenses, as well as the WU-1b Wi-Fi adapter, which I had not been able to review. The cost was only $2,389 after an instant $900 rebate that was valid until the end of 2012. The package also included a 32GB SD card and a nice bag. I needed two new lenses—the temptation was too great—so I went back the next day and purchased the special Costco deal.  

The WU-1b is a tiny gizmo that plugs into the USB port on the side of the D600. It would be easy to lose, but fortunately Nikon provides a small case that fits on the camera strap and has a small lanyard that tethers the WU-1b even when it is plugged in. As an aside, when Nikon introduced the D600, I asked why Wi-Fi was not built in, and the company said it would add to the cost of the camera. A poor excuse, in my opinion, as it’s built-in to entry-level cameras that cost a few hundred dollars. I bet it will be included on the replacement for the D600 in a year or two.

Anyone who has fiddled with Wi-Fi accessories will know they can be frustrating to set up and get connected. I was therefore quite pleasantly surprised when the camera and the app on the iPhone connected almost immediately. I had to download the free app called WMAU (Wireless Mobile Adapter Utility) from Apple’s iTunes store.

I’ve often said that my dream DSLR would be integrated with an iPhone, and this is certainly one step in that direction. Sadly, though, it can only do a couple of things. It allows you to go through photos already on the camera and select images to download to the iPhone. At this time, you have no choice other than to get a JPEG version that is further compressed by about 25 percent, but without any apparent loss in quality. It is saved in the iPhone’s camera roll and renamed with the same sequential numbering as pictures taken by the iPhone.

You can then e-mail them from the iPhone or upload to Facebook or Instagram or wherever you desire. Because it’s the iPhone that makes the so-called ad hoc connection, which does not need a router or existing wireless network, any phone with the app installed can access the camera. This means a client could also grab some pictures from the camera. It takes about 8 seconds to download an image from the D600.

For many of us, the most important use of the app is likely to be using it as a remote control device. When you click on the “Take a Picture” button, the camera switches to live view mode and instead of the image appearing on the camera’s screen, it will appear on the iPhone. Thanks to the superior resolution of the iPhone (sadly the app is not yet available for the iPad), it is actually a better picture than you’ll see on the camera’s screen. Sadly you can’t zoom in, but perhaps that will appear in a future version of the app.

You can adjust the focusing spot and exposure by touching the screen and you’ll instantly see the new preview. Then, you can push the shutter button on the iPhone and capture an image that is stored on the camera and then downloaded to the iPhone. Unfortunately, you cannot adjust any of the settings on the camera remotely, nor could I find a way to just capture an image without having it download to the iPhone, which is a shame, as you have to wait about ten seconds for each image to be captured. This delay means it is not as convenient as a regular wireless remote control, and they do not let you see a preview of the image.

In a way, the iPhone app becomes a rotating screen, but if you’re holding the iPhone in one hand, you then only have one hand to hold the camera­—unless it’s on a tripod—so it’s still not as good as a rotating screen on the camera. Of course, you could attach the iPhone to a holder and mount it on the camera.  

At press time, I did not have the need to use the WU-1b in a real shoot that would involve operating a camera remotely in a location such as a church. Nikon says the distance of operation is up to 49 feet. I found that when I was walking around, the signal would be lost at times but it usually came back. In a studio or situation where you can get to the camera to reset the WU-1b if needed, it is not such a big deal, but it would be tough if you lost a signal during a wedding ceremony and you could not physically get to the camera.

Because I am writing this several weeks before you read it, I am hoping that Nikon will upgrade the app so it offers more functionality. What would be even better is if Nikon allowed third party app developers to create alternative apps to work with the WU-1b.

Canon’s newest DSLR, the 6D, has Wi-Fi incorporated in the camera. Because it only went on limited sale in December 2012, I had been unable to try it out in time for this column. I am hopeful it will prove to be even better than Nikon’s external $59.95 solution. If it is, it will surely goad Nikon to improve its own app and include Wi-Fi in future DSLR cameras.

Hähnel Inspire

Currently, Nikon’s low-cost Wi-Fi adapters (the unit for the D4 costs about $550) and apps only work with the D3200 and D600 DSLRs. However, if you have other cameras and you want a remote viewer, there are a few aftermarket products that can fulfill these needs.

The Hähnel Inspire ($269) has a wireless transmitter that sits on the camera and connects to an external monitor. It has two modes of operation. If your camera has a live-view mode, the image seen by the camera can be shown on the monitor and the camera can be fired remotely. If your camera is an older model without live view, there is a low-res video camera in the transmitter that can display a wide-angle view that approximates the view seen by the camera.

I tried the Inspire on an old Nikon D200, and the wide-angle built-in video camera worked immediately. The quality of the image is not very good, but because it is not showing exactly what the camera is seeing, it’s not such a big deal. It could still prove to be a useful tool for operating a remotely set-up camera where you only need to know when the subject (such as a bird at a feeder) is in view. I was unable to try it on my new D600, as none of the three cables that came with the Inspire fit the D600. (Why do camera companies keep changing cables on us?)  

I hope that aftermarket accessories such as these will be obsolete as camera manufacturers introduce cameras with rotating screens, or better yet, screens that can be detached to operate remotely. I also bet all but the cheapest cameras will have Wi-Fi built-in as a standard feature. Some may even have a cell phone incorporated.   

John Rettie is a photojournalist who has been covering digital photography since its earliest days. He resides in Santa Barbara, CA, and readers are welcome to contact him directly by e-mail at john@johnrettie.com.

 

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