As a commercial photographer who tethers at every shoot, I’ve always relied on Tether Tools cords as part of my workflow. So, I was excited to hear that they had launched a wireless offering and wanted to put the new Air Direct through the paces.
For those of you not familiar with tethering, in short, it means that when I shoot, rather than capturing to my camera’s card, I instead am physically tethered to a computer system, and my files are sent immediately to a computer. That computer is running software, in my case, Capture One, which then receives the files and previews the images with your adjustments right there on the spot. This is less of a perk and more of an outright necessity when you are shooting for larger clients and with larger creative teams. It helps keep everyone on the same page and ensures that you are delivering the product that your client is requesting.
While it may seem like a hindrance at first, once you start tethering, it will soon seem unusual to shoot any other way. One thing you will never get used to, however, is the tendency to constantly find yourself entangled in your own tether cord while shooting. For those of you old enough to still have home phones, it’s somewhat akin to having a long phone conversation while walking around the room doing other things. By the end of the conversation, after a plethora of randomized twists and turns, you can easily find yourself tied up in a knot. If you practice photography in the way that I do, you’ll likely be all over the place, contorting your body into many unspeakable positions to get the shot, and soon find yourself tied up in your tether cord in much the same way.
So, the dream has always been to have the benefits of tethering without the actual cord. We live in a wireless world now, so why can’t tethering be the same? In recent years, a number of companies have tried to address this issue to varying degrees of success. I’ve always been a bit wary of the dependability of these systems. One, because I’m an innately suspicious guy. And two, because I doubted that they would be able to run fast enough to keep up with me. But, when Tether Tools, a brand whose products I’ve depended on in the past, came out with an offering, I thought I would try it.
First off, we should establish exactly what I was looking for. Your images are your most valued asset. Your client’s reaction when those images start popping up at the digitech’s workstation is what will determine whether or not you book a return engagement. So, first off, your tether connection needs to be absolutely secure. There’s nothing more annoying than looking through a viewfinder, seeing your masterpiece, pressing down on the shutter at exactly the right time, and then walking over to the computer only to realize that the image never made it to the computer. Shots very rarely ever get lost in the tether cable. It’s a once in a blue moon occurrence so rare that it’s not worth losing sleep over. But could the same be said for a wireless signal?
Not only do the images have to make it to the computer, but they need to do so relatively quickly. If you shoot tethered, you’ve probably experienced a session where you fire multiple shots in a row at a rapid pace, then look back at the monitor to review them and realize the client is still seeing images pop up from a couple minutes earlier. Often, this is accompanied by a request to adjust one thing or another that, in actuality, you already fixed six shots ago, but that image hasn’t made it to the screen yet. It’s not the end of the world as long as the images make it there, but it can interrupt your pace a bit.
Third, I wanted to see how easy it was to connect the system. I am no technical genius. I can understand the concept of "plug one end of a cord into my camera and plug the other end into a computer." But, when it comes to setting up network connections and the like, my eyes tend to glaze over. So, how easy would the product be to use in practice?
We’ll start with the last question. As it turns out, it is actually very easy to connect the Air Direct system. All you have to do is download the free Air Direct Utility (ADU) software and install it. You then fire up the Air Direct itself and connect it to your camera with one of the half dozen generously provided cables that match your camera. The device essentially creates its own private WiFi network. So, when you go to the WiFi connection on your tether station, you just have to set it to the Air Direct. This forms a one-to-one connection between the camera and the computer. I was worried that I was going to have to set up hot folders and different routing for the files. But none of that was necessary. When you open Capture One and take a shot, the image will pop up in your capture folder the same as if you were hard wired. No extra routing steps were needed.
I don’t use Lightroom, but I imagine the same would hold true for it or any other tethering software. There is also an ADU app for iOS and Android devices. You follow the same process of connecting your iPad or iPhone to the private Air Direct network. You can use the app to view images and do some basic camera controls from your phone as well. So, if you are a mobile photographer most interested in capturing images for quick upload to Instagram or other social media, this could be a nice workflow for you. Personally, I don’t tend to ever publish things directly to social, which I only mention as a preface to the next set of less straightforward findings.
Because of the way my clients use my images, I tend to lean towards higher-resolution cameras. My main question with testing out the system was to see where the breaking point would be in terms of file size. For reference, I have a 100MP Fuji GFX 100, a 45.7MP Nikon D850, and a 24.3MP Nikon D750. The Nikon D850 is the primary camera on most shoots. So, these were the three cameras I used for my tests to see how responsiveness varied with file size. I wanted to know how much workload it could handle before it gave up.
Turns out the results were a little shakier than I would have liked. Starting my testing with my usual workflow creating raw images with the D850, I snapped a couple frames. Expecting a delayed but relatively quick arrival of the images on my laptop, I was a bit confused when none arrived. I checked the connection, and the ADU was still indicating that my computer and camera were connected. And the camera tab of Capture One was still accurately displaying my camera settings. I could even use Capture One to trigger the shutter. So, it was connected, but, for some reason, the images never made it to the computer. Not the best of starts, but I decided it might just be a glitch. So I turned off the camera and Air Direct system. I closed out of the software. And I rebooted everything again.
Then, I took another shot. This time, the image did arrive successfully. It took a moment, but it got there. During the course of my test, I did some side-by-side tests to see how quickly the wireless images were arriving relative to a corded connection. Granted, my tether station, a 2013 MacBook Pro, isn’t the absolute newest computer one can buy. So, rather than think of the numbers as hard data points that would apply to everybody and every camera, I was instead interested in their relative values.
When it successfully sent images, the Nikon raw files from the D850 would make it to Capture One fully rendered in about 10 seconds. For point of comparison, the same image over a wired connection took 3 seconds. Using the 24.3MP D750 the raw files would make it wirelessly to the computer in about 5 seconds. Makes sense. Half the megapixels, half the transmission time. Hard-wired, it still took almost 3 seconds, barely shy of the larger files. The system didn’t like the GFX 100 at all. I still have no idea where those files went, as they never made it to Capture One. Worst yet, the camera itself kept crapping out and showing error messages. So, I excused it from the rest of my tests after the initial round. To be fair, asking any system to send that much data wirelessly quickly is a tall order. And Tether Tools' own instruction manual suggests that you might be better using a wired connection for larger files. So, this is definitely not the way to go if you’re trying to push 100 MP images.
Whether those transfer speeds are fast enough for your shooting pace, only you would know. And again, your results may vary. For me, going from 3 seconds to 5 seconds seems plausible. But going from 3 seconds to 10 seconds, especially when I tend to shoot rapidly, could cause an impediment. Not impossible to overcome, but something to consider.
I emailed Tether Tools directly and was able to get some expert advice from a helpful customer service technician. She had a number of good suggestions. Specifically, she mentioned that the device has the option of connecting at 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz. 5 GHz is better for larger files at shorter distances. This is what I used when measuring my cameras. 2.4 GHz is better for smaller files at longer distances.
She also had the suggestion of shooting raw plus JPEG. The JPEGs, being smaller, would transfer far faster. Essentially they would hit Capture One first as a preview and then be followed by the eventual arrival of the raw file. This was definitely the fastest way to work, although I don’t think, personally, that it would fit my workflow. One of the most powerful parts of tethering is that you can predetermine your look. You can set up the color adjustments, shadow and highlight adjustment, and so on beforehand. So, when your client sees the image roll in, they are looking at your full vision, not just the raw file. While Capture One will apply your predetermined style to the JPEG, JPEG and raw files will reflect your adjustments somewhat differently. So, I only want them to see the raw conversion, since that is what I will be working from in post. If you’re a JPEG-only shooter, this isn’t a problem.
More important than the transfer speed, however, was stability. I used the Air Direct on multiple occasions, and it seemed like at least once during every shoot, my camera would lose connection with the computer. According to the computer, it was still connected. And I could still trigger my camera via Capture One. But the images, for whatever reason, would just stop transmitting. The problem was reliably fixed by turning everything off and then back on. But this is simply not a problem that is acceptable to occur on a live shoot. If every frame I shoot is valuable, then I need to know that every frame I take is going to make it to the computer. Sure, my digitech should catch that. But, what if I’m working solo without a digitech and have to trust that my images are being saved to a computer on the other side of the room? Imagine doing a high-pressure shoot only to walk over to the computer after a few minutes of shooting and see that the images never got saved. Or, even if you can fix the problem by rebooting, imagine how unimpressed your client would be if the photographer they are paying top dollar for can’t seem to get his or her computer to work without rebooting the software every couple minutes. To be clear, this didn’t happen every time. But, for me, if it happens once, that is too much. Either I trust my connection 100%, or I can’t trust it at all. Problems establishing a connection in the first place are one thing. But once I’m connected, I need to know for certain that I’m going to stay connected as firmly as I am with a physical cord.
Thinking it might be a WiFi interference problem, I even tried both in studio as well as outside, where no other WiFi signals could interfere. But as many times as I tried, I kept eventually having the images stop landing in Capture One. When it worked, it worked great. But those times when it seemed to stop working for no apparent reason were definitely enough to give me pause about which jobs I would feel comfortable giving up my trusty physical cord for.
It’s not that I would never opt for the wireless option. There would be some circumstances when, for example, you are shooting in environments that make physically tethering less practical and going with the Air Direct more optimal. And though I still had a few connection issues, the shooting process with the 24.3 MP D750 was definitely smoother, leading me to think that 24 MP might be the magic limit under which I would consider wireless tethering a realistic option.
So, in the end, what did I learn from my journey to wireless tethering? One, it’s best for photographers working in the 24 MP range or lower. Since 24 MP seems to be almost the perfect amount for most applications, many photographers will fall into this boat. That was the area where I had the best connection. And, in terms of delivery speed, while you can tether in the 50 MP range, the transfer speeds may start to affect you, depending on your personal shooting speed. But at 24 MP, you are well within the range of a traditional tether cable.
I think this would also be a good fit for a dedicated JPEG shooter. The JPEG will pop up on your screen almost instantaneously. So, if your workflow is to go straight out of camera into a digital distribution pipeline, this could be a very efficient workflow. If you want to travel super light and shoot 24 MP or smaller JPEG images directly to your tablet or smartphone, you can have them uploaded in minutes.
Both of the above points would be doubled by the presence of a digitech or assistant who could monitor incoming issues and alert you to connection issues immediately. Trying to imagine the best setup for the Air Direct, I imagined an event shooter who might have a live retoucher on site. He or she could move about the room unfettered by cables and snapping photos of an event that would then transmit wirelessly to the retoucher's workstation. The retoucher could then work on the images and post them to wherever they needed to go. They could also signal the photographer if there were any technical glitches.
For shooters like myself who need raw, shoot higher-megapixel cameras, and simply can’t afford to have the tether connection shut down during a shoot in front of a room full of executives, I still think the best option is the old fashioned physical tether cord. As much as I was really looking forward to being able to ditch my cables and go wireless, the connection issues made me nervous enough that I wouldn’t feel 100% comfortable that my files would be safe. After a couple weeks of testing, I brought the system to a live shoot with me to test it out, but could only bring myself to use it during shorter less vital sections of the shoot. That’s not a technical observation. But those handful of lost connections during testing were enough to make me gun shy about letting the Air Direct start the game. A bench player that comes in during certain circumstances? Sure. But for a full day of shooting every frame? I wouldn’t say that it couldn’t do it. It’s just that my tests were enough to make me a little nervous. So, I would probably use the Air Direct more in situations where the images are less critical, more easily repeatable, and when there are less eyes on the other end of the tether connection.
I've been using Tether Tools products for years now, so they are a company I trust to create tools I can depend on when I'm on set. So, I'll definitely keep my eye open as they continue to develop their wireless line of products. The Tether Tools team was very helpful at finding ways to improve my transfer speed. At 24 MP or less, the transfer speeds were well in line with a traditional tether cord. And the speed differences between wired and wireless at higher file sizes are to be expected. Hopefully, the stability of the connection will only improve as the product develops. I sure would love not to have to get tangled in that cord any more.