Promote Control: review of the advanced remote control for dSLRs

There are plenty of remote controls for your dSLR camera to choose from, but one trumps all others in terms of versatility, capabilities and power. The Promote Control is being touted as a High Dynamic Range (HDR) remote control, but it’s actually closer to a handheld dedicated computer with which you can control your camera’s shutter, aperture and focus.

Shooting up to 45 HDR images unattended, Time-lapse, Bulb ramping, Focus stacking and a Hyperfocal Distance Calculator all wrapped in a device the size of an iPod, that’s what makes the Promote Control unique in a nutshell. But wait, there’s more: one-shot, shutter hold, mirror-lockup and Long Exposure Noise Reduction are also on this remote’s menu.

The Promote Control prefers Canon and Nikon cameras but will work with many other dSLRs. With my Sony Alpha 700, Bulb ramping, Bulb HDR, Time-lapse and the HD Calculator all worked. Additionally, the Long Exposure NR switch did as well.

The Promote Control is a processor-controlled unit. Interesting, isn’t it? It is, because you can update the firmware on this device. Since the unit came to market in 2010, there have been some 16 firmware updates (!), betas included. Most of these have added impressive new features — the last one is the Focus stacking feature for some Canon EOS cameras. It’s the firmware and the stream of improvements that makes this remote stand out from the crowd and worthy of the $299.00 (approx. 223.50 EUR) price tag.

Many features and grand flexibility demand some intelligence from the operator too. First of all: you’d better read the user guide first. Read it thoroughly and not as I did, diagonally. I missed the Long Exposure NR facility and mirror lockup capabilities and asked the company’s rep instead. He friendly pointed out what I was looking for, but I could hear him think the “RTFM” acronym.

A second condition to use the Promote Control for fully supported HDR bracketing is that your dSLR must be capable of accepting commands over USB (mini-USB interface) and write to memory card simultaneously. This rules out Sony Alpha cameras, but there’s a work-around for them. Using the Promote Systems Bulb Ramping and Bulb HDR Assistant cable in combination with the shutter cable, you can enjoy shooting HDR with a bit more preparation (and some limitations).

The Promote Systems remote control is intelligent in that it will figure out for itself that what you’re trying to do is going to work with the parameters you feed it. If it won’t work, you’ll get a warning message on the backlit LCD screen and the unit will prevent you from further working until you fix your settings.

By the way, pretty much everything can be customised, from the Promote Control’s LCD screen colour to your camera’s ISO limits. HDR bracketing can be set to 9.0EV steps apart (!). When you have a fully supported camera the HDR bracketing is straightforward. You can shoot up to 45 images, each with a different exposure. The work-around for not fully supported cameras is elegant, but requires more preparation and one or more ND filters.

The work-around is Bulb-HDR — which isn’t just a work-around, as Bulb-HDR may be what you need in low light environments anyway — which allows you to shoot with exposures ranging from 1/20 of a second to several minutes. This mode of operation requires the Assistant cable, which plugs into a PC sync port on your dSLR (a hot-shoe adapter is included with the cable).

For Bulb-HDR the lowest exposure time on my A700 was 1/20. If the scene is too bright, you’ll need to work with ND filters. I tried this with my A700 and it worked absolutely brilliant. The workflow goes like this:

  1. You’ll first set your preferred calculation method: do you want to start calculating exposures from the darkest, brightest, or medium-exposure area?
  2. Then you’ll find the pot in your scene that corresponds to the area you preferred in step one
  3. You dial in the found exposure value as first parameter on the Promote Control
  4. Decide on the EV number and dial that in as well
  5. Decide on the number of steps and dial in.

The unit will now have calculated whether the lowest exposure won’t be lower than the lowest possible exposure when in bulb-mode. If it is, you’ll need to start over again with a darker ND filter, or reduce the number of steps.

In most cases, I found this work-around to work really well. Furthermore, the Promote Control allows you to combine functionality. For example, Bulb HDR (and the ‘normal’ HDR mode too, of course) can be combined with Time-lapse, so that you can create HDR time-lapse videos.

Promote Control remote control with LCD screen set to red only

Of the other capabilities, I also tested Bulb Ramping thoroughly. Bulb Ramping allows you to create a series of images with a gradually longer exposure to accommodate for the sun rising or setting. The Promote Control automatically calculates the exposures from one image to the next to get the smoothest transitions from dark to light or vice versa. This does require you to calibrate your camera/unit combination (a very simple process).

The remote control will automatically change exposures but also ISO setting (for which you set the upper and bottom limits in the Preferences). In the Advanced Bulb Ramping mode you can even mount ND filters and the Promote Control will automatically take those into account. Finally, you may modify Bulb Ramping manually without losing all your settings and/or previous exposures!

My personal experience with Bulb Ramping was one of mixed results (and no, I’m not going to show them to you — they’re simply not good enough). It was the first time ever that I did this, and despite the help I got from the Promote Control it is something that I feel requires exercise and repetition in order to get this ‘in your fingers’.

When I started the review, I had good hopes to find someone who would lend me their Canon D5 Mk III, but in the end they needed their camera and I couldn’t postpone writing this review forever either. It’s a pity, as I would have loved to test the Focus Stacking feature as well.

Of course, the remote shutter controls the Promote Control offers are good, and work even when the unit’s batteries are depleted — it then simply works as a wired remote. The Hyperfocal Distance Calculator is a real boon. No longer do you need to memorise or carry with you those discs that help you find the ultimate distance or f-stop.

To round up, what can I say? Even with my A700, which wasn’t fully supported, I was really impressed with how this unit expands a camera’s functionality and your creative possibilities. It can even be turned into a wireless remote control with an optional add-on.

The Promote Control may not be the cheapest remote you can buy, but it certainly is the best and the most expandable.

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