Musings on Photography

Night Photography/Canon TC-80N3

Posted in equipment by Paul Butzi on January 21, 2008

Ok, having now attempted some night photography, allow me to make two observations that seem obvious in retrospect:

  • At night, it is dark. This makes it hard to see your camera and other gear.
  • At night, it is colder. In the winter, especially when the sky is clear, this means it will be darn cold outside.

Now, these two observations, combined, led me to the inescapable conclusion that I might well want to set up the camera, set it all going, and then go inside where it’s warm and light, and leave the camera outside merrily doing its thing in the dark. The question then becomes “How do we arrange for the camera to stay busy while we are away?”

Enter the Canon TC-80N3, which Canon calls a Timer Remote Controller. It will happily instruct my EOS-5d to perform exposure gymnastics, including delay to the first exposure, intervals between exposure, hold the shutter open for long exposures (if the camera is set to ‘B’), and making a certain number of exposures. It’s cunningly designed, actually, to do all of these things at once.

So I can set the thing to make 99 exposures, each exposure 15 minutes long, with two minute delays between exposures, and start the first exposure in 30 seconds. Then I start it off, walk away, and hope the wind doesn’t blow my camera and tripod over. Or, perhaps, I go and set up the other camera. Whatever.

I got this thing last Friday, and although it’s pricey, I like the way it’s designed such that simple programming allows it to be so flexible. There’s a manual but once you get the general concept, you’re good to go, and you needn’t worry that you’re going to be trying to read the manual in the cold and dark using the little LED flashlight on your keyring. And, in fact, the LCD display has a backlight, so you can use it in the dark.

Other than the price, there’s only one flaw in the ointment, and here it is: when you’ve programmed the thing, you need to press the ‘start/stop’ button to start the sequence. A naive photographer might think that that big round grey button with the slide lock is the ‘start/stop’ button, but the naive photographer would be wrong, wrong, wrong. That big grey button with the sliding lock is actually an auxiliary shutter button, which lets you use the TC-80N3 as a simple cable release, much like its much cheaper brother the RS-80N3. The ‘start/stop’ button is actually a little recessed button (see photo above, button between the ‘mode’ button and the backlight button).

And the odds of you being able to hit the ‘mode’ button, the ‘start/stop’ button, and the backlight button while wearing gloves and in the dark are exactly zero. At this point, see the observations at the beginning of this post.

I don’t know why camera manufacturers insist on making gear that is really outstandingly good but suffers from A Fatal Flaw in real world use. But it really irritates me. I very much suspect that cameras would be much better designed if the designer of the gear was told (before designing anything) that they would be forced to use the gear to actually achieve the functionality goal in a real world situation under trying circumstances (e.g. cold stiff hands wearing gloves in the dark) and that if they failed to get it to work, they would be taken off and locked into a closet with 25,000 agitated, angry and hungry rabid weasels.

10 Responses

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  1. Martin Doonan said, on January 21, 2008 at 11:16 am

    I’ve been using one for about 18months and I concur with everything you have to say about it. That Start/Stop button is annoying in the extreme: I still hit the grey button and scream “D’oh!”

    One way I really like to use it is for MLU, especially bracketed exposures. For a bracket of 3 I set up 6 exposures at 5seconds with a 5 second delay (Canon MLU need 2 presses of shutter release). This happily goes away, flips up the mirror, waits, takes the exposure & moves to the next. A perfect, vibration free, bracket sequence every time. Plus I can wander off and do something else.

    One other thing that is missing: a little loop so I can put a lanyard on it and hang it from the tripod when I wander off.

  2. Gordon McGregor said, on January 21, 2008 at 12:22 pm

    It is a great tool. I love my TC-80N3. I have to agree with your comment about the start/stop button. I end up wearing glove liners so I can use all the other fiddly buttons on my camera too, and then have those inside bigger gloves to keep my hands more generally warm.

    To Martin’s point about a missing loop to suspend it from a tripod – I use velcro. I have 3 little squares of the ‘hooked’ side of the velcro – one stuck to the top of each tripod leg. On the back of the timer I have a small square of the soft fabric side of a bit of velcro. Then I can just attach it straight to the tripod and gently push the ‘start/stop’ button.

    Stops it blowing around in the wind or acting like a pendulum.

    I also use the grey button shutter release mode a lot too – but I’ve never found the need to use the slide lock for that – if I know I want to hold it open for a while – wouldn’t I use the timer function ? 🙂

  3. Martin Doonan said, on January 21, 2008 at 12:53 pm

    Velcro – genius!

  4. Ed Richards said, on January 21, 2008 at 3:21 pm

    Cold? Gloves? Wait until the next day when it is warm. What bugs me is stuff that gets slippery or obscured or smelly or shorts out when it is drenched in sweat.

  5. John Setzler said, on January 21, 2008 at 4:06 pm

    I love my TC-80N3 also. Just remember that when it’s cold outside, your camera will likely condense a fog on the lens. I learned this last time I attempted to photograph the Leonid meteor shower. After about an hour in the cold, without realizing it, my lens fogged and ruined the exposure.

  6. Chris Sheppard said, on January 22, 2008 at 8:06 am

    Dew and condensation on optics is a problem the amateur astronomy community always has to deal with as well. If you’re doing a lot of nighttime photography, you might want to consider a dew heater system for your lens. These are designed mostly foe telescope optics and eyepieces, but could easily be used for camera lenses as well. Kendrick Astro ( makes some the best.

  7. Joe Reifer said, on January 22, 2008 at 9:28 am

    As a user of the TC-80NC3, I agree a design improvement would be to make the start-stop button a little bit bigger. Living in an area that usually doesn’t require gloves, I’ve got the buttons pretty wired. I also use velcro on the remote/tripod.

    Another excellent accessory that I use for night photography is a small flashlight around my neck with a red LED. This allows me to see into the camera bag, check for condensation on the lens, etc. without effecting my night vision. I use a Gerber Recon, but there are other similar models. Twenty bucks well spent.

  8. Jeremy said, on March 17, 2008 at 1:25 am

    Just curious, have you ever ran accross an electric cable release for large format cameras?

  9. iblogologist said, on January 18, 2009 at 2:56 pm

    I’m torn, I do want a shutter release but I’m on a budget.

    Do I get the cheaper ‘release only’ version or spend my money once and get the more expensive TC-80N3?

  10. D. Owens said, on August 27, 2009 at 11:36 pm

    Definately get the Yongnuo version of the TC-80N3. I’ve had the canon version and there is no discernable difference. I don’t know how they do it for 5 times less and free postage.

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