The ins and outs of the Cable Release

Cable release with switch setting.

The cable release or shutter release was once a required piece of every serious photographer’s gear.  It is was and is the most important accessory to the tripod to ensure razor-sharp images.   Today cable releases have been largely replaced by electronic versions, phone apps, and built-in timers work for some functions, but for those who enjoy old cameras, they are great tool to have.  The cable release is a simple device.  It has a plunger that pushes a cable down into a hole, in the camera where a trigger for the shutter is located, or pushes an external button or switch.  The purpose of the release is to increase sharpness, and allow for long exposures, and in some cases, increase the distance between the camera and the photographer.  A cable release increases sharpness because it reduces the direct force applied by the shooter to the camera.  This force causes vibration or pushes the camera and causes blur.  This is most noticeable on long exposures.  On very long exposures, it is difficult or impossible to maintain pressure on the shutter release while using the bulb setting with a finger without causing significant blur.

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Most cable releases have some method for holding the cable in the shooting position.   This is for when the camera is set at the bulb setting.  This allows for the photographer to take long exposure without having to hold the release, and potentially move the camera.  During very long exposures it prevents fatigue from holding down the plunger, and allows the photographer to leave the camera for exposures that could last many hours.  I used to take star-trail photos by using a cable release in this way and it allowed me to go back to sleep!  I would set an alarm so I could wake up and release the trigger at whatever interval I chose and before the sun came up.  It doesn’t make for a good night’s rest, but can yield some great photos.

Good releases

cable release screw tip
Screw tip of a cable release with cable extended. Note the sping along the end near the tip. This reduces stess on the cable and reduce the chance of kinking the cable.

Like most products, cable releases come in different styles and quality.  The most common is a cable enclosed in cloth or plastic, and has a screw on the side to clamp the cable in place for the bulb setting.  I prefer the design that has to switch style mechanism for bulb and regular free moving setting.  The bulb setting is different than the screw clamp.  At the base of the plunger is a disk that is twisted to engage the bulb setting. Pressing the plunger down all the way causes the cable to “stick” when the exposure is to be ended, the disk is pressed, and the plunger pops up.  Very simple to use, and with the release I have used, there seems to be less danger than the screw clamp that the cable with come loose and trip the shutter too soon.

Standard cable release with plunger and screw to hold the shutter down for long exposures in the bulb setting. Note that this inexpensive releae now has a kink in it making triggerin the shutter rough.

I have had several junk releases.  One problem that arises with cheap cable releases is that they hang off to the side of the camera or lens, and this causes stress to the bottom of the cable.  This can cause the cable to kink and limit or ruin its function.  Good releases have relatively stiff plastic shafts that prevent kinking, and good cloth enclosed ones have a spring around the cloth to create a wider bend in the cable, and avoid the sharp kink.  The other problem I have had is pushing the plunger and the cable sort of pushes backward, and the release poops out.  Buy a good cable release, and it will last a very long time, and it will work smooth as silk.

Specialty Cable releases

Bulb releases

Bulb Shutter Release
Bulb cable release allows for creating distance from the camera and photographer. This is handy when photographing timid subjects or getting unusual angles, and avoiding dangerous situations.

Some cable releases have no plunger, but a bulb that you squeeze.  The air pressure then pushes the triggering mechanism.  On some very old camera bulb releases were the norm, but modern bulb releases are used with very long cords.  This allows the photographer to stay far away from the subject or enter the photo, for a self-portrait.  Distance between camera and subject is advantageous for wildlife photography.  For instance, a camera set up close to a bird feeder, bird house, or anywhere wildlife is expected to be can allow the photographer to make the shot with minimal disturbance to the animal.  A camera could also be set up at a high vantage point, or some uncomfortable, or dangerous position.

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Timed release

These timers are not really cable releases, but they screw into the same triggering mechanism, and give cameras that have no self-timer, or a non-working one, that function.  Simple ones are just a wind up mechanism.  If memory serves me – a digital timer such as this once existed.  The winding self-timers are nice to have, especially for large format photographers since view camera lenses rarely have a timer function.

Manual Timer
A mechanical timer that attaches into a cable release socket.

My favorite cable release is a “professional” cable release.  That is all it said when I bought it 15 years ago.  It looks like they are still made or imported by a few companies.  I once owned a Linhof cable release, and these are reported to be the best.  I lost it in a marsh on its second outing, so I never got to use it much.  The nice thing about Linhof releases is they have a long throw and are one of the very few Linhof products that most humans can afford new.

Many older 35mm cameras, like this canon Ftb QL, have threads to screw in a cable release in to the same shutter release used by the finger.
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