Saturday, January 12, 2013

Long/Heavy Lens Pistol Grip with Shutter Release

   After using a Nikon Pistol Grip 2 to support a heavy Nikon lens on occasion, I decided I wanted to be able to use the existing switch on the grip to trigger the shutter.  Unfortunately, there is no Nikon cable available for this purpose.  By using a few commercially available parts, and performing a little soldering, it is possible to fabricate an OEM-looking cable that can be used to both focus and fire the camera shutter using the trigger on the pistol grip. 

   The interesting thing that became apparent after completing this project is that it now is easy to support and operate the camera using either the right or left hand.  This is great when attempting to hand-hold a heavy set-up since it will be possible to swap arms.  The application is not limited to heavy or long lenses, though.  It can also be used as a grip for just a regular camera by attaching the grip to the tripod mount on the camera.  This seems like it would be a great modification for someone that does not have use of their right hand or arm.  The grip makes any camera a right- or left-hand camera! 

  The Nikon pistol grip can be used with other brands of cameras, like Canon, provided the appropriate connecting cable is purchased.

   To start this modification, there are a few pieces that need to be ordered...  
   At current prices, the mod cost me around $44 + shipping, plus the price of the grip.  There are some generic replacements for the 10-pin cable, as described below (with potential benefits).  However, I wanted an OEM-like cable and decided to stick with Nikon parts.

Nikon Pistol Grip 2

   While I purchased my Nikon Pistol Grip 2 for around $15+shipping, the price of this out-of-production grip varies greatly.  I found a used one at  Figure 1 shows the grip, which utilizes a removable stud that attaches to either the camera, lens foot, or in my case a quick release plate.  The stud is then secured in the grip using the thumb wheel.  This attachment approach provides for a very secure connection.  This grip is very well made, being pretty much all metal. There are inexpensive plastic alternatives.  However, none of them appear as sturdy as this version and, to my knowledge, none have the trigger switch. I believe the BushHawk grips do have the trigger switch.  However, those are more like gun stocks as opposed to a simple pistol grip - not to mention the high price for those kits.  As shown in Figure 2, the Nikon Pistol Grip 2 fits my hand quite nicely.

Figure 1.  Nikon Pistol Grip 2, inset shows stud mounted to Kirk quick release plate.
Figure 2.  Pistol grip with quick release plate in hand.

Nikon Pistol Grip Switch

  While the grip alone is a great addition, I wanted to be able to use the trigger switch.  As designed, this trigger is purely mechanical and simply moves a pin out the back of the grip.  As a result, a switch needs to be attached to the back of the grip.  I found a "Nikon MC-3A Connecting Cord for Pistol Grip" at Amazon for around $14 + shipping.  While there is also an MC-3 cord, I do not know the differences (some pistol grips can be purchased with the MC-3 cord for cheaper than what I paid).  As a result, these directions are for the MC-3A shown in Figure 3.  The switch with thumbwheel screw is all that is really needed from this cable.  Details on how to remove the switch are provided below.

(Insert standard disclaimer here... you do these mods at your own risk!).

Figure 3. Nikon MC-3A with needed mechanical/electrical switch.


Connector and Cable - Substitute for your brand and camera

  For the cameras that I use, a Nikon 10-pin connector is needed.  If you use a different camera, you will need a different cord.  Nevertheless, the approach should be basically the same, just using the cord with a connector that fits your camera.  The only reason I used the MC-22 Remote Cord with Banana Plugs is that it is cheaper than buying a complete remote release (MC-30).  This cord was available for only $30+shipping on Amazon (free shipping available) and is shown in Figure 4.  Any camera that uses an MC-30 will work with the MC-22 (D200, D300, D300s, D700, D800, D3 series, D4).

  As an important side note, there are much cheaper wired triggers available that have the needed 10-pin connector and cable.  Some of those cost less than $10.  Feel free to go that route if you wish.  There are some potential benefits to using a third party cable/connector, such one on the wired remote from Vello.  Because the Nikon 10-pin cable has all ten wires, some of those wires are powered from the cameras power supply.  Let's just say shorting those powered wires with another wire may not be good for the camera!  I would suspect, but have not verified, that the third party alternatives don't have all 10 wires.  With something the Vello, it should be easy to disassemble the switch housing and verify the wire colors needed.  Therefore, if you don't want to verify the wire colors in the MC-22 cable, the third party alternative is likely a better - and much cheaper - alternative.  (I actually had this as an afterthought and probably could have saved time by going with the cheaper third party alternative.)

  As another important side note, if you wish to use the Nikon Pistol Grip 2 with another brand of camera, you simply need to get the correct cable for the MC-3A switch.  For some Canon cameras, for example, something like the Vello Canon version should work - though I obviously have not verified this. Any cable that has three wires for focus and shutter will  work.  Also, any cable that has two wires for the shutter will also work, though obviously you won't have the focus feature.

Figure 4. Nikon MC-22 10-pin cord with banana plugs.
  Once you have the cable, plug the 10-pin connector into the camera and determine what length is needed to rotate the grip into any orientation that you might want and for the expected lens lengths.  It is better to leave too much than not enough. Cut the cable at that length and discard the end with the banana plugs.

Making a Pistol Grip 2 Trigger Cable

  Making the pistol grip cable is fairly straight forward.  With a little patience and careful use of a soldering iron and knife, you will end up with a professional looking switch cable.


MC-3A Disassembly

  In order to make a connector cable for the trigger switch on the Nikon Pistol Grip 2, we need to connect the cut MC-22 cord with the switch from the MC-3A.  Remove the three small screws from the MC-3A switch housing as shown in Figure 5.  Once you note how everything is assembled (photos help here), remove the two internal screws and take out all the parts.  The disassembled switch from the MC-3A is shown in Figure 6.  Note that the trigger switch on the MC-3A only has two wires while three are needed to focus and trigger the shutter!  Not to fear, Nikon supplies the switch with three internal contacts (called leafs here).  Upon close inspection of the inset in Figure 5, the lower leaf is actually two leafs on top of each other, with the extra having a contact point but no connected wire.  Note the position of the three contact leafs and understand that during reassembly one of the leaf contacts will need to be relocated.   The MC-3A wires should be de-soldered from the contact leafs.  Be sure to retain all of the insulators, insulating sleeves, and leafs.  Also be sure to do all the soldering away from the switch housing to avoid melting it.

Figure 5. Cover removed from MC-3A trigger switch.
Figure 6. Disassembled trigger swtich.  Spare leaf switch will be used!
  As far as the switch housing is concerned, some of the plastic ribs inside the cover of the switch will need to be removed where the cable enters - if using the MC-22.  The cable on the MC-22 is larger than the original cable.  This material can be removed with a sharp knife at the locations noted in Figure 7.  If an alternate 10-pin cable is used, such as from the less expensive wired triggers, then this plastic trimming may not be necessary. 

Figure 7. Material to be removed from MC-3A switch for MC-22 cable

Wire and Switch Leaf Connections

  The next step is to solder the MC-22 wires to the leaf contacts from the MC-3A switch.  For some odd reason, the yellow, black, and blue wires on the banana plugs do not connect to the same color wires inside the MC-22 cable.  A conversion for the cable that I had is shown in Table 1 (again, use at your own risk.)  Since all cables may not be the same, it would be good to double check the wires prior to trimming and soldering. Trim back some of the insulation for the three needed wires and then trim off the entire length of the other seven wires as they are not needed. There will also be some tissue and string that needs to be trimmed.

  Again, if you don't want to verify the wire colors in the MC-22, a third party cable like from Vello, might be a cheaper and better route.  As noted above, some of the wires in the MC-22 are powered by the camera.  It is probably not a good idea to short those with another wire.  I suspect, but have not verified, that third party cables only have three wires - pretty much eliminating the chances of creating any undesired consequences of choosing the wrong three wires.

Table 1.  Conversion for MC-22 wires to MC-3A trigger switch
(see cautions in text about wire colors.  Use with caution at your own risk.)
Function Banana Plug MC-22 Internal Wire Switch Leaf Solder
Ground Black Yellow Lower Bottom
Meter/Focus Blue White Middle Top
Shutter Yellow Purple Upper Top

  In soldering the wires to the switch leafs, the bottom two leafs have connection pins on the same side.  As a result, solder the lower leaf on the bottom side and the middle leaf on the top side of the connection pins.  This approach helps reduce the chance of electrical shorts when reassembling the switch.  I suggest you do the soldering outside the switch housing - to prevent possible melting to the housing.  I pre-soldered the wire and tab and then just applied heat to merge the two.


  During reassembly, be sure to place the insulating spacers between each switch leaf, as illustrated in Figure 8.  The lower two leafs should be fairly close.  If they are not, you may have to adjust them by using pliers to bend the leafs. If the two lower leafs are not spaced closely enough , the camera will focus and fire the shutter at the essentially same time.  The upper leaf is bent down when the switch case is reassembled, but sticks up when disassembled.  A final view of the soldered switch is shown in Figure 9.

Figure 8. Trigger switch reassembly layout.  Note three separated leaf contacts.

  Once all the soldering is complete and the contacts are replaced using the screws as shown back in Figure 8, carefully orient the cable down in the switch housing making sure the wire leads don't short.  Again, your completed assembly should look something like Figure 9. 

Figure 9. Reassembled trigger switch.  Note three separated leaf contacts.

    The completely finished MC-22/MC-3A adapter cable is shown in Figure 10.  Note the OEM-like look!  Make sure to test the cable before using it.  I had to take mine apart one time to adjust the middle leaf so that the focus would activate prior to the shutter release. 

Figure 10. Completed trigger switch and 10-pin cable.


  The completed assembly is shown in Figure 11 attached to a camera and lens.  There is quite a bit of throw in the trigger switch, which requires a little practice at first.  

Figure 11. Completed pistol grip and trigger cable mounted on camera and lens foot.

  A close up view of the pistol grip switch connection and the new cable is shown in Figure 12.  I was quite pleased with how OEM-like the cable looked.

Figure 12. Pistol grip with trigger switch and cable close up.

  I had a chance to use the set-up at a basketball game recently.  It was really odd using the trigger switch at first.  I am accustomed to using the AF-ON button for focus and the shutter button only for firing the shutter.   At one point, I was doing that same process, but with the trigger button.  That is, I would use the AF-ON button on the camera to focus and then the trigger switch to fire the shutter.  After my left arm got tired of supporting such a heavy rig, though, I changed the in-camera setting to allow the shutter button to engage focus.  Then, I was able to use my right hand to both support the camera, focus, and fire using the trigger switch.  It almost felt like I was using a video camera having my left hand essentially free.  Being able to switch arms when using such a heavy camera and lens is quite a nice feature that I plan to use with sports photography - especially when a monopod is not convenient and I want to be more mobile.  The complete set-up in the right hand is shown in Figures 13 and 14.  Of course, it works just as well in the left hand! 

Figure 13. Pistol grip with trigger switch and cable close up.  Note right-hand support.

Figure 14. Alternate view of pistol grip with trigger switch and cable close up.
  This project only required a few dollars and a little bit of time, along with some soldering skill.  However, the capability I now carry in my camera bag will likely be very welcome in some situations.  Overall, I am extremely happy with this new pistol grip trigger capability and hope to use it more in the near future.

As always, I welcome feedback, questions, and general comments.


References and External Links
Nikon MC-30 (same as MC-22 but without switch)
Nikon MC-22 cable
Vello for Nikon (third party source of 10-pin connector and cable, see text)
MC-22 at B&H Photo
Vello Canon (third party cable/connector of some Canon cameras, see text)

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