I don’t know who first coined the phrase: “Less gear. More brain…”, but it seems to me that this term has come up a lot recently. And when it comes to LPA Design, Inc. and their new products released for the Nikon range of cameras and flashunits – the PocketWizard MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 – it certainly seems it can be rephrased to “More brain. More Pocketwizards”. It’s not that you are no longer required to think, but for a shooter on the move, there is no doubt, that these units will help you work smarter, and work faster.
A brief history
David Hobby – The godfather of Strobism – have been inspirational for photographers around the world, in taking their small battery powered flash units OFF the camera, and placing them elsewhere to create a more pleasing and natural light. However, doing so also means you lose the connection between camera and flash, and need another way to make your flashes fire, when you press the trigger.
Around the same time, that David Hobby started sharing his insights and experience in this new “field” of photography, Nikon introduced the SU-800 unit, allowing photographers to remotely control of the small battery-flashes off camera, thus unleashing the full potential of Nikon’s Creative Lighting System (CLS). The system works great, but has a few caveats, one of which is the issue of “line of sight”, but also range and the vulnerability of using a system based in Infrared preflashes in direct and harsh sunlight, comes into play.
The first version of the PocketWizard’s (the MultiMax and Plus II), solved these issues, but failed to address what the Nikon CLS did offer, the i-TTL capability of automatically setting the flash for correct exposure while the camera is “speaking” to the flash-units with a series of flashes being fired before the shutter is actually opened and exposure is made. The solution for photographers wanting to utilize High speed sync (synchronizing at speeds up to 1/8000th of a second) and/or use the i-TTL system that Nikon offered with their CLS, was to link a series of SC-29 TTL Coiled Remote Cords bringing the SU-800 or a Master Flash unit (SB-800, or SB-900) in range to see the remote flashes. The “Master-of-many-flashes” Joe McNally (named so respectfully) has on several occasions shown us, how this is done.
But it still fails to address that situation that EVERY photographer finds themselves in (at least in our minds), that one day we need to shoot a frame, where the flash needs to be hidden 100 yards away inside a building, lighting a model standing on a roof through a skylight window. All kidding aside… any of us, having tried to work with the SU-800 in direct sunlight knows what a mess it can be to get that system to work, and getting it to work around a corner or just outside direct line of sight can become even harder.
PocketWizard’s to the rescue
Enter on stage: PocketWizard MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 for Nikon. They put an end to all these woes in one giant swoop of problem-solving bliss. So what do you get with these radio triggers that Nikon shooters have been pounding over – not having – for a little more than a year? We wanted full implementation of the Nikon Creative Lighting System’s TTL functionality without the restraints of distance or line of sight. You simply mount a MiniTT1-unit in the cameras hotshoe, and place the SB-400, SB-600, SB-800 or SB-900 in a FlexTT5 transceiver, and to the camera, it seems as if the flash is still sitting on top of the camera, although you can now place the flash anywhere you like.
You will not only get the Nikon CLS i-TTL functionality using the new PocketWizard’s. You get what PocketWizard refers to as ControlTL, which is taking i-TTL to the next level. Now you get Hypersync, which is taking synchronizing your Nikon flashes up to 1/500th of a second in normal synchronization mode, and High Speed FP Sync allows you to go to the fastest speed your shutter can handle (for my Nikon D3s, D3 and D700 that is 1/8000th of a second). Off course this only applies to Nikon Speedlight’s, but you can also benefit with regular studio lights.
On each of the FlexTT5 units, there are two extra ports, one of which can be utilized to trigger various types of studio lights. The FlexTT5’s can operate in both i-TTL and manual triggering mode, which allows you to basically trigger any flash with the PocketWizard system, and it’s even possible to mix’n’match various types of flashes and flash systems. The other port can be used to remotely trigger a camera, basically allowing you to trigger not only flash-units but also additional cameras set up remotely from one camera position. All that is required is a FlexTT5 unit for each device (be that a camera or a flash) that you want to trigger from your hotshoe-mounted MiniTT1. This system is awesome!
Does it take the brains out of flash photography? Not at all! Certainly you will lose the degree of control that you have when using all manual flashes. Exposure is calculated by the cameras light-meter, which relies on reflected light rather than direct light. Obviously this means that exposure can vary slightly from frame to frame, especially in high contrast scenes. Set a model for headshots in front of a black background and have the model move slightly between shots, and you will quickly see the problem. Each frame will be lit perfectly, but a model with dark hair turning her head slightly away from the light, will result in the i-TTL system measuring a darker scene, thus cranking up the power on the flash-units, and this may not be what you want as a photographer. For a studio setting I would think most of us will find, that going “manual” and measuring the light using a light-meter, will still be the way to go. Also we will be forever adjusting the lights, moving them around, aiming for perfectly exposed pictures as well as low- or high-key images. Of course you can use the exposure and flash-compensation to take some of that control back, but in reality it is unlikely that you will chose to work this way – I probably won’t anyway.
But for a shooter on the move, the PocketWizard MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 has GOT to be the perfect solution. It simply takes the headache out of lighting a scene that is constantly changing. I am guessing that most of us are comfortably relying on the light metering capabilities of our Nikon cameras, when shooting in available light. If we see a bad exposure coming, we simply use exposure compensation to correct whatever we know the camera can’t figure out. With experience we see these images before we “push the trigger”, and release the shutter for the frame, when less experienced we see the “blinkies” after the fact, and quickly make adjustments to rectify the situation. Now we can do this as quickly with off-camera flash in the mix. In my 4 days of working with the new Nikon versions of the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5’s I have to say though… it seems they diminish the number of “misses”… exposure-wise.
You still have to think, but you can spend more of your time thinking about composition and where you want the light to come from. In this day and age, we as photographers are not only measured by the quality of our images but also in variety and number of images we produce, perhaps editorial photographers more than others. Using the new PocketWizard’s allows us to quickly change things up, and we can deliver more usable frames for an editor to choose from in less time. We all wish we could have more time on our hands, and nurture each image with precision in lighting the scene, but there are times when we simply have to push more images out and faster, and with these PocketWizard’s, this becomes possible at a higher rate of success.
What’s in the package
The new PocketWizard’s arrive in a small cardboard package, that isn’t really indicative of the build quality of the units inside. Unpacking the units, the biggest problem seems to be wrestling the unit out of the tight fit plastic “mold” that holds them. A simple “Read me first” is placed on top, and included are a set of batteries, a short USB cable and a Quick Guide, which is (to be honest) not all that useful. Personally I would have preferred they saved the money on the USB cable and spend it on something I could use for packing the PocketWizard’s safely in my camera bag.
The “Read me first” note directs you to the PocketWizard website, to download the PocketWizard Utility that you will be using to update the firmware of your PocketWizard units and to configure them to work the way you want them to work.
I would LOVE to see a more in-depth online version of a manual. I don’t necessarily need an extensive manual to be included in the package, but I would have been nice if one was available for download. Not that I have had a massive amount of problems or issues, as the units basically works as you would expect right out of the box and as soon as you have updated the firmware using the PocketWizard Utility. But there are a lot of features in the Utility software, and although there is an extensive help-system built into the software, it just seems there are things that would have been better explained in a manual. For example it would have been nice to see various setups, configurations and combinations of MiniTT1’s and FlexTT5’s with various types of flash units (Speedlight’s and studio lights combined). Instead of having to figure out yourself what to do when using two Speedlight’s (the Nikon CLS/i-TTL system doesn’t know you have more than one flash attached), it would have been great to have a manual show that configuration, to teach you the principles. I am sure we will all figure it out, but PocketWizard could easily take the experimentation and guesswork out of the equation with a good manual.
The units themselves are of a SOLID build quality. The buttons seem tight, and you have no doubt as to which setting the individual sliding buttons are set at. The antenna on the FlexTT5’s swivel 180° and seem sturdy and when folded back on the unit, they have a small indentation that holds them in place. They all have a nice tactile sense to touch them and handle them. On each unit (both the MiniTT1’s and the FlexTT5’s) there is a hotshoe on top. This hotshoe seems solid and fixed well into the unit itself. There is a small hole for the locking-pin of the SB-600, SB-800 and SB-900 Speedlight’s, and the units own hotshoe mount, even extends a locking pin into the camera hotshoe. This is nice, in case you don’t tighten the unit firmly to the camera, and it will prevent the unit falling out, if you at least tighten the hotshoe adapter part of the way.
The USB port of the FlexTT5’s is hidden behind the antenna, and on the MiniTT1’s it’s hidden behind a plastic cover on the side. I’ve had no issue opening or closing this cover, once I got the nag of bending it slightly inwards before closing it on the MiniTT1.
In daily use
Having used the PocketWizard kit of one MiniTT1 and three FlexTT5’s for the past week have given me a lot of insight into the way I can utilize the PocketWizard’s with the way I shoot pictures. Most of the work I seek to do are portraits. I come from a background in commercial photography, but I’m in the process of changing lanes to a different type of photography, shooting people and their passion. I have no doubt that for certain jobs, the PocketWizard’s will help me produce a greater variety of pictures more quickly than I would be able to without.
For a one-light scenario perhaps using a reflector for fill, there is nothing that will bring you in range of a solid exposure faster than this. You can quickly set up a lightstand using an umbrella or a small softbox, have your subject hold the reflector, shoot a few frames and move on to a different venue, setting or background. You will of course be left in the hands of your cameras lightmeter as far as exposure is concerned, but I doubt you will find that a problem when you are on the move.
In the studio or for more complex lighting requirements, you will most likely switch to manual mode, allowing you to adjust the output of each flashunit, to match your requirements for the exposure you are looking for. With the supported strobes from Nikon, this works like a charm as well. Flip the switch on the SB-units to manual, adjust the power, and fire away. You can even go into Hypersync og High Speed FP sync to get even faster shutterspeeds.
Should you want to use a Lightmeter for greater precision in measuring your lights before you start shooting, the Sekonic L-758DR is a great addition to your kit. As you are now using the basic triggering mode (and no longer iTTL) to communicate with your strobes, you will have to switch your PocketWizard FlexTT5’s to basic trigger mode (so they can receive the signal from the lightmeter that has the PocketWizard transmitter built into it). This is VERY easy, as the FlexTT5 can store two entirely different configurations easily accessible. In my testing, this is where I ran into a bit of trouble.
As any owner of a SB-900 flash will know, it comes with a small kit of gels included. You will also know (or perhaps you should know) that putting one of the included gels on, the SB-900 strobe will (through a sensor on the strobe itself) know exactly what kind of gels you have on there. A full cut of CTO and the strobe knows it. Not only that, it communicates this information through the CLS / i-TTL system to the camera, so if set in Autowhitebalance mode, it switched the camera to a whitebalance that matches the gel (or combination of gels) you are using. This is VERY smart indeed. However – when you have a gel in your SB-900, the strobes communicates that to the FlexTT5 also, that for all intents and purposes appear to be a camera to the SB-900 strobe. The problem is, that the FlexTT5 gets a bit confused by this, and can’t decide whats going on, and then stops relaying the triggering information from the Sekonic L-758DR to the center pin of the hotshoe, thus not trippin’ the lights.
There IS a workaround for this, and I have published this in the discussion section of the Strobist.com Flickr group (scroll to the bottom of the thread), that you can utilize. I’ve made PocketWizard aware of the situation, and Ian (PocketWizard Technical Support Specialist) has been extremely helpful communicating back and forth with me on this issue (and answering all the other questions I had). Props to Ian Ray from PocketWizard. Not only is he knowledgeable about Nikon gear, he is also extremely competent and pleasant to talk with.
Of course using any type of non-Nikon gels that wraps around the strobehead of the SB-900 would not present this kind of problem. PocketWizard is looking into perhaps fixing this issue with a firmware update down the line.
I have tested the ability of the new MiniTT1 and FlexTT5’s and their ability to be used as triggering devices for various brands of studio strobes from Bron, Profoto, Elinchrom and others, be that generator kits or monolights. The results probably won’t surprise you: It all works. Whatever I threw at the FlexTT5’s they triggered everything as expected. Never a misfire! I did have to work a little with synchronization issues in Hypersync (sync speeds up to 1/500th of a second), but it was all resolved. Not that anything can be synced at 1/500th of a second, but whenever I had problems it all was a question of flash duration speeds, not the PocketWizard triggers.
Do you already own a set of Plus II or Multimax radios, you will be pleased to know, that you can add these to the mix of tools at your disposal. The MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 can trigger these perfectly and without any issue, and you can even trigger the FlexTT5’s from a Plus II or Multimax tranciever (although only in Basic Trigger mode).
The new Picketwizards works perfectly with multiple speedlights and I can set them each in manual mode allowing me to adjust my lighting setup freely. Of course I need to walk around to each flash and adjust the output manually, but I could also utilize the SU-800 or a SB-800 and SB-900 as a Master Controller. This also works perfectly but is really only applicable until PocketWizard releases the upcoming AC3 Zone Controller for Nikon. That will basically replace the need for a Speedlight or SU-800 Master Controller, at a MUCH lesser cost. It should be noted, that you can’t use the built in Master Controller of the D700, D300s, D200, D90 or D80, (I haven’t had a chance to test this with the D40x, D40, D5000 or D3000, but I am guessing the issue is the same here), as using these cameras as Master Controller depends on the integrated flash of these cameras, and this can’t “pop up” while the MiniTT1 or FlexTT5 is seated in the hotshoe. For all of these cameras however, it is possible to use the SU-800 or a SB-800 and SB-900 as a Master Controller combined with the MiniTT1 or FlexTT5 and control the output of the various supported Nikon strobes (SB-400, SB-600, SB-800, SB-900) right from the camera.
I have to be brutally honest. As much as this feature (standing at the camera to control the poweroutput of all the strobes used in any given lighting setup) seems to be incredibly desirable (everybody offers it), and that the selling point of not having to go back and forth to your strobes to adjust the poweroutput, is very compelling… the fact of the matter is, that most photographers will spend more trips from camera to the lights adjusting the positioning of the light and modifiers than they would adjusting the poweroutput of the same strobes. In daily use, I don’t really see it as a huge issue, but your mileage may vary. Will I get the AC3 zone controller once the Nikon version hits the stores? Most likely! It’s a cool thing, and for the price, it’s not really an issue.
I hate to say it… nahhh… I actually love to say it: The PocketWizard MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 for Nikon seems to be the best thing invented for photographers since sliced bread. For the professional photographer that wants maximum flexibility, to be able to mix and match various lights, who needs to be on the move from time to time, and needs to move fast – there’s no question. You better run down to your nearest camera pusher and pick up a set of the new radios from PocketWizard. For the enthusiast or serious amateur there will be the issue of cost. But given the fact that a SB-900 will cost you as much (or close to) as a MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 combined, I think it’s a good investment that you will benefit from in many years to come.
I am aware that there are a multitude of Chinese radios out there, which can be acquired at less money than the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 from PocketWizard, but you cannot easily get them repaired if they break down, and none of them offers the flexibility that you get with the PocketWizard’s. More and more studio lights from a great variety of manufacturers come with built in PocketWizard receivers (or you can buy an add-on at a reasonable price). In addition, many of the larger camera-stores offer rental deals of the PocketWizard radios, so you can augment your setup for a single photo-shoot or job, whenever needed.
Are there any drawbacks at all? Not that I can think of. If you don’t get a set of PocketWizard MiniTT1 and FlexTT5’s you might miss out on a lot of fun. As I see it, PocketWizard helps photographers to spend more time being creative, and to dream up wondrous ways to light a frame. And it’s all about the light. Now you will have the ultimate freedom in placing those lights, exactly where you want, and pick exactly the lights you need. As for flash photography for Nikon Shooters – it just got a LOT more exiting with the new PocketWizard MiniTT1 and FlexTT5’s. PocketWizard claim they “Make it possible”, and I actually believe them.