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Guest post: PocketWizard review

This guest post on PocketWizard was written by Jon G. Dishler:

PocketWizard is well known to the wireless flash photography world [with classics like the Plus II] for basic flash triggering and more recently for advanced triggering with the TT5 and Mini TT1 radios. One really nice feature is the ability to update these radios over the Internet.  This time they bring us Nikon version 3.0 and it is the most significant upgrade yet.  Radio triggers are all about timing, and finally with this release most if not all of Nikon’s secrets have been unlocked so that no matter what the settings in camera or flash, the timing is correct for the desired exposure.

I am not a professional photographer, and you might have a slightly different workflow, but I have shot over 50,000 frames as an authorized beta tester for LPA who owns PocketWizard. Scores of photographers have worked with them on many versions up to this release. I am not a paid consultant to the company, but have worked closely with them through this process over the last year. My short list of lingering complaints has vanished with this new 3.0 release.

Since Nikon offers their own wireless creative lighting system (CLS), which provides communication from flash to camera, why do you need anything else? The readers of Nikon Rumors already know that answer but here it is for review. If there is a situation that is not line of sight, working in bright sunlight, or if using non-Nikon flashes like studio strobes, it just does not work very well.  Many light modifiers hide the flash from view of the camera making CLS a non-starter.  The earlier generation radio strobes helped with all of these problems but the newest ones do all of this but in addition something far more important.

In the studio, you might have different devices from different companies, with different speed flash tubes.  PocketWizards  can make them all play friendly.  In addition, they solve the problem of too much light.  I have two Elinchrom RX600’s, one D-Lite-it and two older D-Lite 4’s.  There is just no way to fire all of these, even at the lowest flash setting without stopping down my aperture to f/11 or using dark filters.  But what if I want shallow depth of field, say f/4 or even f/2.8?  PocketWizards make that possible with what they call HyperSync.  In most flash situations, you are below X-Sync and the flash determines the exposure.  Shutter duration mostly just affects the ambient light helping with backgrounds.  Hyper Sync uses the flashes like a light bulb and gives you back control of illumination. I can shoot at 1/640 with HyperSync at f/4 and all of my flashes can be just right.  Take the lighting down a notch by changing to 1/800 and in the background the PocketWizard takes care of the timing details.  No banding or dark curtains at these higher shutter speeds.  Studio strobes never had it so good.  But what about small flashes which can work at higher shutter speeds?

Similarly with FP sync or HSS (high speed sync) you can do this with little flashes like SB900’s or the newer SB700’s by getting a bunch of little pulses over time as the slit curtain slides past the sensor.  The downside of this approach is that the illumination is much less than a full pop of light, so they need to be much closer to the subject especially if they are in something like a softbox.  So even for these little flashes, the HyperSync route can be a help in that you can get more effective light.  Pocket Wizards actually extend the X-Sync window with some amazing tricks (they don’t call them wizards for nothing).  Many times you can gain a shutter speed or two before jumping into FP sync mode, getting more efficient use of your SB series strobes.  And they even make them work better in FP sync when needed.

All of this brings us to the most important issue, which has been that tricky place between HyperSync and HSS.  On my D3s this starts at 1/250 since that is the fastest that Nikon allows a full frame exposure.  With HyperSync you can push this up and interestingly at very fast shutter speeds where there is a slit curtain there can be great exposure even up to 1/8000 second.  But where and how these radios decide on the correct exposure at the 1/250 up to 1/400-shutter speeds or so has been challenging.  And this is where we often live with Aperture priority settings on our camera when shooting outdoors.  With version 3.0 this is no longer a problem.

Let’s say you are outdoors, shooting at sunset, Aperture priority f/3.2 using a 70-200 VRII and the sun is slowly going down.  You are using a couple of fill lights with umbrellas or softboxes lit by SB900’s mounted on FLEX TT5 radios.  As the ambient light drops so does your shutter speed from 1/800 down to 1/320 over 30 minutes.  Suddenly, you are getting overexposures, well that was true until upgrading the firmware to 3.0.  Now every shot is perfect.  And suppose you want to crank up the light just a little on the right side – no problem, with an AC3 on top of the Mini TT1 on your camera.  You can, in auto mode, in 3 different zones make small adjustments by stops, or you can slide a switch to manual and have even more independent control of the lighting.  The key benefit is that from the camera you can tweak exposures between shots and all of the flashes respond as intended.

Later that evening you want to take the shoot into the studio, with a bunch of larger strobes like my Elinchrom RX600’s.  As I said before, with HyperSync you are free to use any lens, camera, f/stop and with smart receivers like the ST4 for Elinchrom or the MC2 or AC9 for AlienBees you can make all kinds of discrete changes shot to shot.

What is more, now you can take the radio (mini TT1 or FLEX TT5) off of your camera and test fire it walking around between your lights, changing light positions, gels, whatever, and fire them at will.  Now with 3.0 you can adjust the firing of each light separately, something you could not do before.  The radios fine tune the timing both at the sending AND the receiving end of the line.  One trick that I like is to take a picture of all the lights firing, to be sure that they are all in sync and that they are working as expected at the beginning of the session.

There are many other neat features, some of which you might use, and others maybe not.  Speed cycler is one, where with the AC3 zone controller, you can fire off banks of lights in sequence which lets you not have to wait for the recycle time for your lights.  This lets you take 10 fps flash photography, with relatively inexpensive lights.

Canon has had the fun with these newer radios for a couple of years, but they have problems with radio interference so their radios have to wear “jackets” but for Nikon they have only been out this year, and only very recently has the firmware been as robust as it is now with this 3.0 release.  I have tested it with both D3s and D300s bodies using a wide variety of lenses and flashes.  In a word it is now bulletproof.

Everyone is waiting for the announcement of new Nikon professional camera models, but you might find that the benefits of perfect lighting control now available for the first time for Nikon is as important as a new camera.  And since the firmware is upgradable, when the new cameras do come out, soon to follow will be updates from PocketWizard. I am confident that when the new D4 is released, there will shortly follow a PocketWizard update to include it.

Some might complain about the added cost, but I would not even think of taking flash photos without my PW’s, in fact I have ten of them altogether. For less than the cost of one medium priced lens, you can have all the benefits of perfect radio controlled and more importantly photographer controlled lighting.

SHOES: 24-70mm at 70 mm f/4 at 1/2000 outdoors with Mini TT1 and AC3 on camera with two SB900’s on TT5’s  shot through softbox diffusers

PURSE HOOK: 35 mm f/1.4 at 1/400 indoors with Mini TT1 and AC3 on D3s with RX600 with beauty dish with ST4 using HyperSync

MODEL (in pink dress): 70-200mm at 70 mm f/5.6 at 1/640 illuminated by 5 Elinchrom flashes various configurations

For additional examples go to http://www.fashionsnag.com which is a fashion blog which all of the photos have been taken for the last year using PocketWizard radios.

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  • cndlpwr

    Hmm. Very tempting. I could have used these a couple weeks ago.

  • Paul H.

    He says he owns ten of those bad boys, but that’s a heck of a lot more spendy than what he calls a ‘medium price’ lens. Good grief. Pick your battles, financially speaking. PW has made a huge margin (off a great product, admittedly) for triggers most will never need or own.

  • http://hodnick.net nick

    So if I replace my cybersyncs to use with my 2 Einstein strobes with my D90, I could sync up to 1/4000 (I think is max for d90)?

  • http://www.steves-photo-art.com steve

    This sounds a bit like a promotional product-placement. Ok, here some experiences.

    I have 5 TT5 that I used so far with SB 900 with a Nikon D3x. I was tempted by the possibilities of using them together with studio flashes, and the versatility that it promissed. I just made the upgrade to firmware 3.0 so I cannot report any changes yet. So all my comments below refer to Frimware 2.x

    What I can say so far: An excelent idea that is poorly supported by the product itself, and the tutorals and support cannot keep up. Actually, unless you make extensive tests and experiences. They are just not “plug and play”, but plug and pray.

    -One reason may be in the lousy housing in cheap plastics, and not tight hotshoes. Maybe some connections get lost, what do I know? At least for the price I expected better product quality.

    - When using, as I do, several flashes together with PW, you have allways to check if all flashes fire, or if some allready felt asleep. This can happen from time to time, to any flash, or not at all. It may be a battery, a connection, something else (other radios or transmitters, cell phones, wifi?). It may work, yes, but on several shootings it didn’t work properly (about 80% for me), and I felt ashamed that my equipment was so lousy.

    Whatever, the main point is that you don’t get a consistant result unless you make a lot of training and effort to understand the system. Unfortuneately, PW don’t provide an extensive video training and troubleshooting-manual (for example checklists, detailled video-training).

    Don’t expect iTTL. I made some direct comparisons with iTTL with IR directly from the camera (so pure Nikon), and it worked well even in very bright sunlight (on short distance, though). In direct comparison, shooting the same configuration via PW brought constant over-exposure.

    Actually, I don’t use the PW for any shooting that matters for me.

    This said, the idea is brilliant and I hope that version 3.o brings major improvements in the usability.

    Also, I can use the PW on other cameras (Leica) in manual mode as trigger, which enlarges widely the usability of my strobes.

    I will also buy some compatible studio lights soon, probably Elinchromes whith the ST4.

    So, what to have to be improved:

    - Overall reliability of the system
    - Better product quality and connectivity
    - Faster support
    - Better and more detailed tutorials

    This said, I don’t blame PW for the issues that I mentioned earlier,at least not for all. But the photographic equipment is as good as the weakest point, so if they want that their product work, they have to take a close look at every step and provide help and training.

    IMHO a product that has professional pricing should be usable “out of the box” with constant results. It is up to the company to provide every help needed to make the product work within reasonable time. To let the customer alone in a “trial and error” process is not acceptable.

    This said, I will continue to use the PW in a nonprofessional environment untill everything works well. Lets hope that version 3 of the firmware brings major improvements.

    PS1: Use the SU800 of SB900 instead of the AC3. The screen provides much better information in dim light. Also (again) the hotshoe is kind of loose and the three wheels are not an ergonimic masterpiece (unfortunately, as, again, the idea is very good).

    PS2: I wish Nikon would have produced those triggers. Then everything would have been right from the beginning. Maybe.

    • http://bit.ly/9NIXQ Sir David Hasselblaff

      Quote from the first parapgraph of the guest post: “…most if not all of Nikon’s secrets have been unlocked…”
      I think that says it all. They had to completely reverse engineer it, because Nikon is unwilling to share any of their technical marvels. Shame on Nikon. It seems they don’t need the additional revenue an open system would create.

      • steve

        I agree with you, I think this was a real challenge, but my main critics are not related to this. Product quality and teaching/training/support are not related to this.

      • http://www.federerphotography.com Joe from Minnesota

        Nikon has the most technologically advanced flash system out there… why would they want to lose that advantage by giving it away so that a third party could make lots of money?

        (but man, I wish Nikon would put RF in their stuff — it’d be worth it even at 2x the current prices)

        • http://www.robertash.com Robert Ash

          I think Nikon focuses on what will work for most people most of the time, and that’s line of sight optical slaves. It’s the same reason they focus on Coolpix and entry level cameras. That’s where most of the market is.

          I’d like to see Nikon add RF but I’d really hate to see it 2x the current price. Nikon gear is really expensive. An SB900 costs about as much as a Paul Buff Einstein studio strobe. To me that makes a Nikon small flash a very expensive piece of gear. Good, yes, but very expensive.

    • broxibear

      Hi steve,
      I understand what you mean.
      I’ve got Mini and Flexs but I don’t have complete faith in them, infact in a studio I still prefer a sync cable to my nearest head and the others on slave.
      The two things that annoy me most about the Pocketwizards are the price, I think they’re too expensive, and the build quality. The materials used for the Mini and Flex are poor and the buttons are flimsy. It wouldn’t take much of a knock for them to fall apart.

      • steve

        “The materials used for the Mini and Flex are poor and the buttons are flimsy. It wouldn’t take much of a knock for them to fall apart.”

        this is exactly what I mean, in my opinion this is probably a reason for the eratic behaviour as well. Also, the buttons are almost impossible to use in dim light, especially the channel-selection.

        In my opinion, an integrated radio trigger in, lets say, a SB 1000, would be a great step in Nikons flash system. The best of all worlds!

        To be clear, I don’t want to be negative or bash PW, I just wanted to put the initial article in another perspective.

    • http://nikonrumors.com/ [NR] admin

      To be promotional product-placement, I should have get paid for it, and I didn’t.

    • Jon

      Why comment on version 2.X when the post is about 3.0? That is the point of this post that 3.0 did fix the problems you have experienced. Neither myself nor NR was paid anything for this post, it was just based on my own experience and satisfaction with the product.

  • Nice Ad

    Hope that ‘article’ generated some ad revenue for you, Admin.

    As soon as Nikon and Canon come out with OEM radio triggers, PW’s market shrinks to Pentax and Olympus users…

    • http://nikonrumors.com/ [NR] admin

      This is a guest post, not a paid post. Nikon and Canon may or may not come with radio triggers. Even if they do, not sure what is the problem of sharing someone’s PW experiences on the blog.

  • mshi

    Where is the link to buy them?

    • http://nikonrumors.com/ [NR] admin

      you can try bhphotovideo.com

      • PHB

        I am always a bit hazy about what I am meant to get to make the PW system work.

        What do the transceivers plug into and where? Can I use them with any strobe or do I need one with an input? What is the difference between the plus and the mini and so on?

        PW do a lousy job on this themselves. The PW site seems to assume that buyers know all this stuff. Which is really rather odd. If I am going to invest $500 in gear I want to get everything I need, not place an order and then find I need a bunch of other stuff to make it work.

        • Jon

          The PW’s plug into the supplied USB cord which then plugs into any computer. Utility software supplied by PW is run and the attached unit’s firmware is checked and updated as needed. All radios must be on the same version of firmware, currently 3.0. The update is automated and easy. Once programmed they are ready to go until there is another update. Help menus are on the utility software. The PW hardware is camera BRAND specific (Nikon or Canon). The Nikon Mini TT1 is a transmitter that sits on top of the hot shoe and can have a local flash on top of it, and/or transmit to other flashes which must connect to a PW receiver. The receiver is the TT5, Plus, or specific receivers designed for specific strobes (Alien Bee or Elinchrom for example). The Plus is an older model and does not have all the functions of the TT5. An AC3 is something that can sit on top of a Mini TT1 instead of a flash which gives more options for external flash control but is not required. You can program the firmware to two different scenerios for different settings, for instance C1 for studio strobes and C2 for Nikon SB flashes, that way a click of a switch gives you the settings you need. You also get 3 different zones of control. The TT5 is larger and can work just like a Mini TT1 but is also a receiver. It also has ports that can trigger a flash with a cord and another one to control the shutter on a remote camera.
          For instance, a TT1 on top of a Nikon D300 could trigger an SB700 on top of the small transmitter, and also send a signal to two TT5′s which have SB900′s on their hotshoe. All 3 flashes can be controlled from the cameras menu. PocketWizard also has a wiki site which might help, although it is fairly straightforward. I hope that helps.

  • http://www.robertash.com Robert Ash

    Hi,

    Many thanks for the sanity check from Steve. That article does sound very overly optimistic.

    From my personal experience I do use Pocket Wizard standard transceivers for professional work. I own 3 of them and they work well for me. I have 2 Einsteins, 2 Nikons and 3 Calumets (I’m retiring those as I buy Einsteins to replace them).

    The two things I’ve seen room for improvement for are 1) no TTL and 2) the price.

    I’m now considering Paul Buff transceivers because they work well (the photographer who assisted me in my last two workshops has the Paul Buff radio triggers and they worked great on Nikon and Paul Buff) and they’re much less expensive than Pocket Wizards. I don’t mind spending money if I have to but if a product costs 1/3 as much and works just as well that’s the direction I tend to want to go.

    • http://www.robertash.com Robert Ash

      That said, if this new PW 3.0 actually works as advertised, and solves the problems Steve and others point out, it’s worth the money.

  • Lulz

    TTL flash compensation still won’t work on the d3s.

    • Jon

      There is a new release 3.003 which addresses that issue more perfectly. In certain situations there was overexposure in auto mode/Ac3 with the D3s at certain shutter speeds and under special conditions, but this is now also rectified with this small release update. My experience is that these flash compensation issues are resolved.

  • http://www.marekd.com/blog Marek Dziekonski

    I use Radio Poppers. Much cheaper and work great.

    • stark-arts

      how do you figure cheaper?

  • Bart

    As a professional photographer I need to count on my slaves being 100% and the TT1 & TT5 combo are maybe 60% with a flash on top of the TT1, maybe 70% without a flash in the hot shoe.

    The Nikon CLS system with the Radio Poppers is very close to 100% if you remember to keep fresh batteries in them.

    I’m also not paid by either company and these comments are from first hand use of both systems for extended testing in real weddings.

  • I shoot Nikon

    Admin, I hold a degree in advertising. I understand that you didn’t get paid for this “guest post”, but you should’ve. In the very least it’s a biased and lope-sided opinion of someone who claims to have shot with PW over 50,000 frames. Apparently the poster has ten of them and I wonder how many of them he got for free as an authorized beta tester. I’m sure he wouldn’t want to ruin a good thing for himself by stating the truth, which anyone who’d used PW for even a few hundred shots may already know. Pocket Wizards are fragile and flaky. A lot of professionals use them because it’s a household name, but nowadays there are several Chinese off-brand alternatives that use a different and more reliable technology and also happen to be 10 times less expensive. Just do your research and don’t buy into the hype. Pocket Wizard was “the” wireless trigger at one point due to the lack of alternatives, but there’s simply no reason to spend the big bucks now.

    Anyway, I doubt there is a serious photographer on this board who hasn’t heard of PW, so why bother beating the dead horse? If you are going to make occasional intentional or unintentional plugs, I’d much rather they were reviews of some new and promising products than a dinosaur that’s refusing to adopt to the current state of the market.

    • steve

      What are your personal experiences with PW tt1 and tt5?

      I have not heard of any chineese triggers that offers the functions of the PocketWizzards, nor do chineese companies offer support.

      The discussion has turned a bit weird. The autor has reported his experiences, and I have no reason to think he was dishonest or that he was paids for.

      Some others reported their experiences, that are less enthousiastic. Maybe everything (exept build quality etc.) has changed with the new firmware? We will see.

      This is what such a thread is for, exchange experiences about the subject, so that others may get some helpful informations. When I faced my first problems with the PW, I found that it was not so easy to get some help.

      So let’s test the new firmware, and come back here to report.

    • Jon

      Just for the record, I sent the “tip” to [NR] about the new 3.0 version release, and he invited me to write an unedited guest post. I received a small reduction on the initial 3 radios used for beta testing and purchased all the rest at retail from B&H. I have two AC3, one for each camera; two TT1, one for each camera; two ST4, one for each RX600, three TT5 in my camera bag for SB900/SB700; and three TT5 on my other Elinchrom strobes that are older. So actually I have 12 total radios. I was very happy to spend the time being a beta tester since I am not in advertising but rather have been an inventor, and consultant to high tech medical device companies and photography is an avocation. Personally, I think that these radios are fantastic but like I said, that is just my personal opinion. I have never had a mechanical failure despite heavy use. The only shortcoming is that you need to check on the batteries from time to time by plugging them into your computer.

      • broxibear

        Hi Jon,
        Don’t take any comments to heart, part of the reason I come to nikonrumors is to hear other photographers views…and to annoy Peter lol.

    • http://nikonrumors.com/ [NR] admin

      @I shoot Nikon – if you want to write a guest post about the Chineses alternatives, I would be happy to publish it online. The whole idea of the guest posts is to share information.

      • I shoot Nikon

        Dear Admin, I really appreciate your offer and may even take you up on it someday. Only reason I’m going to pass for now is because I want to wait until I strike some sort of a deal with one of the manufacturers and possibly get some free merchandise for displaying a positively written review of their product on your popular blog. You see where I’m going with this?

        Look, I’m not trying to attack the independent poster, or you for that matter. All I’m saying is please be careful with those “independent reviews” from random people. I love your site and the fact that you are not trying to shove various things down our throats as a compensation for your time. You have a great reputation and I hate to see a “Trojan horse” getting slipped by you because you trust people.
        Just ask yourself how much you know about the person who was so kind as to offer you such a lengthy, well written and upbeat review for a product he claims to have no interest in other than personal use and which he paid for out of his pocket. I could be wrong, but I’d bet anything that this review is a disguised promo. There is more than one dead giveaway, which I won’t point out for various reasons. Maybe it was just a coincidence, but I’d also bet that it wasn’t.

        Dear independent poster, my most sincere apologies to you if I’m wrong on this one and have insulted the intentions and integrity of an honest man. My assumptions about these things are usually correct at least 99 times out a 100, which means I’m rarely wrong, but mistakes do happen. With that said, there is still at least a 99% chance that you are being dishonest, and if you are I hope you’ll burn in hell for the eternity. Just kidding, better luck next time at not getting caught.

        • http://nikonrumors.com/ [NR] admin

          The author of the guest post contacted me to let me know that he has tested the new PW firmare and it was MY suggestion to write a guest post about it. I asked him about it. I think it’s pointless to continue this discussion.

  • Matt

    Wow..

    I think everyone is over-reacting a bit on the author of this post and on NR Admin.

    Firstly – Jon pointed out up front that he is not a paid spokesperson. Does he outline the details behind his beta testing? No, but I don’t think it’s required. Reason is that this is not an endorsement. He said: this changed, I used them, I like them. He did NOT say: I used them, you should too, here is the affiliate link. This is not an amazon or BH review, it is a personal blog owned by NR Admin.

    Secondly – This blog is not sponsored or endorsed (that I know of or can tell) by any company. Is there Adwords? Sure. Why wouldn’t NR Admin use adwords?

    Did you people that are complaining about the content pay to read this content? No.

    Admin does not have to do what he does. He could even charge for it, but doesn’t. But he absolutely doesn’t bombard us with GO BUY NOW product endorsements. So if you didn’t like it.. well, too bad, really. It’s a slow Nikon news day/month/week/(year?).

    As far as product quality & cost – well – I’ve never had a problem with mine that were Pocket Wizard related. Plus, the laws of economics tell us that if PW has trouble getting what they’re asking, then they either increase the value or lower the cost. So what if there’s competition – it can only help to serve the market better.

    To the Author – thank you for your info. I found the post helpful but I will still plan to do my diligence before actually buying into the new system. (As any professional or consumer should do…)

    • http://nikonrumors.com/ [NR] admin

      btw, I added the B&H link after somebody asked me where they can buy PW. The original article did not have it.

  • http://blog.dafyddowen.com Daf

    I was disappointed by the fact that these do not carry CLS signals – you either need the additional AC3 or an on cemare flash capable of being a master to do anything like manual exposure adjustment.
    The fact that they were already pricey and then that additional cost made my mind up to go for standard, non TTL triggers.

    • http://blog.dafyddowen.com Daf

      BTW By On camera flash – I mean a SB-900,800 or 700 mounted on camera.

  • Dandydon

    I own and use 1 tt1, 2 tt5s, ac3, and 3 mc2s for einsteins. Firmware Iwas an early adopter. I have struggled with many issues thur many firmware updates including beta versions. I watched the usability and reliability slowly improve over timme.
    Igreatly appreciate the guest post. I can’t wait to try the new 3.0 firmware.
    Ido wish there was a troubleshooting video that said, if you are getting this, do this…ect., but I think that would scare off a lot of customers.
    I’ve stuck with it because thereis nothing else. Pleasecorrect me if i’m wrong but please first know what the new pw system does before you tell me what’s out there.
    Don

  • Scales Usa

    I hope the beta testing was better than what they did for the Canon version. A 35-40 ft range with a 580 EX II – how could the beta testers have missed this? Impossible, they just ignored the testers.

  • c

    Anyone with flex5 and sb900 having overheating issues with the sb900? When I’m out in the hot sun, the sb900 seems to over heat super quick. Wondering if this is an issue with the flex or just the sb900 in general?

    • steve

      This is not an issue of the flex, but the backdraw of the FP-mode of the flashes, that drains batteries as well, as it is a different kind of flash burning. Better not to use the FP-mode and stay below sync-time, if possible

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