Sunday, September 18, 2011

B&H REVIEW: Pocket Wizard MiniTT1, FlexTT5 & AC7

PocketWizard MiniTT1 PocketWizard FlexTT5

I’m tired of spending money on Photography gear (or should I say broke) so I’ve been very reluctant to buy wireless radio transmitters. B&H was nice enough to send two sets of Pocket Wizard MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 (for Canon ETTL-II System) radio controlled flash controllers for me to demonstrate during my recent workshop. They also sent the AC7 RF Shield for the FlexTT5, but I never got around to using any of them due to the fast pace of the workshop.

I own three Canon 580 EX-II’s for my flash needs. When my flashes go off camera I use either one of those flashes or my ST-E2 to trigger them. I’ve only had one case where the Canon system failed miserably, but I know the limitations of the system so I never put them into a situation where I knew I was asking for the impossible. As a result I have limited myself from doing some of the cool things you see in Joe McNally’s books The Moment It Clicks or Hot Shoe Diaries. After attending his Flash Bus Tour I decided to join the world of the Strobist minions give the radio triggers a shot.

I used the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 units as well as the classic Plus II at the Bryan Peterson Workshop and at the workshop I actually had a preference for the Plus II because it allowed me to use Nikon SB-900 flashes remotely with my Canon camera. However, I had a feeling I’d miss not having E-TTL after reading Speedliter's Handbook by Syl Arena so I decided the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5’s were the way to go.

Why Do I Need Wireless Radio Transmitters?

Copyright (c) Ron Martinsen - All Rights Reserved
This shot would not be possible without wireless transmitters
Canon 1D Mark IV and 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM at 100mm
f/3.5 at ISO 320 for 1/125 sec
Dutch Angle done for fun

One of the questions I get from my students is why do I need wireless radio transmitters? The answer is simple – because they allow your off-camera flash to still fire when it doesn’t have direct line of sight with your camera. Here’s a good example of environment where direct line of sight is not possible:


Notice how both flashes are in separate areas blocked by walls

For this shot I need the green to fill the background, but if I get any spill from the main light it will wash out the green Rogue Gel from the rear flash. To avoid this problem I tucked the 580EX II with the FlexTT5 in the alcove so the walls would act as flags. This takes care of the background, but I still need to put light on my model so I elected to use an umbrella with another 580EX II on a FlexTT5 that was stuffed into the children's playroom at the bottom of the stairs. To avoid lighting up the column next to the umbrella I just used a little gaffers tape and taped the black umbrella cover on so that it would cover the left half (as shown above).

In the the photos above and below you can see where I’ve put black markers where the model needs to stand. If you look below you’ll see that camera is located in the kitchen dining area next to the bar where there is no line of sight to either of the flashes. Radio transmitters are the only practical option in this case as direct line of sight is impossible and running PC sync cords would be a mess.


Notice how the camera (where the MiniTT1 fires) has multiple walls blocking it from the flashes

The last thing you’ll notice in the shot above is the reflector that I used to throw some additional light on the dark side of the model’s face. This allowed me to get the light I needed without introducing another flash which would have caused challenges with light contaminating the background color.

For this test I used E-TTL for the flash on my model and manual for the flash with the gel. I felt this worked best for my scenario as I didn’t want the flash with the gel to change power yet I was happy to let E-TTL do its magic for the flash on my model. I even experimented in another test with a on-camera flash on top of my MiniTT1 using E-TTL and that worked fine also.

Using the AC7 Accessory

The AC7 accessory is designed to provide better performance of the FlexTT5’s (up to 500% longer distance) when used with Canon flashes. It’s first purpose means you don’t need to use the included sock and you’ll get a longer shooting range and its second purpose is to give your flash a better shooting direction into the umbrella.

The way you’d think that you use the FlexTT5 is like this:


This works, but RF interference can cause occasional misfires and reduce wireless distance

However, you’ll get much better performance if you use the RF sock like this:


The sock improves performance,
but notice how the flash doesn’t hit the bottom portion of the umbrella in this configuration

The AC7 increases range by up to 500% over the configuration shown above and it acts as a better umbrella adapter so that your flash fires in the center of the umbrella as it should:


The AC7 allows for a better center hit of your flash into your umbrella

Here’s another view of how your flash inserts into the AC7:


580 EX II flash shown inside of the AC7 with a FlexTT5 attached

In case you are wondering, the AC7 does work with battery packs. You’ll notice the bump in the top in the photos below where the included adapter goes to allow for battery pack attachments. You can also rotate your flash head and point it at a 90 degree angle if you want to use the AC7 without an umbrella.

While this device is designed mainly to deal with the RF interference issue with Canon flashes, it is really the improved performance in umbrellas that makes it worth while.

Additional Resources for Off-Camera Flash Fun

Joe McNally’s books The Moment It Clicks or Hot Shoe Diaries have lots of great photos which show off the cool things you can do with off-camera flashes and gels. It is very Nikon biased so Canon shooters will also want to look at Speedliter's Handbook by Syl Arena to learn how to do the same things with their Canon flashes. I’ve also reviewed Off-Camera Flash Techniques which is a great resource to show you how to put the lighting principals of Light, Science and Magic (a must read) into practice.

The hottest place on the web for more info on this is also Strobist.com or if you prefer to watch videos then KelbyTraining.com (discount on this blog).

Conclusion

The MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 worked great and I never ran into any of the problems I’ve seen reported on the web even when I didn’t use the included sock attachment. The AC7 offered a better solution for use with umbrellas and better performance, so they seem like a worthwhile accessory.

Overall this system worked as expected and I had the confidence of knowing that they’d flash every time without fail. While E-TTL makes a lot of sense when the flash is on the camera, I felt it was less useful when it was off the camera so I’m not entirely convinced that I need these over the cheaper Plus II. As a result, I’m in this odd limbo where I liked these, but don’t really have enough need for them in my work to justify buying them. I’m also not sure I’d spring for the extra cost of these over the Plus II or MultiMax 32.

For now the built-in Canon wireless system works well for my needs (see the Speedliter's Handbook by Syl Arena for usage tips). If I really need a better solution I’d probably use my Elinchrom Quadras which feature built-in radio triggering and have many advantages and better light modifiers than I get with my flash guns.

My advice is that if you want to do E-TTL work and trust the PocketWizard brand, then give this product a try (B&H has 30 day returns now). I don’t think they will let you down and they are quite fun if you are into off-camera flash work. If you are the type who will use manual flash settings anyway (and/or shoot with a mixed flash setup where E-TTL isn’t possible) then save your money and get the Plus II or MultiMax 32.

NOTE: Nikon users will need the MiniTT1 for Nikon and FlexTT5 for Nikon.

What about RadioPoppers?

RadioPoppers refused my numerous requests to participate in this article so I have no data to share about their product. If that changes in the future, I’d be happy to review them as well.

Other articles you might enjoy (Added July 3, 2012)

Disclosure

I was provided units to review from B&H that I returned when I was done. I may get a commission if you make a purchase using the links in this article.

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