Pocket wizard FlexTT5’s – will they suit your needs?

Written by Gary on April 16th, 2009

This is not a review or preview of the product (they are not available in Australia until May 2009), but rather my analysis of information provided by the manufacturer from their website and from their manual (always read manuals BEFORE you buy expensive products as they often hide some nasty gotchas or limitations).

I have written a blog on these potentially wonderful new radio trigger devices for Canon and Nikon here, but now its time to see if they would actually suit my needs and are worth the cost ($US219 each or around $A450 each in Australia).

Historically, the MAIN reason pros bought non-TTL Pocket Wizard Plus II units were their reliability, particularly when compared to pre-2008 cheap Chinese radio trigger devices, and their extended range compared to the limited line-of-sight range of infrared triggering as in the speedlights themselves.

Now, the main reason to consider buying the new FlexTT5 version is extending the range of remote TTL auto flash with HSS focal plane mode capability plus their new hypersync flash capability which may allow full flash output sync at 1/500th sec shutter speeds to give greater capability in sunlight.

But, as we shall see, there is a price to pay for this – not only monetary – but complexity, incompatibility (eg. not compatible with Canon 5DMII at present), loss of some functions (eg. flash exposure bracketing, stroboscopic flash, model lights, rear curtain sync), decreased range and reliability (due to RF noise from certain speedlights interfering with them) and potentially the need to bring along your laptop to make it all work.

What do we need to make this work?

To make all this worthwhile, for most purposes such as weddings, model photography, etc, you will be needing:

  • two or more Canon speedlights (eg. 580EXII or 430EXII)
  • a FlexTT5 unit for each speedlight,
  • a master transmitter to sit on your camera (either a FlexTT5, or the smaller transmitter-only, but similarly priced MiniTT1)
  • to get ratio control, you also need to have a Canon ST-E2 transmitter sitting on the master transmitter (but ONLY 2 zones for ratio control), or preferably, a Canon 580EX II sitting on the master transmitter (allows 3 zones for ratio control as well as allowing manual power control of remote units).
  • a laptop to program it or change certain functions
  • if you wish to have a FlexTT5 trigger the camera shutter, then also the optional PocketWizard Canon N3 control accessory cable

Ratio control TTL with Canon speedlights:
This is the MAIN reason for buying this equipment for most people so let’s have a look at how it all works:

Basic out-of-the-box shooting:

  • ensure you have fresh AA batteries in each FlexTT5 unit – they last about 60hrs
  • Connect FlexTT5 or MiniTT1 (the “transmitter””) to camera (with camera and all other FlexTT5’s and flashes turned OFF) and attach the ST-E2 or 580EXII (ensure its mode has been set to MASTER BEFORE attaching it) to the transmitter’s hot shoe
  • Turn on the transmitter (select C1 or c2 which are your 2 channel options), then turn on the camera, then turn on the attached flash
  • Get your Canon speedlight instruction manual out (unless you shoot everyday, you WILL need instructions with you to adjust settings on the canon flashes), and work out how to set the speedlight to control slave groups – allocated to zone B and C
  • Set the remote FlexTT5 units to a zone (A,B,C) to match the Canon slave group, then attach the Canon speedlight to the remote FlexTT5 units and turn on (they must NOT be in Master or Slave mode as for usual Canon infrared wireless use but normal ETTL mode) – ensure you have taken steps to minimise RF noise interference from the speedlights if there are known issues – eg. surround a 580EX II with RF noise filtering material and earth it to the hotshoe)
  • adjust light ratios using the master Canon 580EXII or the ST-E2 on the transmitter
  • take a test shot or two to ensure the system is calibrated
  • if you wish to use HSS or hypersync flash when you choose a fast shutter speed, ensure the master flash is set to HSS mode
  • NB. setting the flash exposure compensation on the flash will be ignored – use the camera to do this
  • now you are ready to go

Now some gotchas:

  • the system will ONLY work with certain flashes and cameras (EXCLUDES Canon5DMII at present), and only for the one brand (at this stage only Canon or Nikon will be offered), and the units need to be the same frequency (a US unit will not trigger a EU European/Australian unit)
  • RF noise interference is a major problem with certain speedlights including the 580EXII which reduces range and may cause failure of trigger or inconsistent results when RF is borderline such as people walking between transmitter and receiver, usage near the ground, etc, although steps can be taken to improve this – eg. RF noise filtering material wrapped around the speedlight and earthed to the hotshoe
  • you need a laptop to configure the channels and various other settings
    • imagine turning up and someone else is also using a PocketWizard which happens to be the same channel you are using – you may be lucky and will have pre-programmed C2 to a different channel, but if both are being used by other photographers, you will need to resort to your laptop to program in a new channel, then have the transmitter “teach” the remotes
    • if you decide to use your Pocket Wizard on your non-Canon camera (in manual mode only of course as TTL and hypersync are not possible), you will need the laptop to program this and then program it again when you want to go back to TTL mode on your Canon
    • if you want to use the FlexTT5 to trigger your camera shutter but not fire any flashes, you need the laptop to set BottomShoe = disabled
    • if you want to tune hypersync to work accurately with your camera and flash, you will need the laptop to adjust the hypersync setting – and do it again each time you change to a different camera
  • as mentioned earlier, there are a number of Canon flash functions NOT available at present:
    • flash exposure bracketing
    • modeling light
    • stroboscopic flash
    • rear curtain sync
    • flash exposure compensation on the speedlight – must use camera setting
    • some camera menu settings for flash do not function
  • you cannot trigger camera motor drive and trigger flash at same time, but you can trigger single shots and flash at same time
  • if you wish to use manual flash instead of ETTL, you need to set both the master flash and the remote speedlights to MANUAL not ETTL mode
  • if you decide to not use the PocketWizard and resort to normal Canon infrared wireless mode, you will need to configure each remote speedlight to SLAVE mode and set the appropriate slave group (A,B,C)
  • use of non-Canon flashes requires one FlexTT5 or PlusII per flash – cannot sync multiple flashes as risk of voltage damage – although can trigger other manual flashes via optical triggers, but then these will be fired in TTL pre-flash when used in conjunction with Canon TTL flash modes
  • there is a risk that if the camera manufacturer substantially changes their flash system in new models of cameras or flashes, then the FlexTT5 and MiniTT1 will become useless for new models if firmware upgrades are not able to manage the changes
  • to resolve the RF noise interference issues, it may require new version of the units with RF noise filtering circuitry – a firmware solution is unlikely to help
  • if you want to use a Ring Flash for shadow-less fill-in flash in TTL modewith a remote key light, then you need to resort to either:
    • MiniTT1 or FlexTT5 with either ST-E2 or speedlight on camera to control ratio flash + FlexTT5 attached to Canon Ring Flash on a separate flash holder attached
    • MiniTT1 or FlexTT5 with speedlight and Orbis ring flash attachment or similar
  • it does not have some functions that are available with a Pocket Wizard Multimax radio trigger such as:
    • intervalometer
    • RF noise meter
    • 4th zone instead of just A,B,C
    • ability to disable a zone from the transmitter
    • rear curtain sync
    • multi-pop shooting – allows your flash to be fired up to 10,000 times on the same exposure while waiting for a user programmed recycle time, from 1/100th to 10 minutes, between pops
    • SpeedCycler – Perform sequential triggering for up to 4 cameras or 4 electronic flash units.
    • Lag Time Equalizer Software – Measures reaction time between camera trigger signal to shutter firing. This lag time is used to synchronize single or multiple cameras and strobes to fire in unison, with measurable accuracy to 1/10,000th of a second.
    • no need for laptop to change settings on the Multimax

What I am trying to work out now, is if this system can be mounted on a Westcott Magic Slipper Adapter and thus allow mounting of Canon speedlights to studio soft boxes and beauty dishes in a more stable manner.

Would you be better off buying the new PX series of Radio Poppers?

  • you would miss out on some nice features such as hypersync, ability to trigger the camera shutter remotely, ability to not have a flash or ST-E2 on the camera which may free up a flash (but no ratio control), ability to use on any camera or flash in manual mode and the features of the Multimax
  • but you will retain all Canon or Nikon functionality and potentially have better reliability and range as the RadioPoppers do not appear to have the same RF issues
  • and you could use the same RadioPopper units for both Canon and Nikon and with less incompatibility issues
  • you can manually dial in power output of up to 3 groups of certain studio flashes such as Alien Bees – although FlexTT5 can control new Bowens Gemini R units with optional PW module
  • and you don’t need a laptop to program the channels
  • there is no obvious reason why the RadioPopper PX’s could not get a firmware update that would allow other camera brand functionality such as Olympus
  • BUT the RadioPopper PX has some of its own issues:
    • RadioPopper PX is only compatible with Canon ST-E2, 550EX, 580EX, 580EXII, 420EX, 430EX, Nikon SB-900, SB-800, SB-600 and SU-800 (and maybe similar flashes) and has a battery life of 25hrs not 60hrs as for FlexTT5
    • the units need to be mounted to the flash units in a way that their optical sensor detects the flash IR signal
    • PX receiver must be mounted so that the IR sensor on the slave flash must not be able to “see” the IR signals of the master flash

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