Last year, I was selected as a beta tester for the new Nikon PocketWizard system, but I've been waiting until now to get my hands on the production models. Was it worth the wait?
Pricing and Specs: Pocket Wizard MiniTT1 and FlexTT5.
First, a little background
Sometimes the world lights itself exquisitely, either through sunlight of the perfect color or angle, or via man-made ambient lighting that perfectly suits the mood of a photo.
But sometimes the light is terrible, and that's why I like having a good flash system in my kit. As a wedding photographer whose blood is still mostly newspaper ink, I need a system that's going to work consistently and quickly, letting me put my lights where I want and be sure they're going to do what I want them to.
The industry standard for remote triggers are PocketWizards, and generally for good reason: They've been serving photographers reliably for years. But, in my experience, they were far from perfect. They seemed to be needlessly large and not solidly constructed,, sticking out of your camera on a plastic mount, just begging to hit something and get torn in half while you're walking around. Even worse, they relied on PC sync cables, which were cumbersome at best, and unreliable at worst. It doesn't matter if you have the best transmitters in the business if you can't get the cables to work without gaffer tape.
Generally, I would stick to Nikon's CLS system driven by the SU-800. Even though it has much less range and requires line-of-site, the system is extremely consistent. Once you learn the ins and outs of the system, you'll always know whether or not your flashes will fire beforehand. Also, by working with the proprietary Auto-FP system, I could get the flashes to work at any shutter speed the camera offers. With the old PocketWizards, I was stuck at a max of 1/250th of a second, meaning if I was working outdoors in the sun, I had to either use neutral density filters or stop my lens way down to small apertures, limiting my control over depth-of-field.
Enter the new PocketWizard system
Then PocketWizard released its new system, and everything changed. The FlexTT5 and MiniTT1 were made to communicate directly through the camera's or flash's hot-shoe, meaning no more dastardly PC-sync cables. And they would fully communicate the proprietary information that allowed flashes to work at higher shutter speeds! Happy days!
Except for one thing: They were only released for the Canon system. This seemed a bit strange, as most true devotees of flash have generally been on the Nikon system, with even Canon shooters often using Nikon flashes for off-camera work. It was annoying at first, but soon seemed a blessing in disguise. The Canon users reported problems getting them to work consistently. It seemed it might be better for the engineers to take their time and get the Nikon system practically perfect before release. And they did take their time. How do they fare?
The first thing you notice is a break-up of the family tree. The last generation of PocketWizards were transceivers, meaning you could put them on your camera to send signals or on your flash to receive them, giving you total interchangeability. The FlexTT5 are still interchangeable transceivers and are still a bit large, though they have a flatter profile and a hot-shoe on each side, making them easier to mount on a stand. But the new MiniTT1 give up some functionality—they work as transmitters only—for a much smaller profile:
Left: MiniTT1; Right: older PocketWizard transceiver
It's much easier to keep this on your camera and forget about it—it even has another hot shoe on top, making it much easier to use a flash on camera as a fill light with another one triggered remotely. The only problem of functionality is that to achieve that tiny profile it uses watch batteries instead of AAs. I carry around AAs by the truckload, so anything that doesn't use them is a potential headache in the field.
Also, one remaining winning factor for the Nikon CLS system is the ability to quickly change power levels from your camera, instead of having to adjust each flash. If I'm working REALLY quickly I'll probably stick to the SU-800.
But now the big question, for those scared off by Canon-user reviews:
Does it work?
Yes. Yes! Let me say this very clearly: I cannot get them to fail.
I make everything fail. I take hundreds of thousands of photos a year; I don't trust any of my gear to work the way I want it to, and I've broken just about everything I own at least once. The old, "famously reliable" PockWizards failed on me frequently, but these just work, even in high-speed sync mode. Let me show you an extremely uninteresting photo that tells an uninteresting story:
What's going on here? This is an SB-900 firing out a window of a building, and lighting the crud of NYC in another window. There is no line-of-sight. In between the camera and the flash is a ream of paper blocking the sensor and two brick walls. And it was firing at 1/8000th of a second.
They work. Here are some more examples from the field. I was faced with a very strong backlight—sun reflecting on the water right at me. But I didn't want to stop down to f/22-land, so that meant I had to close up my shutter to 1/8000th of a second. Normally I would use the SU-800, but it struggles a bit in the sunlight—my assistant has to have the sensor uncovered and facing me, and I usually have to be using a shorter focal length so I can be close enough to trigger it. But with the PocketWizard, I could use the 70-200 and not care:
Or I could go wider, with the 35mm f/1.4 NK3514U. Staying at 1/8000th of a second, to kill the sun I only had to go to f/4.5, not f/22 (which that lens can't even go to).
Is this for everyone? Probably not. It's expensive—to fire three flashes with Nikon CLS, you could do that for free or with a $250 SU-800, but here you'd need the mini transmitter plus three transceivers, at more than $850. But it works. It really does. And if it can save me frustration on shoot after shoot? Well, I think I just convinced myself to buy two more FlexTT5's.
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