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Getting photographs right in the camera is a combination of using your imagination, creativity, art, and technique. In Part 3 of this three part series, we focus on shooting strategy and the role of...
Using off-camera flash can be one of those mysteries that beguile the average user. Even though TTL flash makes it far easier than it used to be to shoot with flash, once the flash comes off the camera, it’s much harder to control. It’s particularly difficult with equipment that isn’t designed for remote management, like most flash with a shoe-based TTL system.
The PocketWizard Flex TT5/Mini TT1 radio slave combination can fix all that. With the Canon 580EXII that I own, I was instantly controlling flash off my camera, without bothering to read the manual. In fact, all I had to do was figure out which of the two units went on the camera and which went on the stand with the flash. As soon as that was done, I could start shooting. So I put the smaller TT1 on my Canon EOS 1DMkIII and the TT5 under my flash.
Fig 5 - Sam
The first setup I tried was before I looked at the manual. Really! I thought I would just stick the flash on a stand, set up everything as if I was using the flash on-camera, and just snap a few. I put the flash on a regular stand, shooting into an umbrella, with the FlexTT5 underneath the flash. I put the TT1 in the camera hot shoe and set up the flash using the camera menus, which is what I usually do since it has more information (on the Canon flash, the CF settings show up by number on the flash and by description on the camera.) I put the stand as far away from a wall as I can at home, which is not really far enough, and cajoled the local teenage son into standing in front of me for a few minutes. I started shooting and it just worked. The first shot wasn’t right, and I later read the manual and found that it can be a test flash. After that, I just cooked along messing with the settings from the camera and – no problems. You can see the results in Fig. 1.
This is not what I would buy the PocketWizard setup for. I can shoot with studio flash indoors and have control from the power pack. And it’s pretty simple to control everything, even with the cheap Chinese slaves you can buy on eBay or from other sources. There’s no worry in the studio about interference or about changing ambient light or about changing flash settings. But this is what points to the reason for getting the PocketWizards.
Take it Outside
Put simply, there is no easier way to get perfect shots outdoors with a small flash setup. TTL works exactly the same as it does with on-camera flash. It’s that simple. And, unlike the limited channel cheap studio slaves, there are lots of channels to avoid interference with other photographers. Since I sometimes shoot sports events with other photographers present, this is a real benefit.
It doesn’t stop with support for TTL. It includes support for high speed sync, which I find invaluable. To shoot with a wide aperture in sunlight and use a flash to light the subject, it’s often essential to use high speed sync. I almost always keep everything set up for it when outdoors. It worked exactly as it should with the PocketWizard setup. And you can move the stand, move the subject, change the compensation, all from the camera and you don’t have to touch the flash. This is where this setup shines.
So the second time I used the PocketWizards, I took them to a San Francisco park where some friends were filming. I’ve been the stills shooter for them, but it’s usually not too formal.
Because I wanted to shoot wide open in a daylight situation, I set up the flash for high speed sync, put it on the Flex TT5 on a light stand near me but high, aimed directly at the subjects, and fired away, once again without having to check until I got a good exposure. Figs 2 and 3 are from that shoot, and I have to say that I’m incredibly pleased with the results, especially on Fig 2.
Fig 2 - Sandi
Back to indoors. I had to do some cast portraits. I set up the stand and umbrella in a rehearsal studio and had the performers walk in and did some quick shots. I didn’t have a lot of time, but I did need to modify the light depending on the role they played, and this was super-easy with flash compensation on the camera. Once again, there isn’t much to say, everything just worked, even in a deliberately low key situation. See Figs 4 and 5.
Then I started worrying about the batteries. I had never turned the units off, I don’t usually turn off either my camera or flash because they power down automatically. Back to the manual after the shoot, and whew! The PocketWizards power down also. Glad I found that out, although I finally did have a battery fail, and it didn’t take as long to fail as I would have liked. Unfortunately, it was the battery in the MiniTT1, which is a CR2450 or CR2354. I couldn’t run out and just find one, it turned out, so I didn’t do quite as much testing as planned.
A Real Test
Back outdoors, I thought I would try the PocketWizards in a variety of lighting situations, changing settings as little as possible. I got Kiki, a terrific model, to meet me at an industrial location at dusk. I started just shooting her against a wall with no direct sunlight, shot directly into the sun, and then used the setting sun and the flash on her. I pretty much let the camera go where it wanted to go, keeping the aperture in a small range while using Av mode and letting the shutter speed change. See Figs 6 and 7, I did have to play with the exposure for the shots backlit by the sun, but was able to get some mood shots that took advantage of the sun. Fig 8 shows how well the lighting setup worked in the backlit situation.
I had one more test, and during this test, the transmitter stopped working for about five minutes. I’m not sure why, it may have been the battery beginning to fail. I had to do more portraits for a production company and did these outside at dusk. Once the setup started working again, I shot about twenty people in a matter of minutes. It was a production situation, and the PocketWizards were a breeze. See Fig 9.
What can I say about the Flex TT5/Mini TT1 combination that summarizes my experience? It just works. It is at its best when used with ambient light situations, where changing light and lots of ambient light create a situation where most radio slaves won’t work. Best of all, the PocketWizards can be set up and used without a lot of reading. One thing to note is that I didn’t test every feature – I only have one 580EXII and would like to have tried the system with multiple flashes. Since I plan on buying a complete set, and maybe another flash, I will add to this review in the future.
Where to Buy
Pocket Wizard FlexTT5 Transceiver [Canon], (compare prices). Want a second opinion? Here’s Josh Root’s:"In my previous life as an “extreme sports” editorial photographer, there were a couple pieces of equipment that I lived and died by. My Pocket Wizard radio slaves were at the top of that list. I used them almost every single time I went out shooting. My radio slaves had a hard life. They were knocked over, ran over, stepped on, had batteries explode in them, and generally weren’t babied. But 10 years later, they are still in my camera bag and have enjoyed a second and third life through my changing professional directions. The Flex TT5 is the current day evolution of my long lived Pocket Wizards. A transceiver that can receive or transmit, the Flex TT5 can control Canon or Nikon TTL systems as well. Something that my older radio slaves could only dream of doing. I’m always a fan of saving a buck and going with a cheaper alternative. But Pocket Wizard radio slaves are one of those products that I always recommend going with the real deal, when you can get a decade out of a product despite significant abuse, it’s hard to recommend anything else." -Josh Root