Nikon Pocketwizard Flex TT5 and Mini TT1


Hello Everyone!  Happy New Year to you all.

To follow up Marc Lebryk’s excellent post on the Beta Pocketwizard units for Nikon, i wanted to tell you a little about my own use of the units and how they performed under my testing.  For my day to day purpose of standard flash use, the SU-800 and CLS handles almost all my needs.  My testing of these units was all about freezing motion with extremely fast shutter speeds.  One of the greatest features of the Flex/Mini units is what Pocketwizard terms Hypersyncing.  This feature, much like the Nikon AutoFP capability, allows a shooter to use faster than normal sync speeds (shutter speeds) with high powered flash output.

My D700 allows me to sync the flashes (in normal usage) a 1/250th of a second shutter speed.  AutoFP allows the flashes to sync and properly expose the image at faster shutter speeds by pulsing the flash instead of using one steady burst of light.  I have written about this feature before. The problem with using AutoFP with moving subject matter is the pulse flash.  Because the flash pulses numerous times during the length of the exposure, you cant perfectly freeze the subject.  The light emission of the flash hits the subject each time while the subject is in different places, positions, etc.

Hypersync picks up where AutoFP leaves off.  Pocketwizard re-engineered the communication between the camera and flash to make use of some power loss (initial discharge of the flash capacitor happens before the exposure).  By doing this they essentially milk the flash for all it’s worth and enable faster than normal sync speeds by as much as 1.5 stops.  This means through normal flash usage (1/250th sync speed without pocketwizard) your camera will be able to sync at approximately 1/500th-1/700th of a second.  This is all depending on which camera and flash you use.  Thankfully, Pocketwizard delivers a fairly easy to use software utility that allows the user to fine tune the offset for their own system.  They even went so far as to test it all for you in various camera and flash combinations and publish the info on their website. Unfortunately, the info is only currently available for the Canon Flex and Mini units.  Hopefully pocketwizard will update this info soon as the Nikon units are soon to start shipping in the US and have already begun shipping overseas.

So, now that ive used a LOT of technical jargon (its like reading the manuals for your gear; boring, but extremely important), here’s the simple breakdown of what these little radio triggers will bring to your photography.

A faster shutter speed brings two VERY important aspects to shooting pictures when using flashes; control of ambient light and freezing subject motion.  Especially when you want to do both of these things simultaneously.  AutoFP allows for the efficient control of ambient light with non-moving (or slowly moving) subjects.  It also allows for the use of wide open apertures and therefore faster shutter speeds.  When shooting with a fixed sync speed of 1/250th, the control of ambient light falls to your aperture.  The problem of using your aperture to reduce the exposure value of the ambient light is it severely taxes your flashes.  Each stop down reduces the capable flash distance drastically.  So, bottom line is AutoFP (Canon calls it High Speed Sync or HSS) is a wonderful thing.  Now bring in the action, like in this example:

This image was photographed at f/4.5 @ 1/1000th @ 800ISO.  Two SB-800 speedlights were used.  The flash to the subject’s left was in a Photo Basics 17×50″ Strip Bank with the interior baffle removed.  The 2nd flash was opposite bouncing into a white wall and zoomed to ~85mm to control the spill and produce a higher contrast effect.  Pocketwizards Hypersync allowed me to shoot this image at 1/1000th of a second and completely freeze the subject.  The flashes were set in Manual mode at around 1/2 to 1/4 power during the entire shoot.  After all my years of shooting studio flashes and controlled studio environments i am literally blown away by the performance of today’s small flashes.  When coupling speedlights with amazing accessories like pocketwizards, my need for big lights is further diminished.  I can also go completely portable with this setup and not have to worry about finding an AC outlet or drag out 50′ extension cords.   The simplistic use of walking into a location and being setup and ready to shoot within just a few minutes is almost priceless to me. 

To the right is a detail shot cropped from the first image.  Note the detail rendered in the hair.

Below is a detail from the dress.  Note the texture of the cloth and the pattern in the clothing.  Fine details are capable of being rendered because of the extremely fast shutter speed used to capture the image.

You could certainly argue that similar images could be photographed with large high-powered studio strobes and smaller apertures and normal sync speeds.  This is accomplished using extremely short flash duration to freeze motion in dimly lit environments.  These lights are neither lightweight, portable nor (relatively speaking) inexpensive.  They might be portable and set you back a few months’ paychecks or bulky and heavy but more affordable.  Shooting speedlights with accessories like the TT5 and TT1 allow for a great entry level price point into high quality lighting with the performance and portability too.

Lighting on location is something i do a quite often.  So i was very keen on using the Pocketwizards out and about.  I started rock climbing early fall a year ago and have become increasingly interested in new, stylized ways to shoot this fast paced and technical sport.  When i learned i would have access to beta test these units, ideas for images immediately popped into my mind.  Shooting in a climbing gym requires staying out of everyone’s way.  Speedlights were certainly the best way to go for the small size and small support gear needed.  The ambient light level in the gym isnt exactly full on sunshine, but its enough that would create a muddy mix of light and disallow for shaping the light and showing life-like dimensions of the climbers and their surroundings.  I clamped a single SB800 to a half-wall using a Manfrotto Justin Clamp and also had it plugged into a SD8a (the SD9 is available for the current model SB900)  power pack for faster recycling from shot to shot.

Working in a large open environment is a place where Nikon’s CLS control from a SU800 starts to fail.  Triggering off camera lights though line of sight transmission works great in smaller venues with the ability of bouncing light off of walls, floors and ceilings.  In a situation where the position of your lights relative to camera position arent able to be triggered though line of sight, a radio trigger is down right necessary.  Again, when you want to freeze the motion and control the ambient level, a fast shutter speed makes your life much easier. 

The image to the left shows a climber frozen in midair as he propels himself from one hold to another.  The only ambient light still viewable is from the fluorescent banks on the ceiling.  These lights provide a strong leading line through the image  and help move the viewer’s eye.  Not that i would have been able to completely kill off the ambient light from them, but i chose to leave them as dominant in the image for the purpose of compositional aid.

Left:  f/8.0 @ 1/1000th @ 3200ISO

Below: f/6.3 @ 1/1000th @ 1600ISO

Yes, she climbs and dances.   For the image on the left a single SB800 through a 45″ umbrella on a Fotorosa Multifunction Boom/Stand and bare flash SB800 zoomed to 105mm and snooted were used.  The umbrella light was a soft fill about 1.5 stops over the ambient light value and was elevated to the climbers position on the stand.  The bare flash creates a nice rim light from behind and under the subject.  This creates separation from the darker background and also bounces a bit of fill light off the light colored walls to help illuminate the right side of her face.  The image below uses only the umbrella light.  Exposure settings were exactly the same for both images: f/5.6 @ 1/640th @ 3200ISO.  Left: shot @ 48mm at nearly closest focus distance on the Nikon 24-70G lens and Below: shot @ 70mm from approximately 10 feet.  This shows how changing your distance to the subject as well as your focal distance inherently adjusts the overall look of an image.  Adding/removing one light can create an entirely new style to an image without making any exposure adjustments.

f/6.3 @ 1/1000th @ 3200ISO

Above, the chalk is frozen mid-air with a very fast shutter speed.  One SB800 boomed over the subject and shot through a 45″ umbrella.  I asked the subject to clap his hands together at full speed.  All the light you see in this image is from the speedlight.  Using the exposure settings i was able to completely kill off all ambient light from the florescent banks above.

I had a few similar issues to what Marc experienced and completely expect the final production units to be in great working order.  Hardware and Firmware adjustments were being made even as i had the units in my possession.  I look forward to having them in my bag of tricks.

For you Canon shooters, the word from Pocketwizard is that they have, with the last few firmware updates, resolved the minor remaining connectivity issues caused by the RF emission of the Canon Speedlites.  Make sure you are up to date on all your gear’s firmware and get to shooting with these marvelous pieces of technology.  Pocketwizard has been the professionals choice for nearly 20 years and has been my choice of radio triggers since the late 90’s.  Reliability and compatibility is what the Pocketwizard brand means to me.  Amazingly, even today’s newest and most advanced triggers are compatible all the way back to the original Wizard the company first produced.  Check out their story.

Dont forget to preorder your Flex TT5 and Mini TT1