Patrick and I have been in contact with LPA Design (the company that makes Pocket Wizards) for a few months now and we were excited to hear that they would be sending us a few beta units of the unreleased Nikon FlexTT5, MiniTT1, and AC3 units. Our website is not about reviewing gear but we did want to push these units. I called up Sigma and asked for a loaner 800mm 5.6 lens and Patrick planned a shoot that involved every SB-800 and SB-80DX that we own. Check out the video below, and then scroll down to read detailed info about the shoots and check out the high res images. If you enjoy this content, follow us on Twitter to stay updated when our next video is released.
The 800mm Portrait By Lee Morris
When I first heard that we were getting these units I knew that I wanted to shoot with a huge telephoto lens. The main thing that Pocket Wizard has going for it over other triggers is their reliability and their range. Before the shoot, Patrick and I went outside and tested the FlexTT5 VS a Plus II Transceiver in terms of range. At the time of the test we did find that the new units were not quite as reliable as the older Plus II's and we had a few other quirky issues. After the test we learned that there was a firmware update and it seemed to fix many of the issues. We didn't have enough time to run the test again before the shoot but since we did not have the actual shipping units anyway (we had older betas) running full tests would not be fair at this point.
High Speed Sync (FP mode)
Another key feature that these units have that standard Wizards do not have is the ability to sync strobes above your cameras highest sync speed. I had hoped to shoot in very bright direct sunlight at 1/8000th of a second and light my model with a single SB-800. What we found, however, was that even though you can sync beyond your sync speed, you are loosing flash power as you raise your shutter speed. We did not run precise tests of this but we learned that you seemed to get flash power proportional to ambient light as we went up in shutter speed. For example; normally if you shoot anywhere from one second up to 1/250th of a second, your flash will effect the image in the same way (a full power flash is full power). Once you go into high speed sync mode, however, your flash power decreases as the shutter duration gets quicker. This means that a full power flash at 1/500th of a second is more powerful than a flash at 1/2000th of a second because not all of the flash is reaching the sensor. Long story short, it appeared to us that you are not actually gaining flash power by raising the shutter speed above 250th so it wasn't worth doing for my shoot.
As a side note, these new PW units do have a mode called Hyper Sync which falls between shutter speeds of 1/250 and about 1/500 that DOES give you one extra stop of flash power that isn't using the FP mode I just described. It's pretty complicated to explain but it does work and is most effective with 2.8 lenses so I wasn't able to use it in my shoot with the Sigma lens since it was a 5.6 lens.
Getting The Lens
When I called Sigma and asked for a lens I actually requested the 200-500mm 2.8 lens. It's a 30k lens so I knew it was a long shot. I was really excited when they said they would let me use it for the video but a few days later I got a call that they only had a Canon mount version available. Instead, they sent me an 800mm 5.6 which is still quite a lens.
We got out to the park 1 hour before the model was due to show up to scout out the best location. It was much harder than I thought it would be because we were actually looking for backgrounds that were a quarter mile away that would look good extremely out of focus. We would pick a spot that we thought would work but when we took a test shot we would notice that the bokeh was ugly or wouldn't register as we would have imagined. We finally settled on an awkward location that required the model to stand on a bench and I was forced to shoot in between a tree and a canon. As the sun went down we were able to move to a much simpler location where I could take full body vertical images. I love the full body shots but I love how different the bokeh looks in the first horizontal images.
For my test the pocket wizards did very well firing about 95% of the time at about 200ft. For me, being the simple type of guy that I am, I am most excited that these units lock directly onto the hot shoe of my off camera flash. Up until now, I have had to use sync cords which are the most unreliable piece of gear that I own. Shooting in "auto TTL" is something that I will try to work into my wedding photography in the future but for commercial gigs I am going to keep everything manual. Shooting in high speed sync mode only seems useful to me if you want to take a shallow depth of field shot in bright sunlight and so at this point, I don't think I will use that feature much.
The 13 Flash Dunk By Patrick Hall
When the guys at Pocket Wizard sent us the new Flex beta units for Nikon I was really excited. I rely on the Pocket Wizard Plus II units for every single wedding event I shoot as well as every commercial shoot. There are several features that the new Flex and Mini systems have that really sparked my interest including being able to control my remote flashes from my camera, gaining auto TTL over long distances, and even being able to squeeze out an extra stop of power with the new Hyper Sync Mode. But since I have already invested a lot of money into my own arsenal of Pocket Wizard Plus II units, I wanted to make sure the new Flex units were completely compatible with the previous models I already owned.
Since Lee was going to test the range, I wanted to test their compatibility with older units. One idea I have had for a long time was to photograph a sports player at the peak of their action with a lot of flashes going off in the background. This idea could be the perfect shoot to test both units together. The setup was simple yet admittedly pretty ridiculous: a couple of soft light sources triggered with the new Flex units lighting my subject from camera right, and about 10 flashes being triggered with Plus II units in the distance to make up the background. With this setup I could test both the TTL and manual remote control features of the Flex system while still checking to see that my manually set background flashes were being fired through the Plus II triggers.
Local model, designer, and basketball player Chelsie Ravenell was excited to donate his skills to the project and we gathered the Fstoppers crew to help build a studio set within a local basketball court. Lee and I own 13 on camera flashes between the 2 of us and I didn't want to waste one by putting it on top of my camera so I wound up using the soon to be released Pocket Wizard AC3 zone controller which essentially acts like an SB900 or SU800 in commander mode without having to have one actually mounted on my camera's hotshoe. The AC3 worked great and allowed me to switch off my key lights when testing the background as well as set the key lights to auto and manual when it was time to lock in the exposure on Chelsie. The other issue I had was trying to build a perfect exposure within the camera when so many lights were being triggered. Placing SB800s near the bleachers and firing directly towards the camera was inadvertently spilling light onto the background and not giving me the dark background exposure I envisioned. So my solution was simply to expose Chelsie as well as I could, knock out 95% of the gym's ambient light, and position the background lights so they would still appear to be coming from the crowd and allowing me to control the level of their spill later in photoshop.
How Did They Work
If I were shooting in manual mode with the older Wizards it would have been much easier because I would have simply set all of my flashes to SU-4 (slave mode) and they would have all fired when they saw another flash. Since I was controlling the flash from the new units this would not work because the of the pre-flashes that go along with Nikons iTTL system. I really thought the Pocket Wizards would have reliability issues because one, we were using 13 units, and two they were all placed near each other in a small gym. I've learned the hard way many times that the more complex you make your photoshoot the more chances you allow for something to fail. Surprisingly the new Flex units fired about 95% of the time and the background lights fired about 70% of the time. This is not bad for a set of beta units! The main issue with the older units was probably a bad sync cable since a single flash would usually not fire every now and then. Obviously there would be very few times that you would need to fire 13 flashes so I view this test to be a huge success considering how complex the setup ultimately was. The final 3 or 4 frames were retouched in Photoshop by the talented Jaymes Poudrier.
I'm really excited to know that my large investment in Plus II units has not become obsolete and that the Flex (and mini) units work exactly as designed by the guys at Pocket Wizard. These units are a bit expensive but the technology is the best out there. I can only imagine the possibilities these new triggers offer for other shoots where your control of light isn't so well calculated like at wedding receptions, live events, or fast moving sports. I really think the auto TTL feature will shine in spontaneous situations where as on my shoot I primarily controlled the flash output remotely in manual. Since I'm a Charleston wedding photographer, I can't wait to take these units out and use them at my receptions...more on that later :)
For all of you that prefer Youtube here is another version of the same video.
If you have any specific questions about either shoot please feel free to leave them in the comment section below and we will personally answer them. We hope that you guys had as much fun watching this video as we did creating it.
Written by Patrick Hall. Patrick Hall is the cofounder of Fstoppers.com and a wedding photographer in Charleston, South Carolina