Pocket Wizard vs. Nikon CLS: Which is Best For You?

The subject of Pocket Wizard vs. Nikon's "Creative Lighting System" (CLS) is one of those Ford-vs-Chevy, Yankees-vs-Red Sox things that photographers tend to take a little personally.

At least that's the sense I get when I read my e-mails on the subject.

You'd think I was talking about George Bush's Iraq policy or even the ethical ramifications of microstock.

So, at the risk of maxing out my e-mail inbox - and I have a 1-gig capacity - I am going to stupidly wade into this subject with a full article.

But first, this important message from the Strobist corporate legal team:

Terms of Acceptance
Upon being granted permission to read the rest of this article I agree to hold harmless The writer of said article even though his opinions may differ markedly from my own.

I agree not to flame him via e-mail, stalk and/or call him at all hours of the night, pour herbicide on his front lawn, toilet paper his admittedly modest house, say vile things about him at my next camera club meeting, burn him in effigy, attend his next seminar with the sole intention of throwing rotting fruit at him or fart in his general direction.

• I do not agree to these terms.

• I agree to these terms. (Keep reading.)


Okay, now that we've ditched those guys, here we go.

First, I do realize that there are other ways of synching flashes. You can use PC cords, (home-made or store-bought) other models of radio remotes (including those of several other leading manufacturers, and the "eBay remotes" which have become quite popular with the Strobist folks.

Optical slaves are another method for triggering flashes. As is any combination of the above. But this article is considering the CLS vs PW comparison. Articles on the other methods, including specific comparisons, will appear at a later date. Assuming I survive this one.

I am using the CLS as the example for this comparison, but the features and cost are similar to Canon's equivalent setup.

Basic Description

Nikon CLS is a wireless system that allows line-of-sight, limited range wireless control of remote flashes. A single flash can be controlled, as can several banks of multiple flashes. Or any number in between.

TTL control can be maintained wirelessly, and adjusted to over- or under-compensate exposure. Wireless manual control is also available, as is the ability to change the power on the flashes remotely.

To use these systems, you must purchase a specific model camera and flash(es).

Pocket Wizards are a third-party, digital wireless system. They work with any flash that can be triggered via an external jack. An adapter exists to trigger shoe-mount flashes.

The range, which varies depending on the model, is the longest in the industry - starting at 1,600 feet.

Tale of the Tape


Okay, we'll start with a biggie. For comparison purposes, I will consider an SB-800, an SB-600 and a Pocket Wizard-equipped vintage Nikon SB speedlight.

Assuming $70 for an SB-24, -25, etc. and $185 (street) for a Pocket Wizard, the SB-600/CLS system is a winner, assuming you already have a camera with a built-in flash that is capable of employing the CLS system. Step up to an SB-800 and the edge goes to PW.

Winner: Depends on the gear.


The ability to work in TTL and vary flash settings remotely are not addressed by Pocket Wizard. That said, most remote light shooting is static and set-and-forget, meaning that the lights work fine in constant, manual settings without the need for adjustment. (Hey, you are almost certainly using stationary light stands.)

CLS wins, hands down.


Usable range, IMO, is one of the biggest advantages of the Pocket Wizards.

Even the "entry level" Pocket Wizards have a range of 1,600 feet. That's about a third of a mile. Is it overkill? Maybe. Do you use them like that very often? No way. But that kind of capability converts to rock-solid reliability at more common distances.

Direction is not limited for Pocket Wizards.

The Nikon CLS has a stated range of 33 feet. But that 33 feet also limited in direction, as flash placement is supposed to be within 30 degrees of the shooting axis. That's not a lot of room for off-axis light. And the ability to spread those lighting angles out is kind of the whole purpose of this stuff.

This is a limitation that, while workable, tends to make you to alter your shooting style to fit the infra-red system's line-of-sight needs.

In my experiments with CLS, I found myself trying to think of lighting schemes which would fit the needs of the system. Conversely, working with PW's frequently causes me to dream up some kind of an extreme placement just because I can.

Is that a valid reason to try a new lighting idea?

My theory is that anything is a valid reason to try a new lighting scheme.

Winner: Pocket Wizard.


I have worked with Pocket Wizards for many years, dating back to their earliest models. Those units, by the way, are compatible with current designs. They are among the most reliable, durable and energy efficient pieces of gear I have every used.

I can only assume that the Nikon and Canon systems are as reliable as the rest of their camera systems. Which is to say, pretty darn reliable.

Winner: A tie, for the sake of argument.


The infra-red systems are designed to work with specific flashes and camera. They may or may not be completely forward compatible with future models.

CLS and other proprietary systems are always vulnerable to the Next Big Thing. After all, the major camera manufacturers have a vested interest in getting you to trade up. If you are relying on an IR-based, brand-specific system, be prepared to switch out wholesale if the new capabilities and/or backwards compatibility dictates.

Pocket Wizard has thus far embraced a philosophy of full, backward compatibility with all of the older models, while adding features and range to the new ones. They will safely and reliably synch anything with a 60v-or-less trigger voltage. Which are just about any current (and likely future, now that we are digital) flashes on the market - from speedlights to big studio units.

It should be noted that some very old flash gear has synch voltages in the triple-digit range, which can damage a PW receiver. But they would also fry your DSLR if you hoked them up directly.

Compatibility winner: Pocket Wizard.

Remote Camera Operation:

All of that flash synching range offered by Pocket Wizard is also available to you as a remote camera firing capability, providing you purchase the required cord. For instance, with enough PW's you can remotely fire a camera on one channel that, in turn, remotely synchs its own strobes on another channel.

The camera positions that you can enjoy with this capability is limited only by your imagination, secure mounting skills and nerve. (And whether or not you use company-suppplied equipment, if you get my drift.)

Many "how'd they DO that" photos are shot in this manner. And just having the capability frequently prompts you to wonder how you can use it.

When the race horse "Barbaro" broke from the gate early in the 2006 Preakness Stakes, later to tragically break his leg on the official start of the Triple Crown race, I was positioned about 75 yards ahead of the gate with camera "A." Attached to my hot shoe was a PW transmitter, triggered by the camera. Clamped on the top of the starting gate was a PW-receiver-equipped camera "B."

On both fateful starts, I had 8 frames - from two different angles - before the horse had completely emerged from the gate. All from pressing the shutter on camera "A."

Did I know it would work? Yes. Because I had tested it on the previous races that afternoon at ranges far exceeding the working distance for the Preakness race - with a 100% success rate.

The proprietary systems' IR "TV remote control" versions of this capability cannot hope to compete. The PW hardware serves both purposes - synching and remotes.

Winner: Pocket Wizard. No contest.

Which is Best For You?

Which for you? The answer depends on several variables.

First of all, a synch cord or the cheaper, "eBay remotes" might better suit your wallet.

But if choosing between Pocket Wizards and Nikon CLS, you could go either way based on your needs. Some examples:


If you already have the CLS-enabled gear, by all means go with it. Play within its limitations and enjoy the fun of wireless, off-camera flash. When the time comes to upgrade, look to keep your IR abilities available with your new gear choices. Bear in mind that you are marrying into a system/format with this choice. But Nikon and Canon are both marriage-worthy brands.

If you are looking for a system that will not impose limitations on you -- and will prompt you to push the limits -- consider Pocket Wizards. If you are on the bubble, ask as many Pocket Wizard owners as you can find what they think about their remotes. And ask CLS/eTTL types what they like and do not like about their systems.


I would go with CLS if your gear already supports it. If not, go with a Gadget Infinity type of remote for starters if you are short on cash. Or just make a couple of long, heavy-duty synch cords and save your money for light. You can postpone the decision until later, when the checks start coming in.

Don't try to compete with the pro shooter on an equipment level. It's the fastest route to ruined credit.

Your advantage: Less gear. More creativity. More energy. And it's okay for you to make mistakes - use that, too.

Part-time Pro:

The answer depends entirely upon what you shoot. If your bread-and-butter assignments are pretty consistent in their scale and methods, and those methods work well with CLS, go with it. If you see yourself expanding into other areas, think long-term and consider building a PW-based system. If you can afford it, you'll never regret it.

Full-time Pro

Living within the restrictions of CLS may be a minor annoyance for a hobbyist, but it seriously limits a pro's ability to do his or her best work. That said, your gear probably already supports CLS (or eTTL) and it can do some amazing things.

So why not use both, as the situation merits?

I certainly gives you the best of both worlds - control, flexibility and speed. And most important, no hurdles toward creating great light for your photos.


Have an opinion on this comparison?

Talk about it here.


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Anonymous Jason Baldwin said...

I'm not advocating Nikon's system for everyone; I'm not even sure it's right for me. But for someone who's spent the last ten years shooting with almost nothing but natural light, I'm pretty thrilled to be able to use the equipment I already own to learn, despite its obvious limitations.

When I decide to pursue off-camera lighting further, a Pocket Wizard setup is definitely on the shopping list, but until I start taking photography more seriously as a financial opportunity, I'll be content with the Nikon CLS system.

You've intrigued me with this remote camera trigger business, dammit. Maybe when I've finished paying off the equipment I already have...

September 05, 2006 10:11 PM  
Anonymous Matthew Mitgang said...

Do you know the range of the ebay strobes and if they would work for your basketball lighting set-up. I really want to apply that to volleyball and since I have an SB-800 and SB-600 at my disposal I want to try it out. CLS is not an option as the D50 does not have commander mode.

September 05, 2006 10:27 PM  
Anonymous Charles said...

Man oh man, what would I do to get my mits on just a set of 2 pocket wizard transcievers, and a fisheye.... Sadly my budget constrains me to go for the ebay slaves and renting my fisheyes.... but thats ok, in due time I will get some pocket wizards!

September 06, 2006 4:51 AM  
Blogger photoimagery said...

I think that is a very well balanced article about the pros and cons of the manual/auto debate.
As a full time, poorly paid, pro these are the issues that I am currently debating in my own head. I am using Canon gear with 2 stobes and the STE2 IR trigger and I must admit that I am designing my lighting around the limitations of the Canon system as well as for the effect I am looking for.
At the moment I am happier (mentally) using ETTL than I am going manual especially in fast changing situations and competeing with other press guys for the shot but using manual is the route I will be going down when I am happier using my gear in this way without thinking about it.
On occasion I also mix my Canon strobes with bigger studio flash equipment and then manual mode is the only way to go.
Prior to Strobist I split all of my work in 2;
Studio lighting gear, manually controlled for commercial shoots and on-camera flash for press work. Now I find that I am making more use of off camera lighting techniques using portable gear for both commercial and press work and the quality of my photography has definitely improved. Shots have a greater impact than before and clients are starting to sit up and take notice.
Many thanks for the vast amount of information and genorosity of all strobists in sharing it with us.

September 06, 2006 7:09 AM  
Anonymous AdriftAtSea said...

One major point in favor of the Pocket Wizards over the CLS or similar systems. The CLS-type systems require you to use a specific camera. If you decide you want to shoot a particular project with medium or large format equipment, you're basically toast. With the PW setup, just switch cameras, and you're back up and running.

While most of the photography done by the people on this is lightweight, fast, and often low-budget—usually using either digital or 35mm format equipment, there are medium and large format cameras that fit in to the "low-budget" part of the equation. A YashicaMat 124G is a nice medium format TLR and can be purchased used for very little money. Some of the less well-known view cameras can be gotten at a fairly low-cost as well.

September 06, 2006 8:07 AM  
Anonymous Nick Decker said...

I think compatibility is the key issue here, at least for me. I don't trust Nikon (or Canon) to maintain compatibility in the future. Case in point: I have the SB-80DX, which I used happily with the D100. Upgraded to the D200, and guess what? The 80DX won't do TTL metering with the D200! Only one camera generation removed from what it was designed to work with and it's already somewhat obsolete. Yes, you can use it on Manual or Auto, but it's still not fully compatible.

I've since upgraded to an SB-800, and have tried the CLS system with the D200. Maybe it's just me, but all those menus get in the way of my shooting. And, like David mentioned in another article/post, I still don't trust TTL to nail it every time.

Having read this blog for several months now, I've picked up several vintage Nikon strobes and 2 sets of Pocket Wizards. For me, nothing could be simpler or more reliable, and I'm comfortable that everything with a PC socket will remain compatible.

Done deal, game over, drive home safely.

September 06, 2006 1:35 PM  
Anonymous Nick Decker said...

I think compatibility is the key issue here, at least for me. I don't trust Nikon (or Canon) to maintain compatibility in the future. Case in point: I have the SB-80DX, which I used happily with the D100. Upgraded to the D200, and guess what? The 80DX won't do TTL metering with the D200! Only one camera generation removed from what it was designed to work with and it's already somewhat obsolete. Yes, you can use it on Manual or Auto, but it's still not fully compatible.

I've since upgraded to an SB-800, and have tried the CLS system with the D200. Maybe it's just me, but all those menus get in the way of my shooting. And, like David mentioned in another article/post, I still don't trust TTL to nail it every time.

Having read this blog for several months now, I've picked up several vintage Nikon strobes and 2 sets of Pocket Wizards. For me, nothing could be simpler or more reliable, and I'm comfortable that everything with a PC socket will remain compatible.

Done deal, game over, drive home safely.

September 06, 2006 1:36 PM  
Blogger DCrowe said...

With the CLS system you can set the camera to shoot faster then 1/250.

September 06, 2006 2:55 PM  
Blogger Roland Simmons said...

It took me a while to get a few pocketwizards. I'm glad I spent the money on them. Used to trigger my lights and my remote camera. The multimax with relay mode allows me to trigger my remote camera and strobes using one PW in the remote cameras hotshoe. Money well spent.

September 06, 2006 4:07 PM  
Anonymous MrScott said...

Ok, so here's my issue with the IR setups (ettl or cls) that no one else is really talking about. How do you get those twitchy types, be it animals, brides or babies to NOT blink! All of that IR wireless stuff sure does tweak about some of my clients. I'm sure the rf based PW's would eliminate this, but just wondering what others have noticed...

Sure outdoor and fill situations are less of an issue, but indoors, I've had a rough time w/ kids and animals. Even worse, when you get the popEYE when one's closing and the other one's normal...

Additionally, I don't know how much lag is added to the shutter trip, but do you find that your IR based systems just sometimes miss the moment? I know my XT lag is pretty high, but I'm guessing the IR comm has to possibly double this. 1/4 or 1/3 of a second makes a big difference in "baby time".

September 07, 2006 4:26 PM  
Anonymous Joseph Francis said...

When you shoot at the race track, do you coordinate frequencies with other photographers, or ar you the only one?

I was at a model shoot recently where 5 photographers were sharing one octobox and it seemed like whenever I tried to get a shot, someone had already beaten me to it and the stobe was busy recycling.

September 08, 2006 11:31 AM  
Anonymous Matthew Given said...

David I saw that Preakness photo, great shot!! I was shooting at the finish line and in a moment of bordom began counting the remote cameras mounted there. I lost count somewhere around 51. It was nice to see that someone was thinking outside the box (or oval as it were) and placed a remote somewhere other than the finish.

September 08, 2006 2:58 PM  
Blogger mattbenn8 said...

Some other things to consider are that the ir transmitters also act as infared focus assist which can be helpfull.
In addition, Nikon and Canon's systems can synch as fast as the camera's shutter can blink. You're not limited to a 200 or 250 synch speed.
Also you can control the output of all your flashes(up to 2 or 3 groups depending on your system) from the main unit. You don't have to keep running to each of the units to change the output level.
I'm not saying the Nikon/Canon systems are better, but they can definately do some things the pocket wizard can't.

September 10, 2006 1:29 AM  
Blogger Luc PERENOM said...

In view from France, for an independent photographer as me, who makes portraits in the majority orders it for magazines or firms, the system flash Nikon is the best: cheap, less encumbering, combinable with my Norman.
But it is necessary to speak also of the tremendous system flash: http: // Www.europe-nikon.com / product / fr_FR / products / broad / 721 / overview.html

September 10, 2006 10:11 AM  
Blogger David said...

I've been happy as a lark with my ebay slaves. You can now get a cable switch for the Nikon D2 cameras for 12.95 on ebay, and it has a little plug in the side. I used my remote for a feature shot at a football saturday, it was a kid in a ride outside the stadium. I plan to use the things to shoot basketball this season. If I had a larger budget sure I'd rather have the PWs, but from 50' I can trigger 4 flashes and a camera with what I have and everything cost less than $100.

September 10, 2006 9:08 PM  
Anonymous Chris said...

It's curious that this is simply an either-or discussion of CLS vs PW. While you can add PW's to virtually any strobe system, only a CLS-based set of strobes will give allow you to choose between the two systems. Sure, PWs are best in some situations, but I can work faster with CLS in others. If I didn't have SB-800s, I'd be limited to a manual-only solution. So which is better? In my opinion, neither, as BOTH is so easily attained.

October 02, 2006 3:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am glad I ran across this today. Just had some of the issues with my SBs and CLS that David talks about. Frequently on a shoot when I would move to a good angle and be ready to shoot the flash wouldnt fire. Either because the "receiver" was on the wrong side, the sun was too hot for the flash to recognize, or I was too far forward of the flash for it to see the signal. Really dissapointed to be limited like that. Will probably sell my SB600 and get something else. Now to read through the PW vs. Ebay string. Keep up the good work David.

Mark Pace flickr-mhpace

December 29, 2006 4:52 PM  
Anonymous Chris ß said...

I have both the CLS and PW systems. I think the error is to call the CLS a "wireless" system. It is not. It's a bastardization of the English language.

The CLS is a "remote" system, with all it's limitations. PW is truly wireless, and by definition, uses radio waves.

I personally find the CLS very limiting, unless shooting interior shots. It has been great for Interior Decorating and Realty shoots.

March 05, 2007 2:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So I shoot weddings every weekend with Pocket Wizards and Nikon Speedlights. I have tried to use CLS and the range is good when the IR can bounce off walls in a small room, but a reception hall or a medium sized church is too big for the IR to bounce. Put an umbrella on the light and bingo; there goes your line of sight. Outdoors the situation is worse, you must literally make sure that the IR Sensor is within the line of sight of the camera, in front of the camera, and within the 30 ft. range. Those are pretty limiting parameters. I have found the system useful as a fill bounce in hotel suites but that's about it. As for the fast sync function, you can sync to 1/8000 of a sec, but at iso 100 you get about f4 at 1/1000 sec. at ten feet. If you increase the shutter speed or close down you lose watt seconds fast. In order to increase power you have to add an additional SB800 as Dave Black outlines on his site. If you want f8, add three SB800,s to the tune of over $1000. Nikon should print in bold that full power in not possible with fast sync. While the flash does sync, the available watt seconds are very limited by pushing much beyond a conventional sync speed. A true flash sync of 1/500 or an iso 50 setting would be more useful if the goal is to balance flash with sunlight.

March 22, 2007 11:09 PM  
Blogger brian said...

I second/third/fourth/fifth pretty much everything said here about CLS v PW. I JUST got a pair of PW's and all along was hesitant to do so because of the non-TTL issue. But hey, the TTL/CLS thing was working ANYWAY so it was time for me to step up!
I lost about 300 shots from a recent party because the system really didn't work well at all. Partly my fault for letting it get quite THAT far, and luckily I came back with enough great shots that the client will never know. But with that said, the way Joe McNally shows the CLS system working on the Speed of Light DVD is probably the way, the ONLY way, the system was created for. Notice you don't see him using it at a wedding!!!!! Nevertheless, at events I now know to leave the CLS behind and use PW's...

March 31, 2007 7:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How about mixing the 2?
I have an SB800 & SB600 & a pair of PWs. But having trouble with settings to trigger the 600 with CLS off the 800 coonnected to camera via PW.
Any thoughts?

BTW, I already discovered the bug regarding needing to be on Channel 3 to operate the 600 as a slave.

May 16, 2007 3:37 PM  
Anonymous david locke said...

The whole PW / CLS issue is one that I have been going over for a while now and after much umming and ahhhring, there seems little point in delaying the PW purchase any longer. Nick is right not to trust Nikon as far as future changes.

I try out and even shoot corporate assignments with both elinchrom and speedlights (SB600 & SB800) depending on the look, time, budget, assistance, travel, time and budget again... and although I like the idea of the built in money saving wireless of my D300, I think the trigger flash on camera does add light on occassions (even ' -- ' activated) and I think it looks cheap and a little 'non pro' on top of the limitations.

Add to this, I hate the thought of spending more money on an SU-800 when I get my grubby hands on a D3 later this year. What's the point?!!!

Nope, the PW seems the smartest choice for me, shooting my kind of bread and butter and it means I can shoot with my Elinchrom heads in the studio too.

June 02, 2008 7:11 PM  
Blogger seanchandler said...

I shoot mainly real estate virtual tours and still photos, and have recently been struggling with the Nikon CLS/TTL system.

I use a Nikon D80, 2 SB-800s (one on-camera as the controller) and 2 SB-600s as remotes

While I like the convenience of controlling the output of the remotes from the commander SB-800, I find myself walking back and forth to the remotes to position them to where the IR will work - and that is not always where I want the remotes to be.

In trying to figure this out before dropping several hundred dollars on PW's, I guess I will have to learn to use the remotes in manual mode with the PWs in order to gain the convenience of the PW

Has anyone here had to make that change, from always using CLS/TTL, and how easy or difficult was it?

August 15, 2008 11:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When using SU-800 as the commander, the range of Nikon's CLS is actually 66ft (rather than 33ft when SB-800 is the commander). In fact SU-800, being an infrared-only transmitter has its own capacitor so that the signal packs an extra punch. It has consistently set-off my SB-600 units placed feet behind me, and way out of its "angle of view".

February 25, 2009 12:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To seanchandler:

If you can, wait a bit and get the new PW which will transmit i-ttl information as well via FM! All the reliability of PW, and all the hands-off exposure setting ability of i-ttl.
Supposed to be available Q2 2009... start saving.

February 26, 2009 2:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The CLS system works with high speed sync. Standard PWs don't. This may or may not be a big thing. Should have been included in the article. I'm aware of the new PWs, but they are yet to be released for Nikon.

May 12, 2009 8:20 AM  
Blogger William Ting said...

The latest PWs can now sync at 1/8000.

Also, AlienBees CyberSyncs are a good alternative to PWs and eBay triggers. It's $200 for 1 trigger + 2 receivers, sync up to 1/250, and work 100% up to 400' (through multiple walls and structures).

They have become the defacto choice for the Austin Strobist group, but the decision may have been influenced by the large number of Canon shooters.

June 17, 2009 5:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can anyone help me here? It seems like I need a line of sight to trigger my SB800s even though I have PWs attached to them. Is it possible that I need to turn the CLS system off? I thought that the PWs attached would automatically override Nikon's CLS. Nikon's CLS doesn't seem to consistently work for me...I am short and so sometimes my line of sight is lost when I'm shooting wedding reception dancing (everyone around me is taller).

August 08, 2009 12:22 PM  
Blogger Nikolaj said...

"The CLS system works with high speed sync. Standard PWs don't. This may or may not be a big thing. Should have been included in the article. I'm aware of the new PWs, but they are yet to be released for Nikon."

I couldent agree more. And not everybody can afford the new ones. I have also experienced a lot of bad pc-cords which had some kind of loose connection. I just want it to work and CLS does work..

November 29, 2010 9:24 AM  
Blogger MrPete said...

There are a few specialty cases where even today (6 years after the OP!) CLS has capabilities that are lost when using a PW.

For example, PW does not support multiple-firing shots, a nice feature in modern Nikon cameras for specialty use.

Be careful about assumptions.

December 29, 2012 11:52 AM  

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