PocketWizard FlexTT5 and MiniTT1: Full Review
PocketWizard had been noticeably quiet recently while the flash remote landscape continued to evolve with new technology. But today they re-set the bar in announcing their new flagship models, the Flex and Mini.
And while they do work perfectly well as garden-variety remotes, they bring some ultra-cool capabilities that go well beyond manually synching an off-camera flash to your camera.
I have been a PocketWizard user since the very early days, and was lucky enough to be in the loop for early testing. To be honest, I am still a bit wobbly-kneed at some of the things the new ones can do.
Unfortunately for me, they decided to go with a Canon-specific model first. So I felt a little like I was working in a foreign language while I was test driving them. Not to worry, as Nikon-compatible models are reportedly on the way.
In a nutshell, the system rocks. And if you are a Canon shooter who already uses PocketWizard remotes, you are going to want to at least grab either a Flex or a Mini very soon -- mostly because of one very special feature. More on that below.
Full info dump, after the jump.
First off, to avoid and confusion, the "MiniTT1" unit is the camera-top unit. It is very small and has an internal antenna.
It uses a CR2450-size (or CR2354) 3v button cell, but is designed to be very stingy on power usage. There is an auto-off feature that shuts it down whenever your camera goes to sleep. This allows a ballpark battery life expectancy of "hundreds of hours" according to PW.
That said, these are not batteries you can find out in the middle of nowhere. They might not necessarily be in stock in your local Target or grocery store kiosk. In quick checks I have found my local outlets to be hit or miss.
Radio Shack does carry the them, but my local store only had two in stock. However, given the battery life expectancy if you keep one spare in your bag you should be fine.
The "FlexTT5" is the unit that would be located at the flash (or remote camera) end. It is bigger and runs on AA's. Alkalines are recommended, but Ni-MH's worked fine, too. Battery life is around 60 hours of use with alkalines.
The Flex also can serve as a camera-top model, and can do everything a Mini can do. So if size is not as critical as is readily available power sources, some may opt to go with all Flex models instead of a Mini/Flex combo. But the Flex is expected to cost about 10% more than the Mini.
The antenna for the Flex is external and folds out, revealing the USB port used for custom configurations. More on that below.
Both units have pass-through, full TTL contacts in a hot shoe format. Which means no more PC cords needed for hooking them up to speedlights. In other words, your SB-600 (no PC jack) and every Canon flash other than the 580 EX II, (which already has a PC jack and did not need a hot-shoe hook-up) just got a whole lot more useable in both manual remote and remote/TTL modes.
Most Nikon flashes were always easier to use off-camera because of the PC jack, but now PocketWizard has helped to level the playing field for Canon.
They are both solid in their construction, and the Flex has an integrated 1/4x20 mount. It is low-profile, and will not screw up your flash alignment in an umbrella. For purists, it would be very easy to fashion a bracket that would put your flash right next to the umbrella shaft. But the Flex is low profile and also removes the need for a cold shoe in an umbrella setup, so I would probably just use it straight.
Here's a blessing and a curse for the Flex: It can double as a makeshift flash stand when a speedlight is mounted to it.
Why is this a curse? Because the TTL contacts basically serve as one of the balance points on the bottom. This could be problematic, but a protective workaround should be easy enough. You know you are gonna use it that way on occasion, so just be careful to take care of those contacts.
Slightly Ahead of Their Time
Okay, may as well start with the headline feature: They do remote TTL, and they do it well. They call it "ControlTL," and it is technologically very different than the way the RadioPopper handles remote TTL.
In fact, while testing it was generally my lack of familiarity with Canon's E-TTL system that proved to be the limiting factor, not the Flex/Mini itself. I was using a Canon 40D and a kit zoom lens, with 580-II's and 430-II's. And being a Nikon guy, felt very much like a fish out of water with that system.
It was as if someone had invented barbeque ribs that were actually good for your heart, but they only were effective for women. Incidentally, some of you EXIF scrapers noticed that I had been shooting with Canon when I posted in Flickr. This is why. And no, I am not switching.
Range in TTL mode is 800 feet, and they can trigger a standard (manual mode) PocketWizard from up to 1,200 feet away. I did not have enough line of sight distance to best it, but range and reliability have always been a PW strong suit.
As far as remote TTL shooting, the area lit by the flashes will be the limiting factor more than the range of the Flex and Mini themselves. That is to say that a flash placed a couple hundred feet away in TTL mode would likely be lighting a small enough portion of the frame to stress the metering system of a TTL system, anyway. Suffice to say that for just about any practical TTL challenge you can dream up, these should fit the bill.
Engineering-wise, there is some very sophisticated communication going on behind the scenes. The PW's actually intercept the crosstalk between the camera and flash by acting like a flash on the hot shoe.
The camera sends a series of signals back and forth that precede the flash's firing. It's this head start on the flash's actual firing that allows the Mini and Flex the time to communicate via radio the information needed to set up the TTL sync. Or at least, that's how I understood it when PocketWizard engineering guru Jim Clark first explained it to me over dinner at an Italian restaurant last fall.
There's a LOT of tech in there. He was talking about the split-second communications protocols in DSLRs, HyperSync offset, instantaneous quantum data transmission (not an actual PocketWizard project -- yet), etc. After a while, my mind started to explode a little. I half expected him to levitate a bottle of Chianti with his superhuman engineering brain.
Wrestling with Off-Camera TTL
But all of this was just spec talk. What matters is how they work in a real-world environment. So I called my friend Justin Kase Conder, (who shoots Canon) got him NDA'd, and went out with him to shoot some high school wrestling.
The gym was lit with vapor lights -- not really close to anything in the fluorescent range. So we greened three Canon flashes and dialed the camera's white balance around until they looked close on the camera screen.
We stuck the three Flex-equipped flashes on stands in a roughly triangular pattern around the mat and let the TTL drive the flash exposure wirelessly. Our ambient exposure was set to underexpose the room by a couple of stops, so areas that were not lit by flashes would not be pitch black.
As I said, I'm no Canon E-TTL whiz. So I kept it simple and stuck them all on the same channel. As far as the camera and PW was concerned it was a single TTL flash firing from three different locations.
The camera and PW Mini/Flex platform did just fine. Any variations I saw in exposure appeared to be as a result of Canon's E-TTL system, which acts pretty differently than what I am used to with Nikon. For instance, if we zoomed way out and the subject matter was very small in the frame, it might get a little hotter as the camera tried to compensate for the metering. Normal TTL stuff to consider.
In fact, the PW remote TTL did very well, except that when we started aiming close into the backlights the flare would walk the exposure around some. That is normal for TTL flash, too, so I suspect the variations had very little to do with the wireless platform itself.
For a shoot with some decent flash distances, it worked very well on total auto. I am really looking forward to getting the Nikon version and trying it against a more known (to me) quantity of a TTL flash system.
High-Speed Focal Plane Flash Supported, Too
The Flex/Mini system is essentially transparent when working in focal-plane, high-speed sync.
This is a very power-hungry technique for the flash, because of the pulsing nature of the FP mode. So keeping a short flash-to-subject working distance is important. With the Flex/Mini system, for example, you can shoot a long-lens TTL, hi-sync portrait in midday light and back the camera way up while keeping the flash in close to the subject.
(UPDATE: This is demo'd in the PW video, just added at the end of the post.)
This is something the RadioPoppers will do, too, but that system approaches the synching sequence very differently than do the Flex and Mini.
Alright, so it does TTL and does not need a PC cord at the flash end. But I shoot manual, and my flashes have PC jacks on them. So none of that is going to be enough to crack open my wallet. But then they hadda go and do this:
The NSA Folks Would Be Proud
I live very close to the National Security Agency (NSA), which is jokingly referred to as "No Such Agency". The NSA gathers intelligence by eavesdropping and intercepting electronic signals. So they know things.
Well, the new PWs "know things," too. Remember how they can replicate the whole light-based wireless TTL operations by jumping the signal timing on the camera-to-flash pre-chatter? Well, what else could you do if you knew the camera was about to fire your flash?
You could tell the flash to fire a little smidge early, is what you could do. And if you could vary the timing on that signal, you could squeeze an extra stop of shutter speed out of most cameras' sync, too.
We're not talking focal plane synch, with its power-robbing pulses, either. We are talking about using that timing jump to lose the tiniest portion of the energy in the "ramp" of the flash pop. Efficiency-wise about 95% of the flash energy is getting through -- but at a full shutter speed higher.
Adding a stop of shutter speed in an ambient environment means that you can open up a full stop of aperture to get the same exposure. Since your flash cares only about the f/stop, it effectively gets (almost) twice as powerful with the more open aperture.
Alternatively, you can use the extra stop to drop the ambient more, as in when you are balancing out in the sun. Long story short, the Mini (or Flex) increases the sync speed of your existing cameras which effectively makes your flashes more powerful.
How can they do this, given the fact that different cameras have pre-sync timing sequences?
Simple -- they let you control how much the "HyperSync" jumps the camera's timing sequence. They call it a HyperSync offset, but I call it magic. You can get in there and adjust the timing, in microseconds, to experiment and find the setting the best suits your camera and flash.
The HyperSync mode works on full-frame cameras, which have the least margin for error. So in theory, at least, it should work even better with the small-chip cameras, which have more wiggle room around the edges of the chip.
It's only a matter of time before the message boards start lighting up with best settings for every camera and flash model combos to rack the full sync out as far as possible. As the best tested numbers come in, I'll keep a running tally here. Gawd, I love the internet.
Old PW Users Don't Get Hosed
The new system works in manual -- including the HyperSync feature -- with the old models, continuing PocketWizard's tradition of backward compatibility. You simply configure the mini to any one of the previously existing 32 traditional PW channels (supports the MultiMAX channels, too) and you are ready to roll.
But you can also walk the HyperSync offset number around and get significant improvements in any camera system that uses your current PocketWizards. That's why I think many people will be snatching up a single Flex or Mini (either will do this) right of the bat. You do not have to be a remote TTL shooter to get a big benefit from the system.
Note that you cannot change legacy channels on the fly -- they need to be changed in the utility program. And speaking of the utility program, you can pre-load two configurations into each Mini and Flex. The "C1" and "C2" settings are entire multiple configurations, not just triggering channel selections.
So it's easy to have a HyperSync setting built in for, say, both your speedlights and your monoblocs. They will have different sync lead times and thus different hypersync settings. But you can easily switch between them on the fly. (You could also use the two configurations to have different legacy channels ready to go on the fly.
For me, the idea of turning all of my cameras into faster-sync bodies is reason enough to jump on a Flex or Mini right away. And I would, if they had a Nikon-model Mini ready to go. (Grr.)
But I do understand why they have to have different Minis and Flexes for Nikon and Canon -- the TTL pin configurations are different. (The firmware and config utility handles variations on individual camera and flash models, so one physical design per camera brand is all that is required.)
One more thing. Since the camera is bypassing a lot of the optical flash pulse timing sequences (it sees the Flex or Mini as a single, on-camera flash) you can actually shoot TTL, off-camera flash at up to 8 frames per second. Your limitation will be that you'll have to be at low enough power so the flash itself can actually keep up.
But the whole system is capable of delivering those speeds while monitoring the TTL info at the same time, which is pretty impressive.
And overall, it is important to know that the Flex/Mini is not so much a physical device as it is a configurable, programmable universal platform. So look for new capabilities to be popping up for them in the future.
Price is not exactly in the eBay remote neighborhood. It is expected to be about 10% more than the current PW II's for the MiniTT1, and 20% more for the FlexTT5. But again, you do get backward compatibility with your existing PW's.
UPDATE: PW has put up a promotional video on the Flex and Mini which hits all of the main points:
More information i s available at PocketWizard. Prices TBA, but the Mini is said to be about 15% more than a Plus II, with a Flex coming in at a little higher than that. (UPDATE: $199 for the MiniTT1, $219 for the FlexTT5.)
Here's a bit of a bummer: US and Canadian markets only for the time being. I am trying to run down any info I can on that, and also a link to an online product manual. (UPDATE: Product manual here.)
Also, this discussion thread started early in the morning, as soon as they started slipping the new pages into the PW website...
Lastly, over at the PocketWizard Blog, Matt is accepting questions about the capabilities of the new Flex/Mini platform. I suspect he will get a few. Don't be a doofus, though -- check out the product manual (linked just above) first.