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.


New to Strobist? Start here | Or jump right to Lighting 101
Got a question? Hit me on Twitter: @Strobist
Have a passport? Join me in Hanoi: X-Peditions Location Workshops