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PocketWizard Plus III's: More Trigger, Less Cash

(Click pics for bigger versions.)

A couple of years back, as PocketWizard were rolling out increasingly complex remotes featuring wireless TTL and HyperSync and everything else, I sent an e-mail to one of their engineers.

Basically, it said that if you want photographers to love you long time, release a stripped-down "cadet" model that is as reliable as a Plus II, but at a lower price. Because in the end, what we want is rock-solid triggering and non-obsolescence -- at a lower entry point (amirite?)

Turns out they were listening, if only half-way. Because the PocketWizard Plus IIIs are coming, and they are $30 cheaper than the PW Plus IIs.

But stripped down, they ain't. Not by a long shot.

The Big Picture

Of all of the lighting-related questions I get asked, "Which remotes should I buy?" is the most common.

Start with a wire, is what I usually suggest. PC cords (or better yet, an audio sync cord) is a great way to start on the cheap. And you'll have a solid back-up for later when you go wireless.

But as for remotes, I have two favorites: the PocketWizard Plus II and the RadioPopper JRx. They are both solid-performing dumb (i.e., non-TTL) triggers. While the JRx has an advantage in price, the PWs use more readily available AA batts. And to my experience, they have proven the winner at range/reliability. Plus, they have demonstrated a commitment to non-obsolescence over two decades.

The RP JRx is no slouch, and if money is tight it's still a very good option. But PWs have long been the industry standard for good reason. And yes, there are other brands of remotes available. But most of them do not embrace year-to-year and/or inter-model compatibility. That's a deal killer for any photographer trying to make long-term buying decisions.

With the Plus III, PocketWizard has just lobbed a grenade into that whole second-tier ecosystem. They have taken everything in the +II, made it way better, and dropped the MSRP from $169 to $139. Street prices will likely be a little lower after initial supply issues balance out.

Better, Stronger, Faster, Cheaper

With apologies to Daft Punk, this is not your grandfather's Plus II.

For starters, the channel count jumps from 4 to 32. (The 32 channels are the same ones as on the MultiMax units.) And channels 17-32 also add four zones per channel, allowing all kinds of creative possibilities for multi-light setups and zoned multiple remote camera operations. These things are a sports shooter's dream.

But all of these features don't mean crap of the thing is not reliable. I have shot several assignments with a set of pre-production PW+IIIs, without a dark frame. Not a single one.

Last week, I took them out to a nearby field complex which gives me a visible range of over 1,000 feet. I set up an AB800 on a stand with a VML power supply and started walking. When I got to the end of the field I started popping off frames.

Here's one:

As you can see, that flash is a decent walk away. Three football fields plus. (Click for bigger if you don't see it.)

Here's a string of a few dozen shots (click for the 1600-pixel version) from that same 1,000+ feet range. Sorry for the drunken horizons. There was a slight drainage bulge in middle of the field so I had to Hail Mary the camera over my head to visibly record the flash in the frame.

Note the sequential frame numbers -- zero misfires. This thing is scary robust.

Redesigned Antenna

There's are a lot of new gee-whiz features, but my favorite is the redesigned antenna. It is captive within the hard-shell unit. This removes the risk of a harsh bend in your bag breaking the contact at the bottom (as can happen with the external antenna version). It feels very solid -- not at all vulnerable if you are one of those people who, like me, just toss them in the remaining spaces in a fully packed roller.

This next detail is not in any literature that I have seen, but PW told me the antenna has been tweaked to be more omnidirectional. Theoretically, this means less range, but more mounting/orientation flexibility. What the... the range looked pretty crazy to me, above. So I'll take the positioning flexibility. (FYI, the bulk of the signal energy still radiates perpendicular to the antenna, just less so than before.)

Modes, Modes and More Modes

Where to start? Okay, how about with the modes.

• TxRx: Standard, auto-sensing switch-hitter mode as on the current PW +IIs

• TxONLY: For use when multiple photogs are sharing remote flashes (the other shooters won't trigger your camera-mounted XMitter and trip you into relay mode.) And, speaking of relay mode, it works with a channel step-up function, just like the +IIs.

• RxONLY: For use in a multi-photog/multi-flash environment for your receivers at the flashes. This will prevent them from channel-hopping, transmitting a trigger pulse on the next channel and stepping on some other photog's shot.

• LR (Long Range mode): Double the range, at the expense of sync speed. In practical terms my sync dropped from 1/250th down to 1/125th in this range. But for remote camera firing, a non-issue. Ditto for syncing at long range in conditions other than full daylight. Would have loved to have this for the night chopper shots.

• RP (Repeater mode) For triggering remote cameras, you can bridge multiple PW+IIIs in this mode. Each hop cost you some microseconds, so this is generally not for syncing flashes. But each added unit buys you another full-distance hop. Use TxONLY mode on the original transmitter to avoid setting up a feedback loop. (UPDATE: I now see that McNally has already tested this mode, strapping them to a land rocket in the desert. Figures.)

• HSR (Hi-Speed Receive) Shortened contact time, to achieve some needed non-contact time between flashes when shooting at very high fire rates (like here, for instance.) The trigger/fire rate on the Plus IIIs is good for anything up to 14.5 frames per second. Which is probably faster than your flash will recycle.


Other Features

• Display is backlit. You can thank McNally for this. I was there when he suggested it in October. Pretty sure I saw Dave (the PW marketing guy) get a Clint Eastwood-style twitch in his eye when Joe suggested it at the manufacturing equivalent of the 11th hour. Couldn't tell for sure, tho. Either way, that was a pretty fast turn on the production line -- it's there in the pre-production units I tested.

• Zones: On channels 17-32, you get four selectable zones per channel with a dedicated physical on/off toggle for each zone on the face of the PW+III. For sports shooters with multiple remotes, this will be golden. Also works for multiple flashes.

• 1/4x20 tripod socket, for mounting at a secure angle -- just like PW+II.

• Better AA batt compartment: Vertical piano-style hinge, opens horizontally and is captive. Easier to get to compared to the PW+II, IMO.

• Three-stage battery meter. (Thank you for this, PW.)

• Two-stage trigger button. (I.e., half-press to wake up a remote camera, for instance.)

• Firmware upgradeable via USB port. Although, what the hell is left to be able to update on a dumb trigger platform is beyond me. Srsly.

• USB port can also power the unit with a standard cord and plug. Good for extended remote flash installations, such as in basketball arenas.

• The power button has a ridge around it to prevent accidental power-up during transit, while it rattles around in your roller. Nice touch.

Why Don't All Photo Companies Do This?

(UPDATE: Just found the above video on the new PW Plus III Microsite.)

Just think of all of the sexy product shots you have seen for photographic gear in the last five years and realize that every one of those was an opportunity to do a cool BTS shoot like this. Lots of info to be gleaned -- light sources include many gridded parabolics, gobos large and small out the wazoo, etc. Neat stuff.

Kudos to PW for this fun layer of transparency. And to the photo gear OEMs around the world: everyone should be doing this, from this day forward. Seriously, you are spending all of that money to try to get photogs to ogle your gear. Let us ogle. Duh.

Plus, it gets the word out your chosen product photographer. Win-win-win. You can check out more of Gregor Halenda's kickass work here.

One other thing: The PW Plus III product shots were lit with ... Broncolor? To international readers that may seem a fine point. But in the US, PW and Broncolor arch rival Profoto are under the same umbrella (via MACGroup US).

So that is a little like the graphics of Windows 8 being designed on a Mac. Which it was. Heh.

Should You Buy?

This is where things get interesting. PW+IIs are almost never available at a discount used, as most people just keep them forever. (What do you upgrade to?) But that is obviously about to change as some people migrate to a full set of PW+IIIs. Here's what to expect.

If PW+IIs are all you need, I'd expect to see them being marked down new (and plentiful used) as we transition to +IIIs. If you have the current Plus II units and want to buy more, I'd probably be willing to go $110 new, $80 used during the transition and after. But beyond that, just go for the Plus IIIs. They are much improved over the already solid Plus IIs.

Remember to make sure your frequencies match if you are buying add-on units. US/Europe/Japan are the three different versions. They different country versions are not cross compatible. (Within the same country models, the +IIIs are, of course compatible with the +IIs on channels 1-4.)

If you were preparing to buy Plus IIs for the first time in the near future, you just hit the jackpot. Your choice, but I'd take the $30 price difference that PW just put on the table and jump on the Plus IIIs. The industry standard, redefined. They are significantly improved in many ways.

If you are shooting RPs and are happy with them, I would suggest staying with what is working for you. They are good units. (But buy some NiMH batts and a charger as insurance against getting caught without power.)

If you are thinking buying about a lesser brand of remote, PW just made a compelling argument to go with the industry standard. Ditto those who shoot "eBay remotes" and were looking to move up. These are killer triggers, at a very decent price. Worst case, you use them for a year and sell them on eBay for 90% of what you paid for them. That's always been the best argument against any reluctance to make the jump to PW.

On a related note, I am betting in less than 3 months you'll be able to buy knock-off, 2.4Ghz Fake Gucci Bag remotes that look just like a Plus III. Good luck with that...

But the reality is, the PocketWizard Plus III is a game changer which will be very disruptive even to the second-tier remote markets.

Their loss, our gain.

Much more info on the PocketWizard Plus III microsite.


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