Using the PocketWizard ControlTL Wireless Flash Triggers

pocketwizard_logo Before we can really look at whether we need a product like the PocketWizard ControlTL system, we need to understand the limitations of our existing Canon speedlite system. The Canon system has a good amount of control of multiple lights, supports two main zones that are ratio controlled along with a background zone, and supports manual control of multiple lights. While not the end-all-beat-all solution that many of us would like, the feature set is fairly solid. With all this being said, what does PocketWizard bring to the table with the ControlTL system?

Understanding the problem

In the intro, we stated that the Canon wireless speedlite system has a lot of features and is reasonably flexible in how you can use it. While that is true, there are some serious limitation to the system that Canon has yet to address, and given the installed base, probably isn’t likely to address in the near future.

The primary problem is that the Master light needs to communicate with the slave units and does this via bursts of flash just before the main flash goes off. This “pre-flash” happens so fast that you can’t tell it from the main flash. This works quite well in optimum environments like inside your studio. However, once you get outside and you have issues like the sun interfering with the speedlite’s communication, trying to use modifiers that block communication, or worse, trying to put speedlites in places with no direct line of sight such as outside a door, or around a corner, and the Canon system by itself starts to have issues very quickly.

While there are inexpensive radio triggers available and some of them work very reliably, the problem is that they only allow you to use use speedlites in manual mode only. Now this may be ok for you, and it is for many people, they lack several very key features:

  1. The ability to use Canon’s eTTL system for automatic exposure control
  2. The ability to remotely adjust the power output of the slave units
  3. The ability to use high speed sync

Again, these things may not be of interest to you based on the style of shooting you do, but for many people, these are critical components of getting the lighting they want.

How the ControlTL System Solves the Problem

FlexTT5-Mini-TT1-550x317 While I will go into more technical detail in a moment, simply put, the ControlTL system intercepts the signals going to the speedlite and transmits the information over radio frequencies to the remote receivers.

There are two available components as part of the system, the MiniTT1 transmitter and the FlexTT5 transceiver. At a minimum you need one transmitter and one transceiver which would allow you to do off-camera lighting in eTTL mode and allow you to adjust power output by adjusting the flash compensation on your camera body.

Adding additional transceivers and speedlites adds to the flexibility of the system and allows you to build up to using multiple zones, ratio control, and remote setting of manual settings.

Why is eTTL Important?

Is eTTL over-rated or the magic bullet? For the most part, eTTL does a pretty good job the majority of the time. Let’s say we are shooting a scene and we set our camera to ISO 200, f/5.6, and 1/60th of a second shutter speed. The Canon speedlites will do a pre-flash to determine the best flash output for those settings and adjust accordingly. If we then change our camera settings to ISO 400, f/5.6, 1/100 of a second, even though we have effectively adjusted the camera settings by two stops, the eTTL system will determine that it simply needs less flash output to properly light the scene. Of course, with any system that is trying determine how to light something, it isn’t always going to be perfect because the camera simply can’t read your mind to figure out what it is you are trying to do, but generally speaking, eTTL does a pretty good job most of the time and can be a big time saver in getting your lighting dialed in.

ControlTL Modes

The new PocketWizard ControlTL system has several basic operating modes, the following are explanations of the basic setups.

  • Basic eTTL Mode
    In the most basic mode you need either a MiniTT1 transmitter or a FlexTT5 transceiver on the camera’s hot shoe shoe and a flash on a FlexTT5. In this basic mode, all speedlites  are grouped together into a single zone.
  • Ratio eTTL Mode
    This mode requires Canon 580 EX or EX II be in the hot shoe of the MiniTT1 or FlexTT5 that is in the hot shoe on the camera. Remote flashes can be assigned to zones A, B, or C by selecting the zone switch on the remote FlexTT5 module. The ratio control is managed on the speedlite mounted on the camera. You can also use a Canon STE2 Commander on top of the camera to adjust the lighting ratios.
  • Wireless Manual Mode
    “Wireless Manual” system allows setting a remote flash to a desired manual level from the MASTER flash. You must use a 580EX II on the MiniTT1 or FlexTT5 as transmitter. The original 580EX or earlier flashes cannot perform
    this function via ControlTL radios. “Wireless Manual” uses controls similar to ratio mode.

In both of the eTTL modes, the new PocketWizards double the output of the pre-flash boost for determining exposure making it more accurate, usable at longer ranges, and improves functionality when using modifiers such as umbrellas and softboxes.

One feature that I love is being able to use high speed sync. The way high speed sync actually works is that the flash will output thousands of small bursts very quickly to provide virtually continuous light output when the shutter is moving at high speeds. The downside to HSS is that it’s pretty harsh on batteries. The MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 communicate directly with the flash and PocketWizard came up with a means of optimizing the burst output to match the shutter speed which can result is massive improvements, 2-4x improvement in output power, 2-4x increase in battery life, and 2-4x faster recycle time.

There is yet another mode called HyperSync which allows high shutter speeds with studio strobes. While you do take a light output hit in this mode, it can enable some incredible shots that were previously impossible to get. This is a mode I am really looking forward to playing with more.

Finally there are even optimizations for rear curtain sync that ensure the flash goes off as late as possible ensuring a proper exposure while making sure the shutter is in the right position when the flash goes off.

579zone_control_final_cropped_resizedAlthough you may have heard that putting a ControlTL device on your camera’s hot shoe will fool your camera into thinking there is a flash there, this is not completely accurate. The only in-camera flash control you have is Flash Exposure Compensation. Any zone control or ratio adjustments have to be done with an actual 580 EX/EX II mounted on top of the MiniTT1 or FlexTT5 device.

When the Zone Controller is available, this will help solve the ratio issue by allowing independent adjustment of three different zones without having to have a speedlite on the camera itself. This will allow photographers with two speedlites to use them both off-camera with individual output control. The Zone Controller can also operate each zone in manual or eTTL mode for maximum flexibility. The Zone Controller should be shipping at the end of May for around $70.

How I use the PocketWizard ControlTL System

ShootThis_042510-1 I can’t really address every possible scenario but I can tell you how I have been using the ControlTL system in the shooting I have been doing. This generally breaks down into a couple of different situations. As seen in this first image, a remote flash on a lightstand is outfitted with a Lumodi Beauty Dish to provide directional lighting and make it appear as if the subjects are being lit by the sun. Shooting at this distance and still having eTTL control of the flash is a huge benefit. This is also used with high speed sync to be able to properly expose for a bright sky and still get a proper exposure on the subjects.

Usually only a simple adjustment of the flash compensation is all that is needed to dial in the exact look that I am going for.

IMG_1704 The second most common usage is the ability to place a subject is complete shade to minimize harsh shadows from the sun but still provide the look of an afternoon sun but with far greater control over the contrast.

The bottom line is that the ControlTL system provides the means accomplish the style of images that I try to create with minimal setup time and quick remote adjustments.

Is the ControlTL System for you?

You are the only person who can decide if the ControlTL system is the right fit for your photography style and especially your budget. The components are not cheap, this is a system designed for professionals. The MiniTT1 transmitter sells for $199 while the FlexTT5 transmitter sells for $225. With the Canon 580 EX II selling for $445, a multi-light setup starts to get expensive very quickly.

Why not just use studio strobes and radio triggers? There are certainly situations where that is appropriate and even preferred. However, studio strobes are not as portable, do not offer eTTL control, cannot do high speed sync, and can’t dump their light fast enough for higher speed shots. The small speedlites are extremely flexible and having them be able to be used at fairly long distances gives you control over your lighting that you simply can’t get with a studio strobe.

For more information as well as numerous instructional videos, check out the PocketWizard website at http://pocketwizard.com

Disclosure: CameraDojo, Kerry Garrison, and associated editors do not receive any monetary compensation for any reviews or articles written for the
CameraDojo.com website. PocketWizard supplied loaner equipment to use for this article as well as several upcoming lighting tutorials.

KerryG

Kerry Garrison lives in Castle Rock, Colorado with his wife and two dogs. With 10 years of experience shooting products and 5 years of experience in the wedding industry, Kerry brings a good deal of technical know-how and can explain topics in easy-to-understand terms.

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15 Responses

  1. Kevin says:

    What's been your experience with dependability? I tried the ControlTL PW for the first time at a wedding this past weekend. Worked great for portraits.
    I then tried to use them for the first dance, and even though the test shots fired, it wouldn't work when it came time to actually needing it.

    • kgarrison says:

      A) Do you have the current firmware, B) Did you have the "flash condoms" in place? I have been using them constantly for about three weeks in a wide variety of environments and have yet to have them not work…so far.

      • Dan says:

        I agree with both Kevin and Kerry, The Pocket Wizards have the famous PW dependability but they (at least to me) are not connect and play. You really should read the manual and fully know the system. They always require a calibration shot and recalibration for every new remote flex added. But this is stated clearly in PW docs. If you get to know the system its dependability is rock solid. This is a solid platform by PW.

        I would like to follow up by getting on my soap box… My speedlights are all 550ex. They can be had for about $200 on ebay and sometimes for a fraction of that. The light is on par with the current canon flagship, the only drawback for remote flash is the buttons on the back are not as nice as the wheel. But with the new Zone Controller coming out soon (been waiting a long time) I'll get VERY nice control over my $200 50ws lights. and with the money I've saved I can gang them for more power, and with the PW Hypersync I get even more power.

        • kgarrison says:

          That is an EXCELLENT point. The only point I will make is that the 550EX has a guide number (meters) of 55 while the 580 EX/EX II is 580 (hence the numbering scheme). The difference in light output is negligible. Moving down to a 430 on the other hand is a noticeable drop in light output.

      • Dan says:

        I agree with both Kevin and Kerry, The Pocket Wizards have the famous PW dependability but they (at least to me) are not connect and play. You really should read the manual and fully know the system. They always require a calibration shot and recalibration for every new remote flex added. But this is stated clearly in PW docs. If you get to know the system its dependability is rock solid. This is a solid platform by PW.

        I would like to follow up by getting on my soap box… My speedlights are all 550ex. They can be had for about $200 on ebay and sometimes for a fraction of that. The light is on par with the current canon flagship, the only drawback for remote flash is the buttons on the back are not as nice as the wheel. But with the new Zone Controller coming out soon (been waiting a long time) I'll get VERY nice control over my $200 50ws lights. and with the money I've saved I can gang them for more power, and with the PW Hypersync I get even more power.

  2. Kevin says:

    I do have the latest firmware. And although I do have the condoms, I figured I didn't need them because my distance was only 20 feet away. Maybe I failed to appreciate how bad the rf interference is.

  3. Kevin says:

    I do have the latest firmware. And although I do have the condoms, I figured I didn't need them because my distance was only 20 feet away. Maybe I failed to appreciate how bad the rf interference is.

    • kgarrison says:

      I feel like your Dad here … "You use condoms!!!" It isn't really a distance issue, RF interference is RF interference and while the more distance you have the more signal you need which makes the problem worse, I just keep the wraps on and eliminate any issues.

  4. Jag says:

    What about Nikon wireless?

  5. Wesly says:

    Thank you for writing this review, I am considering to buy this flashlight so it was of use for me.

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