PocketWizard AC3 ZoneController
By now everyone should know that I am a huge fan of off-camera lighting and with a little practice, itâ€™s not that hard to really get the hang of it and add a whole new dimension to your images. I actually donâ€™t think understanding the concept of lighting is nearly as hard as figuring out the technical aspect of how to actually make it all work. The Canon wireless system requires a line of site from the camera making complex lighting setups difficult and can really prevent the use of some types of modifiers. Inexpensive wireless triggers bring good range and affordable cost but you lose the ability to control light output from the camera. Higher end systems like the PocketWizard ControlTL system combine the control of the Canon/Nikon TTL system with the power of using radio frequencies but then you are sometimes constrained by the limitations of the Canon or Nikon controls. What you really need is the benefits of radio frequencies, the power of the cameraâ€™s TTL metering, but with a multi-zone override and manual control, all from the camera. This is precisely what PocketWizard has delivered with the AC3 Zone Controller.
What is the AC3?
The PocketWizard AC3 ZoneController is an add-on to the ControlTL system that brings a new level of control to your lighting setups. Before we get to deep into this we need to take a step back and look at what the Canon system delivers so we can see how the AC3 ZoneController enhances the original functionality.
While I am not going to go deep into detail here as that would require an entire book, letâ€™s break it down into two main types of control the Canon system has.
- eTTL Ratio Control
With eTTL Ratio mode you have an A and a B channel that will provide automatic metering through the camera. You can provide more power to one channel while taking power away from the other. This is a very basic ratio control and the only override you have is a general flash exposure compensation. You can then add to that a C channel which operates independently and has its own power adjustment. The downside with this setup is that a simple ratio control sometimes isnâ€™t enough.
- Manual Control
In manual control you can simply adjust each of the three channels independently. This is generally my favorite mode but the main problem is still the line-of-site issue and that pesky third channel is often now in a good position to get a signal from the main flash.
While the PocketWizard ControlTL system solves the line-of-site issue, the problem has always been that if you still want all of the functionality of the Canon wireless system, you still had to put a 580 EX/EX II flash on top of the MiniTT1 module to enable the full range of controls. What I really wanted was to be able to use ALL of my speedlites off-camera and not have to sacrifice one just for the controls.
This is exactly where the AC3 ZoneController comes in. The AC3 provides you with three different channels to work work (make me now wish for 4 or 5 though) that can be managed in three different ways:
Should be self-explanatory here, if not, this allows you to simply turn off each channel by itself.
Uses the Canon TTL system for automatic metering while provide a simple override dial giving you plus or minus three stops.
Provides manual control over each channel from 1/64th power to Full Power.
Using the AC3 ZoneController
I certainly have to admit that I donâ€™t miss having to have a complete speedlite on top of the camera to give me the control of my lighting since this give me one more light at my disposal to use to light the scene. I also should admit that I shoot the vast majority of my work with manual flash. I find it to be more reliable and consistent than using eTTL. The ability to turn channels on/off and adjust the power without having to walk over to where the speedlite is can come in very handy.
For most portrait setups, the Automatic mode will work the vast majority of the time, its usually only when the subject has odd-reflective properties do things have a tendency to get a little wonky. Still, I shoot my camera in manual, and I generally keep my flash in manual.
One of the biggest advantages is the time savings in dialing in your lighting output power. I can start with all of the lights off to adjust for the ambient. Then turn on the accent light to get itâ€™s power set, add the fill light, and then the key light and everything comes together very quickly without multiple trips to each light or having to have a VOLS handy.
Keep in mind that you are paying for this convenience. A three light ControlTL power system would consist of the following components:
So a three light setup will set you back $955.00. While a cheap, manually only trigger kit will run less than $100. While this does sound like a staggering difference in cost, and it certainly is up front, you have to consider the time factor of being able to control everything from your camera. You simply do not always have the luxury of time to run around adjusting lights to get exactly what you want. The time factor can certainly pay for itself fairly quickly since you can dial in all three zones without having to waste your own time or have an assistant.
Putting the AC3 ZoneController to Use
The following sequence of images shows exactly what I described above from starting with ambient light and adding the three lights in order.
Get Exposure for Ambient Light
Setup Background Light
Add Fill Light
Add Key Light
The beauty of the PocketWizard AC3 ZoneController is that turning lights on and off and adjusting their power is all done without have to step away from the camera. If your lights are pointed in the right direction it should only take a few shots to get everything you need dialed in quickly and accurately.
If you have already made the investment in the PocketWizard ControlTL system, plunking down another $79 in order to have the AC3â€™s level of control should be a complete no-brainer.