PocketWizard AC3 ZoneController

IMG_4712By now everyone should know that I am a huge fan of off-camera lighting and with a little practice, it’s not that hard to really get the hang of it and add a whole new dimension to your images. I actually don’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 camera’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?

IMG_4716The 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, let’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 isn’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.

IMG_4715While 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:

  • Off
    Should be self-explanatory here, if not, this allows you to simply turn off each channel by itself.
  • Auto
    Uses the Canon TTL system for automatic metering while provide a simple override dial giving you plus or minus three stops.
  • Manual
    Provides manual control over each channel from 1/64th power to Full Power.

Using the AC3 ZoneController

I certainly have to admit that I don’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 it’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 AC3’s level of control should be a complete no-brainer.

Pockwizard Website: http://www.pocketwizard.com/
PocketWizard Blog: http://blog.pocketwizard.com/

Amazon Links


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.

You may also like...

6 Responses

  1. awebjam says:

    Great aarticle. I am still a little confused. Does each of the lights need to be mounted to a PW to get this funtionality? Or can it be accomplished with one mini, one flex, and the AC3 zone?

  2. kgarrison says:

    Yes, each speedlite has to be mounted on a FlexTT5 transceiver.

  3. musicman5 says:

    I absolutely love my AC3 and using it with the AC9 on my Alien Bees has been a significant time saver! It's now so simple to accurately adjust the power of my Alien Bees! If you are an Alien Bee user then you need to look into the AC3 and AC9.

  4. D Byrd says:

    As much as I would love for the ControlTL to be accurate and reliable in the TTL mode they can be very, very frustrating at times. But, adding the AC3 (shooting manuel mode) is a game changer for the ControlTL in my experience. I have had no misfires, blowouts or fail to communicate issues with the AC3 on top. I'm crossing my fingers but it just works. If you have experienced frustration in the past, don't give up, try shooting in flash/manuel with an AC3 on top. The ControlTL with the AC3 has changed the way I light.

  5. urgyen lhawong says:

    i have noticed that when using AC3 in M mode one still has to put Minitt1, flex tt5 and the flash in iTTL mode otherwise it wont work. Am i right or is there complete Manual setting for Mini, flex and Flash.

    thank you

    • kgarrison says:

      That is correct. The flash needs to be in eTTL/iTTL so that the FlexTT5 can communicate the settings from the AC3. In M mode you can still control the power output from your camera and if the flash isn't in a communication mode with the receiver there is no way for your changes to be pushed to the flash.

Leave a Reply