Pocket Wizards, Radio Poppers…or just Canon’s native wireless…

For the past couple of months I’ve been trying to get the hang of Pocket Wizard’s new Flex TT5/Mini TT1 radio triggers. If you’re not familiar with what I’m talking about, it’s basically a wireless system to operate flashes off camera. There are several different products available using different approaches to operating said flashes, and some are more reliable than others, some are more expensive than others, and each have their pros and cons and unique limitations. What’s amazing is that I’ve finally just come back to Canon’s native wireless system that’s already built in to their flashes.

So why did I get away from it in the first place to spend (a lot) of money on gadgets that turned out to be worthless to me? Simple. Line of sight. Canon’s system, while the easiest to use in my experience (high speed sync, remote control of off-camera flashes so that you don’t have to walk over and adjust manually), requires the sensors on the off-camera flashes to “see” the master flash (or ST-E2 controller) that’s on-camera. Meaning if the line of site is blocked, by furniture, people, a wall or whatever, it won’t go off. And outside it’s alleged to be even worse in sunlight because the sun overpowers the ability of the off-camera flashes to see the master (although, as I’ll explain below, it’s not nearly as bad as it’s made out to be). The Pocket Wizards circumvent the line of site issue by using radio signals. At least, they’re supposed to.

(There are two sets of Pocket Wizards: the old system that’s more reliable and the new Flex/Mini system. The problem with the old system is that you can’t get high speed sync, nor can you control the output from on camera, in addition to no TTL control. So you’re limited. For me the lack of high-speed sync is a deal breaker as I demand to be able to open up my aperture for good depth of field in daylight while keeping the sky dark by setting the shutter speed to a 4000th of a second or whatever, and still lighting the subject with flash. The old PWs don’t allow this. The new Flex/Mini’s, however, do allow it, and that is why I bought them. However they’ve turned out to be horribly susceptible to the RF noise most Canon flashes emit and are terribly unreliable.)

So having the Mini/Flex set up and trying to figure them out for the past few months, I’ve decided to ditch them in favor of going back to Canon’s native wireless with an eye towards eventually getting the Radio Poppers (after I sell the PWs). I just got tired of the seemingly endless troubleshooting the PWs required and their frustrating unreliability. I want something to work consistently and not have to wonder what’s wrong THIS time. The Radio Poppers have gotten near universal praise for their reliability; they just work. I guess the reason I didn’t go that route instead of the PWs is that the RPs are a start up company while PW are established and have (or used to have) a solid reputation.

Yesterday I decided to test Canon’s native system in direct sunlight (albeit at 6:30 in the evening, so maybe it’s not as prone to interfering with the Canon system as, say, noon) and I discovered–with the 580 as the master on camera and a 430 both alone and through a white umbrella–that, as long as I made sure the sensor was pointed in my direction (therefore having to tilt the flash head where I wanted it to light), I could get the 430 to shoot from 45 feet away. On second thought that was through some shady areas. If the sensor was in direct sunlight it wouldn’t go off more than 10 feet away…until I shifted the sensor just a wee bit, and then I regained the longer distance.

That may seem inconvenient on it’s face, having to account for the sensor’s direction visa vi the master flash — and I used to think so too, which is why I tried the Flex/Mini set up — but it’s far less inconvenient than the flash suddenly not going off at all less than fifteen feet away, and wondering what the h*ll is wrong this time.

Having said all that, I did purchase a 430EX II and I can verify the lack of RF noise that particular model emits does make a difference in reliability. I tried both my 580EX II and then my regular 430EX across the room 30 feet away on a Flex right next to the 430EX II on its own Flex, and while both of those were inconsistent in their firing, sometimes shooting for several clicks but suddenly not going off for several more, the 430EX II shot every time with no worries.

So it seems to me that if you want consistency, you’ll have to switch over to the 430EX II (and therefore lose the power of the 580s, not to mention the money and time spent in buying however many 430s you need, but also the hassle of selling the 580s if you wanted to make up the money), or go out and buy the $70 cord to separate the Flex from the RF noisy flashes, not to mention a ferrote (sp?) choke (and maybe more than one $70 cord depending on how many off-camera flashes you use), or get the VeilShield to wrap around the flash, or get the forthcoming shield (or two) that PW is developing, or…

Starting to seem like more trouble than it’s worth, to me. Especially when Canon’s native system will work just fine if you can work within its limitations and the not-so-inconvenient-after-all effort of making sure the sensor is turned toward the master flash (and even if the off camera flash is behind or to the side of the master, I’ve found that simply turning the master head backwards or towards the offcamera works, although that means sacrificing the master flash as a fill, which is generally fine with me). And eventually getting the RPs will eliminate the line of site issue, but for now I can happily live with it. I also agree with other photogs assertions that PW rushed it’s new Flex/Mini system onto the market too fast, without proper product testing, primarily to compete with the Radio Poppers.

Now I realize that method won’t work for a lot of shooters depending on their needs. And maybe the old PW Plus IIs are the more reliable option, although I have a set of those, too, and had my own issues with inconsistency and at any rate I demand the high speed sync and the old PWs simply don’t allow it, not to mention the ease of being able to remotely control the power output without having to walk over and change it.

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