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LPA Design unveils the PocketWizard ZoneController  
Tuesday, June 16, 2009 | by Rob Galbraith
 If you've been sitting on the fence regarding the Canon versions of the PocketWizard MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 wireless radio remotes, LPA Design has taken the wraps off an accessory that's meant to change that. Called the PocketWizard ZoneController, it's a small slide-on module for the new PocketWizards that enables the adjusting of remote flash output settings, whether those flash units are Speedlites or, in time, studio packs and monolights.

Piggyback: The LPA Design PocketWizard Zone Controller attached to a MiniTT1 transmitter. Note that the wheel markings will be different on shipping units, as will the location of the status LED. Click to enlarge (Graphic courtesy LPA Design)

The ZoneController is a straightforward device. It's built for speed and simplicity, with one switch and one output control wheel for each of its three zones, plus a status LED at the rear. And that's it. To keep the unit compact and to make it as quick as possible to change settings, it has been designed without an LCD display. This should also make it more affordable, though LPA Design hasn't yet revealed what its price will be.

To use the ZoneController, you slide it into the hot shoe of a camera-mounted MiniTT1 or FlexTT5 and it's ready to go. It draws its power from the attached PocketWizard transmitter, but in practice it uses so little juice there is effectively no reduction in the host unit's battery life, says LPA Design's Jim Clark.

Three operating modes

The ZoneController offers three operating modes:
  • Auto With Speedlites, Auto means TTL. The ZoneController provides +/-3 stops of exposure compensation for each zone independently, in 1/3 stop increments, settable on each control wheel. In addition, flash exposure compensation (FEC) set on the camera body is also factored in, which means camera body FEC provides a way of raising or lowering the compensation of all TTL zones simultaneously. If camera body FEC is left at 0 it has no impact on flash brightness.

    If the remote flash is a studio pack or monolight, then the Auto setting will operate differently, since TTL is not an option. How exactly does the Auto setting behave with studio lights in the future? LPA Design isn't yet saying, other than it will be different than the Manual setting.

  • Manual With a zone's switch set to Manual, the remote Speedlite's output is adjusted manually using that zone's control wheel, in 1/3 stop increments from full power down to 1/64. (If you need to go lower than 1/64 and the remote flash supports this, it must be done directly on the remote flash itself.)

    FEC set on the camera body is ignored by any ZoneController zones that are set to Manual. Manual is truly manual.

    How exactly will the Manual setting behave with remote studio lights in the future? LPA Design isn't yet saying, other than it will be different than the Auto setting.

  • Off This works the way you would think: setting a zone's switch to Off disables triggering of both remote FlexTT5 and MultiMAX receivers set to that zone.
To control the manual power level or TTL FEC of a remote Speedlite, it must be attached to a FlexTT5 acting as receiver and set to operate in ControlTL mode. Alternatively, if all you want to do is enable or disable the firing of a remote Speedlite, and you don't need to adjust its output brightness, then the receiver can instead be a MultiMAX. The ZoneController's A, B and C zones correspond to the zones of the same letter on that unit.

Similarly, the firing of a remote studio flash can also be turned off and on with the ZoneController, when the receiver at the flash is a MultiMAX or a FlexTT5.

Independent zone control

If you're a Canon shooter who often works with multiple Speedlites on location, the benefits of the ZoneController should be tremendous. With it, you will have the flexibility to independently enable, disable and control the output of three zones of remote flashes. This isn't possible in the Canon system by itself, even with a Master 580EX II at the camera, and definitely not with a Speedlite Transmitter ST-E2.

With a ZoneController inserted into a MiniTT1/FlexTT5 wireless setup, you can:
  • Enable and disable each zone independently

  • Choose the exposure mode for each zone independently: one can be on Manual, another on TTL and a third can be Off. Or, any other combination that suits the job

  • Set the power level or exposure compensation for each zone independently
In other words, it's designed to work exactly as it should, with fully independent adjustability of each remote zone, using flash exposure compensation as the mechanism to brighten or darken each TTL zone, rather than the clunky ratio method native to Canon wireless on its own.

For those situations where you don't need a flash at the camera - which comprises how we use remote flash most often - the ZoneController also allows you to avoid the heft of a Master 580EX II, not to mention the slight distraction brought about by pre-exposure light coming from it.

If you do need on-camera flash in addition to remote Speedlite output control, then a 580EX II set to Master and attached to a MiniTT1 or FlexTT5 on the camera is still the way to go. When you don't, the ZoneController's features are almost certain to be super useful to Canon Speedlite shooters who need flexible control of remote Speedlites and the ability to change settings quickly.

ZoneController for Nikon

If the ZoneController works as advertised, then the Nikon version of it will probably be a superior alternative to the SU-800 Wireless Speedlight Commander, at least for those who don't need to take advantage of its macro flash features or autofocus assist light. The SU-800 provides nearly the equivalent zone-by-zone control, but its LCD-and-buttons interface make for comparatively slow settings changes. Plus, we've been caught with the SU-800 recycling and not ready at the time the shutter button was mashed down to take a picture. The SU-800 is a really nice unit, but the ZoneController is poised to surpass it in the way that matters most to us: speed of operation.

And then there's the matter of working distance. Nikon has done an impressive job of eeking out decent range and positioning flexibility from an optical triggering system, but the Nikon versions of the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 should still give a dramatic range boost over the Nikon system by itself.

We haven't used a ZoneController yet, prototype or otherwise, so the obvious enthusiasm pouring out of this article is based on what we know of its design and what it's meant to do, rather than hands-on experience. That said, the ZoneController is ultimately a simple device that leaves all the hard work to the transmitter it's attached to. There's good reason to think it's going to be the real deal for Canon Speedlite and later Nikon Speedlight owners.

Studio flash

What is left unsaid is LPA Design's intentions in the area of remote studio flash control. About this, a press release says only that "[f]uture capabilities for studio flash are planned." We have an idea of what they're going to do, but under non-disclosure, so we won't pretend to speculate about what they might have in the works. It's not giving anything away, though, to point out the competitive environment in which PocketWizard products are sold demands that a device like the ZoneController be able to remotely adjust the power levels on popular studio packs and monolights.

As described earlier, it will be possible to use the ZoneController to enable and disable the firing of a studio flash if the remote PocketWizard receiver is a MultiMAX set to A, B or C. The details of planned capabilities beyond this will have to wait for a future LPA Design announcement.

Availability

The PocketWizard ZoneController for Canon versions of the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 is scheduled for release in late-summer 2009 (which probably means August at the earliest). Its price has not been set. A release date for the Nikon version of the ZoneController has also not been set, but presumably it will come at the same time or shortly after the Nikon MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 hit store shelves later this year.
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