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A first look at the PocketWizard AC3 ZoneController  
Friday, April 9, 2010 | by Rob Galbraith
LPA Design has set a price and approximate ship date for the PocketWizard AC3 ZoneController, a small slide-on module for Canon versions of the PocketWizard MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 wireless radio devices that enables the rapid adjusting of remote flash operating modes and output settings.

We have a first look at this cool new PocketWizard accessory, which has an expected street price of US$69.95 in the U.S. and is tentatively scheduled for release late next month. We've been testing a near-final ZoneController for some time and it's great. If you value being able to work quickly with multiple Speedlites on location in particular, the arrival of the ZoneController can't come soon enough.

The PocketWizard AC3 ZoneController

When slid into the shoe of a MiniTT1 or FlexTT5 on top of a compatible Canon camera, the AC3 ZoneController's three switches and three control wheels give quick and useful control of the output of up to three zones of remote Speedlites attached to FlexTT5s. Each switch determines the operating mode for that zone, while the corresponding control wheel adjusts either the flash exposure compensation or manual power level, depending on the operating mode selected.

Control Freak: The PocketWizard AC3 ZoneController for Canon piggybacking on a MiniTT1, left. The underside of the AC3 showing its foot and lock release button, right. Click photos to enlarge (Photos by Rob Galbraith)

That's the AC3 ZoneController in a nutshell. It's a compact, no-frills accessory module for a MiniTT1 or FlexTT5 for Canon that enables the rapid adjustment of remote flash settings, wirelessly.

The ZoneController's three operating modes are:
  • Auto (A) Auto means TTL. The ZoneController provides +/-3.0 stops of exposure compensation for each zone independently, in 1/3 stop increments, settable on each control wheel.

    Flash exposure compensation (FEC) set on the camera body is factored in too. Camera body FEC provides a way of raising or lowering the compensation of all TTL zones simultaneously.

    The FEC set on each remote flash is also honoured, which enables you to choose compensation that's outside the normal +3.0 to -3.0 range for a specific remote Speedlite.

  • Manual (M) With a zone's switch set to M, the remote Speedlite's output is adjusted manually using that zone's control wheel, in 1/3 stop increments over a six stop range.

    By default, the six stops will cover from full power down to 1/64. You will have two ways to shift the six stops of range downwards if you need to go below 1/64:

    • By dialing in FEC directly on the Speedlite itself
    • By adjusting a setting in PocketWizard Utility, possibly. LPA Design is evaluating whether to include this feature within the software or rely exclusively on Speedlite FEC as the mechanism to shift power range

    Here's an example: if you set a FEC value on the flash of -2.0, the power range of the flash that the ZoneController will work within is 1/4 power down to 1/256 power, thereby enabling you to select a lower power level than Canon's Speedlites natively allow in manual mode. LPA Design's Jim Clark says the practical limit is roughly 1/512 power, because colour shifts occur and output brightness becomes inconsistent when the flash tube is firing at extremely low output levels such as this.

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

  • Off () This works the way you would think. Moving a zone's switch to disables triggering of any remote FlexTT5s set to that zone.

    The ZoneController can also enable/disable the triggering of remote PocketWizard MultiMAX receivers. The first three of the MultiMAX's A/B/C/D zones (available on Standard Channels 17-32) correspond to the ZoneController's A/B/C zones. (Any MultiMAXes on zone D will continue to be triggered, regardless of how the ZoneController's switches are set.)
The sequence below demonstrates the behaviour of the ZoneController with remote Speedlites on FlexTT5s. The ZoneController's settings are shown in the upper right of each photo - in this instance, all zones, when enabled, are operating in TTL mode. Use the arrows below the photo to navigate.


Each control wheel runs from +3 to -3 in 1/3 step increments. Above 0 up to +3, the control wheel text is black on a white background. At 0 down to -3, the text is white on a black background. The markings follow this pattern: 3, 2.7, 2.3, 2, 1.7, etc.

The control wheel markings were conceived with TTL FEC in mind. But, the same control wheels are used to set the remote Speedlite's manual power levels too. With a zone's mode switch set to M, +3 is full power, +2 is 1/2 power and so on. Right down to -3, which is 1/64 power. This is mildly confusing at first but becomes second nature after an assignment or two.

As mentioned above, you can tailor manual's power range to be something other than full to 1/64.


If you navigate through the sequence of AC3 ZoneController photos at right you'll see:
  • The A zone put into TTL mode
  • The B zone put into manual mode
  • An FEC value of +0.3 dialed into the A zone
  • A setting of 1/2 power dialed into the B zone
  • The C zone left disabled
The remainder of the ZoneController is straightforward. It includes a quick release locking mechanism to secure it in the shoe of a MiniTT1 or FlexTT5, a status light and that's it. It does not need its own battery; what little power it requires is drawn from the PocketWizard unit it's attached to.

For Speedlite shooters, the ZoneController's functionality is such that it can take the place of a Speedlite Transmitter ST-E2 (unless you need an AF assist light, which the ZoneController lacks) or 580EX II Master flash (unless you need a flash on the camera, obviously).

There's no going back, though, once you've experienced how efficiently you can make adjustments to three zone's worth of remote Speedlites with the ZoneController. Fumbling with the limitations of the ST-E2 or traversing the awkward Master flash interface of the 580EX II seems downright unpleasant to us now.

Singalong: Canon EOS 5D Mark II + EF 24-105mm f/4L IS at 24mm, ISO 640, 1/250, f/5.6. Light from the front is a Speedlite 580EX II on a FlexTT5 at camera left and bounced off the ceiling. Lights in the background are Speedlite 430EX IIs on FlexTT5s set to the 70mm zoom head position. A ZoneController was used to set the 580EX II to TTL +0.3 and the 430EX IIs to 1/4 power manual. Click photo to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

The preproduction ZoneController we have will probably end up being identical to production units, though this is subject to the outcome of component testing and other quality assurance steps LPA Design is completing right now. We haven't stressed it in the manner you'll see in the video ahead, but we can say:
  • Both the switches and control wheels are nicely done. The switches slide firmly into each position, but are stiff enough to not be accidentally slid into the wrong position when the camera is at your side. The control wheels move smoothly through their rotation while also positively clicking into each settings increment.

    The only quibble we have with the control wheels and switches is that there isn't one more of each. While a lot of different lighting setups can fit smartly into three zone's worth of control, a fourth zone would really come in handy at times. We're being a bit cheeky here, since the three zone limit of the ZoneController is really a limit of the PocketWizard ControlTL system, which in turn took its cue from Canon and Nikon and their three-zone optical wireless systems. So, it's a three zone world for small flashes right now. The speed and slickness of the ZoneController, however, will make you want control of more zones. In our case, one zone more would do it.

  • The 5D Mark II is the camera we've used almost exclusively while testing the ZoneController. A MiniTT1 running beta firmware v5.008 has been in its shoe and the ZoneController has been on top of that. With this combo the ZoneController's operation has been bulletproof: change an operating mode or output setting and the Speedlite on the remote FlexTT5 responds accordingly. We've experienced no weirdness at all, other than the occasional TTL flash exposure mishap that can't be blamed on the ZoneController.
The video below, from LPA Design, shows an automated test rig spinning one of the ZoneController's control wheels repeatedly. This particular control wheel was due to be cycled back and forth about 250,000 times, says LPA Design's Clark. At regular intervals in this test a technician checks both the electrical and mechanical function of the wheel and logs the result. This information, along with data gleaned from other tests, is then used to decide whether manufacturing tweaks need to be made before declaring the product ready to be built and shipped.


Stressful: A video showing a control wheel on the ZoneController being stress tested at a manufacturing facility in China (Video courtesy LPA Design)

Conclusion

The PocketWizard AC3 ZoneController for the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 is a well-executed device that will be a must-have accessory for users of LPA Design's ControlTL wireless system. At the time of its release, currently slated for late May 2010, it will be offered in a version for Canon only at an expected street price of US$69.95 in the U.S. A ZoneController for Nikon versions of the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 is planned but a ship date has not been set, other than it's not expected to be available until some time after the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 for Nikon reach store shelves.

LPA Design isn't prepared to reveal their plan for supporting studio flash power control yet, though they made it clear last year that they do have a plan. Here's hoping the details of it will emerge by the time the ZoneController for Canon is available.
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