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Casting light on the PocketWizard MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 - Continued
The most complex aspect of the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 is perhaps the easiest to explain, because at its most basic the ControlTL feature of the new PocketWizards takes the wireless TTL commands issued by the camera and flash and converts them to radio signals for greater range, more flexibility about where remote flashes can be placed and consistent firing. In this way, you do get what the press release describes as "'Slide-n-Shoot' simplicity" from the system that LPA Design has crafted.

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Slide-n-Shoot: Canon Speedlite 580EX II on top of a MiniTT1. Click to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media Fired Up: The FlexTT5 and 430EX II at work. Click to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

But the Canon versions of the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 at launch will do more than what Canon's wireless system can do on its own, and also do less. As we said off the top, these aren't merely wireless remote TTL range extenders, even if that's a key selling point. By creating them to be inserted into the communications path between the camera, local flash and remote flashes, each Canon wireless feature has to have a digital radio counterpart built into the firmware of the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5. This provides the opportunity to improve upon the Canon system - for example, by allowing flashes that don't explicitly have a Master mode to act as Master units - but it also means there are some feature holes still to be filled.

What is working, and working really well in our experience, is almost everything related to TTL, including all key on-flash TTL exposure controls in the 580EX series, as well as the flash exposure compensation feature found on Canon digital SLRs.

With a MiniTT1 or FlexTT5 in the hot shoe of a Canon camera, a 580EX or 580EX II on top of that and remote Speedlites mounted on FlexTT5s, you have all the main TTL-related options at your disposal: control and triggering of up to three TTL groups (A:B:C), support for ratio or non-ratio TTL configurations, High Speed Sync up to the top shutter speed of the camera, the ability to turn the local flash (the flash in the shoe of the MiniTT1) on or off and flash exposure compensation (for remote flashes, only the flash exposure compensation set on the camera body is applied).

If the Speedlite Transmitter ST-E2 is in the MiniTT1's or FlexTT5's shoe on top of the camera, you have access to its relatively short list of control capabilities, including A:B TTL ratio setting.

In other words, the TTL range extender functions in the Canon versions of the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 are pretty much complete.

Note: The implementation of ControlTL in the Nikon versions of the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 is expected to be the same as the Canon versions, at least to the extent that each system offers the same features. In most instances, you can safely assume that the Canon-related capabilities and shortcomings described in this section apply generally to the upcoming Nikon versions too. That said, the ability to control remote Nikon flashes using the excellent SU-800 Wireless Speedlight Commander on top of a Nikon MiniTT1 or FlexTT5, plus a broader range of flash models that don't interfere with the FlexTT5 acting as a receiver, means using the new PocketWizards with Nikon equipment will be about the same as what we describe for Canon here, only better.

For the podium photo below, two 430EX IIs on FlexTT5s were placed at the back of the room, about 50ft (15m) from the speaker. One had its zone selector on A, the other on B. Handling the triggering was a Canon EOS 50D with a MiniTT1 attached (and a 580EX attached to it). Photographing from behind a slide screen, next to a pillar and several other locations around the medium-sized conference facility, the 430EX IIs fired in every frame.

The 580EX was at times set to A:B ratio, which forces the wireless system to meter the pre-flash from each unit separately just prior to the exposure, as well as non-ratio, which means the pre-flash of all units is metered at once. There was no discernible flash exposure difference. That is, Canon's E-TTL II flash exposure system, particularly with its 35-zone meter cameras like the 50D, often show frame to frame flash output variation brought about by small changes in the composition, but this trait wasn't noticeably worse or better as a result of using the new PocketWizards. The 430EX IIs fired as needed, with the reliability we expect from PocketWizard, and Canon's E-TTL II did the job within the limits of its design.

Listen Up: Canon EOS 50D + EF 70-200mm f/4L IS at 121mm, ISO 320, 1/250, f/4. Click to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)
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Ready: One of the two 430EX II/FlexTT5 combos used. Click to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media) Setup: Both 430EX II/FlexTT5 sets, in action (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

LPA Design has improved upon the feature set of Canon's wireless system in various ways, including:

Wireless flash without a flash This is arguably one of the slickest features of ControlTL: the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 can act as Master units all by themselves when in the hot shoe of the camera. Used like this, non-ratio TTL + camera body flash exposure compensation are possible, with nothing more than one of the new PocketWizards on top of the camera. A MiniTT1 riding on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II was used in the three light setup below (you can see the effect of this arrangement in the triple catchlights of the tightly-cropped photo).

The zone selector on the FlexTT5s under each of the three 430EX II flashes was set to A, B and C, respectively, so that we could slip a 580EX II into the MiniTT1 on the camera and switch to ratio TTL if need be. That turned out to not be necessary, and all photos were taken with only the MiniTT1 on the camera. This gave the advantage of not having a flash weighing down the 5D Mark II, and it also meant that no distracting light was coming from the camera and diverting the attention of the pint-sized subjects. Without question, this is a great way to do wireless TTL.

In addition, using TTL gave the flexibility of shooting fronlit, sidelit and backlit from moment to moment while letting the camera figure out the flash exposure for the three remotes.

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Setup: Three sets of 430EX II/FlexTT5 combos (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)
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Backlit: Canon EOS 5D Mark II + EF 70-200mm f/4L IS at 165mm, ISO 400, 1/250, f/4. Click to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media) Sidelit: Canon EOS 5D Mark II + EF 70-200mm f/4L IS at 200mm, ISO 400, 1/250, f/4. Click to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)
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Triple Double: Catchlights reveal the three 430EX IIs lighting up the scene (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

Squelched optical communication The Master and remote flashes in a stock Canon wireless TTL setup normally communicate via light pulses. Just prior to each photo, the Master pulses out commands for the remote units to ready themselves, then after the pre-flash step is complete, it pulses out more commands, this time to set each remote's power level. With ratio TTL switched on and three zones worth of remote flashes in the scene, there's a whole lot of pulse flashing taking place before the exposure.

The new PocketWizards don't require the light pulse to determine what commands needs to be sent by radio, since they're grabbing this information directly from the flash and camera through the hot shoe connection. The MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 in turn command the flash not to issue certain light pulse sequences, which means that most light pulse communication is squelched before it happens. The benefit is reduced pre-exposure flashing, which uses up a considerable amount of Master flash energy. It's also distracting.

Force Master Mode Any compatible Canon Speedlite becomes a Master unit when Force Master Mode is enabled in the PocketWizard Utility and subsequently loaded into the intended transmitter, either a MiniTT1 or FlexTT5. This has two advantages. First, it means the 430EX or 430EX II can serve as non-ratio TTL Master units, for those times when you don't need TTL ratio control of remote flashes but you do need light coming from the camera. Second, it means that with these flashes, or the 580EX and 580EX II, all optical light pulse communication is suppressed. With Force Master Mode switched on, the only light coming from the flashes is the E-TTL II pre-flash to determine flash output, and a burst of light during the actual exposure.

As noted above, most light pulse communication is stopped before it starts in most wireless TTL configurations that include the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5. Light pulse communication from the Master is ceased completely when Force Master Mode is switched on, and of course also when there is no Master unit at the camera and only the MiniTT1 or FlexTT5 are running things by themselves.

Wireless remote TTL at up to 8fps With a fast-shooting camera like the EOS-1D Mark III, the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 allow wireless remote TTL triggering at frame rates well above the Canon system on its own, thanks to a combination of faster communication (by replacing light pulses with radio signals) and because the Master unit can recycle faster (because by replacing light pulses with radio signals the Master unit uses up less of its capacitor charge on light pulses).

The top frame rate LPA Design has achieved in testing is 8.1 fps, with an EOS-1D Mark III, hence the official 8fps maximum noted in their new PocketWizards' specifications. Flash recycle time is still a factor that will slow the usable frame rate down from 8fps in some instances, but in all cases with Canon's high frame rate cameras and only AAs powering the flash, it should be possible to exceed the shooting rate of Canon's wireless TTL system on its own.

Easy remote TTL flash setup Normally, as part of the setup of a wireless remote flash, its slave mode has to be engaged and a channel and group selected. When the remote flash is on a FlexTT5 it's not necessary to switch to slave mode, the light pulse channel setting isn't relevant because the real communication happens over the radio channels used by the PocketWizard and the zone is chosen using the selector on the FlexTT5 itself. Plus, any flash exposure compensation set on the remote flash is ignored (on purpose), so that doesn't need to be tweaked or reset to zero.

With a FlexTT5 configured ahead of time using PocketWizard Utility, the only things that need to be done to a TTL remote flash are to slip it into the FlexTT5's shoe, turn it on, confirm its display says E-TTL and adjust the zoom head to suit the scene.

Remote flash sleep and wakeup The FlexTT5 can be configured so that its remote flash will go to sleep at the same time as the camera and transmitter go to sleep, or after a user-selecteable time delay. When the remote flash is snoozing, the FlexTT5 receiver will wake it up in response to a signal from the transmitter.

Error detection The MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 perform basic error analysis of the TTL-related signals they receive via the remote units, and if they determine that a remote is about to cough up a TTL hairball - either by failing to fire or by seriously misexposing - that's detected by the system and a command is sent to the remote flash to use the last known good power value instead.

The kiss of light test button It's a small thing, but helpful nonetheless while setting up and testing remote flashes when the room is already full of people and you're trying to maintain a low profile. Pressing the test button on the MiniTT1 or FlexTT5 causes all the flashes, both local and remote, to fire, but at a power level that is just slightly more than the flash's minimum. It's a kiss of light that's noticeable only if you're looking directly at the flashes, and is far less bright than the test feature of Canon's wireless system on its own. The output of a 430EX II set manually to 1/64, for example, is far brighter and far more attention-getting than the new PocketWizard test button burst.

That's a rundown of the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5's implementation of Canon TTL. You're not restricted to TTL-only shooting, however (though as you'll read a few paragraphs ahead, there are some real limitations in non-TTL flash photography when using the new PocketWizards).
  • First, it's possible to put a remote flash like a 430EX II on a FlexTT5, set it to manual (M), dial in a power level on its display and have that flash triggered along with any mix of TTL or manually-set remote flashes in the scene. This kind of setup is ideal when you're roaming and want TTL to manage the foreground flash exposure, but illumination on the background needs to remain constant and therefore having flashes set to M back there makes the most sense.

  • Second, any flashes that don't require TTL, or aren't capable of TTL, can be connected to older PocketWizards too and triggered at the same time as any FlexTT5s present at the shoot. As long as they're all operating on the same Standard channel, they'll all fire at the same time.
The new ControlTL system of the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 does a lot, and does it well. At launch, however, there are some key features missing, all of which are related to non-TTL photography. They include:
  • Adjusting a remote flash's or flash group's manual power level from the Master Speedlite. The Canon system on its own offers this, if the Master is the 580EX II.

  • Support for the wireless adjustment features in the flash control menu of all current Canon digital SLRs. The 50D, for instance, provides a nice (if slightly buried) interface for adjusting the manual power settings on remote units, but these menu items are disabled when a MiniTT1 or FlexTT5 is attached, even if a flash like the 580EX II is in the PocketWizard's shoe.

  • Power level control for studio strobes that provide a suitable interface. Packs and monolights in every price range offer this interface now, from Alien Bees to Profoto, but at launch the new PocketWizard system doesn't have a way of tapping into this increasing pervasive capability.
If you do camera maker TTL all day long, these omissions won't impact you. For regular manual flash shooters, the new PocketWizards lack the features and integration polish found in their implementation of TTL, and as of this writing, LPA Design isn't saying publicly what they intend to do to shore up their new system in these areas, other than hinting that manual flash control options are being worked on (and of course to bring all of what they've developed for Canon to the world of Nikon too).

We're privy to some of the company's future plans, but under non-disclosure, so we'll refrain from openly speculating about what they might or might not do, and when. What we can say for certain is that at the launch of the Canon versions of the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5, ControlTL is primarily TTL.

This means in the battle against competitors like Leap Devices and its just-released RadioPopper PX, LPA Design's MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 are the likely victors when the photographer needs camera maker TTL first and foremost. The PX system is clearly a vast improvement over the earlier RadioPopper P1 product, but the RadioPopper approach to catching and forwarding via radio the flash's optical light pulses means it's constrained within the limits of each camera maker's system. It can do whatever they can do, only further and with greater flash positioning freedom.

By comparison, the PocketWizard approach means the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 can suppress features (such as light pulsing), extend existing ones and add clever tricks like not requiring a flash or ST-E2 at the camera at all to do wireless TTL. Combine that with the rock-solid triggering reliability we've experienced so far from the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 and the new PocketWizards appear to be the superior system by a long shot.

On other hand, the fact that the RadioPopper PX system can do whatever the camera maker's flash system can do means it automatically supports the remote manual power adjustment and flash control menu features currently not supported by the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5. Plus, Leap Devices has announced that their upcoming RadioPopper JrX will provide power level control for Alien Bees and White Lightning strobes. So, the RadioPoppers are holding a few aces of their own.

You'll decide for yourself of course what your features priorities are and how much weight to give each. For us, the combination of HyperSync for shooting strobed sports, interoperability with our Pelican case of older PocketWizards, the sweet TTL implementation of ControlTL plus the triggering reliability we associate with LPA Design products means that it's the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 all the way.

At the same time, we're counting on LPA Design focusing its energy on beefing up the non-TTL portion of the new system while simultaneously completing and shipping the Nikon versions of each model.

Update, June 16: 2009: LPA Design has made big strides in the area of remote manual output control since this article was first published four months ago. The remote manual power level adjustment features of a Master Speedlite 580EX II can now be used , plus the company has announced a superslick device called the ZoneController that should eclipse all other remote TTL and manual adjustment offerings for Speedlites currently. Remote manual output control is no longer a shortcoming in the new PocketWizard system.

If you'd already been leaning towards a PocketWizard radio remote purchase before the introduction of the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5, your decision about which PocketWizard model or models to buy just got more complicated. Here are some points to consider:
  • As a transmitter exclusively, the MiniTT1's features don't line up neatly with any existing PocketWizard, even if integrates well with all of them. If we didn't plan to use any of the new system's bells and whistles, like HyperSync and ControlTL, the MiniTT1 would still be our first choice for a transmitter because of its small size and low profile. After using one for awhile, you won't want to use the skyscraper-style Plus II or MultiMAX in the camera's hot shoe again.

  • The Plus II is a four-channel transceiver with twin miniphone jacks and auto relay mode capabilities. The FlexTT5 includes these features and a whole lot more, which means there aren't too many reasons to opt for the Plus II, and the ones we can think of aren't so compelling. The Plus II has a longer range specification (though the ability to optimally orient the FlexTT5's antenna means it will probably match or exceed the range of the Plus II in many instances), it's extremely simple to operate (thanks in part to its short list of features), has a local/remote switch (the FlexTT5 doesn't), can be triggered at up to 12fps and is less expensive.

    Of these reasons, the only one that probably caught your attention is the price. If you need a receiver for a power pack that will not see much action outside of your studio's four walls, then saving a few dollars by purchasing a Plus II is a reasonable choice. Otherwise, the FlexTT5 offers a lot more, for only a little more money.

  • The MultiMAX still has lots of kick left in it, because it does quite a few things that all other PocketWizards don't. These include four zone triggering with zone selection and disable buttons right on the unit (by comparison, the FlexTT5 has a three zone selector and lacks an external zone disable button), an RF noise meter, repeater function, intervalometer plus two special functions: Speedcycler and Multipop.

    Acting as a transmitter, it's also the only PocketWizard model that can remotely wake or let sleep a remote camera connected to a FlexTT5 or other MultiMAX.

    And finally, as the only PocketWizard with an LCD, the MultiMAX can be reconfigured in the field without additional hardware; the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 require a computer for this.
Availability

The Canon versions of the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 will be released first, and are to begin shipping on March 1, 2009 in the U.S. (which means they'll be available for purchase from dealers starting a few days after that). In Canada, the Canon version of the MiniTT1 is to ship sometime in the first half of March 2009; the Canon version of the FlexTT5 will follow approximately one to three weeks later. In Europe, both the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 for Canon are expected to land in late March 2009 at the earliest.

The Nikon versions of the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 will follow sometime in the second quarter of 2009.

In the U.S., the minimum advertised price (MAP), which is usually a good indicator of the street price initially, is US$199 for the MiniTT1 and US$219 for the FlexTT5.

More information on the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 is in the user guide, which has been posted today.
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