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Extending the range of the PocketWizard FlexTT5 and 580EX II
Friday, March 26, 2010 | by Rob Galbraith
A new section to this article was added April 7, 2010. You can access it via the popup menu at right.

Flashy: A Canon Speedlite 580EX II on top of a PocketWizard FlexTT5. Click photo to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)
Since LPA Design released the PocketWizard MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 for Canon last year, the wireless radio remote system has been dogged by criticism that the working range is too short when the flash attached to the remote FlexTT5 is one of a trio of Canon Speedlite models that emit radio frequency (RF) noise in the operating range used by U.S./Canada PocketWizard devices.

This prompted the company to develop an internal RF noise reduction modification for Canon's current Speedlite flagship, the 580EX II, as well as two RF noise shielding accessories, the PocketWizard AC5 and AC7. All three options extend the usable working distance dramatically. Each comes with its own set of side benefits and tradeoffs too. Here's a rundown of the current spate of range-improving options and how they compare.

Note : All PocketWizards sold in the U.S., Canada and a handful of other countries operate in the 340-354MHz frequency range. Testing for this article was done only with these versions, and the range results we state are therefore applicable only to these versions. PocketWizards sold in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and many other countries operate at 433-434MHz and are less affected by Speedlite RF noise from the 580EX, 580EX II and 430EX. They are not unaffected, however, and so may also benefit from shielding accessories like the AC5 and AC7, but we haven't tested this.

Also note that
Speedlite RF noise only affects the reception of PocketWizard signals, not the transmission of them. This means you needn't worry about which Speedlite you have on top of the MiniTT1 transmitter (or FlexTT5 transceiver being used as a transmitter) on top of the camera, since any RF noise coming from the flash does not reduce the reach of the transmitted signal.

Options for extending the range between a MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 + Speedlite

This article looks at the following options which, except for homegrown solutions, represent all we know of for shooters seeking decent range and reliable performance from the PocketWizard MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 with an RF noisy Canon Speedlite attached. The options are:
  • Do nothing
  • Switch to a different Speedlite
  • Wrap your flash in the PocketWizard AC5
  • Insert your flash in the upcoming PocketWizard AC 7
  • Have your 580EX II modified
An overview of each is followed by range testing results. Following that are some recommendations.

Option 1: Do nothing The three current and previous generation midrange and up Speedlites that emit a lot of RF noise at U.S./Canada PocketWizard frequencies are the 430EX, 580EX and 580EX II. If you tend to not stray more than 15-20 feet from your remote flashes, and the flash model on top of the remote FlexTT5 is a 580EX or 580EX II, chances are you'll not experience any flash triggering problems. If the flash is a 430EX, then batten down the hatches: an RF storm rolls in the moment you turn it on. If our history with this flash is any indication, triggering malfunctions can occur at even short distances when this flash is on the remote FlexTT5.

Doing nothing is not really an option with the 430EX.

Option 2: Switch to a different Speedlite Site co-editor Mike Sturk and I have been able to steer clear of most of the RF noise trouble this article talks about by relying on a mix of 430EX IIs and 550EXs as our primary Speedlites for Canon remote flash work. These two flashes generate the lowest levels of RF noise at U.S./Canada PocketWizard frequencies, and therefore allow for both the longest working range of all Speedlites as well as reliable communication and triggering when they're placed behind pillars, low to the ground and so on. Life with the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 for Canon is pretty easy when using one of these two Speedlite models.

430exii_02.jpg
Low Noise: A pair of Canon Speedlite 430EX II flashes on PocketWizard FlexTT5s (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

A used 550EX can be had for a song. But, if you're accustomed to the ultra-quiet operation of newer Canon flashes, the recycle whine of the 550EX will seem irritatingly old school.

Of current Canon Speedlites, the 430EX II is a remote flash gem. It's silent, small, considerably less expensive than the 580EX II and yet almost as powerful (our tests show it trails in maximum brightness by only half a stop on average when comparing the two flashes at various zoom head positions). Looking strictly at the benefits of the 580EX II as a remote flash, it's slightly more powerful, can accept an external high voltage battery pack and its zoom head produces a cleaner beam of light than the 430EX II when zoomed to the 105mm setting. These advantages don't add up to the 580EX II being the clear remote flash winner for most things I personally shoot, at least not when the 580EX II's additional cost and PocketWizard RF noise problem are factored in.

If you're already the owner of a case full of 580EX IIs or perhaps older 580EXs, then please ignore the preceding two paragraphs. What you really need is a way to make the flashes you already own play nice with PocketWizards. If, however, you're weighing which Speedlite model to buy next to complement a set of MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 units, the 430EX II deserves serious consideration, both because it's not RF noisy and because it offers a heap of remote flash value.

Option 3: Wrap your flash in a PocketWizard AC5 Announced last fall, and included in the box with the Canon-version FlexTT5 in the U.S. since January, the PocketWizard AC5 RF Soft Shield is a combination of RF shielding fabric sleeve and RF filtering shoe designed to keep Speedlite RF noise away from the attached FlexTT5.

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Raise Shields: Views of the PocketWizard AC5 RF Soft Shield, paired with a Speedlite 580EX II. Click photos to enlarge (Photos by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

The AC5 shoe slides into the shoe of the FlexTT5, the flash slides into the AC5's shoe, the sleeve slides over the flash body and its drawstring is snugged tight as shown. It looks dorky, and it's a bit fumbly to deploy the first couple of times out, but it does its job well. As you'll see in the range testing section ahead, this is an extremely effective RF noise countermeasure. It's designed for taller Speedlites like the 580EX and 580EX II, but will fit a shorter flash like the 430EX too.

There are four secrets to happy use of the AC5:
  • Make sure the inside lining of the sleeve, which is the RF shielding material, is touching the gold part of the base of the included shoe. This is key to getting maximum RF noise protection from the AC5. To do this, ensure that the drawstring part of the sleeve is pulled tight around the shoe as shown in the leftmost picture above.

  • Make sure the sleeve extends as close to the end of the flash head as possible, even when you have a light modifier velcroed on. RF noise emanates from both the body and head of the flash, so it's important to keep as much of the entire flash covered as you can.

  • When you need to check or change a flash setting, don't try to slide the sleeve up and off the flash. Instead, you'll find it quicker to release the velcro tab around the head and shimmy the sleeve down to the bottom, as shown in the rightmost picture above.

  • Once properly tightened, the drawstring holds the sleeve firmly in place around the shoe, even when the flash + shoe + sleeve combo is repeatedly removed, put away, pulled out and then re-attached to the FlexTT5. In our use of the AC5 so far it does seem to be practical to leave the sleeve and shoe on a Speedlite that will be used exclusively as a remote, which would enable you to bypass most of the AC5 setup routine each time you intend to use it.
Also note the AC5 can make the flash run very slightly hotter. In LPA Design's testing, the temperature of the head area of the flash after repeated firings was no more than a few F higher with the AC5 than without, so this shouldn't pose any real problem. But, if you've just given the Speedlite a workout by firing it consecutively at high power levels, it's probably a good idea to slide the sleeve down to the base of the flash to help with airflow while the flash is at rest.

In the U.S., the PocketWizard AC5 RF Soft Shield is available at no charge to FlexTT5 owners who purchased their unit prior to the inclusion of the AC5 in the box. The no charge offer is set to expire on April 30, 2010. Complete an online form to receive one AC5 for every FlexTT5 for Canon you own, unless it came with an AC5 already. The U.S. offer is not available to those who purchased their FlexTT5 in another country.

In Canada, the AC5 is not currently included with the FlexTT5, nor is there an official program to enable Canadian FlexTT5 owners to obtain one at no cost. Any questions about this should be directed to Daymen, the Canadian distributor of PocketWizard products, at service@daymen.com.

Starting in the next several weeks, the AC5 will be included in the box with the FlexTT5 for Canon in Canada as well. At the same time, the street price of the FlexTT5 in Canada, and the U.S. also, is expected to increase by 5% or so.

Also starting in the next several weeks, the AC5 will come available as a standalone accessory for purchase at an expected street price of US$15 in the U.S. It will be made available by LPA Design to distributors worldwide.

Option 4: Insert your flash in the upcoming PocketWizard AC7 The PocketWizard AC7 RF Hard Shield is meant to do the same thing as the AC5: keep Speedlite RF noise away from the FlexTT5.

RF noise emanates out from the Speedlite body, and it also passes down through the flash's foot, so like the AC5, the AC7 provides shielding for both. It's a three-sided plastic shell with a pass through shoe in its base (the shoe part is identical to the AC5).

The shell incorporates RF shielding, as does the shoe piece. The Speedlite slips inside the AC7 and attaches to its shoe. Together, they're attached to a FlexTT5 and then mounted on a light stand via the FlexTT5's foot or 1/4-20 mount, or one of two 1/4-20 mounts built into the bottom side of the AC7. The back of the AC7 is open and provides full access to the flash's controls.

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Hard Shell: Views of the PocketWizard AC7 RF Hard Shield. Click photos to enlarge (Photos by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

At first glance, the AC5 would appear to be superior in most respects to the AC7. First, it packs up smaller. Second, because it wraps around the entire flash unit, it looks as if it should offer greater RF noise suppression. Third, it's free right now, at least for U.S. FlexTT5 owners (see the previous section for more information on this).

In reality, the AC5 and AC7 are about equal in range testing. Both do a superb job of improving an RF noisy Speedlite's usable range and overall firing reliability. Plus, the AC7's sideways design gives it a significant ace up its sleeve: the flash is angled so that it's pointing at the centre of an umbrella, when the umbrella shaft is slotted through a typical lightstand mount such as the Photoflex Shoe Mount Multiclamp pictured underneath the AC7 in one of the photos above. The profile of the flash is also lowered, which in turn means less blocking of returning light when illuminating a reflecting umbrella.

The fact the AC7 positions the flash head optimally for umbrella use is a nice bonus, regardless of which umbrellas you light with. If you're trying to gain the full benefit of the fantastically bright and soft Paul C. Buff silver parabolic PLM series umbrellas, then being able to orient the flash as the AC7 does is essential. LPA Design's Tim Neiley indicates that feedback from participants in a private beta test of the AC7 going on right now suggests that the umbrella positioning feature is going to be a hit. (An AC7 is being used for this very purpose in the PLM umbrella picture above.)

In addition, the AC7 provides ready access to the flash's controls and screen.

If your Speedlite is a 580EX or 580EX II, the AC7 will enable you to both tame RF noise and line up the flash ideally within an umbrella.

The main disadvantage of the AC7 is that it can be tough to find room for one or several in a Speedlite lighting kit, though this can be mitigated by leaving the remote flash inside the AC7 at pack up time. Also, it's too long for the 430EX.

The PocketWizard AC7 RF Hard Shield is slated to ship in April or May 2010 at an expected street price of about US$30 in the U.S. It will be made available by LPA Design to PocketWizard distributors worldwide.

Option 5: Have your 580EX II modified LPA Design discovered that the addition of three small components to the internal circuitry of a 580EX II squelches this flash's RF noise output considerably, without otherwise changing the performance or behaviour of the flash. The resulting range and triggering reliability boost was substantial enough that the company recently began qualifying photo equipment repair outfits to perform the modification for 580EX II owners.

Two U.S. service centres have completed the qualification process and are now offering the modification, with more to follow in the U.S. and perhaps Canada as well.

The list so far:
  • Precision Camera This is the camera repair industry's Goliath, with over 600 employees servicing more than 3000 items of photo gear daily, says Mark Soares, Senior Strategic Markets Manager for Precision Camera. Though the company has several locations around the U.S., the 580EX II flash modification is being handled exclusively by the Pro Services division at their Enfield, CT location.

    The price for the modification is US$69 + US$6.95 for UPS Ground return shipping to the U.S. and to Canada (Soares says the cost of Canada return shipping may rise in the future). Faster return shipping will be more. Typical turnaround time is one to five days.

    The customer is responsible for arranging and paying for the shipping of their flash to Precision Camera. They will accept flashes for modification from anywhere in the world, but can only return modified flashes to a U.S. or Canadian address.

    The process starts by reviewing the information on Precision Camera's Radio Frequency (RF) Camera Flash Modification page. Then, send an email to flashmods@precisioncamera.com or call 1-866-449-7287 to request the service.

  • LeZot Camera Repair Based in Burlington, VT, LeZot Camera Repair will accept 580EX IIs for modification from just about anywhere in the world, and return them back to where they came from too. Turnaround time is two days typically, plus shipping time.

    The cost of the modification is US$75 per 580EX II, with a 15% discount if three flashes are modified at one time. The customer is responsible for arranging and paying for shipping to LeZot, while the return trip shipping cost is determined during the modification purchase step, with the rates varying by destination and service level. For example, returning a flash to a U.S. customer using UPS Ground will cost roughly US$12-14. To Canada via USPS Priority Mail is about US$26.

    Get things underway with LeZot here or by calling 1-800-286-9027 or +1 (802) 863-6989. Peter Johnson, Operations Manager for the company, says that questions from photographers about the modification and shipping options are welcome.

  • Michael Bass Michael Bass, maker of all manner of small flash cables, triggers and custom-designed accessories, is completing the qualification process now. He is charging US$75 + shipping. More information is here.
A page on the PocketWizard site will be updated as additional repair centres are qualified by LPA Design.

If you're considering the modification:
  • It works! We've been using three modified 580EX IIs since earlier this year, and the improvement in general firing dependability is palpable. We'll say more in the range testing and recommendations sections ahead.

  • Say bye bye to your warranty, at least officially. We're not going to speculate on the likelihood of a Canon factory service centre opting to charge for what would normally be a warranty repair on your 580EX II, should the Canon technician spot the modification. What is worth noting, though, is if your 580EX II requires a repair that involves replacing the modified circuit board, then once you have the flash back from Canon it will need to have the modification done again.

  • Do not try this at home. LPA Design's Jim Clark says there is a significant risk of injury from a high voltage shock if the person performing the modification lacks sufficient training and know-how. As a result, LPA Design is not releasing modification instructions to do-it-yourselfers.
Range testing

Obviously, which range-improving strategy you go with will be dependent on how good it is at improving the range. In order to compare the options we set up a line of sight test. On the receive side was a lightstand raised to about 6ft (1.83m) with a small umbrella inserted into the lightstand mount. Positioned on top of the lightstand was a FlexTT5, and attached to that was the test subject, beginning with an unmodified 580EX II. The setup resembled the picture below. In all but the AC7 testing the flash was oriented upright.

Line of Sight: The receive side of the range test setup. Click photo to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

On the transmit side was a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with EF 70-200mm f/4L IS attached and a MiniTT1 in the hot shoe. Both the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 had fresh batteries and firmware v5.008 loaded.

The aerial photo below depicts the maximum working distances we came away with. Position (1) marks the location of the lightstand + FlexTT5 + flash. Positions (2) through (7) show how far away we could get and still achieve 20 successful ControlTL triggers in a row.

range_comp.jpg

The distances translate as follows. After the distance is the range increase multiplier, relative to a stock, unmodified 580EX II:
  • 2 Maximum to 580EX II (stock): 100ft (30.5m)
  • 3 Maximum to 580EX II (RF modified): 340ft (103.6m), 3.4X
  • 4 Maximum to 580EX II (stock) when wrapped in an AC5: 520ft (158.5m), 5.2X
  • 5 Maximum to 580EX II (stock) inside an AC7: 540ft (164.6m), 5.4X
  • 6 Maximum to 430EX II (stock): 650ft (198.1m), 6.5X
  • 7 Maximum to 550EX (stock): 710ft (216.4m), 7.1X
Reminder: All PocketWizards sold in the U.S., Canada and a handful of other countries operate in the 340-354MHz frequency range. Testing for this article was done only with these versions, and the range results we state are therefore applicable only to these versions. PocketWizards sold in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and many other countries operate at 433-434MHz and are less affected by Speedlite RF noise from the 580EX, 580EX II and 430EX. They are not unaffected, however, and so may also benefit from shielding accessories like the AC5 and AC7, but we haven't tested this.

Things to note:

We tried placing just the shoe part of the AC5 between a modified 580EX II and FlexTT5, to see if that would extend the range beyond the 340ft (103.6m) we got from a modified 580EX II alone. It didn't: range stayed almost exactly the same. We also tried a modified 580EX II inside an AC7, and did see a range bump to about 620ft (189m).

This means it's not possible to goose the range upwards through the addition of the AC5's shoe alone, which would have been convenient if it produced a measurable difference. Alas, it did not. It is, however, possible to bring the range of the modified 580EX II into the territory of the 430EX II, if the modified 580EX II is inside an AC7. Probably an AC5 (sleeve and shoe together) would have given the same boost, but we didn't test this out.

This range test was performed in the same location and in a manner similar to an article we ran about a prototype AC7 last year. You can't, however, make direct comparisons to the distance numbers in that article and this one. That's because LPA Design has improved the error detection and correction code in the firmware for the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 since we published the earlier article, as well as refined the timing of certain operations, both of which add up to improved range. Even though the flash model we're using this time - the 580EX II - is actually RF noisier than the 580EX we based our testing on last time. Also, the production AC7 tested this year does its RF noise-suppressing job better than the prototype from last year.

Range tests like this are useful because they allow for fair comparisons between RF noise suppression options. The distances, however, are not representative of what you'll get if you're working in a crowded room, hide the remote flashes behind objects or set them close to the ground (which can act as an RF signal absorber). What we've found, however, is that big jumps in performance in range tests such as this one translate to noticeable, usable improvements in overall triggering reliability when the same remote flash gear is taken into situations that are less welcoming to wireless transmissions than a simple line of sight test.

It's highly unlikely you'll see the sort of range numbers stated above in most indoor shooting environments, for example. But, we did try two modified 580EX IIs and one unmodified 580EX II in a large gym filled with several hundred students sitting and moving about, and while the unmodified Speedlite began to misfire from no more than about 30ft away, the modified units kept working as they should at about 120ft (36.6m) or so, which was as far away from them as we could get.

Here's another example: in a large ballroom with two 430EX IIs and one modified 580EX II, the only clue that the range to the modified 580EX II's FlexTT5 was shorter than either of the 430EX IIs did not come when the 5D Mark II was to my eye, snapping away, but rather when the camera was dangling at my side and I was tripping the shutter to test-fire the flashes.

Both the near and far 430EX IIs lit up, as usual, while the 580EX II in the middle failed to fire in nearly half of the test frames. This is probably because, with the camera being held at below-hip height, the MiniTT1's internal antenna was closer to the ground and the wireless signal had to cope with more obstructions. This revealed the fact there was less wireless signal breathing room with the modified 580EX II than with the other two Speedlites. That said, all three flashes fired on cue while actually shooting pictures from both standing and crouching positions.

Recommendations

Which option or combination of options you choose is going to be based on your own particular lighting needs, there is no universal right answer. That said, we can offer a bit of guidance should you find yourself staring with bewilderment at the buffet of RF noise squelchers now or soon to be available. In no particular order, here are some recommendations to ponder:

If your heart is set on the 580EX II as the remote Speedlite to use with a MiniTT1/FlexTT5 system for Canon, and you plan to trigger it from a distance or on shoots where the wireless signal may have to maneuver around a bit, then get the modification. The cost and hassle of sending it in will be offset by the improvement in range and overall triggering reliability, not to mention the peace of mind that comes from knowing that your flash is going to fire when you need it to.

As long as there isn't too much space between you and the remote flash. If you're working within a moderate distance of the remote FlexTT5 + modified 580EX II combo, you can expect the flash to fire dependably, and the working distance will be several times longer than an unmodified 580EX II in our experience. But, because the modification doesn't bring the 580EX II's range up the level of the 430EX II or 550EX, or even an unmodified 580EX II in an AC5 or AC7, you may not be able to completely rule out one of the other options as well. Especially if you sometimes find yourself fairly far from the remote flash or you have a habit of tucking it into range-reducing nooks and crannies in the scene.

Plus, if your flash is the RF noisy 580EX or super RF noisy 430EX, then no internal modification is available. So, you'll definitely want to select from one of the other options.

Small is Beautiful: The Canon Speedlite 430EX II on a PocketWizard FlexTT5. Click photo to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)
Our first choice for a Speedlite to marry up to a FlexTT5 is the 430EX II. It delivers most of the power of the 580EX II in a smaller, less expensive package and allows for nearly the full operating range of the PocketWizard system to shine through.

I personally own three of them, and it's the Canon flash I'm most likely to reach for when setting up remote Speedlites on a FlexTT5. The 430EX II just works.

In fact, after a recent selling spree that cleared out the remaining 430EX and 580EX units gathering dust in my gear cabinet, the only Canon flashes I now own are 430EX IIs and modified 580EX IIs. Site co-editor Mike Sturk is still going strong with his fleet of aging but still 100% functional 550EXs. Those he plans to replace with 430EX IIs when the older flashes begin to die off.

Before you pull out your credit card to buy a 580EX II as your primary remote Speedlite, pause for a moment and consider whether the 430EX II will do what you need, given how well it functions with the FlexTT5.

If you're in the U.S., own a FlexTT5 and don't have an AC5, there's no reason not to take advantage of the free offer running until the end of April. As noted earlier in the article, it will also soon be shipping with the FlexTT5 in Canada, as it is now in the U.S., and it will also be arriving at dealers as a separate accessory for purchase. It's an effective range booster with the 430EX, 580EX and 580EX II, so it's probably worth making sure you have at least one.

If you get the 580EX II modification done, the AC5 can stay tucked away in a side pocket of your lighting bag until the day when you need more range than the modification provides. Having to use the AC5 frequently, however, would not be an option we would choose if there were a viable alternative, such as switching to a 430EX II.

The AC7 provides excellent RF noise suppression, ready access to the flash's controls and aims the Speedlite at the centre of an umbrella. If you do a lot of lighting with umbrellas and your flash is the 580EX or 580EX II, you can improve your PocketWizard range and your umbrella lighting with a single accessory. But remember, the AC7 is too long for a shorter flash such as the 430EX.

Complicating the AC7 decision is a nifty new flash holder available now from Michael Bass. Called the Horizontal Flash Mounting Bracket, it provides a simple way to mount a Speedlite on its side, for optimum umbrella positioning, but without the bulk of the AC7's shell and shoe. It's a simple design comprised of a shaped plastic bracket and velcro strap with several lightstand mounting options, including a foot with locking collar, low-profile foot without locking collar, spigot as well as direct attachment to the small, sturdy LumoPro LP633 lightstand mount (the LumoPro's cold shoe is removed and the bracket screwed on in its place).

Sidewinder: A prototype of the Michael Bass Horizontal Flash Mounting Bracket, attached to a Canon Speedlite 580EX. Click photo to enlarge (Photo by Michael Bass)

We've just begun to use the Horizontal Flash Mounting Bracket, and it's great; we're working on an article now that will look at this slick accessory in detail. The Horizontal Flash Mounting Bracket starts at US$35. ( Update, April 15, 2010: We've now published a separate article on this accessory.)

If you need both RF noise suppression and horizontal flash aiming, then the AC7 will still be the way to go. For those who need just the latter, check out the Horizontal Flash Mounting Bracket from Michael Bass.

Revision History
April 6, 2010: Added information about Michael Bass' 580EX II modification service and Horizontal Flash Mounting Bracket.

Next Page: April 7, 2010: the 430EX II and Nissin Di866
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