The PocketWizard MiniTT1 transmitter and FlexTT5 transceivers for Nikon certainly put the "Wizard" in PocketWizard, giving you the power to control unlimited Speedlights from practically any distance with little more than your imagination. So here's a quick hands-on review after a few field tests.
Once you understand TTL and manual flash, it's a good time to experiment with multiple flashes. With built-in infra-red systems, the Nikon Creative Lighting System has some limitations, mainly intense heat/light and physical obstructions, that get in the way of extreme operation. With those systems, you're never quite sure which angle is too extreme, how much ambient light is too much, or whatever else might interfere with the signal. The Mini/Flex system eliminates these barriers because it uses reliable radio signals, which can travel much farther and are less susceptible to line-of-sight problems.
If you want to take your flash photography to the next level, the PocketWizards are a good step. Whether you're a beginner with multiple flash or an expert, PWs can make it easy to control multiple flashes off-camera.
I'm not going to get into the details of how to set the systems up, which is actually fairly easy with the included software, but I will discuss how it works and how you can use it. The PWs are like walkie-talkies for flash. The MiniTT1 acts as a transmitter only and is cheaper. It slides into the camera's hot shoe so the camera thinks a flash is attached.
The FlexTT5 is the transceiver to which you attach a remote Speedlight. The Mini and Flex talk to each other, and the camera thinks each remote flash unit is right on top of the camera. Unlike the Plus and earlier models, the Mini and Flex units are able to relay all of the TTL functions of the flashes for automatic flash exposure just as if you had the flash right on the camera. The difference is the PW system takes over communication, so you use the PW controls to change flash groups, turn flashes on or off, switch between manual and auto, and adjust exposure (using a separate AC3 Zone Controller).
TTL flash is one of the biggest benefits of the Mini/Flex system, and it's the only PW system as of August 2013 to offer TTL control. The TTL ability is the main reason I purchased this system, other than to gain more wireless control over my flashes. I also recommend this for beginners, since manual flash is more tricky and takes a bit more time to execute, and you need to know more about metering and light. With TTL, you can simply let the camera and flash do the work and season to taste.
The PWs work out of the box, but you want to use the software to make sure every unit is using the same channel. Then it's just a matter of turning everything on in the right order and taking a calibration shot at 1/125 in manual mode to get the PWs working together. Then it's off to the races. You just shoot, and the PWs take care of the rest.
So, with just the Mini and Flex's, you can control a single group of unlimited flashes, or multiple groups using one group at a time. But what if you want multiple groups at the same time, or you have three flashes and want each to operate at a different setting? You have two options. You can slide one flash into the Mini's hot shoe and use that flash as a master to control the others, or -- and this is what I recommend -- you buy the AC3 Zone Controller for $79 and use it to control up to three flash groups.
I like the AC3 because it's simple and it sits right on top of the Mini. Each of the control groups on the AC3 has an Off, Manual and Auto switch, plus a dial for adjusting power from +3 to -3 (1/1 to 1/64 in manual). It's just what you need and no more, a no-brainer. If you already have a Speedlight Commander Unit, you can use that, but it works the same as the AC3, so if you don't have one, the AC3 will save you hundreds. It's also worth nothing that you can't use the camera's built-in commander mode.
With Nikon, if you have one flash on camera, that is on the MiniTT1, you must use it as a master flash commander, and you must set it on master mode. This is against the basic instructions, which tell you to leave master mode off. But if you dig into the online manual, you see the only way to get multiple flashes to work when one is on the MiniTT1 is to use that flash in master mode. You can then make adjustments to all other flashes in all zones using the master flash commander functions as normal.
So, to recap, you can practically use the PW's out of the box for fully automated wireless flash control. If you understand how TTL works, this can enable you to produce fantastic lighting very quickly with minimum fuss, and you can do a lot with just one group of flashes in auto mode and no AC3 or master flash. However, using the AC3 means you don't have to walk to each flash to adjust it. You could be 500 feet away, with lights hidden behind trees, and still reliably control up to three groups, each with unlimited lights.
When doing manual flash, you can trigger the PW's with radio units available for both the Sekonic L-358 and L-758 light meters, as well as the radio built into the L-478. However, those are expensive tools. Alternatively, you can simply hit the "Test" button on the Mini to fire the flashes for metering, and use the AC3 to turn flashes on and off to meter individual lights. I usually shoot hand-held, so using the Mini to trigger for metering isn't a problem. But if you're always on a tripod, you'll want a trigger built into your meter.
So, here are some shots I took using PWs so you can see how handy they are.
Cover Image: Two Speedlights rigged to DIY Photography double flash bracket inside Wescott Apollo soft box on Flashpoint light stand, off-camera right. Running Mini TT1 and Flex TT5's with AC3 Zone Controller, set to TTL. Nikon D300 in manual mode.
Above: Two Speedlights rigged to DIY Photography double flash bracket inside Wescott Apollo soft box on Flashpoint light stand, off-camera left. Running Mini TT1 and Flex TT5's with AC3 Zone Controller, set to TTL. Nikon D300 in manual mode.
This is a simple effect I wanted achieve using my new Honl Rosco color gels. I placed a flash with a blue gel on a stand about two feet behind me and triggered it using PWs with an on-camera flash as commander. Nikon D200.
I used two flashes for illumination in the above shot. I placed one flash behind the fountain for a nice pop of backlight on the water, and one flash to the camera left for main light. I triggered both with PWs using the AC3 zone controller on camera. This would have been difficult if not impossible without PWs given the distance and water and concrete blocking the line of sight. Nikon D200.
As a Nikon user I've experienced rock solid reliability and would recommend PW to any Nikon user. However, Canon users have not experienced the same reliability with PocketWizards, so feel free not to get PWs for Canon (or feel free to switch to Nikon!).
I have also looked at RadioPoppers and while I don't question their reliability, there are some things I really don't like about RPs and reasons I wouldn't buy them, even though they're cheaper. The main reason is that they don't have a zone controller and you have to use an existing flash or commander to change power or modes on different Speedlights, which is stupid. Commanders and Speedlights are expensive and I wouldn't want to have to buy one or dedicate one just to gain wireless control with a radio system that should provide it. Even if I did use a Speedlight for commander functions, no Speedlight is as fast as the AC3 Zone Controller for changing modes and power in individual groups.
Also, the PX transmitter requires AAA batteries. With PW, I can simply use a power cable to draw power from the camera to the transmitter. If you're in a studio and you have a few extra seconds to make changes, RP might be OK, but at a live event where you're always shooting on the fly, I need the speed of the AC3.