Thursday, June 2, 2011

Review: PocketWizard FlexTT5


Gotta rather difficult review today… PocketWizards Flex system (FlexTT5, AC3 controller & AC9 for Alien Bee flashes). It’s difficult because it’s (spoiler alert) a largely negative review for products that come from a company I really like and have a lot of respect for. It’s a long(ish) review, and non-photog unfriendly; so once again normals are encouraged to look elsewhere. But if you want to feel the pain there’s plenty after the jump…

If you’re a photographer and you have any interest what-so-ever in off-camera flash then you already know about the PocketWizard Plus II. They are the gold-standard of wireless flash triggers. They are the thing against which all other things are judged; and most competitors to the crown come up wanting. Are they expensive? Yep. But save your pennies (lord knows I did) and just get them. They are brilliant, so easy, and 100% reliable. Nothing else really compares.
The only problem with the Plus IIs (other than their price point) is that they are one-trick ponies. They fire your flash when you hit the shutter release. That’s it. Boy-oh-boy do they do that one trick well (damn near to perfection). But one trick never the less.
So I, like a lot of folks, got real excited when PocketWizard announced their next-gen series of triggers. CLS, iTTL, High Speed sync, wireless control of power settings. It’s the kind of talk you expect to pay $1.99 a minute to hear.
But I’ve been dealing with technology so long I like to tell people I invented Al Gore. I know you never (well, almost never) invest in bleeding-edge tech. As much as it hurts, you have to wait. Give it some time for the early adopters to work out the kinks; then you plunk down your cash. It’s a formula that I really thought I had down to a science… but it looks like this time I missed.
About two weeks ago I swaggered-up to the internet bar, threw down my credit card and said “leave the bottle”. Between Adorama and B&H I picked up 2 FlexTT5s, one AC3 and one AC9 (all for Nikon). $580.00 total. Boxes arrived, manuals were read. There was also a good deal of swearing, but I’ll get to that in a moment.
I know by this time you’re probably itching for me to get to the “review” part. Let me begin by saying that I was using the factory installed (and at the time most current) firmware… but by necessity had to upgrade to v. 2.123 which is beta.
I’m gonna start with a (probably very weird) critique: form factor. This may sound petty, but I’m just not digging the FF on these new units (well, at least on the FlexTT5s). I can’t imagine how we ever got used to the Plus IIs – giant ungainly boxes with that goofy antenna sticking out. But you know, it just kinda worked. It also helped that with a little Velcro the Plus IIs fit perfectly on top of your flash. The FlexTT5s are just plain weird looking (even with the antenna folded down), and when you attach the AC3 controller things don’t get any better. Perhaps - and this would be fair to say - I’m just afraid of change. But for some reason it just doesn’t feel right.
Looks aside: On the FlexTT5 you’ve got two switches; one for your flash grouping (A,B,C) and one for your channel selector (unit off, C1 & C2). There is also a Test/Learn button. There are two control ports, one for remotely triggering a camera, the other for a (simple) remote flash. Hot shoe male on the bottom, female on the top (where the flash goes for “smart” triggering). Finally there is an antenna that folds down, behind which is a mini-usb port for connecting the unit to your computer.
Not too bad. Not quite as simple as the Plus IIs (on/off, test, remote/local/both, channel 1 through 4)… but these FlexTT5s (are supposed to) do a lot more “stuff”, so, ok, there’s more stuff on ‘em. I get it. Problem is, the FlexTT5s do a lot more stuff. Much more than there are controls for. You only get a true understanding of this when you connect one of the units to your computer… and see the wide variety of option you can set. Now, I know I just bitched a little about the form factor; and I’m not suggesting that PWs put a physical switch on for each option. But too few physical switches don’t help either.
Example: There is only a Channel 1 or Channel 2 switch physically on the unit. According to the spec sheet, the unit can “talk” on any one of 32 channels. How, exactly, dose that work? Oh, you’re supposed to set the channel via your computer…right. And when I’m out in the field and my laptop got flown to Jamaica (without me, dammit!) – what am I supposed to do then? Oh, don’t worry, there’s a “learn” button. Just hold it down for 10 seconds (which, according to PW own documentation eats up battery life) and then press “learn” on a second unit to sync them. Nice story, but sadly I have to report that it doesn’t work. I’ve tried more times than I can count to get units to “learn” about each other… I’ve followed the printed instructions and watched PW’s own video… all to no avail. Point is: Just having a C1 & C2 button does you little good when your unit’s have decide to start using Star Fleet sub-space priority Alpha One frequencies to communicate.
Which leads me directly to my second problem: My two FlexTT5s sometime just decide to stop talking to each other. Donno why, but they just do. In the absence of being able to fix this “in the field”, the only solution I’ve found is connecting both to my computer and – via the software – manually setting the channels. After that, they are fine. Right up until the time they’re not.
Wirelessly control your flashes!
Let me get this out of the way. With all respect to McNally, I could care less about CLS or iTTL. I’ve said it before, it’s straight-up voodoo. If you dig it, all well and good; but it’s just not my style. What I care a great deal about is A) being able to remotely control the power output of my flash and B) High Speed Sync.
About power control: With my SB800s things seem to work as advertised. Important note however: Only Nikon camera bodies with pop-up flashes contain the internal menu options to do this without extra hardware. My D200 with the FlexTT5 can, for example, remotely change the power on a SB800 (or SB900, I assume). My D3s (go figure!) doesn’t have a built-in flash and so doesn’t have the correct menu options. To remotely change the flash power with my D3s, I needed to buy the AC3 controller.
I don’t blame PW for this – after all it’s a Nikon thing. But it’s just a little ironic that my 5 year old body can do something that my much newer (and much more expensive) body can’t. Wadda ya gonna do?
At this point I feel like a have to say something nice: With my SB800s and FlexTT5s High Speed Sync worked exactly as advertised.

Hand holding the flash (bare) out with my left hand, shooting with my right. 1/4000th of a second.

 Let's try that again, this time 1/8000th of a second. Are you F'n kidding me?

As for the AC3 controller: It, too, (mostly) works as advertised. Beyond looking a little silly sitting on top on the FlexTT5; there are three control knobs that let you set three flash groups up to six stops (three up, three down) in 1/3rd increments. In Manual mode the AC3 sets the remote flash to three stops down from full power, and lets the user control it from there. So, with my SB800 the “0” power setting on the AC3 is 1/8th on the flash. Three stops up is full, three down 1/64. I lose 1/128th as a flash setting, but I don’t really consider that anything to cry about.

Things, unfortunately, got really witchy when I tried to set up the AC9 adaptor on my Alien Bee 1600. The “promise” was remote power control, HSS, and other fun stuff (like iTTL – but again, don’t care). Out of the box and with the latest “blessed” firmware on the FlexTT5s, nothing worked. Not even close. I’ll spare you the recount of my (several) evenings of trouble shooting – but finally some Google searching led me to a little salvation. DeVende Photography had the same problem back in early May and had found (mostly) the solution. From the PocketWizard software utility you need to enable the option to download “beta” firmware, then download and install version 2.123. After doing this, things got a little better; I could fire the flash and change the power. If you’ve had this problem with the AC9 and Alien Bee units, please go to his blog and thank him – I did.
Oh, but the story doesn’t end there. After installing the beat firmware things were working… almost. With the AC9 and my AB1600 I’m seeing a weird behavior. If I dial down the power on the AC3 controller and take a picture – the flash doesn’t change its power. If I then take a second shot, the flash power drops down to where I have set it. Changing the power UP doesn’t have this problem. So, to set the power down I have to take an extra shot to “tell” the AC3 the new power setting. It might just be the AB holding the previous power in it's capacitors - but if that's true it seems like the AC9 could just tell the AB to dump it's charge before it fires. This behavior would really suck if I was using my Vagabond II – because when you are running on battery power every shot counts.
And again, like with my SB800 – sometimes the Flexs (and the AC9) just stop talking. Sometimes shot-to-shot. Frustrating to say the least.
So the conclusion: The Flex system just isn’t ready for Prime Time. Not by a long shot. With luck, PocketWizard will hammer out most of the issues and resolve them with better firmware. How long will that take? Your guess is as good as mine. But (as they are right now) I wouldn’t even think about taking these things into the field on a paying shoot. They are just too finicky and unreliable. And perhaps the biggest disappointment is that all of this comes from a company that makes the best radio trigger on the planet. If wireless triggering is your thing, and you’ve been on the fence – don’t let this dissuade you; scrape the cash together and get some PocketWizard Plus IIs. You’ll be happy you did. As for the Flex system – give it at least six more months and see what happens.
End of line.


  1. +II ROCKS!
    I already decided to wait until a friend with TTs can do what I want, and then I'll buy. Thanks for the review!

  2. Thanks for this post. I had been wondering whether to go with pocketwizards or radiopoppers - you helped answer many of my questions. Re the alien bee second shot syndrome I think that has to do with the dumping. If you wait for autodump to do its job when you decrease power the power level should be correct. But if you decide to fire a shot as a faster way of dumping I think there's no disadvantage from a power conservation POV because the power must be spent to decrease the power level -- autodump or firing a shot shouldnt make much of a diff.

  3. Mic - yeah, I agree re: the power dump issue. And rather than take an actual shot I think you can force a dump with the Test button from the Flex on camera. It's just that I didn't realize how accustom I had become to the AB auto-dumping the power when I stopped down from the back of the flash.

    So - I'll admit - it's a little unfair to "blame" PW for this behavior. But it still irks me that I only found out about that after the fact.


  4. Hi there my name is Oscar and I am from Australia.

    I read your review hoping to find the answer to a conundrum i'm currently facing but it's not quite what I need.

    Not long ago I bought 2 AB1600 and 1 AB800, 2 Flex TT5 (nikon), Mini TT1 (nikon), PW AC9s for all strobes, AC3 (nikon) and Vagabond Mini.

    Initially I used Paul C. Buff Cyber Syncs but they were damaged doing field work.

    All worked ok for a few days however, during the first time I used my set up in an out doors job something wasn't working - using a one light set up (going by correct switching on procedure, demonstrated in PW video) I had few successful shots, using the AC3 I made a power adjustment and from then all sorts of things went wrong.
    1 - it didn't change power levels
    2- sometimes it didn't fire at all
    3 - for a long time the flash tube gave a little spark but no real flash.

    These problems plagued the whole shoot. The only thing that seamed to make it work properly was turning everything off, leaving it for a minute then restarting it. Only then did I get 1 or 2 proper fires then it was back to not working.

    When I got home I tried to do some trouble shooting.
    It worked fine for about 10 shots just pressing the test/ dump button on the strobe but when I set up the PW and used the camera shutter release it fire once or twice then reverted to the little sparks. I changed power points and got a few more shots then .. sparks.

    Plugged in the vagabond, got the same thing.

    I thought it might be that particular mono light so I swapped it with my other AB1600 I worked on and off for a dozen shots.
    Eventually it fired consistently-ish for 20 shots, one every sec or so before it went BANG and emitted smoke then died.

    I sent both heads to the distributor and they couldn't fix them either so are sending me new ones.

    Meanwhile I tried using the PW set up on my AB800. It worked fine until once again I adjusted the power with the ac3 (ac3 works fine with nikon sb-speedlights). The AB800 stopped firing at the correct power then a few shots later - little sparks, no flash.
    Turned everything off and on again. Some correct power shots then the same...

    Desperately I tried removing the PWs and used the pop-up flash on the camera to trigger the AB800 - CONSISTENT correct powered strobe EVERY time.

    Went back to the PWs - failure after 2 shots.

    Is this a sync problem?

    It can't be a flash tube issue (at least not in the AB800 because it works fine with the pop-up flash)

    All my PWs were given software upgrades on opening the box.

    If you think you might know how to fix this problem - Please help me!

    Thanks for reading,



  5. Oscar,

    Sorry to hear about your problems. To be honest, I’ve been using my FlexTT5s only as “dumb” receivers for some time now (as I was never happy with their consistency). One of my two Flex units was particularly troublesome – but I think I’ve narrowed the problem down to a hardware issue. Somewhat as you described; one of my Flex units will function properly after startup, but then suddenly (after about a half-dozen pops) stop working. Whether I use a sync cord or directly attach a flash directly to the hot shoe, this one problem child will occasionally stop responding (even hitting the test button yields no response). I called PocketWizards and they asked that I send it in for testing (note: these things come with a generous 3 year warranty, so that’s a good thing).

    As for your power issues: It *sounds* like either the AC3 or AC9 is sending a signal to set the AB to it’s lowest power setting. Remember: you should be setting your AB to it’s full-power setting. Zero on the AC3 is three stops down from whatever you have your AB set to. If your AB was set to – say – ½ power that would mean that zero on the AC3 would equal 1/64th on the AB. However, if you are at full-power on the AB and still getting very small pops then there is definitely a problem.

    I wish I had something more practice to tell you – other than give PocketWizards a call. They seem like nice enough people. I’ll give an update when I hear back about the Flex I’m sending in. The only other good news is that with the Plus III’s coming out the Plus II’s are starting to show up for sale used online. Those things are still (for my money) the best, most reliable triggers.

  6. Ok, I run through the set as you suggest to make sure thats how I was operating it. I'm pretty sure I had it full power but I'll double check.

    Thanks for your time and effort,



  7. I ran into similar issues on a shoot last week using TT5s, a TT1 and AC3 on SB800 flash units. Worked great for a while then suddenly stopped and no matter what I did I couldn't get the units to work. In desperation, I finally just replaced the TT5s with PW Plus receivers and finished the work, using a meter to set my exposures.

  8. Perfect review timing. I just had a similar problem today. Config-5D MkII, MiniTT1 with AC3 controlling two AB1600s on Ch2, zones A & B with FlexTT5 and AC9s suspended about 12" below the ABs on light stands about 10' up and both firing through umbrellas. One AB on my left about 12' away and the other on my right about 20'. Setting the ABs at about 3/4 power I adjusted the AC3 to +2 to get the right exposure. After shooting 30-40 shots, all of a sudden i got a string of shots about 2 stops too much, so I adjusted the AC3 down to zero on both A and B and dumped. Exposure was correct then. Shot some more and then it was UNDEREXPOSED . Reset the AC3 to +2 again and voila` back to correct. NOT A HAPPY CAMPER. Between this and the RF issues, PW needs to do some serious R&D work . Luckily I still have the Plus IIs to fall back on. Glad I didn't get a buyer when I tried selling them.
    PW, please fix quickly.

  9. Excellent review Louis, thanks for mentioning us! Really appreciated!