Pocketwizard question

A student who took my five-day Flash course at the Niagara School of Imaging (held annually at Brock University), asks:

I still struggle with PocketWizards a little. I have the TT1 and TT5 for Nikon. This was different from the ones you used at Brock. I am not sure what is the best option and how I could add a speed light from a different make, e.g. Panasonic.

That is a good question.

So first, what is a Pocketwizard? A radio slave, i.e. an electronic “wireless cable” between your camera and your flash. One on the camera to send, and one on each flash to receive.

And just like with real cables, there are two types:

  1. “Intelligent” Pocketwizards (or cables) that “talk TTL”, i.e. that know the camera’s and the flashes’ commands. They use all of the flash contacts (like 5 of them), and they are camera specific. They provide access to all functions, especially automatic (“TTL”, Through-the-lens) metering.
  2. “Dumb” Pocketwizards (or cables) that just tell the flash “fire now”. As picured above, these provide no automatic metering; they do not know any of the camera’s or flashes’ special functions, and they are not camera specific. Can you see, there’s just one contact (plus one on the side)?

But the second type does not do any automatic metering? Why use those, then? Surely that is a drawback?

I’ll tell you why I use those. First, they use AA batteries, and a lot of the “intelligent” Pocketwizards have special little batteries. Me no like. Second, simple is good: less can go wrong. Plus, TTL is proprietary, so Pocketwizard and other vendors have to reverse-engineer the protocols, which could be difficult. Third, they are cheaper. Fourth: Pocketwizard has not yet lent me some to test, and I will not ever recommend what I have not personally tested.

And fifth, and not in that order of importance: with “dumb” Pocketwizards I can use any old flash I like, regardless of its brand. Yes, I need to set the power level on the flashes by hand, but hey, who cares. In studio-type shooting that is no big deal.

So if you want the type that is not camera specific, i,e, that allows you to use Nikon flashes with a Canon camera, say, then use the second, simple type.

Does that help?


Read on for course details: new courses have been announced and are running soon.

Reader Question

Today, reader Rita asks:

I was wondering if you might have some insight into this issue I’m having.

Shooting with Nikon D800. Off camera speed lights  – SB900 and SB800. Using Pocket Wizard – TT5s on the speedlights, TT1 on the camera, along with AC3 to control light coming out of speedlights. (zone controller).

The issue that I’m having (even on full batteries) is the delay. When I press the shutter, the shutter doesn’t actually release until well after my finger has stopped pressing the shutter. It’s worse than a point and shoot!

I was with Sal Cincotta on a workshop and he was shocked! He shoots Canon, and didn’t have a solution. Have you heard of this? Am I doing something wrong?

Rita followed up by saying she wanted the non-TTL Pocketwizards, but they were not available; and she is using second-curtain shutter sync.

Good question. OK, let’s start at the beginning. No, I doubt very much that you are doing anything wrong.

A "Manual Only" Pocketwizard connected to a Canon flash via a flashzebra.com cable

Yes, Pocketwizards need time to send all those pesky TTL signals back and forth (“group one: fire preflash. Now, group 2: fire preflash. Now the real flashes” – etc). Hence, there is extra delay.

When you are using multiple group TTL (group A, group B, etc), this is even more noticeable; and second-curtain sync, especially if you are using a slower shutter speed, will make it even worse. And Nikon is noticeably slower than Canon – even using normal light-driven TTL, on a Nikon most people can see two flashes, while on a Canon, you perceive the two flashes as one since they are very close together.

I have not tried the Nikon version of the TTL Pocketwizards, so I cannot say – but I am not surprised to hear you say this, alas.

Here’s my take on it.

First, I think these TTL Pocketwizards are too ambitious. The engineers who make them have to reverse-engineer the secret Canon and Nikon commands: not a recipe for great technology. Which is why the Canon version took several years to become reliable. And the Nikon version followed the Canon version, i.e. is less mature.

Second: I will never consider any device that uses “special” batteries, if there is an alternative. One of the biggest selling points about the regular PWs is that they use regular AA batteries, not special AAA123 batteries or whatever they are called, that cost $10 and are impossible to find anywhere. End of story, for me.

Third: when I do complex off camera flash, I prefer to use manual flash power settings anyway, meaning I do not need TT1/TT5 Pocketwizards and can now buy the $99 simple model.

So – Rita, while it is possible there is an issue of some sort, I fear that this may just be the inherent drawbacks in your system. But here is what I would check:

  1. Have you ensured that both your camera and the PW’s have the most recent firmware?
  2. Try without rear curtain sync, and with a fast enough shutter speed -what was it, in your case?
  3. Make sure there is a good path from transmitter to receiver and they are close together (for the test, anyway)
  4. Ensure that you have fresh batteries in everything, flashes and PW’s and camera.
  5. Set the PWs to the old channels. This might well help.
  6. Try using manual focus, just in case.
  7. Ensure you have a fresh, formatted memory card, and if necessary, reset your camera to defaults, to eliminate anything else.


Does that make any difference? If not – ask PW support for specs (what is normal?), and if that is too slow, as I fear it may be, then sell the TT1/TT5s and buy some of the new $99 ones. Extra benefit: You will then be able to use any flash (Canon, Nikon, Minolta) that has manual power settings!



  • Who is coming to Oakville this Sunday, noon-4pm, for a Flash course?
  • Who is spending five days in my course at Brock University this August (the Niagara School of Imaging)? There’s still space and my “demystifying digital flash” course is on, so book now! Here’s a video about this course: [click here]


Hidden worlds

There is a hidden world in water’s surface tension. A world like this:

Water Drop (Photo: Michael Willems)

Is that difficult to photograph? Depends on how much patience you have.

Here’s how I just took this picture:

  • Camera on a tripod, equipped with a suitable lens – I used a 100mm macro lens but a 50mm or a telephoto lens may also do.
  • I set the camera to 320 ISO, f/11, 1/250th second.
  • A black background, lit up with a gelled flash – or just a coloured background.
  • A tray with water – also preferably black. I used a wok since I had nothing else, plus a wok is round, so you get circular waves.
  • A plastic bag with water. I hung it from my microwave. Poke a very small hole in it with a pin.
  • A for the background – I used a 430EX with a Pocketwizard driving it. The flash set to manual 1/4 power and equipped with a Rust gel from Honlphoto.
  • Another flash aimed at the drops from the side. Also driven by a Pocketwizard, this flash was equipped with a Honl snoot. Also set to manual 1/4 power.

This looked like this:

Water Drop (Photo: Michael Willems)

See the ziplock stuck in my microwave door? And see the tripod on the right?

And given enough patience you will get pictures like the one above. Yes, patience is required – I just shot 500 pictures to get 10 great ones.

Gotchas to watch out for:

  • Too big a hole will give you streams of water – not flattering. You want slow-moving, large drops. Small pin hole achieves this (else, wait until the pressure lessens).
  • Like in any macro photo, you may need to clean up your picture to remove the dust you lit up with the flash.
  • You will also want to crop the image.
  • Watch for reflections of the waves in the bottom of the pan – shoot as horizontal as you can.
  • Watch for reflections elsewhere too – I got a reflection in the side of the pan; some of this I had to remove in post-production.
  • Focus manually; prefocus where the drops fall.
  • You want fast flashes – and since a flash’s power is set by its duration, this means not full power, so make sure the flashes are close.

A few more samples:

Water Drop (Photo: Michael Willems)

Water Drop (Photo: Michael Willems)

Water drops (Photo: Michael Willems)

Water drops (Photo: Michael Willems)



A shot from the course

At the Mono “Creative Light” workshop,  we do different portfolio shots every time.

So imagine our delighted on Sunday when a student turned up in a Hummer. This was immediately put to use by model Tara:

Tara Elizabeth and Hummer

Tara Elizabeth and Hummer

That was lit how?

This is how: with a softbox, to our left. And a small speedlight to our left aimed straight at the car – with a blue Honl gel. Both were fired using pocketwizards (the speedlite using a Flashzebra cable). Metered using a light meter, of course.

Here is an alternate take:

Angry Tara Elizabeth, with Hummer

Angry Tara, with Hummer

That was taken just a few minutes before. Can you see how every minute counts when shooting in beautiful late day light?

Okay, one more. Just to show that lens flare – which should normally be avoided – can sometimes be OK:

Angry with tire iron

Angry with tire iron

You avoid flare by:

  • Using a lens hood
  • Shielding the lens with your hand
  • Avoiding lens filters
  • Pointing slightly away from the light source

Have fun!

Think Tank Airport Security

Always short of space to put things, and never one to shy away from adding to my number of bags, I recently bought myself a Think Tank Airport Security™ V 2.0 bag. This huge rolling bag (allowed onto aircraft in the USA, but too big for most of the world) now holds my lighting gear.

Not cameras or camera gear: just my lighting gear, like so:


Airport Security V2 Roller Camera Bag

That holds all my  clamps, ball heads, five Pocketwizards, three or four speedlites, cables, grids, gels, my light meter, and more. In addition, the side compartment holds the other Honl Photo modifiers, a gray card, and other small materials.

Michael's Big Lighting Bag

Michael's Big Lighting Bag

This bag is well built and has many cool gadgets. Such as three separate locks (two of which can be opened by the TSA). Emergency backpack straps. Many removable compartment sides. Two lockable cables to attach things to it, or it to things. A rain cover. Many things I will not need, like a tripod mount.

Small areas that could perhaps be improved:

  • The cutouts do not fit large Canon bodies (they are on the wrong side), so you need to remove your lenses if you are to use this as a camera bag. Quite an oversight.
  • Not quite enough internal compartment dividers for my liking: I had to add one or two dividers from another bag.
  • The lid hinges at the bottom, so things may spill out from pockets in the lid when it’s open.
  • The front external compartment is a little too small.
  • The external “laptop compartment” seems a bit of an afterthought and is rather insecure (yes, it has a cable to attach to the laptop – still not quite secure enough for me).
  • The uneven bottom made it a one-hour job to decide how to fit in all my gizmos. But that’s OK.
  • The handle that you use to roll the bag is flimsy and even has a warning, “do not lift by this handle” – that is a design flaw, if you have to warn people how not to use a product.

But those are small gripes. It’s a fantastic bag.

Michael’s Quick Judgment: recommended. This is one huge bag – where I carried two before. Anything that reduces my bag numbers is good. This bag does it in style and with intelligence. And all my lighting gear in one bag, in neatly arranged divisions: utterly fantastic.

GF1 self portrait

A self portrait I took a few minutes ago:

Michael Willems, photo by Michael Willems

Michael Willems, photo by Michael Willems

I shot this with the Panasonic GF1:

  • Camera on manual, f/4.0, 1/60th second, 200 ISO
  • Using multiple-point autofocus
  • Pocketwizard on the camera
  • Pocketwizard on a 430EX flash, connected with Flashzebra cable
  • Flash set to manual, 1/32nd power
  • Honl Photo Traveller 8 softbox on the (handheld) flash

To lower the noise (“increase the signal to noise ratio”, for engineers) I exposed to the right (i.e. I exposed high, but without actually overexposing anything) and then pulled back a stop in Lightroom.

The 20mm lens (yes you can use 40mm, for that is what it is, for portraits) gives me that wonderful sharpness. Click and view full size to see how sharp it is.

The Honl softbox gives it that nice soft look and the unique round catchlights.

And I have said it before: for creative photography, lighting a subject is as much about what you do not light than about what you do light.

Postscript: And here’s one more: son Jason just now (similarly lit, also shot with the GF1)

Jason Willems, photo Michael Willems

Jason, shot with GF1/430EX

Pocketwizardry Tip

Quick tip.

When using Pocketwizards to fire your flashes or speedlites (use Flashzebra cables for the latter if necessary), perhaps for pictures like this:

Evanna Mills by Michael Willems

Evanna Mills, photo by Michael Willems

You get a choice of three settings: local, remote, or both.

Local means “when triggered, fire the device connected to the Pocketwizard”. “Remote” means “when triggered, use your radio transmitter to fire the remote devices that may be listening”. Both means both.

Tip: In any normal situation, set your device to remote on the camera, and to local on the others, that have a flash attached.

Why not just set them all to “both”?

  1. Many radio signals will be sent each time, leading to an increased chance of confusion.
  2. More power is spent this way too.

Yes, I know, radio all over can even make things more reliable. But in my opinion it is as likely to make things less reliable. And yes I know, radio does not use a lot of power and the PWs last forever on two AAs. But “forever” does not actually mean “forever”. The longer you make the batteries last, the better.

It’s one of those engineering things.

PS: in the menu on the right, you can sign up for email notifications every time I post – which is typically once, or sometimes twice, a day. Handy and recommended so you do not miss anything.

Have you ever seen the rain?

Evanna Mills, photo by Michael Willems

Evanna Mills, photo by Michael Willems

Model Evanna Mills, photographed on yesterday’s Pro Workshop featuring Joseph Marranca and myself. Liz Valenta did the make-up.

It was raining.

Actually, it was a garden hose.

Lit mainly from behind, plus additional fill from the front. With the exposure set manually to create a dark background. The lights were both simple speedlites, fired using a pocketwizard.

And here’s one more. Now I am shining that back light through the black umbrella, making it almost white:

Evanna Mills, photo by Michael Willems

Evanna Mills, photo by Michael Willems

You see how much you can do using very simple means? This is what we teach on workshops, and it is also what photographers should keep in mind at all times.Simple technique can do a lot.

That portable studio

So when I pack by bags to do a location shoot, like today’s executive headshots shoot, you saw in a recent post that I bring rather a lot.

And what do I use? How does it look when it’s all set up?

That setup process, which takes about 45-60 minutes including carrying it all from the car in stages, results in this:

This setup consists of:

  1. A grey backdrop. I like grey because you can make it any colour, from black to white.
  2. The main (“key”) light: a light stand with Bowens 400 Ws monolight in a softbox. This is fired by a Pocketwizard (just visible, top left)
  3. The fill light: a light stand with a Bowens 400 Ws monolight into an umbrella. This is fired by the slave cell.
  4. The background light: a mini  light stand with a 430EX Speedlite, with a  Honl speed strap and a Honl 1/2 CTB gel. This light is fired by a Pocketwizard, using a Flashzebra cable.
  5. The hair light: another a light stand with a 430EX Speedlite, with a  Honl speed strap and Honl snoot. This light is fired by a Pocketwizard, using a Flashzebra cable.
  6. A stool.
  7. The camera set to 1/100th sec, f/9, 100 ISO, and equipped with a PocketWizard to fire the other flashes.

It doesn’t look like all that much, but when you write it out, and then add the power cables, connection cables, bags, and so on, it’s quite a lot.