January 23rd, 2011
I was giving some lighting training out on location all day Thursday and I had a Speedlight issue. I wanted to trigger a Canon 580EX2 on a lighting stand that was rigged just 3m from my camera. I opted for one of my trusty Canon ST-E2 triggers because I wanted to keep things really simple knowing my delegates don’t own Pocket Wizard TTL units. I set up the shot and did a quick exposure test. There was no flash, nothing at all. I tried different positions and occasionally the flash was firing but not at the right time and when it did I got a full dump of power giving me a white out. I abandoned the shot and moved on.
I really don’t like it when kit lets me down. This time I identified the culprit as a nearly flat battery in the ST-E2 and I had no spare with me. It is not the sort of battery you can just get at a petrol station or in corner shop, it is as rare as hens teeth. I buy mine at www.7dayshop.com at a fraction of the price of retail outlets like Jessops. So the question is – Did the kit let me down or did I let me down? It was the latter, because if I had checked everything first before going to the shoot I would have spotted the battery needed replacing. I had learned a very valuable lesson and as a penance I decided to test and check all my Speedlight kit thoroughly and prepare it ready for the week ahead.
I updated the firmware on all nine of my Pocket Wizard TTL units and reconfigured the settings using the Pocket Wizard Utility program on my Macbook Pro. I replaced the batteries in everything except the Speedlights that run on rechargeable 2900 mAh NiMh 7DayShop AA cells. I checked all my leads and tested every unit. I then took this shot before packing the kit into the handy clear wash room type zipped bags that came with my Think Tank Logistics Manager.
Why do I need so much kit?
Well I run Speedlight Mastery workshops for up to four delegates and myself. We use up to three Speedlights at any one time and not all my delegates own Pocket Wizards. So I have loan kit available to them for the training sessions. Before my first dedicated Nikon event this year I will be adding another pair of Flexs and another Mini to my Nikon kit shown above right.
When I’m shooting big flash (with my Broncolor or or one of my studio heads) I use my Plus 2 units (in the middle right of the picture above). Now that I have both Nikon and Canon TTL units these Plus 2s are pretty much redundant. Any of my Minis or Flexs can trigger or be triggered using the legacy Pocket Wizard system. So a Nikon Mini can trigger a Canon Flex attached to my Broncolor and visa versa.
So what is my preferred Canon kit and why?
Looking at the top picture I have the Canon set on the left. I use a pair of 580EX2 Speedlights as general off camera work horses. They are robust, recycle quickly and have a very good optical zoom function. The 430EX2 is my back up Speedlight and gets occasional use as a third Speedlight in more complicated set ups. It is important to note that when I want a multi flash set up with one flash unit on camera, I use a 580EX2 on a Mini TT1 on the camera because I need it in master mode in order to control the ratios of the other units on my Flexs. I use the A:B ratio function built into the Canon flash system and the 430EX2 doesn’t have Master capability.
The AC3 zone controller is perfect for manual control of the remote Speedlights but unlike a Speedlight or ST-E2 it doesn’t have a focus aid beam making focussing impossible in dimly lit scenes. I often use an ST-E2 just as a focus aid on my Mini or Flex on camera when it gets dark. The ST-E2 can indeed control other Speedlights using the IR system at the same time as the Mini and Flex are in communication. So if you have one more Speedlight than Flex and you have an ST-E2 you can mix both systems at the same time. Thus you can use the radio to trigger the distand or non line of sight flash and the IR to trigger the near Speedlight. The A and B group control works on both systems simultaneously too.
If you look carefully you will see I also have a camera remote control lead. This can be used with the PW Mini and Flex to fire the camera remotely.
What is my preferred Nikon kit and why?
As you can see on the right side of the top picture I have an extensive Nikon set up too. I have no preference for shooting Canon or Nikon. They are both well made, well designed systems. Yes they are different and in some instances I choose one system over the other but I have both makes of cameras because my delegates have both. I used to have a Hasselblad with a Phase One back but because none of my delegates were using such a set up I sold it.
I currently have a SB-800 and a pair of SB-900s. I used to have 3 SB-800s but 2 died and I replaced them rather than repair them for the umpteenth time. The SB-900s are fabulous. They are way better than their predecessor in my opinion. The switching between remote and local modes is so much easier and the SB-900 units are far better thought out from a usability point of view. I have switched off the thermal cut out so my delegates can keep shooting without interruption.
Next up is my SU-800 the commander shown to the right of the Speedlights. This invaluable bit of kit is my friend. The great news is it works just as well on the Pocket Wizard Flex or Mini with radio as it does with the IR system. There were issues with this function and that is why I held of supplying the Nikon system until now. The latest firmware release addresses most of the issues and now the creativity built into the Nikon CLS can be utilised with the PW radio system. As Chris Hanley recently found out here shooting with radio TTL is a liberating experience.
Below the SU-800 is my SC-29 coiled lead. This is a fabulous bit of kit when the going gets dark because it has a really great focus illuminator built in. It’s the perfect wedding party tool that never lets you miss a shot and doesn’t require batteries.
To the left of the SC-29 are my new Nikon Pocket Wizard Mini TT1 and Flex TT5 units. They are upgraded to the latest firmware and are poised ready to bring my Nikon work to life. Burying a Speedlight in a softbox behind me or rigging it around the corner of a corridor was a no no. But not any more. Over the next few months when my Speedlight Mastery workshops resume I will be releasing the full potential of this kit.
Success happens when good preparation meets opportunity.
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