Speedlight kit overview and preparation

Here is the Speedlight and location flash triggering kit I will be starting the 2011 season with.

Here is the Speedlight and location flash triggering kit I will be starting the 2011 season with. On the left is my Canon kit. In the middle is my Plus 2 trigger kit that I use for my Broncolor flash and on the right is my Nikon kit. It is worth noting that the Plus 2 kit is rarely used now because my Flex TT5 units can perform identical functionality.

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.

1

I mark up my Pocket Wizard units to avoid me getting confused out on a shoot. Sometimes on workshops I lend out the odd Flex and my second Mini to delegates to use as a trigger. It is important that I switch the loan Flex/s to transmit only mode on C2 (configuration 2) so that it doesn't keep switching into receive mode every time a colleague takes a picture. I'd then mark up the units accordingly.

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.

Useful links:

Chris Hanley’s beach shoot blog post with the Nikon PWs

Speedlight Mastery workshop for Nikon

Speedlight Mastery workshop for Canon

Nikon Pocket Wizard  Flex TT5 product page

Nikon Pocket Wizard Mini TT1 product page

Please feel free to comment below…

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About Damien

Damien Lovegrove learned his trade as a cameraman and lighting director during 14 years at the BBC, working on programmes such as the Clothes Show, Top of the Pops and Casualty. Fifteen years on, Damien has become one of the foremost trainers of photography and entrepreneurial business strategies in our industry. A published writer and regular columnist, Damien has travelled the globe sharing his knowledge and expertise. “Photography fascinates me” declares Damien. "Much of my photography is inspired by a burning enthusiasm within me” explains Damien. “Picking up a camera gives me such a rush that I’m instantly driven to create pictures.”

47 thoughts on “Speedlight kit overview and preparation

  1. Hi Damien,
    I think all of us who use the ST-E2 or PWs will get caught out with flat batteries from time to time. If there were rechargeable variants of the 2CR5 (ST-E2) and CR2450 coin cell (PWs) then we could put freshly charged batteries in the units before heading out on a job (as we do for our cameras and Speedlights). As it is we’re conflicted by wanting to maximise the life of the batteries whilst avoiding the stresses of them failing during a shoot. If ever I have the slightest triggering problems now I immediately replace the batteries. Surely it must be possible to measure the residual charge on them – do we all need a voltmeter?
    Yours,
    David

  2. Aside from the fact that it is made from cheese, the non standard battery is the worse thing about the ST-E2.

    Talking about batteries, has anyone else noticed that the 580EX2 depletes batteries rapidly when attached to a PW TT5? I used to be able to do a whole wedding on a set of 2900s, now they are dead half way through the speeches.

  3. Hi Martin,

    Indeed the Flexs do seem to ferret away the power from my 580s. I change my batteries at lunchtime now as a matter of routine when out shooting with Speedlights all day.

    Thanks, Damien.

  4. Hi David,

    I agree about the cheesy batteries. The Nikon SU-800 is way better than the Canon ST-E2 in about every way. I still think they could use Lithium AA or AAA cels as standard. It would help us all. I tried rechargeable CR123A batteries a while ago in my Hasselblad H2 and they were rubbish. Thank you for taking the time to comment. Have a great season.

    Damien.

  5. I have been asked several times about why Canon and Nikon don’t have radio flash trigger systems built in themselves. I think the answer lies in the fact that the EU frequencies are illegal in the US and visa versa. This means our cameras would be confiscated at customs should we ever travel abroad with them. etc.

  6. Hi Damien, I recently bought a set of Canon PWs and sent them back to the company the next day as you were out of stock a couple of weeks ago. They were terrible, I updated the firmware the minute I had them and hoped they would be great, but after testing them all day I found my STE 2 was far more reliable on exposure and consistent firing. At 10 feet they were miss firing 8 out of 10 times! Maybe I had a bad set but if your PWs are far more reliable than that then ill think about getting some from you. Many thanks.

  7. I am also using the canon kit, I use a few speedlights, with Bowens Pulsar triggers. I see in your kit you are using the pocket wizard tt5 system, can I ask you, how are you finding it? I have been thinking about moving to it for a while, but reviews are mixed.
    Cheers

  8. Hi David,

    We were out of stock for a reason. There was a bad batch floating around the UK and we sent back 22 units for replacement. The fault you experienced was typical of the problem I hasten to add that not all the units were faulty. The serial numbers of our stock fell within the range of potential faults so they were recalled. All the stock we currently hold is fine. We lost one great client as a result of the incident but life goes on. You can buy from us with confidence.

    Kindest regards,

    Damien.

  9. Hi Viv,

    The TT5 system is good kit. It is perfect for off camera Speedlight control plus it has the ability to trigger your Bowens at the same time as working TTL or manual with your Speedlights. The Bowens heads connect via a jack socket on the TT5. The Mini or Flex will send out legacy PW radio sync pulses simultaneously with the TTL data. The Flex can be set to receive either TTL or standard signals. I set the two configurations to do just that with C1 for TTL and C2 for standard pulses. The deal breaker for some users is the ability to squeeze out an extra stop of efficiency when using hyper sync. 1/4000th second is easy with the PW system.

    The early teething troubles and firmware glitches seem to have been solved and my customers are reporting the PWs as a good reliable system. The investment is significant so make sure the returns are justified ;)

    Kindest regards,

    Damien.

  10. Hi Guys
    The wait for Nikon PW’s was quite a long frustrating one, but now they are here its like a breath of fresh air. I have used the IR with real no issues even in strong sunlight. but with the new PW’s no more line of sight, setting up the speedlights in a certain position, you know its gonna work which allows you to concentrate on your shot. and of course client experience, nothing more embarrassing than kit that fails to work.
    The battery comments are interesting, I always keep one or two spares, which is a comfort thing, if it fails I just replace it.
    The 2CR5 is a superb battery, it will give you a constant 6v over a long period of time with very little residual drop off, but when it dies the battery fails very quickly, this is the nature of Lithium. This characteristic is also very similar to the Alkaline chemistry discharge curve.
    Using a voltage meter will not indicate the capacity of the battery. for example a CR123a which is used in the Nikon SU-800 controller will give you a constant discharge of 3v at any given temperature, at the end of it’s useful life the voltage may only drop to 2.8v, but then its a very quick fall off.
    Its worth keeping in mind that most battery operated kit generally requires a minimum constant voltage to enable it to function. hence the usage of Lithium cells. The battery in my Nikon is a Li-ion and is quite an amazing piece of technology.
    Rechargeable AA offer 1.2v per cell, so to replace the 2CR5 Lithium cell with rechargeable AA’s would increase the physical size of the unit, but more importantly you would require 5 cells to give you the nominal volt of 6v.

  11. Speaking of Speedlites – I wonder how long before we get one which offers motorised remote head adjustment and built-in face tracking… (for auto aim straight down the nose) I’d also include a laser pointer in the speedlite so I can position my aim exactly from my camera position.

    Damien, get onto your contacts :)

  12. Most the time I love my Canon TT1 , TT5 & AC3. However I do get frustrated that we can’t yet change the angle spread (mm) of the speedlite from the camera. Im sure this will come as an update to the AC3, unsure why it was not included on the original AC3. ??

    Also does anyone know why when using the AC3 that the camera, speedlite, tt1, tt5, ac3 all have to be turned on in a particular order?
    i.e) tt5, camera, speelite, tt1, ac3 as per the manual.

    Would be interesting to know if this is just me, all the people I work with use Nikon kit and have not yet got the new PW kit.

  13. Hi Barney,

    I don’t believe there will ever be a way to remotely operate the zoom function of a Speedlight from an AC3 or another Speedlight for that matter.
    I switch my kit on from top down… AC3 onto Mini, Switch on Mini, Switch on Camera. Or Speedlight then Mini then camera.

    I hope this helps.

    Damien.

  14. Hi George,

    Sounds a bit military spec to me. put a gun on that remote head and you have seriously high level security.

    Cheers,

    Damien.

  15. I forget to turn off my kit all the time and come to flat batteries… there so many bits, camera, flash, PWs etc etc…

    although i do make sure there are fresh batteries of every type i might need in my kit bag.

  16. I am having real problems with my new Canon FlexTT5′s. I have recently bought 3 of the things.
    Is there any chance you could let me know the batch of serial numbers please – as though all my testing I am getting extremely sporadic results.
    many Thanks

  17. Hi Cai,

    I can’t let you have the serial numbers but I can suggest you contact your retailer who will sort your Flexs out for you. They should work reliably so don’t accept anything less.

    Regards, Damien.

  18. Hi Damien

    Hoping to join you on another of your excellent courses this year.

    I have bought a PW set up for Nikon – a quick question – changes of ISO on my D3 don’t shift the ISO readout on the back of the SB900′s which stay firmly at ISO 200 whatever I do. The power output of the SB900′s does seem to be modified though as exposure is ok with everything but the largest ISO’s. Also I do see issue at ISO 100 (L0.1 on the D3) with images tending to be overexposed in the highlights. ISO 200 everything works as expected. Just don’t like that 200 on the flash not reflecting what I’m doing with the camera. Is this your experience?

    Love this site!

    Gordon

  19. All ok … it is fixed at 200 ISO and the Zoom at 24mm! ISO 100 on the D3 is more prone to blown out highlights according to Nikon (and me) – ! Had a shoot today and all the tech worked ace.

    Gordon

  20. Hi Gordon,

    I can’t say I’ve ever looked at the screen on the SB-900 once it is on the Flex TT5. What ISO that is indicated is of no relevance and I would find it surprising if PW thought it necessary to send ISO setting data to a remote flash unit. Anyway I hope you are enjoying the new found freedom you are experiencing with your PWs. Spain might be the perfect workshop for you this year. Loads of Speedlight action and striking image making too.

    Kindest regards,

    Damien.

  21. Hi Damien

    Well the Spain workshop does look outstanding. I have signed up – so see you there. I can’t wait!

    Gordon

  22. Damien,

    I just purchased the flex mini system for my Nikon. Any settings or suggestions you could provide for setup. Looking to use them as outlined in your video complete with High Speed sync.

    Is there a way to test the system to make sure I don’t have faulty kit?

    Thanks,

    Terrence

  23. Hi Terrence,

    First of all download PW utility from their website. Do a firmware update on all your units and a factory reset. Leave everything else alone. Your PWs are good to go.

    I hope you have fun with them:)

    Damien

  24. Damien,

    Just wanted to alert you of a bug of sorts that was confirmed by pocket wizard support. I was not getting HP sync above the sync speed at all which prompted me to do some research.

    I also raised a case with PocketWizard, and they have been responsive and fast in replying. At the end, it seems an awkward bug,

    “We’ve just discovered a bug that can cause the issue you’ve described with a D300s thru D3x, so I’d like you to take a look at the following settings and confirm if you’re seeing the same issue.

    First, are you shooting with the D300s set to capture in RAW format?
    Second, in the “Camera” icon menu of the Camera’s menus, under NEF (RAW) Recording, what is the bit depth set to?

    We’ve found that when the bit-depth is set to 14-bit, it appears to throw off the timings used in High Speed Sync and would cause the exact symptoms that you’ve described. If you change the setting to 12-bit, everything will work as designed.

    Let me know if changing the bit-depth setting gets HSS working properly for you.”

    14 bit raw is how I shoot, so there it is. I hope that they can fix this with a new firmware release.

    Before seeing this I almost returned them :) Kudos to the pocket wizard team. Time to practice using your most excellent techniques.

    Thank you for the inspiration!

    Terrence

  25. Hi Terrence,

    Thanks for this info. Another D300 user I spoke to found this bug too. How strange, but at least there is a workaround of sorts.

    Thanks for your continued support. We will meet up again in NY soon.

    Kindest regards,

    Damien.

  26. Hello
    I am looking to buy the PW TT1 and TT5 for Nikon. I have a SU800 controller which I think I can use to control the TT1 (in place of the AC3). Additionally, when using the SU800 in this mode, can I still fire additional flashes using the Nikon CLS?
    Any help would be appreciated.
    Colin

  27. Hi Colin,
    whllst you may control output of your speedlight on a flex with an su800 on a mini, unfortunately the IR is disabled with the curent firmware which means you can’t trigger a second or third speedlight by IR with the su on a mini. However the focus aid still works which is encouraging for a firmware fix soon. Incidentally when shooting in manual mode on a D3 the exposure comp contols flash output. Ideal if you dont have an su or ac3 but need to adjust one zone of light.
    HTH
    Chris Hanley

  28. Hi Colin,

    CLS via IR is disabled at the moment whilst the radio system is in use. I’m not sure if this will change with a firmware upgrade or not. I believe it is a Nikon issue. My D700 sync socket is disabled when I try to use the CLS via the pop up as a commander. Why? I’ve no idea but it is really annoying. I hope it gets resolved soon.

    Cheers, Damien.

  29. Hi John,

    It worries me that no dealers or retailers in the UK have taken the risk and opted to sell Radio Poppers. Once Warehouse Express and co decide they are fit for purpose I think they will sell like hot cakes over here. At the moment they are fringe in the UK with a few raving fans extolling their virtues. For those photographers who already have ST-E2s and SU-800s the Radio Poppers look like a fab solution. The technology in Radio Poppers is bomb proof and according to the strobist reviews I have read, the reliability and range of Radio Poppers is great too. I suppose all they need now is a UK distributor to handle parts, repairs, warranties and returns etc.

    Thanks for your expert contributions,

    Damien.

  30. Hi Damien,
    I got three flex units back when they came out and had nothing but problems with them, two units had to go back and have their pcb’s replaced but most times one of the units is on the fritz to some extent and they have also fried two 580exII units on me, never again will I purchase another Pocketwizard product. i would have been better off with an ebay unit.

    Not a dig at you of course, I still watch The big day the Lovegrove way before a wedding :)

    Keith

  31. Hey Damien,
    Do you have the radio interference problem with the 580exII? If so how did you deal with it? I have 3 580exII that all blew when I used the soft RF shielding on it. I sent one back to Pocketwizard, but it blew anyway. Pocketwizard has left me in the dark. I would love to hear how you dealt with it. Thank you!

  32. Well, count me in on the PW sync error issue… And this is a BIG issue!

    I have lots of problems with these Pocket Wizard MiniTT1 & FlexTT5′s on Nikon D3x, D3s and D700. I have been juggling emails back and forth with the PW team for several months now, but have to say I’m not very impressed with the speed of things beeing fixed. After having spent $3.500 on equipment that keep on failing and with (another…) firmware bug confirmed by PW, I would expect a solution to be offered faster. Last email I sent them was over two months ago, and they have confirmed the bug and replicated it in their lab, but so far, no solution…

    The problem seems to occur when the camera is set to Aperture priority mode, and the flash in Rear curtain sync. I often shoot in rear sync to achieve a visual effect, so switching to front sync isn’t really a solution. The combination of aperture/shutter speed at which the PWs sync fail varies. You can get one shot working and the next one not, when all is identical and no settings has been changed.The out of sync bug often happens in the lower range of shutter speeds, like 1/15 sec and longer, but also in more ”normal” speeds. The PWs sync is off on random frames, and sometimes WAY off. You can see for yourself in this video I sent the guys at PW:

    http://www.beyondtheice.no/pw/PW_sync_error.MOV

    It shows three exposure made in sequence, and the flash sync differs between each of them (you can both hear and see it). Slightly off sync between the first two, and the third flash sync is way off! The PW triggers the flash over a second after the shutter has closed…..!! And when the PWs are out of sync, well you get no flash in your picture…

    Last week on a job, the PWs wouldn’t sync the flash no matter what I did at 1/80 sec, but worked fine on 1/100 and 1/60… And on another shoot some weeks ago, it seemed totally random when the system worked or not. I shot in Manual exposure mode, with shutter speeds around 1/200 – 1/250, and aperture of 8. The problem occured several exposures after one another, and the flash came and went, and the PWs seemed to live a life of their own. Really sad….

    This is not an isolated issue, as I have two colleagues who have the same problems with their FlexTT5 / MiniTT1 sets as well. All of these PWs (mine and my colleagues) have the latest firmware (3.003), and PW have confirmed that this is a bug, not some user error or need for factory reset etc.

    By the way, the 14 bit vs 12 bit in RAW sync issue mentioned in a comment here have been fixed with the 3.003 update, so this problem here is a seperate one.

    Nice system when it works, but needs a lot of bugs beeing ironed out. At least for Nikon D3x, D3s and D700…

    Cheers,
    Eivind Rohne

  33. Hi Keith,

    Wow, you have been unlucky. I’ve never ‘fried’ a Speedlight with a Flex and I can’t understand how that might happen. Anyway I still have my PWs and although they are rubbish in a group shoot I still use them for long range or high speed sync work with my Canon kit. My personal preference is to shoot using manual mode for consistency.

    I hope your Speedlight triggering system settles down and releases you from the frustrations of PW ownership.

    Kindest regards and respect, Damien.

  34. Hi Kaoru,

    I never experienced the RF issue that the US photographers reported. Yes my 430ex2 had a longer range but I still shot at 30m+ with the 580EX2 Speedlights. If I need a really long range I use the Plus2 units. I always shoot in manual mode for personal work anyway ;)

    Kindest regards,

    Damien.

  35. Hi Elvind,

    Thanks for your full and descriptive report on the issues that you have been facing with PWs. You are not alone and although not everyone wants to shoot rear curtain or with Av mode these combinations should be catered for with the firmware. It’s problems like these and the PW inability to deal effectively with them that forced me to stop retailing PWs. I tried Radio Poppers but they were so clunky and mechanically challenged that I’ve stopped selling radio triggers altogether. I use Ebay triggers for my workshops and I bought 8 sets for £100!

    I do hope your problems get resolved. Respect and understanding, Damien.

  36. Hi bro

    I am new to TT1&TT5 (NIKON). I got a problem during the shooting with PWs.

    My camera is NIKON D700 with TT1$AC3 on hotshoe, SB800 on TT5 as a remote flash. Both devices were updated the lastest fireware.

    if the shutter is not pressed for several seconds, then pressed ,the TT5 won’t fire. It will fire a second time. I checked the PW wiki it said TT1 goes into PowerSaver mode. The question is what is the right way to wakeup the TT1? what is the setup on camera and TT1? When I half pressed the shutter in order to wakeup TT1, it works sometimes and it doesn’t sometimes. so I often got a misfire.

    Many thanks in advance:-)

  37. Hi Liyang,

    I don’t have the solution to your problem. I’m sure JPD who distribute Pocket Wizard in the UK would love to help. I hope your problem gets resolved soon.

    Kindest regards,

    Damien.

  38. I use the Canon St-E2 as well and use it with rechargeable batteries. The actually exist. I bought a set of the special charger and 1 battery and ordered a second battery with it.

    The rechargeables last about half as long as a normal lithium one but that’s long enough and I have two of them anyway. I bougth them in the Netherlands as I’m Dutch, but I’m sure you can get them on the other side of sea as well :-)

  39. Thanks for the tip Theo,

    I just use radio triggers now except when shooting wedding interiors for some strange reason.

    Kindest regards from the UK,

    Damien :)

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