This started as a real life review of Pocketwizards.

Basically it said, “Pocketwizards are bulletproof and if you know the tricks, they work over 95% of the time.” And then last weekend happened. Over the course of two weddings, three of my eight wizards broke.

One of them – a Mini TT1 model – broke during the rainiest and most humid wedding of the year. I accidentally overtightened the plastic shoe and by the time I realized it, the humidity and overcranking combined to cause the Pocketwizard‘s plastic shoe to jump off its track. Over the next day and a half, I managed to drop a Flex TT5 model, snapping the plastic off of its shoe, and then the battery door on another Flex TT5 snapped off completely. I’m still not sure how that happened.

Thankfully, I had backup gear, and aside from some minor frustrations, the shoots continued without a hitch. I shipped the wizards off for repair after my wedding shoot; two days and only $186 later, they’re back and ready to go for the next wedding!

I’ve used Pocketwizard Flex and Mini systems for over a year, and while a more robust shoe would be welcome, I’ve had very few complaints about the system. Before purchasing the Flex and Mini’s, I’d been a longtime Plus II user (I still use them for my big lights since the range is better), and as any Plus II user knows, the things just work! I only change the batteries in my Plus II’s once or twice a year, and on the rare occasion when a problem did pop up, it was almost always a weakness in the cable and not a problem with the Pocketwizards themselves. (Quick sidenote – I buy my cables from Flash Zebra – the prices are significantly cheaper than name brand cables and Lon’s customer service is outstanding.)

The problems with Flex and Mini wizards for Canon have been well-documented, and Pocketwizard released a shield for their units to improve reliability. That said, if I shot Canon, I’d shoot Radio Popper or buy a handful of new 600EX-RT flashes which have built-in radio triggers. I’ve had too many experiences with students at my workshops having multiple problems with Canon TT1 and TT5 unit, so I can’t recommend them, especially for wedding photographers for whom reliability is key.

In my experience in the field with these units (I’ve shot the Mini/Flex system at over 100 jobs in the past 18 months), they’ve never let me down. For those who aren’t familiar with the Flex/Mini system, what they essentially do is convert Nikon’s infrared CLS wireless communications system into radio signals. This significantly improves their reliability and range, while retaining the ability to control the power of the remote units from an on-camera master flash. This enables you to place remote flashes in places you previously couldn’t, since every time you needed to change the power, you had to access the unit manually.

Even more exciting, however, is the ability to use the units in high-speed sync mode, via radiowave. One of the weaknesses of the infrared system is that the optical eye that “sees” the signal can be overwhelmed by bright daylight. The Flex/Mini units eliminate that problem completely.

Earlier this year, I purchased a FourSquare from Lightware, which allows me to mount four flashes and Flex’s together, behaving as though they were one light. This is especially important when using Nikon’s high-speed sync mode, since it requires your flashes to routinely remain in half and full-power range.

For example, if you’re shooting at 1/4000 second with a full-power Speedlight and need an additional stop of light, you have to add another flash at full power. To get another stop beyond that, you must add two flashes. Banding the units together on a FourSquare gives me more power, and also the option of hanging out at lower power to achieve a faster recycle time.

A few more tips to consider if you’re struggling with your Flex/Mini system (for Nikon).

  • Every time you power up the on-camera unit, you must do it in the following order: Flash/wizard/camera. That means every time you turn on your camera, and every time you turn off your flash, you must turn off all three connected units and repeat the process. The order doesn’t seem to matter on remote units.
  • Make sure you’re using compatible units. While the Plus II and Plus III’s work with any flash with a PC port, in order to control the power remotely, you’ll need a newer flash. This means Nikon flashes since the SB-800/600 generation. Check out Pocketwizard‘s Wiki for full compatibility.
  • When using the Flex/Mini’s with a VR lens, anytime you switch VR on or off, the units take a test shot for calibration purposes. This means you’ll essentially get a “misfire” while the system sets itself up. This can also happen when going above your sync speed. In that case, slow your shutter to below 1/250, take a calibration photo, then return to your desired shutter speed.
  • When using the units with an SB-700, SB-900 or SB-910, you must set the light pattern to STD (standard). If you select either of the other flash pattern options, you may encounter exposure errors.
  • The units ship with a software package so you can update the firmware. Much like apps on your iPhone, Pocketwizard releases new firmware which eliminates bugs in the system, or adds new features. Plus, every time a new compatible flash comes onto the market, Pocketwizard takes a few months to update the firmware so that the new models are compatible.

About Doug Levy

A wedding and portrait photographer living outside of Boston, Doug Levy spent six years pursuing a career as a professional baseball umpire before deciding a lifetime of road trips and 7:05 starts wasn’t for him. A professional photographer since 2007, Doug’s clients have included Harper Collins Publishers, Starwood Hotels and the Golf Course Superintendents of America. He’ll be teaching “Killer Reception Light” at the upcoming Inspire Photo Seminar in Boston, and offers customized lighting workshops for professional photographers as well. For more on Doug, visit his website, or follow him on Twitter or Facebook. For more from Doug check out his workshops.

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