Preface: This is not an in-depth review in the traditional sense. There are several sources on the interwebs for that. I was originally *just* going to write about the AC3 Zone Controller, and realized that's like reviewing a touchscreen without mentioning the phone to which it's attached. So it evolved into this: a hands-on description of the PocketWizard ControlTL system aimed at people who are wondering what it's all about and if it's for them. Yes, I do present my findings and conclusions, and as always, don't hesitate to contact me directly with further questions I may not have addressed. And as with the majority of my writings, I have certain words and phrases that are links to (mostly) relevant other pages, articles, and images.
I recently swapped out all my beautiful PocketWizard Plus II units for sexy FlexTTL ones. When these units first shipped for Canon users, it was not unlike swapping out a reliable, middle-aged wife for a rambunctious college co-ed. That is, you were leaving behind the safe system you've always known and was always there for you through good times, but was a little on the large side, and getting a bit long in the tooth... and can only be used in manual. In exchange you were getting the newest model. Sexy and svelt. Automatic with all the bells and whistles. Bragging rights. Promises of excitement, but largely untested in the real world. You didn't *exactly* know what baggage would come with that.
The FlexTTL system from PocketWizard (which uses their so-called ControlTL technology) was plagued with problems from the get-go for Canon users. Unreliable triggering. Unreliable TTL. Some of this had to do with the PocketWizards themselves. Some of this was the Canon flash units themselves, throwing off rogue frequencies... so bad was this problem, PocketWizard released shields to wrap your flashes with. The internet is abuzz with people who have sworn off the Flex system. Initially Nikon users were upset there was no system for them, but waited patiently for bugs to be worked out.
Fast forward a few years and we have a Nikon version, and we are past version 3 of the firmware. I've had a couple years with my old cougars, the Plus IIs, honing my skills in the art of manual strobist photography. But every time the situation has been right for my to use Nikon's brilliant Creativing Lighting System (CLS), I'm jealous. I'm jealous that I have the ability to use my flashes like they are integrated with my metering system. I'm jealous that I can throw light on anything, no matter the lighting conditions with high-speed sync. What do I mean by conditions? Nikon's CLS uses light pulses to tell the flashes to fire, which ones to fire, and how much power to give.There are myriad of things to get in the way of these light pulses. Daylight (specifically shooting into the sun). Commander not pointing towards the remote flash. Flash around a corners. Distance. Pretty much, you name it. I can't tell you how many times I wanted to use it, but it just plain wasn't working. It was never the system's fault. It was the barriers in which the system operated.
So out with the old and in with the new. So now we know what these units are. They are basically Nikon's CLS, but controlled with radios instead of light. If you are familiar with CLS and know how to use it, then using the new PocketWizards is essentially no different. Yes, there are some extra cool features like HyperSync which gives you the ability to sync studio strobes at 1/500th or even higher... but at it's core, what are we gaining? Reliability and flexibility.
Oh, and a sexy new package. Remember that monstrous tower sticking off your camera with that added antenna/arial? Well, it is no more. How were they able to do this? Well, they now have two different units, one being small and the other being smaller. The larger of the two, the FlexTT5, is like the old Plus II in that it can both send and receive signals (transceiver... transmit/receive). So while you *could* use the FlexTT5 on your lights *and* camera like the Plus II, you wouldn't want to. Why? Because the smaller unit is adorably small. Like, I love it. I don't fear I'm going to break it off on a doorway or, more importantly, my eye. But in order to achieve this level of cuteness they had to remove its ability to receive signals... and that's just fine. But they also had to remove its ability to take normal batteries, which sucks. Just be sure to stock up on the watch batteries it takes ($8 for 5 on Amazon). They *do* last a while. They say hundreds of hours (as it automatically turns off when your camera is off or in standby)... but you know it'll be dead when you need it, right?
So what else is a huge improvement? Remember having to get creative with how your units integrated with your speed lights? Hang the lanyard on the stand... attach a PC sync cord... maybe you had one of those nifty PW Caddies which made it an absolute PIA to change batteries. Regardless, now you get to slide that sucker on your camera's hot-shoe. Boom. Done.
So you've got a MiniTT1 on your camera, and you've got a small fleet of FlexTT5 units upon all of your beautiful Nikon or Canon speed lights. What could make this party better? BOOM! Enter the AC3 Zone Controller. It's a tiny little device that sits upon the throne of your MiniTT1. Now you can adjust all your flashes in up to three groups in 6-stop intervals. Just by spinning dials. That's anywhere from 1/1 full power down to 1/64th power. Got one of those nifty flashes that goes down to 1/128th? No problem. Just go down to 1/64th, then dial in -1.0 on your camera's flash compensation. Done. BUT WAIT, there's more! You can tell individual groups to go to TTL or Manual... At. The Same. Time. All this and you never have to walk over to your flash units. All of you Westcott Apollo users are breathing a collective sigh of relief. I know. No more messing with that stupid velcro panel to go from 1/16th to 1/32nd. Oh, and did I mention it doesn't use any batteries? Yep, it leeches off the transmitter it sits upon.
Nikon users: I should mention that in place of the AC3, you could get the same functionality out of an SB-900 as a commander, or an SU-800 controller. The difference is, the AC3 is *way* less expensive, smaller, and since it isn't menu-driven, considerably faster to use. For $79, the AC3 is a total no-brainer.
Conclusions? So how does all this theory fare in my real world testing? At this point I could start boring you with distance tests, and shoot in different weather conditions, and different battery levels. But I will say this instead: They just freaking work. I don't care what your past experiences were with early firmware versions, they have fixed their problems from my view. I have had zero misfires in my three weeks of regular use at all sorts of distances and in just as many different environments. To be honest, that's better than my Plus IIs. My life is just plain easier. Even when I want to use them in manual, which I still do many times, I don't have to touch my flashes anymore to adjust levels. Man, my assistant is getting bored. What else is great? They have drop-in units for AlienBees, Einsteins, and Elinchrom RX systems that unlock several features as well. Basically all you don't get is the TTL and high-speed sync functionality (but you do get hypersync)
Build Quality: 16/20
While they are plastic, the bodies are solid. I'm not worrying about them cracking or splitting. My only concern is (and always has been) that the hot-shoe mounts are freaking plastic. I'm sorry, but that's unacceptable for something that is likely to get bumped or bear weight. With that said, I've never broken one.
Realistically, they give you everything that is feasible in a wireless system. I want to say TTL in studio strobes would be awesome, but that's just not in the cards. HyperSync is still a huge help. I am deducting a point because the AC3 zone controller functionality should be on the MiniTT1 so you don't have to stack it higher. OR at the very least, let us use Nikon's built-in-to-the-menu zone controller. Yep, you read it here. I am confirming that you cannot use it with the ControlTL system.
They are a bit finicky about the order you turn them on. You are supposed to go from top to bottom (flash, transmitter, camera), but I hate thinking that way. I have noticed that if you don't go in the order sometimes things are a bit funky for a couple shots. But, once you're past that, it's incredible. You actually just turn your flashes on to TTL mode, and that's it. Seriously. Shooting manual? As long as you're using the AC3, you still put it in TTL. The AC3 takes over. You *never* put your flashes into a slave mode. After that, you just shoot away. As far as your camera is concerned, the flashes are directly attached.
Could they look better? Maybe. Do they look good? Yep. These get almost a perfect score in aesthetics, solely because they are so much smaller than the units they replace.
Wow! Factor: 10/10
These are the trophy girlfriend/wives of the triggering world. No other trigger system has this incredible feature set. The PocketWizard team has really come up with something extraordinary in their ControlTL system.
This is a subjective category to an extent, but I believe these are totally worth the upgrade, if not only for the ability to get the MiniTT1 and AC3. The nice thing, as I found out, is that the resale value on Plus IIs is outstanding as well, and these new Flex units are very well-priced considering the benefits they bring to the table. Even if you've only ever shot manual strobes, the ability to shoot TTL when you need it is great. BUT, and here's where the financial issue may be for some: In order to get the ControlTL with high-speed sync and all that jazz, you have to use your brand-name flash units. That means saying goodbye to your amazing LP160 set, unless you only want to shoot manual AND be limited to 1/250th of a second.