Using the Pocketwizard Flex system to add pop to the colour of mountain biker Naomi Freireich's Gore-branded top in the North-West Highlands of Scotland. Out of shot is my assistant, Alexis Basso, who is lying on the ground to Naomi's left, with a TT5 receiver mounted on a Nikon SB-910 speedlight.

Using the Pocketwizard Flex system to add pop to the colour of mountain biker Naomi Freireich's Gore-branded top in the North-West Highlands of Scotland. Out of shot is my assistant, Alexis Basso, who is lying on the ground to Naomi's left, with a TT5 receiver mounted on a Nikon SB-910 speedlight.

EDIT - In 2018, I'd rather use strobes, such as the Elinchrom ELB400 or ELB1200 models, for lighting subjects in outdoor and adventure sports. 

When I first started to use flash in my photography (aided by my friend Dan Bailey's excellent e-book, 'Going Fast with Light'), I quickly realised the benefits of getting the flash off my camera so I could engineer a nicer light on an athlete or model.

To do so, I started off triggering my speedlights with a simple TTL cord. This allowed me to hold a speedlight in my left hand and the camera in my right (making use of the angle of the light and an Lastolite Ezybox softbox to improve the quality of the light on my subject).

Using Nikon's TTL technology, I was able to use my speedlights in automatic mode (which initially I thought was useful until I found manually adjusting flash power was a much easier way to learn) but I found it was difficult to hold my camera with one hand, especially with a heavy telephoto lens, and tricky to adjust the camera and flash settings. A few other limitations with the TTL cord were its length (0.5m, though I could daisy chain two cables together) and I could only use a single flash. Using a cord I found soon lended itself best for use in off-the-cuff portrait photography (or, these days, as a backup) rather than action sports.

For outdoor and adventure sports photography, I decided my requirements were the ability to:

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  • Trigger two or more lights wirelessly from a distance
  • Adjust the power of my lights, also from a distance
  • Shoot at a faster shutter speed than my flash sync speed
  • Make use of TTL technology when I chose to

Nikon's CLS system, which is embedded in all my cameras, does the above but US company, Pocketwizard, had not long announced their Pocketwizard Flex system, which provided some additional advantages. I ordered three Pocketwizard TT5s, a TT1 and an AC3 controller.

What I like about Pocketwizard Flex

  • High Speed Sync technology - Both Nikon CLS and Pocketwizard provides the ability for you to fire your lights above the usual flash sync speed, using High Speed Sync mode. HSS works great but it reduces the power of your flash and I've found I need to add 2 or more speedlights to accommodate the loss of power. (Pocketwizard's Hypersync technology (HS) also enables you to fire your lights above your flash sync speed but it doesn't involve as much loss of power. I've tried to enable Hypersync using my SB-910s but I've never been able to get any consistency. Pocketwizard say that HS works best with strobes with longer flash durations, alongside cameras with smaller sensors. They recommend High Speed Sync for shooting above your sync speed with Speedlites). 
  • Radio frequencies - The Pocketwizard Flex system gives me the ability to trigger my lights from far away without having to be in line of sight of my camera. I generally stand between 3-15m away from my subject when using flash but I have triggered my lights from much further away. (Pocketwizard claims a working distance for their Flex receivers of c.330m)
  • Usability - Both systems provide the ability for you to adjust the power of a number of different flashes individually without moving your feet. But with the Pocketwizard AC3 controller, I can go from 1/64 power to 1/1 power (with 2 stops in between each with just a simple turn of a dial)
  • TTL technology - I prefer using my flashes in manual mode but I do find TTL to be useful for certain scenarios (e.g. in unpredictable situations when you're photographing events as they unfold, such as the UCI Mountain Biking World Cup)
  • Multiple radio channels - When there's lots or other photographers at an event, it's useful to be able to change channels to stop other photographers triggering your flashes (and vice versa)
  • An upgrade path - The Pocketwizard Flex system is compatible with the Elinchrom brand which I hire occasionally and will upgrade to (though I would very likely choose to use Elinchrom's Skyport transmitter instead)

What I'd like to see changed

  • Reliability - I've lost count of the number of times my Pocketwizards have stopped working mid-shoot. They're at times so unpredictable it can be infuriating. I believe it's to do with the TT1 transmitter. It'll quite happily work five times in a row and then stop working for no apparent reason. Resitting it on the camera or rebooting everything (switching off all units then switching them back on again from the top down) doesn't always work but then they'll magically start working again five minutes later. (My firmware is up-to-date so if you know what may be causing this I'd love to know).

UPDATE -  I eventually realised this is only happened when I was shooting with my AC3 set to Auto mode. If I switched my speedlights to TTL mode and put my AC3 on Manual mode, my TT1 fires my speedlights every time. It appears I just can't use TTL, which I can happily live without.

Alternatives

  • Nikon Creative Lighting System (or an Nikon SU800 commander)
  • Calumet Pro Series 2.4 GHZ Wireless Transceivers - A previous version of these were the first wireless transceivers I purchased. They don't support TTL but, as referred to above, I prefer manual mode these days. I do still use them as they double up as a shutter release for landscape photography (which the Pocketwizard Flex can do but you need to purchase a separate cable).
  • Elinchrom Skyport - I'd rather use the Skyport Plus model, along with Elinchrom's strobes