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May 2008

Life is all about compromises. It seems it’s almost impossible to have your cake and eat it. This is equally true in photography, and as much as I’ve tried to physically be in two places at the same time to get the best possible shot I’ve never managed this ‘trick’. However, as a working freelance press photographer PocketWizards – a range of remote radio triggers - have allowed me to take two shots from different locations without having to teleport between them.

So, what are PocketWizards? This range of radio triggers was developed in the US and is designed to offer working photographers the flexibility of shooting remotely from distance as well as the option to shoot with more than one camera, hence more than one lens option. In my experience there are a number of specific situations when PocketWizards can add significantly to your shooting flexibility.

For example, the Canon TC-80N3 cable remote release is great for static situations - such as copying documents or shooting long exposures of landscapes or cityscapes - when it’s of paramount importance that the camera is not joggled. However, the PocketWizard can add to your shooting capabilities when there is a need to trigger a camera over a very long range (up to 1600 feet, about 487 metres), where your physical presence could be a danger to you or a distraction to your subjects.

© Helen Atkinson

I had limited time to shoot this feature shot of singer Thea Gilmore in a busy hotel lobby. With only one external power source and lots of people around, I couldn’t use studio lights and cables. Instead I used a Quantum Q Flash powered by a Quantum Turbo battery pack, with a large softbox. The PocketWizard meant the lighting could be placed anywhere I wanted without having to worry about cables, or direct line-of-sight to the trigger. However the flash power settings needed to be changed every time the rig was moved to ensure the correct final exposure.

The second weapon in the PocketWizard armoury is the ability to trigger flashguns and studio lighting remotely as well. A photographer’s creativity can sometimes be a tad limited in the studio and on location when you have to start linking equipment with cables. As well as that trailing cables can present a health and safety problem with trip hazards everywhere. The PocketWizards can provide an excellent solution to these problems with minimum effort. They eliminate the need for long cables or sync cords and help you to avoid the need for direct line of sight of sensors or devices. With the aforementioned 1600 feet (487 metres) triggering range they keep the camera and lighting remote and help to isolate the camera from any potential high currents from studio lights that could damage the shutter.

I often use a Canon Speedlite Transmitter ST-E2 to fire my Canon flashguns as it offers full remote ETTL-II flash metering with Canon’s EX Speedlites and operates via a line-of-sight connection to the flashgun. When shooting I often want to place flash units behind objects that I want to light up without having a cord in shot. This means cables aren’t desirable and with the disrupted line-of-sight to tackle such a situation, instead of the Speedlite Transmitter ST-E2, I will use the radio technology of the PocketWizards.

Utilising transceiver technology the PocketWizard can function as a transceiver – that is as both a receiver and transmitter in one unit. An advantage of this is avoiding the expensive cost and hassle of always having an extra back-up transmitter or receiver with you.

There are several models in the current PocketWizard range the main two of which are the PocketWizard Plus II and the PocketWizard MultiMAX. The PocketWizard range also has several other advantages over other older radio slaves and other methods of triggering off-camera flashguns or remote cameras.

The PocketWizard Plus II unit

The PocketWizard Plus II unit

For example, the PocketWizard Plus II unit has the following key features:

  • Auto-relay mode - this simultaneously triggers a remote camera and remote flash wirelessly, which is great when photographing events in low light.
  • Fast triggering speed - this triggers cameras or flash units at up to 12 frames per second. This is ideal for sports photography to freeze motion from an obscure angle which is ‘off limits’ for the photographer.
  • Operational range - the 1600 feet (approximately 487 metres) operational range offers reliable triggering from short to long photographic distances. It is especially good when on location with a large set. For example, using remote lighting inside a building to shoot a model outside the building for a fashion shoot.
  • Fast sync speeds - the PocketWizard Plus II is compatible with most cameras’ fastest X-sync speeds up to 1/250sec for focal plane shutters and up to 1/500sec for leaf shutters, so it’s even operable under bright sunlight.
  • Auto-sensing transceiver - this automatically transmits or receives based on connections.
  • Connections - the availability of different cables to connect the PocketWizard Plus II to a vast array of lighting equipment.
  • Four 16Bit digitally coded channels - to create multiple setups or work with other photographers without interference, unless they’re on the same channel!
The PocketWizard MultiMAX unit

The PocketWizard MultiMAX unit

The PocketWizard MultiMAX uses an AM signal at a frequency of 344MHz for standard triggering (346.5-354MHz for Quad Triggering) and sends 16 to 24 bit digitally-coded signals over a choice of 32 digitally-coded channels, There is the option of using four different zones to control different remote or flash set ups. All four zones can be fired simultaneously, or different zone combinations can be triggered at the touch of a button.

To determine whether the unit is a transmitter, receiver, or turned off you need only flip one switch. All PocketWizard models are compatible with each other so that you can continue utilising your older investment as technology improves and new models appear (with obvious functional limitations depending on the model). They are also compatible with some of Sekonic’s range of transmitters and receivers for flash metering.

Because the life of a working photographer isn’t confined to warm weather and sunny skies, the PocketWizards are designed to operate at temperatures between -15ºC (5ºF) and 50ºC (120ºF) and they only use two AA batteries per unit to give a reported approximate 150 hours working life in average conditions.

The True Trigger Confirmation status is indicated on the LCD panel of the PocketWizard set in transmitter mode. This means that you can visually see and, if desired, hear a beep that gives confirmation that your remote set up has fired successfully or not in all zones that you are working with.

With four Quad Triggering zones (A, B, C, D) you can even activate or de-activate flash units or cameras wirelessly without having to move from your shooting position.

© Helen Atkinson

I took this image at night to ensure low ambient light. Utilising the Quantum Q flash, powered by a Quantum Turbo, and with a large soft box, the MultiMAX was connected and set to rear curtain sync, thus creating the effect of motion and illustrating playing the guitar. This technique can also be used to great effect in sports or action photography to freeze the motion with blur behind the subject indicating direction of motion, for example in cycling or athletics.

In addition to wirelessly triggering cameras and flashguns the PocketWizard MultiMAX Transceiver has many more features than that of a simple radio slave. The Trigger Time Controller features the following shooting options:

  • Rear curtain sync – this allows the photographer to fire the flash unit near the end of the exposure with a reported precision of 1/10,000sec, for pre programmed shutter speeds of 1 second to 1/60sec. Using the time adjustment screen, custom delay settings are possible.)
  • Precision Delays - you can delay trigger sequencing or camera/flash synchronisation in receiver mode.)
  • Multi-Pop for multiple flash exposures - you can automatically trigger flash units for the desired number of exposures (up to 10,000 flash exposures). You can also programme the device to wait for the required electronic flash recycling time, from 1/100sec to 10 minutes.)
  • Intervalometer - lets you set a desired number of exposures and photograph an event as it unfolds. Up to 10,000 exposures with a maximum time of 17 hours and 46 minutes can be achieved.)
  • Speed Cycler - for sequential triggering of up to four cameras or flash units. This can be useful to capture different angles on the same event, when the direction of action is constantly changing.)
  • Lag Time Equalizer - used to calibrate cameras and/or flash units for simultaneous triggering and exposure synchronising.)
  • Relay Mode - to use a remote transmitter to trigger a remote camera, which in turn simultaneously triggers remote flash units in sync with the remote camera. This can be very useful when the photographer has to be the model as in the case of the back issue feature, also utilising the digital features of the camera to ensure the image is sharp and the lighting spot on!)

It has to be said the Canon Speedlite Transmitter ST-E2 has two major advantages over PocketWizards…

1. It can trigger the Canon Speedlite 580EX, 580EX II and 430EX flashguns utilising ETTL metering, while the PocketWizards need to be set manually.

2. No connector cables are needed.

© Helen Atkinson

Here I set up two Canon flashguns with coloured gels to be triggered simultaneously followed by a third gun again with a coloured gel over it, which was triggered two seconds after the first two. This flashgun was held by the model, away from the camera, so there was no direct line of sight between the flash and the triggering device (the camera).

The ETTL metering can be a major advantage when you need to set up a flash system in haste and shoot at super fast speed. This is also beneficial when the photographer has to hold the flash and direct it at the subject from one side at the same time as taking the shot.

Having no connector cables between the Canon Speedlite Transmitter ST-E2 and the Canon Speedlite 580 EX II flashgun is helpful when you need to set up in a hurry. With the PocketWizards, so long as you have the correct connector cables to connect to the camera body (for remote triggering) or to the desired flash head, the limits of creativity lie only with the photographer.

It is important to note that the Canon Speedlite Transmitter ST-E2 has four channels, so in certain shooting situations, such as news press conferences where there are almost inevitably more than four photographers wanting to trigger their flashguns remotely, the PocketWizard can come into play as it has 32 channels on each of four zones to facilitate this situation.

The PocketWizard system can also be used in conjunction with the Canon Speedlite Transmitter ST-E2 where the latter is placed on the hotshoe of the camera body and the PocketWizard can be connected by a cable to a connector on the side of the body. Alternatively it can be mounted on the side of the camera using the Speedlite bracket or, as many photographers do, attached with Velcro on the bottom of the camera. It’s also very important to remember to always have a spare set of AA batteries to hand in case the PocketWizards run out in the middle of a shoot!

© Helen Atkinson

This wideangle image and closely cropped portrait shot of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez were taken at a Trades Union Congress event in London in May 2006. The wider shot was taken remotely using PocketWizards to trigger the camera’s shutter so that I could zoom in to shoot the tightly cropped images with a handheld camera.

Today PocketWizards are increasingly part of the shooting armoury for many pro photographers – from sports shooters wanting to catch action or atmospheric shots from different parts of a stadium, live event photographers wanting to catch performances in indoor arenas, and news photographers literally wanting to get a new angle on the story of the day. It seems they are aptly named as they do sprinkle a little bit of extra magic over shooting without wires in a variety of situations.