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LPA Design launches PocketWizard firmware beta program  
Tuesday, October 20, 2009 | by Rob Galbraith
LPA Design today has launched a beta testing program for the firmware that drives its PocketWizard MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 wireless radio remotes for Canon digital SLRs. In conjunction with the launch of the program is the availability of beta firmware that introduces compatibility with the Canon EOS 7D, eliminates a fast lens/small aperture limitation with the 5D Mark II, adds a function to boost the TTL pre-flash burst for more accurate flash exposures when the Speedlite is in bounce position and brings rear curtain sync to the wireless remote system. Plus, a number of bugs are addressed.

Participating in the beta program

Becoming a firmware beta tester is as simple as installing the latest version of PocketWizard Utility for Mac and Windows, then indicating your willingness to participate from within the application. To get started, download PocketWizard Utility v1.18.9 here.

Once you've installed and launched the updated version, access the new PocketWizard Utility Settings dialog by clicking the button with the blue icon, in the lower right corner of the program's main window. Once there, click the Firmware Updates tab and then select the beta tester radio button. Click OK to save your settings and you're now a beta tester. (Before you leave the dialog you might want to also set other new preferences to your liking.)

Count Me In: The Firmware Updates tab of the PocketWizard Utility Settings dialog. Note that this screenshot was created with v1.18.7, but the version available today for download is actually v1.18.9

The next time you use the program's Check for Updates feature, you'll be presented with a list of beta firmware currently available, which can then be downloaded and installed as you would any other firmware release.

Concurrent with the start of the beta program is the posting of beta firmware v4.364 for both the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 for Canon. This is the first of an expected two or three public beta releases of what will eventually become v5.00 when LPA Design declares the firmware final. A page on the LPA Design website (follow the link then scroll to the bottom of the page) describes the ways you can give feedback about your experience with this and future beta firmware that you load.

Changes in v4.364 beta firmware for the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5

Compatibility with the Canon EOS 7D With this firmware installed, the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 can be used with the 7D. There are no known compatibility issues with v4.364 and Canon's latest digital SLR, says LPA Design's Jim Clark.

In the Saddle: A PocketWizard MiniTT1 in the hot shoe of a Canon EOS 7D. Click photo to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

The MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 will automatically detect when they're attached to a 7D, which means it isn't necessary to explicitly choose the new camera from the Camera Model popup in PocketWizard Utility to gain certain camera-specific benefits, including supercharged High Speed Sync operation.

Fast aperture Canon lenses can now be used at any aperture with the Canon EOS 5D Mark II Previously, MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 malfunctions could occur if a Canon lens with a wide maximum aperture was set to shoot at a small aperture and the camera was the 5D Mark II. For example, partially-dark frames would result if the EF 50mm f/1.4 was set to about the f/11 range or smaller (the threshold differed depending on whether the MiniTT1 in the hot shoe of the camera had a Speedlite on top). Now, says LPA Design's Clark, all fast glass they've tested works fine, at all apertures, with or without a flash on top of the MiniTT1 on top of the 5D Mark II.

Booster Shot: The Preflash Boost Mode menu in the Flash tab of PocketWizard Utility
Optional pre-flash boost improves bounce flash exposures This is one of the most useful new features of beta v4.364, if our experience with the 5D Mark II is an indication of how well it will work with all compatible Canon cameras. We've been making use of this feature in private beta firmware for several weeks, and it noticeably improves TTL flash exposure accuracy when bouncing the flash off distant walls and ceilings.

The trick it performs is a simple one. The attached PocketWizard forces the Speedlite to emit a pre-flash burst that's two stops brighter than normal, which in turn gives the flash metering system within the camera more light to work with and subsequently calculate how bright the actual flash burst during the exposure needs to be. The idea is to give Canon's E-TTL II algorithm a helping hand in situations where the pre-flash burst may be teetering on the edge of not delivering enough photons through to the camera's metering sensor.

The flash power level command, emitted by the camera after it has performed its calculation from the pre-flash reading, is intercepted by the PocketWizard. It's then adjusted to account for the fact the camera didn't know it had been dealing with a pre-flash that was two stops brighter than usual. The flash receives the adjusted power level command and fires accordingly.

The result should be, and seems to be with the 5D Mark II, better flash exposures in situations where the pre-flash might otherwise be too weak. The difference we've noticed, starting immediately after loading firmware with this capability switched on, was that it was no longer necessary to dial in as much as +1.3 stops of flash exposure compensation (FEC) when doing bounce flash photography with the Speedlite 580EX II.

This amount of FEC has been necessary to prevent TTL flash exposures that are way too dark when bouncing the flash off a surface that's some distance away, or trying to combine bounce and telephoto shooting. With the brighter pre-flash burst, it has no longer been necessary to dial in extreme amounts of FEC when bouncing. General bounce flash exposure consistency may also be better, though it's perhaps too soon to say that for sure.

The photos below are examples of what might normally require heaps of FEC, but once we were armed with the pre-flash boost this has no longer been necessary. And, on this particular evening, bounce flash exposure consistency was also fairly decent, though with the caveat that we've always found Canon's 35-zone meter cameras - including the 5D Mark II - to be somewhat too variable in their TTL flash calculations.

In the first photo, a bounced 580EX II set to TTL is acting as a heavy fill to the main lights, which are a pair of 430EX IIs set to Manual and off to the left of the camera. In the second photo, a bounced 580EX II, again set to TTL, is the only light coming from camera front. For both photos, the transmitter is a MiniTT1 on top of the camera, with no Speedlite on top. The bouncing 580EX II is on a remote FlexTT5 nearby the camera position.

Time to Dance: Canon EOS 5D Mark II + EF 24-105mm f/4L IS at 67mm, ISO 200, 1/250, f/5.6. Click photo to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

His and Hers: Canon EOS 5D Mark II + EF 24-105mm f/4L IS at 24mm, ISO 200, 1/250, f/5.6. Click photo to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

PocketWizard Utility enables you to configure the pre-flash boost setting three ways:
  • Disable Preflash Boost The brightness of the pre-flash burst is as Canon intended.

  • Auto Preflash Boost The pre-flash burst will be pumped up by two stops whenever the Speedlite's head is raised to bounce (or lowered from its straight-ahead position).

  • Force Preflash Boost The pre-flash is boosted all the time. This is for situations where you anticipate the pre-flash will be weak, but not necessarily because you're bouncing the light. For example, when the flash-to-subject distance is particularly long, or the Speedlite is inside a pre-flash-absorbing softbox. Clark doesn't recommend this setting for general purpose photography that includes close-in work, since it's possible that the pre-flash could at times be brighter than your Canon camera was designed to measure.
As of beta firmware v4.364, the pre-flash boost feature is only in the FlexTT5, not the MiniTT1, and then only when the FlexTT5 is acting as a remote. It would be equally useful in the MiniTT1, as well as when the FlexTT5 is being used locally (that is, on top of the camera). LPA Design is evaluating the feasibility of extending pre-flash boost to both the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 when in the hot of the camera, says Clark.

Rear curtain sync To date, the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 have been capable of front curtain sync only. Now, with rear curtain sync enabled in PocketWizard Utility, the flashes will fire at the end of the exposure. Exposures of up to eight seconds are supported.

LPA Design hasn't been content to simply emulate Canon rear curtain sync, and have tossed in a couple of twists of their own. For starters, MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 rear curtain sync will fire the Speedlites closer to the true end of the exposure than Canon's system on its own. This is to prevent light streaking from being visible both in front of and behind a moving object, since the goal of rear curtain sync is usually to place the streak only behind.

The photos of a falling golf ball below illustrate the difference. If you look closely, you'll notice that Canon rear curtain sync (left photo) shows some streaking after the flash burst, consistent with firing the flash slightly earlier than would be ideal, whereas PocketWizard rear curtain sync (right photo) keeps virtually all of the streak on the correct side of the ball.

Streaker: Canon EOS-1D Mark III + EF 50mm f/1.4, 1/20, f/1.4. Canon's native rear curtain sync was used to take the photo on the left, PocketWizard rear curtain sync was used for the photo on the right (Photos courtesy LPA Design)

Unless the subject is moving particularly quickly, the difference between Canon rear curtain sync and PocketWizard rear curtain sync will be subtle. Plus, how much the two differ in their rear curtain sync timing varies with the camera model and shutter speed, says Clark. Suffice it to say that LPA Design has implemented the timing of rear curtain sync so that it's the same as or slightly better than Canon's own implementation.

Curtains: The Rear Curtain Sync menu in the Sync Timing tab of PocketWizard Utility
In addition, the upper shutter speed limit for PocketWizard rear curtain sync is 1/100th, which is one or two full shutter speed steps higher than Canon's system (the native limit depends on the camera model). Plus, the front/rear crossover shutter speed can be set in the Sync Timing tab of PocketWizard Utility (as shown at right). Rear curtain sync can also be turned off here.

In beta v4.364, the rear curtain sync setting on the Speedlite on top of the transmitter PocketWizard is ignored. By the time v5.00 is released, it may be possible to switch between PocketWizard front and rear curtain sync by changing the rear curtain sync setting on the Speedlite attached to the local PocketWizard. As of this writing, LPA Design is investigating whether this will be possible.

More information

That's a taste of what's new in beta v4.364 for the Canon versions of the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5. The complete list of feature tweaks, additions and bug fixes is here.

Note that LPA Design has made a change to FEC you'll want to be thinking about when you configure a remote Speedlite on top of a FlexTT5. Previously, the FEC you set on that Speedlite would be ignored; instead, the system was designed with the expectation that any remote FEC would be applied from the transmitter location (on the local 580EX II, camera body or upcoming ZoneController accessory).

Now, FEC you set on the remote Speedlite is honoured. This is not a feature change we're crazy about, but for those who applaud the change and those who don't, the impact is the same: you'll need to pay attention to the FEC dialed into the Speedlite during setup, because it's part of the TTL flash exposure equation now.

Nikon versions still in development

Work on the Nikon versions of the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 continues, says Clark, with a projected release timeframe of early 2010 (the same as has been previously announced).

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