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PocketWizard MiniTT1, FlexTT5 for Nikon head to dealers - Continued

Normally, the quickest shutter speed a camera can be set to, when using a wireless radio device to fire studio strobes or other non-dedicated flashes, is somewhat slower than when camera and flash are linked by a wire. HyperSync turns the tables, making the wireless link the one that allows the highest shutter speed, higher than a cord running from the PC sync socket to the flash with all compatible Nikons.

When you want to capture the peak output of a powerful, fast duration flash, while incrementally pushing up the shutter speed to minimize the intrusion of ambient light, this mode is for you. We now shoot all indoors strobed sports with HyperSync used exactly this way, and it's great. It allows for shutter speeds as high as 1/400 with several Nikon digital SLRs, or 1/500 with FX Format cameras set to DX Format capture, before noticeable dark banding begins to intrude into the frame. Put another way, it enables you to squeeze out another one or two 1/3 step shutter speed increments, which might make all the difference in the battle you're waging between flash and ambient.

That's one half of the HyperSync story. When you need to shoot with non-dedicated flash at an abnormally high shutter speed, a second HyperSync mode comes to the fore. It allows for any shutter speed up to the camera's maximum to be selected, but at the expense of the flash's effective output. That's because, to light the entire frame fairly evenly, only the long tail of the flash burst is used, which in turn means its maximum light intensity drops several stops or more.

The first HyperSync mode is broadly useful, while the second is usable but with several restrictions.

At launch of the Nikon MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 there aren't distinctly different HyperSync modes that you select, instead you dial in a different offset value (as shown below) to achieve one mode or the other.

Syncing Feeling: Choosing a HyperSync offset value in PocketWizard Utility for a Nikon MiniTT1

Clark says that LPA Design is taking steps towards simplifying and automating the selection of the optimum offset value for certain flash/shutter speed/camera combos for both the first and second HyperSync modes of operation, and that those changes will materialize in a future firmware update (for both Nikon and Canon shooters). For now, using HyperSync requires you do some trial-and-error testing to figure out the best offset value, testing that isn't difficult but does take a few minutes to complete.

The two photos below show what the first HyperSync mode can do. Both were shot at 1/400 with a D7000, but in the left photo the flashes were fired by a Plus II transmitter, while in the right photo a MiniTT1 with HyperSync was responsible for the triggering. Neither photo is cropped, you're looking at the entire frame. A Plus II isn't able to trigger the flashes cleanly above 1/250 with this camera, so the HyperSync benefit is two 1/3 step shutter speed increments, to 1/400.

HyperSync in Action: Nikon D7000 + AF-S 200-400mm f/4G VR II at 300mm, ISO 125, 1/400, f/6.3. For the left photo the flashes were triggered by a Plus II; in the right, a MiniTT1 for Nikon was used (Photos by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

The photos below were shot with a D3S at 1/400. Its larger sensor and shutter design doesn't allow for a completely band-free photo at this shutter speed, at least when the camera is set to capture FX Format photos, but as long as you shoot with the intention of cropping away the slight banding that will appear then this shutter speed is workable.

The photo on the left shows the slight shading on the left side and the thin dark band on the right side of the vertical frame that results with this trio of camera, flash and shutter speed. This is a worst case example: the Dyna-Lite AP1600 + AH4000 pack/head combo responsible for lighting the photo offers much faster flash duration than typical studio gear, which contributes to more noticeable shading on the left of the frame than you'd see with a slower flash duration unit. So, you might be able to achieve a somewhat cleaner 1/400 sync than we're showing here, depending on the flash duration of your lighting equipment.

The D3S was set to 1.2X Format for the photo at right, and this effectively trims away in the camera the slight banding and shading at 1/400 so you don't ever see it. This was tried only to test if it would work, since ordinarily we'd just plan on cropping away any visible shading and banding after the fact.

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FX Format: Nikon D3S + AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II at 140mm, ISO 200, 1/400, f/7.1. Click photo to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media) 1.2X Format: Nikon D3S + AF-S 300mm f/2.8G VR II, ISO 200, 1/400, f/7.1. Click photo to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

Tip: The HyperSync benefit kicks in above a Nikon digital SLR's x-sync shutter speed. If your camera is set to x-sync - 1/250 or 1/320 with most Nikons - then HyperSync isn't active, even though it would still be beneficial. This is a quirk of the Nikon versions of the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 specifically and one that LPA Design is unlikely to be able to work around in the future.

The fallout is you have to choose a shutter speed that's at least one increment above x-sync for HyperSync to do its thing. This isn't much of a problem, since you'll generally be using HyperSync to get beyond x-sync as your working shutter speed anyway. It is something to keep in mind, however, for the time you find yourself staring at the camera's rear LCD, seeing banding you haven't seen before and you don't know why. A likely explanation is your Nikon camera is set to x-sync and not a tick or two above (or below, where HyperSync is neither active nor needed).

Also, for Nikon cameras whose x-sync is configurable, there might be times where you'll want to change the x-sync shutter speed so that HyperSync will be active at the shutter speed you want to shoot at, when it might not otherwise be. For example, the first two options in Custom Setting e1 in the D700 allow you to choose between 1/250 and 1/320 for x-sync. If your goal is to shoot at 1/320 and take advantage of HyperSync, then choose [1/250 (Auto FP)] in Custom Setting e1. The result will be HyperSync coming to life at 1/320.

HyperSync does not take the place of Auto FP Sync high shutter speed synchronization with Nikon Speedlights. The MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 support that as well. Both provide the option of choosing the shutter speed at which you want Auto FP Sync to start, so that you can precisely tailor the shutter speed transition from regular sync to HyperSync to Auto FP Sync.

Emerging cross-brand flash compatibility

At launch, basic interoperability between Nikon and Canon flavours of PocketWizard ControlTL has been implemented. Specifically, it's possible to remotely adjust and trigger:
  • A Canon Speedlite on a Canon-version FlexTT5 from a Nikon camera with Nikon-version MiniTT1 or FlexTT5 attached.
  • A Nikon Speedlight on a Nikon-version FlexTT5 from a Canon camera with Canon-version MiniTT1 or FlexTT5 attached.
CaNikon: A Nikon D3S + MiniTT1 was used to trigger a pair of Canon Speedlite 550EXs on Canon FlexTT5s. Click photo to enlarge (Photo by Mike Sturk/Little Guy Media)
Cross-brand remote power control is manual only so far, at x-sync shutter speeds or below, plus LPA has not fully vetted this functionality yet so there may be bugs. For now, this is for photographers who want to experiment with blending gear from the two major camera brands, but has not yet risen to the level of an official, supported PocketWizard feature.

That said, the partial level of interoperability that currently exists is already useful. Website co-editor Mike Sturk, who made the switch from Canon to Nikon several months ago, has recently been using a Nikon MiniTT1 + beta AC3 ZoneController to successfully control and fire a pair of remote Speedlite 550EXs on Canon FlexTT5s that carry over from his days as a Canon shooter. It has been working like a charm for him, as long as the shutter speed is kept at x-sync or lower.

LPA Design plans to weave in more extensive Canon-Nikon cooperation starting early in 2011, at which point this will be something the company officially supports. They have committed to ensuring that remote manual power control works, at or below x-sync as well as in the High Speed Sync/Auto FP Sync shutter speed range, with the option of engaging rear curtain sync too. Cross-brand TTL will be investigated, says Clark, but it's too soon for him to predict whether this will be possible.

One outcome of the cross-brand friendliness that LPA Design is building into the PocketWizard MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 is that Canon shooters who want a way out of the RF noise problem of Canon flashes like the 580EX II could soon opt for Nikon Speedlights as remotes instead. How many Canon shooters will actually do this remains to be seen, but it will at least be an option sometime in the not-so-distant future.

Update, December 1, 2010: Right now, the setting of a manual power level on certain remote Canon Speedlites from a Nikon doesn't work consistently with either the official 5.200 or 5.207 public beta firmware versions for the Canon FlexTT5. A mid-December public beta firmware release for Canon is planned that will allow more cross-brand combinations to work properly. LPA Design recommends that photographers hold off until then before trying this feature out. This month's public beta firmware released will be limited to supporting cross-brand remote manual power setting at x-sync or below.

Improved Speedlight efficiency

You'll notice generally faster recycle speed at a given Speedlight power level when the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 are in use. At any shutter speed, the elimination of light pulse communication as well as an optimization of the pre-flash burst (more about this is just ahead) results in less flash power being gobbled up before the actual exposure. The result is both Master and remote (especially remote) Speedlights will be able to recover more quickly, shoot more frames in quick succession or keep up with faster frame rates than Nikon's native system alone.

If you're familiar with using the SU-800 as the Master on the camera, you'll know how the slow recycle speed of its small flash head drags down the rate at which you can rattle off multiple flash pictures. Not so when the SU-800 is on top of a MiniTT1 or FlexTT5 on the camera. Its light pulsing is not needed so it never actually fires, which in turn means there's no waiting for it to recycle, ever. An AF illuminator beam is the only light it emits when the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 are involved.

At Auto FP Sync shutter speeds, remote Speedlights on FlexTT5s recycle much more quickly than when Nikon's own optical system is in charge. The difference is huge, particularly when the flash is firing at higher brightness levels. Here's an example of the sort of difference you can expect. We took a remote SB-900 with fresh Maha Powerex Imedion AAs loaded and set to half power by the Master unit at the camera, a D3S with a shutter speed of 1/2000 dialed in.
  • Nikon's native optical system (SU-800 triggering a remote SB-900): the remote flash fired 3 times in succession, at 3fps, after which flash brightness began to trail off dramatically. After three more pops the flash stopped firing altogether while it did a full recycle.

  • PocketWizard system (MiniTT1 + SU-800 triggering a remote FlexTT5 + SB-900): the remote flash fired 12 times in succession, at 3fps, after which flash brightness began to drop gradually, but the SB-900 kept firing until we finally stopped the sequence at 20 pops.
Similarly, after a burst of three full power pops, the remote SB-900 takes about four seconds to fully recycle when triggered by Nikon's native optical system, and about one second when the PocketWizard system is used.

In both the half power and full power examples, the actual flash brightness during the exposure is identical between Nikon native and PocketWizard systems, so it's an apples-to-apples recycling speed comparison.

The boost in flash efficiency comes from how LPA Design has optimized the flash burst in Auto FP Sync mode. Here's how. At shutter speeds at or below a camera's x-sync speed, the Speedlight will emit a short pop of light during the exposure. When a shutter speed above x-sync is chosen on the camera, the system enters Auto FP Sync mode and the flash's behaviour changes: it switches to rapidly pulsing the flash tube to keep it glowing for several milliseconds. This is called simmering the tube, and it allows the flash to briefly mimic a continuous light source. This in turn gives fairly even illumination during the time the shutter's narrow slit is traveling rapidly across the image sensor.

In Nikon's own implementation of Auto FP Sync, the remote Speedlight lights up well before the shutter opens and stays lit up for a time after the shutter closes. In LPA Design's implementation, the flash start and end times more closely match the opening and closing of the shutter. By shortening the simmering duration to just before the shutter opens, and ending it immediately after, the flash expends far less energy illuminating each Auto FP Sync photo. All this conserved energy is put to good use, giving the noticeably faster recycle times described above.

Only remote Speedlights on FlexTT5s get this Auto FP Sync efficiency benefit. The Speedlight on top of the camera does not. This, says Clark, is because Nikon is already timing the start and end of the flash tube simmering for near-maximum efficiency when the Speedlight is in the camera's hot shoe. It's only the remote Speedlight's Auto FP Sync output that had some fat which LPA Design could trim.

Note: LPA Design was able to work similar magic with Canon's High Speed Sync mode, though there's a key difference: not only did recycle speed improve at a given power level, but maximum brightness at high shutter speeds increased too. By as much as two stops in fact. Clark says that Nikon's Speedlights don't provide the same mechanism for pumping up Auto FP Sync brightness that Canon's Speedlites do, which is why recycle speed but not maximum brightness improves in LPA Design's implementation of Nikon Auto FP Sync.

A related quirk of Nikon's Speedlights is that a full power TTL or manual burst in Auto FP Sync mode does not use the flash capacitor's full charge. In other words, full power isn't actually full power, or even close to it actually. This isn't a problem being caused by the PocketWizards but rather a trait that's native to Nikon's flash system.

We first observed this in the SB-900, and Clark indicates it's true of the SB-600 and SB-800 too. Nikon has put a cap on the flash's maximum Auto FP Sync brightness for some reason, and it's almost certainly a sound one. But there isn't a similar cap in Canon's Speedlites. Combine that with the fact that the Canon versions of the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 are able to run Canon's flashes at a much brighter maximum when the camera is set to a high shutter speed, and you have a substantial brightness gap between Nikon's Speedlights and Canon's Speedlites when hooked up to MiniTT1s and FlexTT5s and the shutter speed is well above x-sync. Put simply, Canon's flashes are much brighter. Even a midrange Canon flash like the 430EX II will trounce an SB-900 in this scenario, when comparing at similar high shutter speeds.

We wrote earlier about how Canon shooters might have a reason to pick up a Nikon Speedlight or two, thanks to the cross-brand functionality planned for the new PocketWizards. The reverse option will exist for Nikon shooters; those who need a brighter Auto FP Sync flash than the SB-900 might find one of Canon's Speedlites enticing. (Or, better yet, Nikon will create a firmware update for the SB-900 that will allow it to be fired at closer to maximum brightness by LPA Design's system!)

Enhanced pre-flash

With a FlexTT5 hooked up the power level of the TTL pre-flash burst emitted by a remote Nikon Speedlight becomes adjustable, so that pre-flash brightness can be tuned to better match the modifier and/or subject distance. For example, if the remote Speedlight + FlexTT5 are inside a softbox, well away from the subject, you can turn up the pre-flash using the flash exposure compensation control on the flash, to ensure the pre-flash pop is bright enough to be accurately measured by the camera. Conversely, you can also turn down the pre-flash burst in situations where the flash is extremely close - macro photography, for example - to prevent a bogus TTL measurement resulting from a pre-flash that's too bright.

LPA Design has made other under-the-hood tweaks to remote Speedlight pre-flash behaviour, including pumping up the default brightness of the first pre-flash (the Nikon system is actually designed to read up to two separate pre-flashes from each Speedlight or Speedlight group), the goal being to produce better TTL flash exposures in more situations. And especially when a light-absorbing modifier is used.

LPA's pre-flash tweaking is to the remote flash exclusively. The pre-flash behaviour of the Speedlight on top of the Nikon MiniTT1 or FlexTT5 on top of the camera is not changed.

Compatibility with remote power control modules

The new PocketWizards for Nikon can adjust and trigger remote Nikon Speedlights. But that's only the beginning. As mentioned above, a measure of interoperability with Canon Speedlites is also in the works, plus with the right PocketWizard remote power control module it's possible to set the power level and modeling light status of certain studio flash units.

A controllable studio flash can be comprised of any of the following combinations:
  • An RX-series Elinchrom with a PowerST4 Receiver inserted into its Skyport socket. This includes Elinca products such as the Style RX monolights, as well as the  Ranger RX, Ranger RX Speed and Ranger RX Speed AS (the latter three models require an EL-Skyport Transceiver RX Adapter as well; this adapter ships with these Ranger units). The PowerST4 is shipping now.

    Elinchroms that lack a Skyport socket, including such models as the Ranger RX Quadra AS, are not compatible with the PowerST4.

  • An AC9 AlienBees Adapter for Canon attached to a FlexTT5 for Canon and tethered via RJ-14 (four wire telephone) cord to the control port of a compatible Paul C. Buff AlienBees, White Lightning or Zeus monolight or power pack. The AC9 for the Canon FlexTT5 is shipping now, while the AC9 for the Nikon FlexTT5 is to be released in January 2011.

  • A current Paul C. Buff light that's not compatible with the AC9 is the Einstein 640, since it's outfitted with a different control port. The Einstein requires the PowerMC2 instead (more about this module is in a recent article). The PowerMC2 is on track for a January 2011 (or possibly December 2010 if the manufacturing stars align) release at a price of under US$100 in the U.S. It will be sold exclusively through Paul C. Buff's direct-purchase operations in the U.S., Europe and Australia.

    The photo at left below was lit with three Einstein 640s with beta PowerMC2 modules inserted. The flashes' power levels were set by a MiniTT1 + beta AC3 ZoneController on a Nikon D7000.
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Takeoff: Nikon D7000 + AF-S 70-200mm f/2.G VR II at 112mm, ISO 100, 1/320, f/7.1. Click photo to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media) Plugged In: PowerMC2 module inserted into an Einstein 640. Click photo to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

The slickest way to remotely adjust the power levels of compatible studio flash will be with the upcoming AC3 ZoneController for Nikon. When slid into the shoe of a MiniTT1 or FlexTT5 on top of the camera, the AC3 ZoneController's three switches and three control wheels give quick and useful control of the output of up to three zones of remote flash units.

The AC3 isn't the only device you can place on top of a MiniTT1 or FlexTT5 on your Nikon digital SLR to do this, however. The SU-800, SB-800 and SB-900 can too.

Price and availability

The first units of the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 for Nikon are expected to arrive at dealers in Canada and various countries in Europe starting in the days ahead, probably between December 1 and December 3. It's anticipated that dealers in the U.S. will see their first shipments roughly two weeks after that. The expected U.S. street price of the MiniTT1 for Nikon is about US$200, while the FlexTT5 for Nikon is to be about US$220.

The AC3 ZoneController for Nikon is slated to ship in the latter half of January 2011 for about US$70 in the U.S.

  First time tips
  • Be sure to give yourself enough time to update the firmware in your new PocketWizards, before you begin to use them. LPA Design has prepped a firmware update for the Nikon versions of the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 that includes important corrections to the behaviour of the Speedlight on the PocketWizard in the camera's hot shoe. The firmware version is 2.050 for both MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 for Nikon, and you install it through a USB connection with the help of PocketWizard 1.35 for Mac and Windows, which can be downloaded here.
Up to Date: Installing firmware v2.050 into a FlexTT5 for Nikon using PocketWizard Utility for Mac
  • For goof-proof recognition of the Speedlight + MiniTT1/FlexTT5 by your Nikon digital SLR, turn everything off first. Yes, everything: your camera, flash and PocketWizard. Then place the Speedlight + MiniTT1/FlexTT5 into the hot shoe of the camera and turn things on in this order: first the camera, and then the MiniTT1/FlexTT5. Pause for two or three seconds, then turn on your Speedlight. Strictly speaking, you have some flexibility in the order in which these devices are turned on; the order we're suggesting is what has worked reliably for us throughout the beta period. Turning all the devices off first, however, is really a must.

  • For goof-proof recognition of the Speedlight by the FlexTT5 when setting up a remote, turn each off before attaching the two. Turn on the FlexTT5 first, then wait two or three seconds before turning on the Speedlight. As with the camera part of the setup, you have some flexibility in the order in which these two devices are turned on. Turning both devices off first, however, is essential.

    You'll know that the FlexTT5 is communicating properly with the Speedlight when it emits a low power burst of light shortly after you turn it on. In most instances, the only on-flash setting you'll then need to adjust is the zoom head position.

  • Prepare to unlearn a bit of what you know about configuring a Speedlight you're about to deploy as a remote. First, don't choose the flash's remote setting. For instance, if the Speedlight is an SB-900, you'll turn its multi-position power switch to On, not to Remote. When the flash is in the shoe of a remote FlexTT5 and switched to On, the FlexTT5 handles the remote-ness of the whole rig, not the flash itself.

  • Don't switch the Speedlight out of the TTL mode the FlexTT5 will have set it to during startup, unless you know why you would want to and how the PocketWizard system's behaviour will change as a result. One reason you DON'T need to change the flash's mode is to have the Speedlight fire at a manually-set power level. Assuming you have a MiniTT1 or FlexTT5 with Master unit attached at the camera, you can set the remote flash's manual power level from the camera position, but only if the flash is not taken out of its default TTL mode. (Because of how its different operating modes are chosen, the upcoming SB-700 might throw a wrench in this advice. We won't know until LPA Design has tested this flash, and as of this writing that hasn't happened.)
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