A few weeks ago I got my hands on the long anticipated PocketWizard PowerMC2. The PowerMC2 is a radio receiver unit designed specifically for the Paul C. Buff Einstein 640 studio strobe. I recorded a short video at that time and posted it in a quick blog entry. It was just a quick run through after I had unboxed the PowerMC2 units.
Shortly after receiving the PocketWizard AC3 ZoneController a few days after, I had the opportunity to use the Einsteins, PowerMC2, and AC3 ZoneController in the field at a location model photo shoot in Riverside.
That said, I received email and comments asking for my feedback on the AC3 ZoneController in combination with the PowerMC2 and Einsteins.
Before diving into the review, there are a lot of pieces in the PocketWizard and Einstein kit I have assembled. But the basic setup consists of:
- dSLR (Canon 5D Mark II)
- PocketWizard MiniTT1 Transmitter for Canon
- PocketWizard AC3 ZoneController for Canon
- PocketWizard PowerMC2 Receiver for Einstein
- Paul C. Buff Einstein 640 strobe
Technically the AC3 isn’t required at all. It’s only necessary if you want to remotely adjust the power of the multiple Einstein (with PowerMC2) or compatible strobes/flashes. Note that you can indeed remotely adjust the strobe power of the Einstein (with PowerMC2) remotely without an AC3 on the camera by using the Flash Exposure Compensation (FEC) on the camera. It’s not ideal, but it works (read the manual that comes with the PowerMC2; also available at the PocketWizard website).
But enough of that. You want to know about the AC3, right?
Well, I found the AC3 ZoneController to be very, very handy. The ability to adjust the strobe power output without having to move to the strobe saves a lot of movement, time, and effort. It makes the portrait session move smoother and faster. It also allows placement of strobes in positions out of reach, yet still maintain the ability to adjust the power of the strobes (e.g. high on boom arm, distant rim light).
But before you think the AC3 is perfect, it is far from it. I have found a few quirks with the AC3 so far.
First off, the AC3 can sometimes be slow to send the adjustment signal/command to the Einstein + PowerMC2. I’ll dial a new setting on the AC3 for a specific zone and the strobe on that zone won’t adjust in response. Usually half-pressing the shutter will result in the command to be ‘forced’ to the zone, but a few times, the Einstein+PowerMC2 doesn’t seem receive the command and just sits there. I’m not sure if this is a battery issue (low battery) on the MiniTT1 since the AC3 piggybacks on and draws power from the MiniTT1, but it gets a bit irritating when this happens.
Secondly, the MiniTT1+AC3 will override whatever model lamp settings you have configured directly on the Einstein via the LCD. What does this mean? Let’s say you set the modeling lamp off on the Einstein because you’re going to run off a battery (e.g. Vagabond Mini Lithium) for an outdoor shoot. When you turn on your camera with MiniTT1 and AC3 with the default settings, the MiniTT1+AC3 will send a modeling lamp ‘on’ command to the Einstein and the modeling lamp will turn on.
Obviously, in this situation this is bad because you are running off battery and the modeling lamp will kill the battery quickly. The way I worked around this is to set different modeling lamp behaviors on C1 and C2 of the MiniTT1. C1 is configured to wake up and use the modeling lamp at the same power as the strobe power (if strobe power is 1/2, then the modeling lamp is 1/2). I then configured C2 so that it never sends a modeling lamp command to the strobe.
Thus, if I’m in a situation where I’m running Einsteins off battery power, I will make sure I use C2 so I don’t activate the modeling lamps.
Note that you can’t set the MiniTT1+AC3 to turn off the modeling lamp. So once it gets activated by the PocketWizard trigger, you have to physically turn off the modeling lamp via the Einstein LCD panel (and it will turn back on assuming the MiniTT1+AC3 is configured to control the lamp).
Third, the AC3 doesn’t have enough adjustment on the dial to map to the power range adjustment of the Einstein. For those that don’t know, the Einstein is a improvement over the Alien Bees units in a number of ways, including the power adjustment range. The Einstein can go from 1/1 (full) all the way to 1/256. When ‘halving’ power from full, that means 1/1, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, 1/32, 1/64, 1/128, and 1/256 (9 f-stops).
But the AC3 only has +/- 3 EV/stops on the dial. This means you can only map 7 stops to the 9 stops of the Einstein. +3 to 1/1, +2 to 1/2, +1 to 1/4, 0 to 1/8, -1 to 1/16, -2 to 1/32, and -3 to 1/32. This means you can’t go below 1/32 power and you lose the 1/128 and 1/256 power on the low end. I’m not sure how much of a deal breaker this is, but this can be an issue depending on the shooting situation. There are ways to counter this such as just turning off the zone that the strobe is on so you can just manually set it to the lower power settings needed on the back of the Einstein.
While I don’t see this being a problem for me right now, I’m sure I’ll come across a situation where I’m rocking a set and need to dial the power via the AC3 and suddenly realize I need to drop the power of the lights below 1/32 power. I’ll just have to cross that bridge when I come to it.
Addendum added 2011-05-13: I thought about how the AC3 ZoneController was indexed for the top end of the Einstein power output scale, and was thinking there had to be a way to get the bottom end of the scale if you were say in a situation where you didn’t need full power. So I ran through the PowerMC2 manual again and re-read a section discussing the “ControlTL Center Point”. Apparently, this refers to what the ‘0’ / Zero mark on the dial is indexed for. As mentioned above, by default, 0 on the AC3 gives you 1/8 power on the Einstein (and +3 is 1/1 full power). But you can use the PocketWizard utility (Mac or PC) to configure the PowerMC2 (via USB) so the FEC scale on the AC3 is either skewed to the High End (+3 = 1/1 power and -3 = 1/32) or the Low End (+3 = 1/4 and-3 = 1/256) on the Einstein. I’ll cut a short video demo to show this effect in the near future.
Addendum added 2011-05-29: I tried to use the -2 FEC setting as indicated in the manual to get the low end of the scale a couple weeks ago during a Las Vegas project shoot I did in a hotel suite and it did not work. The Einstein would not respond to any changes from the AC3 and wouldn’t respond to triggers from the MiniTT1. I had to plug the PowerMC2 back into a laptop and set the FEC scale back to 0 offset to get the PowerMC2 unit to work again. I received comments to this article from a reader who got in touch with LPA/PocketWizard who indicated that the 2.103 BETA firmware for the PowerMC2 fixed this problem (apparently a known glitch). I downloaded the 2.103 BETA firmware and installed it on one of my PowerMC2 units, tried the -2 FEC setting and it now works to give lower end of the Einstein scale when used with the AC3 ZoneController.
So do I recommend this setup for Einstein owners? Being PocketWizard gear, the system can get pricey. A MiniTT1 is ~$200, AC3 is ~$79, and PowerMC2 is $100. These combined with the cost of a $500 Einstein and you’re looking at about $900 for a single Einstein and MiniTT1+AC3+PowerMC2 setup. Each additional Einstein would need another $100 PowerMC2.
Comparatively, Paul C Buff (Alien Bees) Cybersync system is slightly cheaper. The Cybersync CST trigger is $60, a Cybersync receiver for the Einstein is $30, and the Cybersync CyberCommander is $180. These three give the remote control features that the MiniTT1+AC3+PowerMC2 give you. Each additional Einstein would need another $30 Cybersync receiver.
PocketWizard setup: $379. Cybersync setup: $270.
So why go with PocketWizard instead of Cybersync?
For one, PocketWizard is considered the industry standard when it comes to radio triggers. There are other options out there like the aforementioned Cybersyncs as well as Skyports and RadioPoppers among others. But generally, PocketWizards are the most commonly used. This can be important since it will be easier to get replacement equipment in a pinch, either through purchasing at a local camera shop or borrowing equipment from a friend or colleague.
Secondly, PocketWizard does advertise Hypersync and Rear Curtain Sync capabilities with the MiniTT1 to PowerMC2 (and FlexTT5) setup. Hypersync allows optimized use of flash beyond the camera sync speed. Note that I did try using the Einstein beyond the 1/200sec sync speed of my Canon 5D Mark II and could not get beyond 1/320sec without banding. I know for a fact my MiniTT1 works with the FlexTT5 and Canon 580 EX II Speedlite to go all the way up to 1/8000sec without any banding. But it appears Hypersync (and High Speed Sync) with the Einsteins plus the PocketWizard system is still sketchy. Others on web forums have voiced similar results when trying to go beyond camera sync speed. I have read that the Alien Bees strobes are more ideal for using with the PocketWizard system and shooting beyond sync speed, due to the flash durations of those strobes. But the verdict is still out on Hypersync and Einsteins.
Thirdly, the PocketWizard system (MiniTT1, FlexTT5, PowerMC2, AC3) is user upgradeable. PocketWizard releases new firmware as they fix bugs and add features, and users can download the firmware and install the firmware on their respective PocketWizard devices via USB (from computer).
So far, I’m fairly happy with the PocketWizard setup with the Paul C. Buff Einstein strobes. I still have a ‘small’ setup compared to many of my photographer friends. I currently have a pair of Einsteins, an Alien Bees B1600, and a pair of 580 EX II Speedlites, with a PocketWizard MiniTT1, a pair of FlexTT5 units, a pair of PowerMC2, and a lone Plus II (for emergency use). So I do have the ability to run say four lights all zone and remote power controlled: 2x Einstein + PowerMC2 and 2x 580 EX II + FlexTT5. Or I could integrate the B1600 if I acquire a PocketWizard AC9, which is an add-on unit to be used in conjunction with the FlexTT5 on an Alien Bees strobe, which gives remote power control.
If you are already using the PocketWizard Plus II units should you upgrade? Yes, if you feel remote control of strobe power is valuable to you. If not, stick with the Plus II units.
If you are using Cybersyncs, should you switch? Frankly, I would say no since the Cybersync system has proven to be reliable by all the users out there, and the Cybercommander provides remote control of strobe power. As far as the added Hypersync that supposedly comes with the PocketWizard system, I don’t think that should be a determining factor and sway anyone over from Cybersyncs. At least not until Paul C. Buff and/or PocketWizard can iron out the issues with Hypersync and Einsteins so that it actually works.
If anything, Einstein owners already using PocketWizards should get the PowerMC2 anyway since they are $100 and are at least $60 cheaper than the Plus II and FlexTT5 transceivers, and don’t require mono-sync cables. Not to mention you get all the extended channels with the PowerMC2; 52 total with Standard Channels 1 to 32 and Control-TL channels 1 to 20.
In closing, I feel that the PocketWizard system is a solid setup and is worth the money, but only if you can make use of the advanced features (remote control, zones) and aren’t already heavily invested in Cybersyncs.
The following MiniTT1+AC3+PowerMC2+Einstein video was recorded (with the assistance of my friend Mike Kennedy) and edited/uploaded prior to writing this article.
For more photos of Ally Militza, the model in the photo at the beginning of this article, visit http://www.jocabphoto.com/ally_militza (Jonathan Ocab Photography) and http://www.modelmayhem.com/617036 (Ally’s Model Mayhem profile).