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Strobist Noob

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I finally shelled out for the PocketWizard MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 wireless radio triggers for my Canon flash unit. I wanted to start playing around with off-camera strobe(s).

PocketWizard MiniTT1 and FlexTT5

The PocketWizard units aren’t cheap at ~$200 a piece for the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 (or ~$160 for the manual-only Plus II), but they’re arguably the best wireless flash triggers out there. There are far cheaper alternatives such as the Cactus (gadgetinfinity.com) and Yongnuo triggers which sell for ~$50 (for a transmitter and receiver pair). But the cost reflects quality and reliability. Such low cost triggers are often made in China, have poor construction quality, and can be unreliable (do not always trigger, limited range, etc).

So while a pair of PocketWizard units run for 8-10 times as much as the cheap eBay radio triggers, the PW units have far better quality, have warranty support, and the new models (MiniTT1 and FlexTT5) are ‘future-proof’; they have upgradeable firmware via USB which allows bug fixes and equipment compatibility/support updates.

That said, I was able to get a TT1+TT5 pair from Amazon for $400, but saved $100 because I got a free gift card from work for filling out a health survey. After I unboxed them, I did a quick informal test and setup my 580 EX II on my Bogen Manfrotto tripod outside, and walked down the street to see how far I could go before it stopped triggering. I was able to trigger it from ~175 yards before it stopped firing.

Unboxing the PocketWizard MiniTT1

Note that there wasn’t line of sight after 100 yard due to bushes and the measurement isn’t very accurate since I did the measurement using Google Earth (ruler tool on satellite imagery).

After I bought the PW units, I figured I should probably order a lightstand and umbrella so I can play around with off-camera strobes more effectively. I did a lot of browsing on B&H, reading on the Canon Forums, and research on the web and podcasts (i.e. Photofocus) and ended up getting the Giottos #210 light stand, Manfrotto 026 umbrella adapter, Westcott 60″ convertible umbrella, and a Stroboframe flash mount adapter.

Note (added 2010-03-30): The Stroboframe flash mount adapter is unnecessary. I didn’t realize the PocketWizard FlexTT5 has a 1/4-20 threaded hole which is a standard thread for attaching devices to light stands. Thus, the FlexTT5 will connect directly to the Manfrotto umbrella adapter/bracket without the need for a flash mount adapter.

As the title of this post indicates, I have no experience whatsoever with off-camera strobes so this is all new to me.

Everyone recommended to get as large an umbrella as possible, so I opted for a 60″. In my research, I discovered that shoot-through is often more useful than reflecting with the umbrella, so I wanted to get an umbrella that could function in both situations. As far as brand, Westcott appeared to be a pretty decent quality manufacturer.

The Westcott umbrella is actually pretty nice. Removing/installing the black cover to convert it to/from a shoot-through is quick and easy. My one qualm is that 60″ is actually pretty big. It’s not a true 60″ (5ft) diameter since umbrella specs are based on the length of the ribs when straight. So when they’re arced, the umbrella is less than 60″ in diameter. Even then, using it indoors can be an issue in tight quarters. I may order a smaller umbrella (~40″) for tight situations.

I had a hard time picking a stand. I was going to get an Impact stand (Impact is a brand sold exclusively by B&H), but read very mixed reviews about the sturdiness. So I looked at the Manfrotto stands and the least expensive Manfrotto was twice as much as the Impact stands ($70 vs $35). While browsing the Canon Forums, I saw the Giottos stand mentioned, so I checked out the B&H page and the price was decent ($40) and it got good reviews on boards. After receiving, I can say the Giottos #210 is actually a nice stand. It is air cushioned, so if you don’t tighten down any of the segments and it decides to fall (compress), it won’t drop straight down, but will instead slowly drop due to the air pressure in the columns. The knobs all feel pretty rugged considering it was only $40. I may opt for another Giottos #210 when I get another flash unit and PW FlexTT5.

Note (added 2010-03-30): I recorded a short video demonstrating the Giottos air-cushioned light stands and posted it on Youtube.

As far as the umbrella+flash adapter, I was also going to get the Impact adapter (~$15), but they discontinued it and so I ended up getting a Manfrotto due to all the poor reviews of the other low cost (under $20) adapters out there. The Manfrotto is built well. Not much to say about it.

I put it all together the other night just to see how it all fit and it seemed to work ok. I extended the stand to full height and it was able to support the 60″ umbrella with flash. Although, the base of the stand doesn’t span a wide area, so I can’t imagine using this outdoors if there is any sort of gusty wind.

Giottos #210 at full height with Westcott 60″ umbrella

The above photo shows the stand at full height with the Westcott 60″ umbrella (setup for reflected light) and the Canon 580 EX II with PocketWizard FlexTT5.

I did a quick shoot-through test, too.

Shoot-through umbrella
Close-up of 580 EX II on stand
Cooperative test subject

I was going to do some more testing of the PocketWizard units as far as range. I’m going to see if I can get my hands on a laser rangefinder (yes, amazing that I don’t own one) and maybe do a test on campus (several open line of sight areas that exceed 200 yards).

I really want to get another 580 EX II and FlexTT5 so I can work with a two small-flash setup. Maybe after I get the 24-70 f/2.8 and 70-200 f/2.8 lenses that I need (after selling my 17-40 f/4L and 70-200 f/4L; and will sell the 200mm f/2.8L II when I order the 70-200 f/2.8L IS II).

  1. Joel

    I’m actually starting to get into the off camera flash. Your experience definitely helped me on what equipment I need to get. I’m glad you went indepth with your entire set-up!

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