Making Sense of Pocket Wizards

The increasing interest in off-camera flash has led to a number of our customers requesting Pocket Wizards to trigger off-camera flashes. The problem is, there isn’t just one single Pocket Wizard – there are no less than a half-dozen transmitters you have to chose from and just as many receivers!

Since there are several combinations of cameras and lights you could be using, this blog entry won’t focus on giving you the list of things you would need for each imaginable combination. Instead, we’ll focus on the basics of Pocket Wizards and help you figure out what you’re going to need.

Categories of Pocket Wizards

In essence, Pocket Wizard’s products can be broken down into two key areas:

  • Standard Pocket Wizards
  • ControlTL Pocket Wizards (ControlTL = Control The Light)

Standard Pocket Wizards

These are the original Pocket Wizards – the ones that are the mainstay of many professionals. They are both transmitters and receivers (called transceivers) and can be used interchangeably.

Pocket Wizard Plus II

The Pocket Wizard Plus II is the workhorse of the photographic industry. Relatively small and simple to use, it runs off 2 AA batteries and has 4 separate channels it can use for transmission. These are considered to be the most reliable Pocket Wizard and they see more use than any other version of Pocket Wizard.

So, how would you use this? Here are a few combinations:

You have a camera and a strobe that has a sync cable port. In our example, we’ll use a White Lightning X1600.

  • Connect one Pocket Wizard Plus II to your camera’s hot shoe. No additional cables necessary.
  • Connect a second Pocket Wizard Plus II to your White Lightning X1600 using a 1/4″ to 1/8″ cable. One will come with your rental.

You have a camera and a Speedlight-style flash with a PC sync port, like the Canon 580EX II or a Nikon SB-910.

  • Connect one Pocket Wizard Plus II to your camera’s hot shoe. No additional cables necessary.
  • Connect a second Pocket Wizard Plus II to your small flash using a 1/8” to PC cable. One will come with your rental.

All DSLRs have a hot shoe to slide a Pocket Wizard onto. Most studio lights have a port to hold a sync cable, usually either a 1/4″ port or a 1/8″ port, that you can use to connect a second Pocket Wizard to. Plus IIs/Plus IIIs all have 1/8″ ports, so the 1/8″ end of your cable is what you use to connect to the transceiver itself. Most small flashes have PC sync ports but many don’t. If yours has one, it would look like this:

Pocket Wizard MultiMax

This is the big brother of the Plus II. The MultiMax has 32 channels (compared to the Plus II’s 4), can trigger lights placed into 4 separate zones, and a host of other features (along with an LCD to make navigating easier).

For basic triggering, the MultiMax is overkill. However, it is capable of doing some pretty complex setups and triggering. This is what you use when you have a something like a dozen-light setup and need selective control over their triggering. People who want to fire multiple different lighting setups without having moving their lights (they place them ahead of time and only fire the sets they want one at a time) are served well by the MultiMax.

In practice, the MultiMax has the same 1/8″ port on it that the Plus II does, so the scenarios outlined above would work just fine with the MultiMax too.

Bear in mind that for both these triggers, the only thing you can do is trigger cameras and flashes. There is absolutely no exposure information being passed back and forth between camera and light, so all your controls – light power levels, shutter speed, and aperture – have to be set manually. You turn strobe flash power up or down with these devices. They are just radios designed to pop a flash from your camera’s shutter without the flash being physically connected to your camera.

Pocket Wizard X

Released after the time of this original writing, the Pocket Wizard X is the ideal beginner’s Pocket Wizard. It has just 10 channels with no complicated zones or groups. Simply turn the dial to matching channels for each of your X’s and they will be in sync!

What is ControlTL?

ControlTL stands for “Control The Light” and it’s Pocket Wizard’s way of giving photographers even greater power over their lighting setup. There are several items that make up the system, from triggers designed specifically for studio flashes like the Paul C. Buff Einstein E640 lights, to small triggers for flashes like the Nikon SB-900 and Canon 580EX II.

The fundamental idea behind the ControlTL series is to give photographers a way to control their lights right from the camera. This means that not only can you trigger an SB-900 from your Nikon D700, but you can also control the power output of that strobe right from your camera.

Now, some of you might be thinking, “I can already control my SB-900 from my D700. What do I need these triggers for?” Well, as mentioned earlier, the cool thing about radio triggers is that you don’t need line-of-sight to trigger your flashes. Moreover, in bright sunlight, the Nikon CLS system or the Canon Speedlite system break down and become less reliable. Radio triggers do not suffer from these conditions and are more effective in certain lighting situations.

ControlTL Transmitters and Receivers

There are two basic triggers in the ControlTL lineup: the FlexTT5 transceiver and the MiniTT1 transmitter. Let’s look at these a bit closer.


MiniTT1 Transmitter

The MiniTT1 unit is tiny and it performs one function only: it’s a transmitter. It’s available in specific Nikon and Canon versions and is, fortunately, backwards compatible with older Pocket Wizard Plus IIs and Multimax triggers. It runs off a button cell battery and is much more unobtrusive than Pocket Wizard’s other models. The MiniTT1 mounts on the hotshoe of your camera and has its own hotshoe on top as well, so you could mount a small flash on top of it. That hotshoe on top also allows you to attach the trigger to your camera without sacrificing a connection point if you’re using hotshoe-based grip accessories.

PocketWizard FlexTT5

FlexTT5 Transceiver

The FlexTT5 (also available in Nikon and Canon-specific versions) is a much larger unit, roughly three times the size of a MiniTT1, and runs off AA batteries. It also has a flip-up antenna that needs to be raised for maximum range. The FlexTT5 is a transceiver, which means it doesn’t just transmit – it also receives. But it is somewhat unwieldy when mounted on top of a camera. Like the MiniTT1, the Flex unit has a hotshoe, so you could mount a small flash on top of it as well.

While the TT1 transmits information from the camera to the flash only, the TT5 can send and receive. Here is how to use them together:

MIniTT1 on-camera

The simplest way to use a FlexTT5 and MiniTT1 together is as follows…

  • Put the MiniTT1 on top of your camera.
  • Put a FlexTT5 on a light stand (it has a standard port for this).
  • Slide a flash (Canon or Nikon, depending on your choice of camera) into the hotshoe on the FlexTT5.
  • Put the flash that E-TTL mode (or i-TTL if you’re using a Nikon).
  • Make sure both are on. The Mini will transmit from your camera to your Flex-connected flash and fire wirelessly every time you fire the shutter!

In this configuration, the flash thinks it’s attached physically to your camera, and will fire accordingly. You can adjust the power of the flash by changing the Flash Exposure Compensation on your camera.

Flash on the FlexTT5

The above configuration works well if you’re using just one or two small flashes off-camera. All your remote flashes will fire as part of one “group”, so you won’t be able to do things like adjust one light so it’s not as bright as the other (also called ratio lighting).

Pocket Wizard ControlTL in Practice

The neat thing about these radios is how they can be used in real-world shoots. For solo shooters, this means that you have to mess around with your lights and settings a lot less. Portrait shooters, for example, can now change lighting levels from their camera, which means they can spend more time working with the subject and less with their lights.

Wedding shooters now have an excellent, automatic off-camera flash system without wires to trip up guests, and without the hassle of making sure they have a line-of-sight to their flashes when they shoot. Just pair a couple of flashes with FlexTT5s in the corner of the room, bouncing off the ceiling, and let ControlTL do the heavy lifting for you.

Sports shooters have similar advantages. Photographers shooting indoor basketball, for example, have long been clamping flashes to various places to get better coverage of light in relatively dark stadiums. With infrared-based systems (like Nikon’s CLS), flash firing isn’t always reliable. Stick this Pocket Wizard combo into the spot, however, and you have a much more reliable triggering mechanism with the kind of automation you’re used to with CLS, i-TTL or E-TTL.

In short, the ControlTL system tears down another barrier for photographers, so get your triggers, cameras, and flashes and go out and shoot!

Sohail Mamdani is a writer, filmmaker, and photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.


  • Linda

    Could you please explain how to read the Multi Max ABCDL and what all that means and how to transmit to Plus X connected to speedlite

  • Stephen

    Just a comment, I get 100s of links to look at each week, 1000s of emails which drive me crazy. There is so much info out there these days. We all suffer with information overload. I would like to see just one short tip at a time, just a couple of paragraphs that I can read quickly rather than a page of text.

  • Aaron

    Thanks for this! I have been trying to sort out what I actually need for a pocket wizard setup for a while.

  • Sohail Mamdani

    Kevin, keep the ControlTL stuff in mind too. We’ll have a followup tip on those in a couple of weeks as well.

  • Kevin

    The MultiMax’s are absolutely amazing and can do anything. But like you said, complete overkill. I am going to be investing in some Plus II’s soon.

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BorrowLenses is an online camera gear rental service that started in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2007. We offer a wide selection of camera gear ranging from camera bodies, lenses, lighting and accessories. We make it easy to rent gear by shipping your order straight to you.