When PocketWizard asked if I wanted to do a review of their PlusX Transceiver, I jumped at the opportunity. PocketWizard has long been the professional standard when it comes to off-camera flash triggering.
In fact, the widespread popularity of Pocketwizards can be traced to a single NBA basketball game in the early 1990’s:
From Pocketwizard’s website:
"A crucial moment in its history came at an NBA Finals game where event management had insisted that everything be hard wired as they didn’t trust these new-fangled wireless devices. During halftime, pianist and singer Bruce Hornsby did a show on the court and as the crew rushed to get the piano off the court a leg snagged on a bundle of cables on the sidelines. With no time to unsnag the cumbersome piano, a knife appeared and with one slash, cut through all the cables, including those to all the overhead strobes.
On hand was Jim Clark, one of the brains behind LPA [Lab Partner’s Associates, inventors of PocketWizard radios], and he quickly called the photo assistants and had them pull the cords on the remote flashes and rely solely on the wireless FlashWizard radios. The second half went on without missing a shot (at least for the photographers) and from that moment, sports photographers have been a leading user of PocketWizard Wireless Freedom."
Past Triggering Experiences
I picked up my first flash radio triggers in early 2008. Back then I purchased a set of Cactus V2 triggers and receivers from eBay. They weren’t particularly reliable, their range was somewhat limited, their batteries were hard to find and they started falling apart within a year. Even so, I became hooked on the huge image quality advantages offered by off-camera flash.
These days, you can still get cheap off-camera flash triggers on eBay. The quality, I hear, has gotten substantially better. But relatively speaking, you still get what you pay for.
Since my introduction into radio triggers, I’ve tested several additional radio triggering options – from very cheap to moderately priced. A few years ago I invested in a trigger made by one of Pocketwizard’s competitors. The triggers weren’t exactly cheap, but they weren’t as expensive as the PocketWizard Plus II units available at that time. With the introduction of the PlusX transceivers, PocketWizard now offers a product aimed squarely at my needs – a high quality triggering option with ample range, unquestionable reliability and a moderate price tag. This was a product designed with me in mind; as such, I thoroughly looked forward to opening my care package from Pocketwizard.
When the PocketWizard PlusX transceivers hit my doorstep, I was like a kid opening up the first present on Christmas morning [If you know Sean, you probably know that this is an understatement - Bryan]. The Mac Group (the division that handles marketing for Pocketwizard) had sent me three PocketWizard PlusX transceivers and a G-Wiz Vault carrying case.
I was a bit surprised when I picked up a PlusX unit for the first time, though. It was lighter than I expected it to be. Then I realized why – no batteries! Once I inserted a pair of AA batteries into the device, it had a heft that engendered confidence in its build quality. With batteries installed, it’s a very solid feeling device, but not too heavy to be a burden when mounted to your camera.
The battery door doesn’t spring open when released, but it’s still very easy to open while providing enough resistance to stay securely closed. The hot shoe is plastic (like most flash triggers) but doesn’t feel flimsy. Overall, the build quality is very good (especially considering the price point).
I was also impressed by the Pocket Wizard G-wiz Vault carrying case. It’s the perfect size for holding up to four PlusX transceivers with a place to store cables in a mesh pocket under the lid. It’s a fairly rugged case with somewhat re-enforced sides. It wouldn’t protect against an impact of significant force, but for everyday use it seems to work very well.
Features and Accessories
The PocketWizard PlusX transceivers are “dumb” triggers. Unlike the PocketWizard Mini TT1 and FlexTT5 triggers, the PlusXs only send one command – “fire!” There is no ETTL triggering with these units, but for many of us, that’s exactly what we need. Although droves of photographers use ETTL triggering and love it, I’ve experienced a mixed bag of results when using ETTL and am always challenged to get the results that I’m looking for. And when things within your composition change, your camera reinterprets the scene and [possibly] changes your flash’s power levels to compensate. Personally, I like the consistency that comes with manually setting and changing my flash’s power levels.
The PlusX transceivers feature an on/off switch on the side of the unit. It’s located just beneath a lanyard loop (a very handy feature as a lanyard is included in the package). This switch is not so easy to find without looking, but it is not easy to accidently change.
When the unit is switched on, the channel indicator (located on the front of the transceiver) will light up. This makes it handy to identify which channel the PocketWizard is using in low light. It also just looks cool. ;-)
The PocketWizard also indicates its battery level via an LED at the top of the unit. According to the manual, the PlusX will blink one of three colors to signify the remaining battery level:
Unfortunately, for those that are red/green colorblind (like myself), the difference in LED blink colors can be indistinguishable from one another. The good news is that you can still simply count the number of blinks to figure out the battery level remaining.
The PlusX allows you to set the device to one of 10 channels. To change channels, simply turn the dial on the front of the device. Because Pocketwizards are so popular, having up to 10 channels available can be a lifesaver when shooting in crowded conditions (like sporting arenas).
Like all the Pocketwizards before it, the PlusX is backward compatible. This backwards compatibility means that those who invest in Pocketwizards rarely switch brands. Photographers can upgrade their equipment incrementally without having to invest in an entirely new system all at once. Bryan is using both II and PlusX transceivers.
The PlusX has a “Test” button on the front of the unit to manually trigger other active PlusXs within range. It’s a big rubber button and almost impossible not to find when the PlusX is in your hand or mounted to the camera.
Another handy feature of the PlusXs is that they are transceivers, not “triggers” or “receivers” like many other brands. Each PlusX can act as either a trigger or a receiver. This means that you can carry one additional PlusX as a backup instead of carrying a backup trigger and a backup receiver with other brands. It’s one of the features I enjoy most about the PlusXs.
The PlusX comes with a 3.5mm male to male cable, a 3.5mm to PC cable and a 3.5mm to 6.5mm (mono) adapter.
To trigger an off-camera flash, simply place one PlusX on your camera’s hotshoe, turn it on and set your desired channel. Next, attach another PlusX to your flash using the appropriate cord, turn the PlusX on and set it to the same channel as the camera-mounted PlusX. You can use the camera-mounted PlusX’s “Test” button to verify your setup is working properly.
Note: You can get a Hotshoe to Miniphone Jack Adapter from FlashZebra to connect your flash to the PocketWizard PlusX via a 3.5mm miniphone cable.
Another really useful feature about the PlusX is that it can remotely trigger you camera as well. All you need is a compatible motor cord to attach the PlusX Transceiver to your camera’s remote control terminal. Once connected, you can use another PlusX set to the same channel to trigger your camera’s shutter.
But the remote triggering goodness doesn’t stop there. You can connect an additional PlusX receiver to a flash and set it to the channel one step above the PlusX connected to the camera. When you trigger your camera, your flash will fire in sync with the camera. This is the setup I used when testing the PocketWizard PlusX’s range. I wanted to capture a self-portrait from more than a football field away.
And if you find you need even more range, you can use the PlusX’s relay mode to daisy chain transceivers together. To use this feature you need at least three PocketWizard PlusX trancievers. The additional PlusX is placed midway between the triggering transceiver and the transceiver attached to the camera/flash. The triggering transceiver and the midpoint transceiver are set to the same channel. The end point transceiver is set to one channel above the other two and will fire when it receives the relayed command from the midpoint transceiver.
I must admit, testing range is where this review got complicated for me. PocketWizard advertises that their Plus X will work “up to 1,600 feet.” However, that’s under ideal circumstances. I decided that testing if the transceivers worked up to half that distance I’d be happy, especially since I was testing in a suburban environment that was surely ripe with radio interference – in other words, a less than ideal environment. Little did I know the radio interference I feared was much closer than I anticipated (more on that later).
When I first tried to test the Plus X’s range, I set up a tripod mounted Canon 5D Mark III with an EF 300mm f/4 L USM lens (a predecessor to the IS version) and connected the camera (via motor cord) to a PocketWizard Plus X mounted on the camera’s hot shoe. I then connected a second Plus X to one of my Canon 580EX flashes. The camera-mounted Plus X was set to channel 1; the Plus X connected to the flash was set to channel 2. I used a third Plus X set to channel 1 to trigger the setup.
After setting up the gear, I left the tripod mounted camera and went for a walk with the flash – 800 feet, to be exact. I knew that under “optimal conditions,” the PlusX transceivers should work up to 1,600 feet. I figured halving that distance would be an easy test for the Pocketwizards. I also figured it would be significantly farther than I would ever want to actually trigger a camera or flash. I had to walk back to the camera to manually focus the lens on my flash’s location before walking back to the flash to initiate the test.
I hit the “Test” button on the PlusX transceiver in my hand and expected the flash above me to fire, but nothing happened. I tried it again, but nothing. At that point, the light was dimming quickly so I packed up the gear and went home. I assumed the non-triggering issue I experienced was the result of human error. Had I plugged in all the cables securely? Did I have fresh batteries? Was the PocketWizard on the camera pushed all the way into the hotshoe? I didn’t bother looking at the images from my camera as I assumed the shutter had never fired.
For my second attempt at the range test, I enlisted my father’s help. I believed the test would go more smoothly using two people so that a single person didn’t have to troubleshoot photo gear that was 800 feet apart. As I would soon learn, enlisting my father’s help would turn out to be a very good idea.
I set up the gear just as I had the first time around, except this time I was extra careful to avoid any setup issues. I also used a fresh set of batteries in every transceiver. After getting everything ready, we tested triggering the camera and flash from within 15 feet of each other with success. With everything working properly, I had my father stand by the tripod while I again walked 800 feet from the camera’s position, light stand and flash in hand. I hit the “Test” button on the PlusX transceiver in my hand and *drumroll please* ... nothing. The flash above me didn’t fire. I hit the “Test” button about a dozen times out of frustration, but the flash refused to fire.
Then my mobile phone started ringing; it was my father (we were far enough apart that mobile phones offered the best means of communication). He told me that my camera had been firing the whole time. Why would my camera be firing at 800 feet but my flash refuses to fire at the same distance? Then I had my father walk the tripod mounted camera closer and closer to me while I repeatedly hit the “Test” button. The flash over my head finally started firing consistently when my father was a little more than 100 feet away. I was perplexed. We packed up the gear and I decided to call PocketWizard the next day.
When I called Pocketwizard’s technical support, I ended up speaking to one of their product development specialists. He asked me which flash I had been using for the range test. I replied, “The Canon 580EX.” That’s when the PocketWizard specialist chuckled and said, “Ah, yes. The Canon 580EX, 580EX II and 430EX all emit a substantial amount of RF noise. The RF noise interferes with our triggering frequency. The RF noise severely reduces range.”
And that’s when it hit me – I had heard about the RF issue when PocketWizard first released their MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 triggering units back in early 2009. PocketWizard later released a quick fix for the issue – the PocketWizard AC5 RF Softshield. The AC5 RF Softshield slips over the Canon 580EX flash to isolate its RF interference from the triggering unit. I decided to pick up the softshield to see how much it would help my “noisy” flashes.
The AC5 RF Softshield comes in two pieces, a hot shoe and the shield itself. You must place the flash into the hotshoe and then encase the flash with the softshield making sure the shield makes contact all along the rim of the hotshoe. With the AC5 RF Softshield in hand, I decided to try the range test one more time.
So, for the third time, I set up the range test. The setup was the same as before and my dad was on hand to help me. To start the test, we placed the shielded flash on a light stand 800 feet away from the tripod mounted camera. The flash didn’t fire when I hit the “Test” button but the camera’s shutter was triggered. I had my father slowly walk the camera forward until the flash started firing in sync with my repeated button mashing. At that point we measured the distance – 415 feet. I manually focused the camera and walked back to my lighting rig to take the self-portrait below.
In the shot above, the PocketWizard PlusX is triggering a Canon 580EX inside an AC5 RF Softshield. The flash is diffused by a Westcott Rapid Box 26" Octa Softbox.
At 415 feet, I was able to fire the setup consistently. But oddly enough, I could only trigger the setup consistently while the handheld PlusX was pointed parallel to the ground. When I held the PlusX perpendicular to the ground (PocketWizard says perpendicular is the “optimal” orientation for best results), my flash wouldn’t fire on the relay. In the self-portrait above, the top of the PocketWizard is pointed camera left.
On the face of it, you might think I was disappointed by the range results I got. But just for perspective, I was able to trigger the camera and a flash that were 415 feet apart. That’s significantly more than an American football field. I can honestly say I will likely never need that much range for a setup like this. And if the flash had been placed close to the camera, and I was firing the setup remotely, I’m sure I could have easily fired the entire rig from 800 feet away or more. That’s because the main issue resulted from the distance between the camera’s shoe-mounted PlusX and the flash’s PlusX. Once you put them closer together, you eliminate the RF interference problem. And if you’re using newer flashes like the Canon Speedlite 600EX-RT, you won’t be troubled by RF interference because Canon redesigned their newest flashes to alleviate the issue. You can also use the PocketWizard PlusX’s relay mode to extend your working range assuming you have an additional transceiver on hand.
So when would I use a setup where the flash and camera are hundreds of feet from myself? I think a track meet would be a good example. You could set up a remote camera near the finish line at a place you simply wouldn’t be allowed to stand. You could also have remote flashes set up around the finish line to provide dramatic lighting for the shot.
On that note, you could also set up a second or third camera (using different PocketWizard frequencies) to allow you to shoot in multiple locations throughout the race. I really like the idea of capturing the same race from several different perspectives.
You can also use PocketWizard transceivers (in general) to help unclutter a studio environment. Using radio triggers allows you to forgo using triggering cords that can become a tangled trip hazard. In today’s world of technology, we have cords everywhere – wouldn’t life be a nicer with a few less?
Even though I initially had issues in the range tests, the Pocketwizards proved 100% reliable within my standard working distance even without the Softshield in place. And that’s key – even using the worst possible equipment (as far as RF noise is concerned), the PocketWizard PlusX transceivers will still work reliably 98% of the time you’d want to use them. When you need the extra reliability and range, you can always add a Softshield to the mix and also daisy chain transceivers together in relay mode.
I captured the image above using a 5D Mark III and EF 85mm f/1.2 L II with a pair of PlusX transceivers connected to a pair of Canon 580EX flashes positioned in a clamshell setup. The top flash was diffused by the Westcott Rapid Box 26” Octa Softbox and the bottom flash was diffused by a Westcott 43" White Collapsible Umbrella.
The PocketWizard PlusX transceivers are well-built and offer a feature set that will prove extremely useful for a large subset of economically-minded photographers – including professionals – at a price point that is competitive with lower quality triggers on the market today. The fact that PocketWizard remains committed to backwards compatibility means that these triggers should work with all PocketWizard products you purchase for years to come. Those wanting additional features will need to look into the PocketWizard Plus III transceivers or the PocketWizard TT5 and MiniTT1 units (for ETTL functionality). But for those wanting a basic feature set in a high quality, professional device – the PocketWizard PlusX transceiver is an excellent choice.
Bringing you this site is my full time job (typically 60-80 hours per week). Thus, I depend solely on the commissions received from you using the links on this site to make any purchase. I am grateful for your support! - Bryan