Thursday, September 11, 2014

ControlTL Distance Tests

I was likely the one person that spoke out loudest when talking about the ControlTL units and their functional distance (or lack of it in my humble opinion and experience).  I've must have done distance tests at least 3-4 times and the results were pretty much always the same.  By around the 150 foot distance mark, reliability started to drop off drastically and by 180 feet, it was spotty.  Above that, they basically failed to work.  I was more or less forced to stay at the 125-150 foot or less for good reliability at paid gigs.  I've never been able to even get close to a 200 foot reliable distance.

The nice thing was that it was rare that I needed long distances, but in the few times that I was in need of long range, I would just pull out the Pocket Wizard Plus II's and be good for 1600+ feet, if I needed it.

In the meantime, here I am reading about other people's experiences and how they are pushing long distances successfully with the same units.  For example, F-Stoppers did a shoot over 200 feet away using an 800mm lens to do a portrait, Rob Gailbrath shows examples of *over* 700 feet with Canon units!.  Pocket Wizard themselves claim an up to 800 foot range (1200 foot range when used as a basic trigger).

So what was I doing wrong maxing out my units at under 180 feet?  Was I wrong to expect reliable distances that were less than half of what they were rated for?  I love the ControlTL units, but was never enamored with what I considered short reliable distances.

Of course, there are many things that can cut down range.  The now famous RF noise spewing 580EXII Canon flashes that absolutely killed distances were the most well known, and though Nikon flashes also do put out RF noise, it is not on the frequencies that the PW units use and also nowhere as high, so had little to no noise interference issues to contend with.  Local electrical interference was also a big factor.  Playing near power lines, or anything that transmitted anywhere near where the PW units had their working frequencies was a guarantee that your range would drop.  Position of the anetnna is also a factor.  I've always tested them with the antenna pointing upwards and PW recommends a horizontal orientation.  I also have a setup that places the FlexTT5 lower and further away from the flash body thanks to my PW bracket holders and 3rd party SC-28 cables.

In the last year there have been several firmware changes and there was one aspect that I never tested....  the ControlTL units have 20 channels available, yet in all my tests, the units were always set to channel #1 every time I did a distance test, so this time I devised a different kind of test, one that would let me view the results and range of different channels.  The first thing that I did was make sure I was using the latest firmware (version 3.700 at the time of this post), in all ControlTL units.

I set up a single good quality lightstand (a heavy duty Manfrotto unit) and on it set up 4 FlexTT5 units and set the C1 configuration bank of each unit to 4 different channels (channels 1, 5, 10 and 20) and on top of the Flexes, I placed 4 SB-900 flashes.  I randomly chose those 4 channels because it was a nice range, and kept channel 1 because  I needed to know if this channel's distances would be repeatable.

I also own two MiniTT1's so I set C1 to channel 1 and C2 to channel 5 of one MiniTT1 and on the other one I configured C1 to channel 10 and C2 to channel 20.  Lastly, I made sure that I used freshly recharged batteries in the flashes, FlexTT5's and MiniTT1's.

Adding some tape with the configurations saved to each unit made it easier to be sure that things were running as I needed them to for the tests.

Time to do the tests!

The picture above shows the setup and the measuring wheel that I used to know exactly how far I could go before things stopped working.

A quick press of the shutter showed me that the right flash was going off with the right channel.  From left to right, the flashes were set to channels 1, 5, 10, 20.  This is channel 1 being triggered.

Not wanting to waste a lot of time, I went straight to the 100 foot mark and tested to see if the MiniTT1 would reach the FlexTT5.

As evidenced, channel 1 saw the signal and the flash went off.  I figured that I would keep increasing the distance until the flash failed to fire, at which point I would test out the other frequencies.

Moving to the 150 foot range, I was pretty sure it would work... it did in the past, and this was the range around which was the limit of reliable functionality.

The result of the 150 foot test... success.

I increased the range to 175 feet, and honestly was expecting to get the odd misfire, but...

Another successful result.

Ok, I wanted to see a failure, and I knew that in the past, I never got further than 180 feet, so I pushed it to 200 feet, and...

Another successful result.  At this point, I took several more shots, just to be sure, I changed position, height and angle (about the width of the street), and each one fired the flash.  This is a kind of new personal best for me and the ControlTL units on Channel 1.  It also leads me to believe that somewhere along the line, PW must have done something in the firmware to increase distance.  I never reached this range before.

I decided to add another 25 feet to the range, we are now at 225 feet on channel 1.

Incredibly, the flash fired again!  Again, I took several more shots varying angle, height and position... it fired each and every time!

Up to the 250 foot mark... I am ready for more!

This time... nothing.  Changing height or angle also did not help.  Time to change channels!

A change to channel 5 and the test resulted in... failure.

One more try at channel 5... nothing.

I put in a blank frame here to denote that I changed to the 2nd MiniTT1.  I was now ready to play with channels 10 and 20.  I will save you a frame by saying that channel 10 did not fire the flash, but when I changed over to channel 20...

I was surprised to see flash #4 fire off consistently even after 6 more tests!

Let's add another 25 feet... we are now are 275 feet as shown by the measuring wheel.

Incredible... another series of successful tests at this range!

I increased range to 290 feet simply because if I went another 10 feet, I would be in the middle of a cross-street, so I decided to do the test at the 290 foot mark.  In my head, I could not see it working anyways, but...

I guess I was wrong.  It fired over and over for me at this distance!

To heck with it... I went to the 300 foot mark, stood in the middle of the damned road, and took the shot, and...

No freaking way... but the picture does not lie.  I took only 3 quick frames as I *was* in the middle of the street and there were cars coming up fast.

Ok, time to max out the distance... I went as far across the street as I could, went past the sidewalk and up on to some guy's grass to be able to reach 350 feet.  I took the shoot and...

Well son of a gun!  I again went about 6 feet left, 6 feet right, took shots from knee height and over my head, all were successful and not one misfire!

So... know what that means?  It means that I need to do the test again, but in a location that will give me greater room so I can see where channel 20 reaches it's limit and starts failing.

Know what?  I cannot recall how many times I said that I would be satisfied with reliable 300 foot ranges.  If the flash can be triggered from 350 feet consistently, 300 feet is definitely in the reliable range... and I did not run out of range, I ran out of room to move further back, well, maybe if I walked into the guys living room, I would have gained another 50 feet, but I am sure the guy would not have been impressed.

So... bottom line, I've got nothing more to bitch about, but I am going to make ControlTL channel 20 my new default channel in my setup.  Nothing learned is ever lost effort!

Now... where can I find an area that would give me 800 feet of line of sight to play with in safety?  I'll have to research that one and get back to you.  Once I do, and re-do this test for the final time, I will post the results here.

Hope you enjoyed my 2014 ControlTL distance test!