February 20, 2011

using the PocketWizard AC3 Zone Controller

This portrait of musician, Josh Adams, was a fairly quick set-up. I deliberately chose an area in a large hotel conference room to shoot this. A bit of a challenge to see how quickly I could get a simple but dramatic portrait out of a ‘nothing’ scenario. Here’s the pull-back shot that will show you the area, as well as the placement of the lights:

The light came from three speedlights, all controlled with the PocketWizard FlexTT5 transceivers. They in turn were controlled via an on-camera FlexTT5 (for Nikon), with an AC3 Zone Controller piggy-backing on the TT5. Using the AC3 Controller made it a breeze to control the output (and mode) of each of the three speedlights. I could switch any of them to manual, or to TTL. I could control the TTL units’ Flash Exposure Compensation from the ACR3.  And I could control the manual output, if I had decided to switch the speedlight to manual mode.  All from my camera …

Of course, features such as:
– wireless controlled TTL flash, and
– high-speed flash sync,
are not features exclusive to these types of radio controllers.  That’s inherent in the Nikon or Canon (or other manufacturers’)  wireless flash systems themselves.

Where the newer generation of radio transmitters & receivers like the PocketWizard MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 have their real use, is in allowing all this without the line-of-sight restrictions.

With this portrait of Josh, two flashes are hidden behind him. Trying to control the two speedlights in the back with just an on-camera speedlight set to Master, would be a headache due to the misfires that will surely happen. So you do need radio transmitters and receivers to control the flash’s output in situations like this.

With the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5, you could do this via the speedlight mounted on the TT1 / TT5. However, the AC3 simplifies this to just a set of dials and switches. Immediately accessible.

camera settings: 1/200 @ f4 @ 400 ISO

Back to the portrait of Josh:
– the speedlight in the front (with the small Lastolite softbox), was kept to TTL flash;
– the speelight in the middle was set to Manual, and 1/32 power
– the speedlight in the back was also set to Manual, and 1/32 power.

As mentioned, changing any of these, would be a simple turn of a dial on the AC3.  Simplicity.

I really think the AC3 Zone Controller makes the new PocketWizards even easier to use, giving you immediate access from your camera.


equipment used

PocketWizard AC3 Zone Controller (B&H)
PocketWizard FlexTT5 transceiver (B&H)
Nikon D3;  Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 AF-S II (B&H);
Nikon SB-900 (B&H); Nikon SD-9 battery pack (B&H)
Manfrotto 1051BAC (B&H) Lastolite 8.6″ Ezybox (B&H)

Oh, and the speedlight in the back, throwing the diagonal blast of light on the wall, had two black foamie things to act as a snoot to shape the light like that.

camera settings: 1/200 @ f4 @ 400 ISO


related articles

– photo session – Shawna – using the PocketWizard AC3 ZoneController
Keegan – a photo session – using PocketWizard MiniTT1 & FlexTT5 & AC3 ZoneController


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{ 33 comments. } Add a Comment

1 Nate February 21, 2011 at 2:06 pm

Thanks again Neil for another great post! I have been waiting for these to come out and would like to ask if there was a learning curve to overcome during the initial set up? I have been using the standard pocket wizards for a long time and have been comfortable with them, but would love higher sync speed capabilities for shooting outdoors in all lighting conditions as well and indoor receptions. Are these a worthy upgrade?



2 Neil vN February 21, 2011 at 3:33 pm

Nate .. these units are very easy to use and understand. There is some complexity to it when you get into switching to other channels, but the basic use of these units are quite obvious.

Neil vN


3 Ced February 21, 2011 at 4:53 pm

Thank you for the pull back shot. It always look simple but somehow when I try to do it, it gets much more difficult don’t know why :)
By the way, I am using some other flash trigger that I find perfect for my occasional use, the model is Pixel tr 332, it also handles high sync speed,ttl, FEC. The only things I don’t like is that ratio cannot be set up between groups in ttl and I also don’t like the battery type.


4 Mike February 21, 2011 at 5:21 pm

Hi Neil

Thanks for this great site!
I was wondering why you couldn’t have achieved this same look by just having all 3 speed-lights kept on TTL?
There for excluding the need for the AC3.

Thanks again


5 Neil vN February 21, 2011 at 5:25 pm

Mike .. the problem with using all three these speedlights in TTL mode, really kicks in with the 2nd speedlight which is used as a rim-light. The system has no real way of metering for it. It’s just the smallest bit of rim lighting. So it is better to keep at least this speedlight in Manual mode.

Neil vN


6 Derek February 21, 2011 at 5:32 pm

“A bit of a challenge to see how quickly I could get a simple but dramatic portrait out of a ‘nothing’ scenario”

Indeed a crummy looking room to produce anything in and yet you achieved it. Excellent image.

Why the AC3? Do you not own an SU800 or do you prefer the smaller size of the AC3?


7 Derek February 21, 2011 at 5:35 pm

Sorry if I didn’t make myself clear there.

I meant using the SU800 in conjunction with the TT5 / TT1 to bypass the line of site issues yet still get the same control of remote flashes from the camera as what the AC3 gives you.


8 Neil vN February 21, 2011 at 5:45 pm

Derek, the AC-3 is actually easier to control since the dials are immediately accessible. The only real disadvantate to the AC3 is the lack of focus assist.

Neil vN


9 Fred Hoegeman February 21, 2011 at 5:48 pm

Hi Neil.
I count 4 Flex tt5s. No Need for the Mini TTI?



10 Neil vN February 21, 2011 at 5:52 pm

Fred .. the FlexTT5 takes two AA batteries instead of the coin cell battery of the MiniTT1 … so it is just easier keeping to standard batteries.

Neil vN


11 Naieem Kaiz February 21, 2011 at 5:56 pm

@Mike, Derek.. it should be line of sight issues I guess..


12 Joe Leong February 21, 2011 at 9:40 pm

Neil, when fiddling with the M & A options on the ACZC, were your SBs in TTL mode all along? I am waiting for the ACZC to hit Asia. I have my new Minis and Flexes. Love them


13 Joe Leong February 21, 2011 at 9:43 pm

Sorry Neil. Just read the last bit of the article. Your other two flashes were set to Manual. I thought I read that the flashes have to be in TTL for the M & A options to work. It would have been easier. Otherwise, does this mean that you have to switch the SB from Manual back to TTL on the unit itself.


14 Neil vN February 21, 2011 at 10:46 pm

Joe … I see where the confusion comes in.

The actual speedlight has to be set to TTL mode.
But with the AC3 ZoneController, you can set it to work in TTL mode or as a Manual unit.

Have a look at the photo of the AC3 there. Each group (A, B, C) has a switch that can be set to 0, M, A
The M = manual; and A = TTL.

But the actual speedlight is set to TTL mode, and not set up with the usual CLS method of being the Slave. That’s all handled from the FlexTT5 and AC3.

Neil vN


15 Tony February 22, 2011 at 2:32 am


I found this site last week, and have just been amazed by it’s content. The way you explain things so clearly and concisely , and the content you cover, are second to none. I am particularly impressed by the individual attention, and replies, that any and all questions receive.

What a breath of fresh internet air.

And so to my question… I don’t suppose you’ve used the Pocket Wizard system you cover in this article, with older non i-TTl flashes, in manual mode? I’m thinking SB80DX’s, SB28’s, SB26’s and the like?


16 Neil vN February 22, 2011 at 2:35 am

Tony .. nope, not yet.

Neil vN


17 pasquier February 22, 2011 at 2:37 am

Thanks as ever Neil for this site.
The pull-back shot is such a great idea – really allows everything to fall into place,
Great portrait BTW.
Best, P:)


18 David Barrett February 22, 2011 at 4:37 am

Another great, succinct demystifier, Neil. I was ready to buy this set-up and may not have included the AC3 and had to have one speedlight on the camera as master or buy a fourth at much greater expense than the AC3. So this pricy pocket wizard system suddenly seems a bit more reasonable cost-wise.


19 Neil vN February 22, 2011 at 8:52 am

David … the one downfall of the AC3 is the lack of focus assist. So you may still find yourself in low-light situations where you want a speedlight on the MiniTT1 or FlexTT5 to help with focusing.

Neil vN


20 Ron Lemish February 22, 2011 at 9:19 am

Great blog…as usual. You used the smallest EZ BOX soft box in a large room setting. Are you using this instead of the larger ones because it is easier to pack broken down with your equippment or do you seem to prefer the quality of double baffled light it produces.. or both ? I am still awaiting for the one I ordered from b&h


21 Neil vN February 22, 2011 at 9:34 am

Ron, the choice of small softbox was largely due to me just grabbing the bare minimum of lighting gear to take with me in a car on the way to the hotel. I also knew I’d only be doing fairly tight portraits that evening, and would be okay working with the relatively more dramatic light from the smaller softbox.

Neil vN


22 AzzQim February 22, 2011 at 9:48 am

Hi, great post! But I was always wondering if you could just put an trasnmitter on a hot shoe and could then control other recievers through Nikons built-in menu of CLS. So to control flashes (not just to fire them) you actually need this AC3?

Thank you!


23 Neil vN February 22, 2011 at 1:02 pm

AzzQim .. I will have to come back to you on this one.

[ placeholder ]

Neil vN


24 fotograf nunta Iasi February 22, 2011 at 4:18 pm

Nice work; Thx for sharing all this. ;)


25 Brian Daly February 22, 2011 at 5:31 pm

Love the colour and slash of light on the background.
Any reason you chose the Pocket Wizards over the Radio Poppers you tried a while back?



26 Neil vN February 22, 2011 at 5:33 pm

Brian .. the simplicity of use and setup of the PocketWizards won me over.

Neil vN


27 Derek February 22, 2011 at 5:35 pm

@Joe Leong

Yes the flashes stay in TTL but the commander unit (in my case the SU800) tells the remotes to go to manual mode, no need to walk over to the flash and put it in manual, it always stays set to TTL but the control tells it to fire manual.

I dont own the AC3 but I believe it works very similar to the SU800


28 Joe Leong February 23, 2011 at 4:33 am


I have been using the pop-up and SB900 as master for a while and waited for the new PWs for Nikon. So I am very familiar with CLS. I started shooting manually few months ago with the aid of a light meter. ‘Just waiting for the AC Zone Controller in my part of the world.

Yes it would make sense that the ACZC should work like the SU800 only that Neil mentioned this in the forum :

Quote :
– the speedlight in the front (with the small Lastolite softbox), was kept to TTL flash;
– the speelight in the middle was set to Manual, and 1/32 power
– the speedlight in the back was also set to Manual, and 1/32 power.

The middle and back flashes were in Manual mode.

At the moment, or at least until I get the ACZC, it’s a theory for me
Thanks Derek


29 Kyle Schwab February 24, 2011 at 5:16 pm

I just ordered my AC3 for Nikon. Quite excited.

Question for anyone:

When using it set to manual to control an SB-900, for instance, which can go as low as 1/128th power, how can you reach that power level on the AC3 when it only goes to -3… AKA 1/64th?

I guess the PW config utility can allow you to pick which range to use, from 1/1 to 1/64th or 1/2 to 1/128th, is that correct? But that seems a bit silly. Would you just use exposure comp on the camera dialed in to -1 or something to get the equivalent of 1/128th, or what?



30 Neil vN February 24, 2011 at 11:01 pm

Kyle .. I will have to come back to you on this one.

[ placeholder ]

Neil vN


31 Pieter Wolmarans February 25, 2011 at 5:39 am

I have been using the AC3 zone controller for canon for a while now and it makes wedding photography using off camera flashes so much easier and quicker. It’s a wedding photographers dream I tell you.


32 Jason Lloyd February 25, 2011 at 7:52 am

Wicked post Neil, just pre-ordered the book (later release here in the UK) as I love your simple explanations. Thanks!


33 Saro January 16, 2013 at 9:59 am

Scusa se ti disturbo Neil,
ho una canon eos 5d, avevo deciso di acquistare il mini TT1 e il Flex TT5, ho visto adesso dai tuoi scatti che hai utilizzato l’AC3.
Mi chiedo l’AC3 sostituisce il TT1 o bisogna comprarli tutti e due?;
con l’AC3 è possibile regolare la potenza dei flash ausiliari in manuale?
Grazie, Saro
p.s.: puoi rispondermi via e-mail?


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