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Here's my problem: I have a portrait job coming up at the end of the month that ideally requires a lighting set-up with five flashes organised into four groups:

  • Group-1: key-light
  • Group-2: fill-light
  • Group-3: hair-light †
  • Group-4: background-lights ††

† The hair-light will only be needed for subjects who have very dark hair or for those wearing very dark jackets. The brief requires that the subject's outline must not be close to black.
†† There'll be two-flashes in the background group to ensure even background illumination.

The flash power will be set manually; I'll not be using E-TTL. And, ideally, I'd like operate everything from the camera position as I'll only have a limited time to take each shot. Speed of operation is therefore important. I'm shooting with Canon gear.

To date, I've never required more than three flash groups. So, I've been happy to use three Canon 430EX IIs along with PocketWizard transceivers. This has worked well for me. And, has proved very reliable (provided I remember to turn on all the equipment in the prescribed order!).

The PocketWizard system I have — three Flex TT5s controlled by a MiniTT1 with an AC3 attached — only allows for three flash groups. Canon's native optical-wireless system is similarly limited to three groups. So neither of these will work to fire a forth group.

As far as I can see, I have two options:

Option 1) Stick with my PocketWizard system with its three groups and create a "forth group" by adding a cheap optical-trigger to one of the single flashes closest to my working position. Then adjusting the power manually on the unit as needed. It's not ideal as I would have two things to adjust to change the lighting, but, I figure, it would probably work as the closest flash would only be a few steps away. Also, I'd need to buy an additional Flex TT5. Manually adjusting the power of a 430EX II is too fiddly to contemplate. But I've just bought a fourth flash: the newer 430EX III; and the new design allows manual power adjustments via a little wheel. So, making changes to that unit on-the-fly should be easy enough.

Option 2) Make the switch to Canon's radio (RT) system, which allows up to five groups. Obviously this is an expensive proposition. I can't afford 600EX RTs, and even buying a further four second-hand 430EX IIIs is more than I wish to spend. And, of course, I'd need a controller: the Canon ST-E3-RT (or clone). However, I could afford a further one 430EX III and a ST-E3-RT, along with three third-party triggers (such as the Yongnuo YNE3-RX) that, I understand, would allow my older 430EX IIs to behave as if they were part of the Canon RT system. Whilst a bit of kludge, it's a step towards having a fully updated RT system: I can swop out the 430EX IIs for RT flashes as my budget allows over the coming years. Also, I'm slightly nervous about reports of the newer 430EX III overheating, so I'd like to retain my older units until I'm sure this won't be an issue.

My question (after an excessively long preamble!) is: Are there any other options that I've overlooked for adding a forth flash group?

I'd prefer to stick with native Canon gear as much as possible as reliability is a concern. Often I'm required to work under time pressure so I want the most reliable set up I can afford. For this reason, I've discounted replacing everything with a third-party clone system from, say, Yongnuo, or other manufacturers. (Having said that, I have used Yongnuo triggers before and, apart from the very occasional misfire, they worked surprisingly well.)

  • Which Canon body are you using? – Michael C Apr 1 at 18:18
  • @MichaelC 5D Mk III – mooie Apr 1 at 20:00
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You can also switch to Godox's system. You would need the Xpro-C for control from the camera, X1R-C receivers for your flashes, and of course some extra lights. You can get cheap flash units from Godox or Yongnou to work with these receivers, or even add some reasonably cheap monolights to complete your setup (these monolights have a built in trigger compatible with the Xpro).

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    I second this. In my experience, these are very reliable especially considering the price. The only problem I've ever had is one of the lithium batteries swelling. (Perhaps get an extra flash unit as a backup just in case.) – mattdm Apr 1 at 16:52
  • The X1R-C receivers would let you use your existing flash units. Since @mooie doesn't need TTL, if you don't mind changing everything up, you could go with the slightly cheaper XT32 controller and Godox manual flashes. – mattdm Apr 1 at 16:58
  • After much deliberation, this is the route I've decided to follow. I ordered an Xpro-C and five TT600 manual flashes with built-in receivers. The cost should be covered by selling my existing 430EX IIs along with the Pocket Wizards. (I'll keep my 430EX III for the odd bit of press work I do.) The clincher for me, besides cost, is that by adding a further controller, I can also use the TT600s with my Fuji X100F — or any other system I might plumb for. Cheap, versatile and, hopefully, reliable — I'll keep my existing gear for the time being as back up just in case! I'll report back how it goes. – mooie Apr 18 at 0:34
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Some alternative options to consider:

One: Potentially the most cost effective option to running a four group setup like this is: Don't.

Use your current three groups, and a fixed level light on a dumb-trigger.

Example:

  • Group-1: key-light
  • Group-2: fill-light
  • Group-3: hair-light
  • Fixed Light: background-lights

Set up your background exposure to be around where you want it to be, but such that your Key, Fill, and Hair lights would still have enough headroom to overpower it slightly if you change your mind.

You can then use your three groups to control the three lights you are most likely to want to adjust, and just raise or lower all three relative to your background lights if you want to adjust the background. [You might not get a lot of wiggle room on it, depending on your desired depth of field, but you also don't want to be fiddling with all the lights throughout the entire shoot - Figure out your baseline, and aim to only make minor adjustments from there.]

If you're the only one shooting, then you can get away with using the simple optical trigger. If not, adding a dumb radio trigger to your setup may be useful - But you'll need to run a cost analysis on this option to judge if stepping up to a 4+ group setup isn't the better option.

Two: Find people to rope into the role of Voice Activated Light Stands, and have them up/down a flash power as needed without you having to walk to the spot. [Ideally you'll keep any lights at height on wireless power control]

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If someone is already in the Canon RT system (or one of its clones), then Yongnuo triggers would be a good option. A YN-E3-RT II (or the older original version) will communicate directly with any Canon RT flash without a need for an additional receiver.

Yongnuo triggers and Yongnuo flashes are two different animals in terms of reliability. I've never had any issue with any of the YN622 pieces I own. I have had YN flashes malfunction and stop working when only a little over a year or so old.

I'd be very confident using a YN-E3-RT II (Canon ST-E3-RT clone) that can control five groups from the transmitter's control panel. It's about $80. Each YN-E3-RX receiver is about $40. You can attach them to any non-RT Canon EX flash and they will think the wireless controller is the camera's hot shoe. You only have to set the group on the receiver for each flash. The flash itself is set to manual power with "neutral settings " (1/1 power, Auto zoom, etc.) and then the YN-E3-RT II can control power and zoom via the YN-E3-RX.

When I'm using Yongnuo flashes, I always make sure to have at least one extra on hand. I don't have the same paranoia about the YN triggers unless I'm in such a mission critical setting that I'd also want to have a backup for any and all Canon flashes/controllers.

If one is starting from scratch then Godox is probably the better choice. The controllers and receivers for your EX flashes are about the same price as Yongnuo.

  • The advantage of the Godox XPro system is a unified protocol for everything from their basic manual speedlights all the way to their larges studio monolights.
  • The disadvantage of the XPro system is that it can't be used interchangeably with Canon RT pieces the way that the Yongnuo RT system can. You'd need Godox receivers to use a Canon 600EX-RT II, for instance.

The Godox speedlites tend to be a tad more expensive than their comparable Yongnuo counterparts, but both are bargains compared to Canon's speedlites.

  • If I were to buy a Canon ST-E3-RT, do you know if the YN-E3-RX would behave in the same way? In other words, is the YN-E3-RT II interchangeable with the Canon ST-E3-RT? – mooie Apr 2 at 9:55
  • They're supposed to be 100% compatible. But why pay all of that money for an ST-E3-RT? The YN-E3-RT does everything the Canon can, plus gives you: AF focus assist light, USB port for firmware updates, second curtain sync (in manual only), full group mode with pre-2012 EOS cameras (that do not have an internal menu to control multiple off camera flashes), and a few other features. The ST-E3-RT does not offer any of these. – Michael C Apr 2 at 19:21
  • Rightly or wrongly, I guess, I have more trust in Canon gear than I do in Yongnuo. And, it looks like the ST-E3-RT can be had for a reasonable price on eBay. Having said that the mirror literally fell out of my original 5D during a shoot. And, the only issues I had with YN622s were a couple of misfires when I was working in a hospital clinic. However, the misfires caused further problems, so the incident set me a little against Yongnuo gear. In different circumstances, though, a few misfires would be no biggie. I appreciate your thoughts. I'll give the YN-E3-RX some serious consideration. – mooie Apr 2 at 21:29
  • You pay your money and you take your chances. I'd trust a YN-E3-RX bought through an authorized channel like amazon before I'd trust a (possibly counterfeit) ST-E3-RT bought on eBay. – Michael C Apr 3 at 7:09
  • Agreed. I'd never buy new products from eBay. Nor, would I buy big ticket items like bodies or lenses. But, for flashes, and the like, there's lots of pristine second-hand gear available at truly bargain prices. I only buy from local individuals with good feedback. I figure they're likely offloading older gear to buy newer stuff, rather than running a scam. But, as you say you-pays-your-money..., so there's always a risk. – mooie Apr 3 at 15:31

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