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I'm struggling with how you use CLS/AWL with mirrorless Nikons. I plan to buy a Z-mount body, but I need optical CLS/AWL compatibility which is a bit of a problem without a built-in flash to use as a commander.

I know it can be solved by attaching a flash like a SB-500, but it's way too bulky for me. I need to keep the camera as light as possible. There are some mini-flashes like a Fujifilm EF-X20 but (here comes the question) can I use any flash mounted on the hot shoe as a commander flash for optical AWL mode?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Have you consulted Advanced Wireless Lighting, because that mentions some radio adapters. (I found this article because I was googling to find out what AWL was) \$\endgroup\$
    – Peter M
    May 31, 2023 at 13:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ @PeterM Some of the radio adapters referenced on that page have been discontinued for quite some time. \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Jun 1, 2023 at 3:09

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The most compact option is to use a Nikon SU-800 commander; third party models are even more compact, but I have no experience with them.

But AWL/CLS is an outdated technology and the OEM SU-800 is long discontinued... you will need to find a used one. Personally, I would look to move to radio controlled before invested any significant money into the AWL/CLS system.

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Optically controlled flashes are last decade's technology. Radio has taken over the role of controlling off camera flash. At least for most mirrorless systems and recent DSLRs. Nikon has lagged a bit in this respect.

One of the most popular radio systems is by third party company Godox. Their 2.4GHz X2 system encompasses everything from their most basic shoe mounted flashes to their most sophisticated studio monolights. All can be controlled by any of the X2 series transmitters or flashes, most of which have built in transmitters and/or receivers. Though relatively inexpensive compared to more prestigious brand names, Godox products are reliable and easy to use.¹ If you're in the U.S. and want U.S. based customer/warranty service, use Adorama's rebranded Godox system they market as Flashpoint. There are European distributers who also rebrand Godox's 2.4GHz products.

With the current mess regarding flash with the entire Nikon Z system, I'd steer clear of the Nikon system unless you already own optically controlled Nikon flashes. Good luck on finding any of it available new other than the SB-700 right now.

Nikon introduced the SB-5000 in 2016 with radio communication, but it only works in radio mode with other SB-5000s or a WR-R10/WR-R11b plugged into the port on the side of selected bodies. It isn't exactly cheap, but the SB-5000 used as a master can run both radio (e.g. other SB-5000s) and other legacy AWL units at the same time. The radio units can be controlled by groups A/B/C and the optical units by groups D/E/F. They also offered the WR-T10 radio transmitter and the WR-R10 transceiver, but those have been discontinued. The WR-R11b is the successor to the WR-R10.

From the above link:

enter image description here

Nikon and ProPhoto have previously announced a partnership to produce radio flashes compatible with the Z system, but that's been a while back and no new products specifically for Nikon Z have been forthcoming or on the horizon from ProPhoto as of May 2023.

we are a dental clinic and all our cameras and flashes work on optical triggering. And on top of that we have a "portrait spot" where flashes are preset to optical AWL. So to put a new, mirrorless camera in this concept is a nightmare.

Then why go mirrorless at all? What do you hope to gain by doing so? If your current body is getting old, you can still buy a brand new D850, D780, or D7500. Most of the advantages of mirrorless (or radio triggering, for that matter) don't do much of anything for your use case.

¹ Godox's reliable and easy to use X2 system is what Pocket Wizard's frustratingly complex and unreliable radio system should have been.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ many many thanks for this answer, its really helpful! The thing is, that we are a dental clinic and all our cameras and flashes work on optical triggering. And on top of that we have a "portrait spot" where flashes are preset to optical AWL. So to put a new, mirrorless camera in this concept is a nightmare. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 1, 2023 at 10:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ThomasRozina Then why go mirrorless at all? What do you hope to gain by doing so? If your current body is getting old, you can still buy a brand new D850, D780, or D7500. Most of the advantages of mirrorless (or radio triggering, for that matter) don't do much of anything for your use case. \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Jun 1, 2023 at 19:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes you're right. Maybe it gonna be only for a while for a try. To be honest, Im only going to try it because Im working on a lecture for dentists about dental photography, so I want to have an experience also with mirrorless. That's all. :) Otherwise Im satisfied with my old D750, even D7200 was good enough. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 3, 2023 at 14:27
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The only units you can use as CLS/AWL commander units are going to be higher-end Nikon speedlights with that capability, or third-party units that include that function. IOW, no, you can't use a Fuji EF-X20 as a "smart" commander. You'd need a Nikon SB-500, SB-R200.

However, a lot of Nikon speedlights do have an SU-4 mode, which is a "dumb" optical mode that lets you fire the flash remotely. But that's all it does. This is known as "manual only" communication. The speedlight would have to be set to M mode, and any settings changes have to be dialled in directly on the back of the flash. You cannot use TTL or HSS/FP (using shutter speeds faster than sync speed of the camera body) with this type of triggering. And you'd still need an on-hotshoe flash unit to fire to trigger the light off-camera.

Most folks today favor radio remote control over "smart" optical communication. This is because optical communication requires "line-of-sight" (the sensor panel on the flash has to have an unobstructed view of the commander signals) and reliability and range can be reduced if you try to us this system outside in bright sunshine. The bright ambient level can overwhelm the commander signal, and there aren't a lot of bounce surfaces around which makes the line-of-sight requirements more stringent. Optical systems work well indoors in studio situations, but radio tends to work equally well indoors or outside.

With radio, you purchase a radio transmitter to use on the camera hotshoe as your commander, and these days, a lot of speedlights have built-in radio triggers, either receivers or transceivers (so they can be either the on-camera transmitter or the off-camera receiver unit in a wireless flash setup). Radio systems can also communicate TTL, HSS, and most of the other features CLS/AWL can, with multiple group control.

Nikon's own radio flash system is limited to the SB-5000. And Nikon looks to have abandoned expanding this system, and are possibly handing it over to Profoto and Nissin to develop. Most of us are pondering whether this means Nikon's getting out of the flash business altogether. At this time, we haven't yet seen flash gear specifically designed for Nikon's mirrorless Z-mount bodies. But it's likely coming from Nissin and Profoto instead of Nikon.

At this time, most folks recommend Godox flash gear if you want to shoot with a flash off-camera. Godox's X system has seven different radio-equipped speedlight models for a Nikon shooter (some manual, some TTL), that come in AA-powered or li-ion rechargeable pack powered versions. And the radio system includes larger AC-powered manual studio strobes, and li-ion battery-packed TTL/HSS location strobes. And most of the lights in the system work with TTL/HSS cross-brand, if needed. So sharing lights with a different-system shooter, or swapping camera systems can be accomplished relatively easily.

Additional 3rd-party radio flash systems you could use would include those from Profoto and Westcott/Rollei/Jinbei. Most other radio flash systems will be speedlight only (Nissin) or studio strobe-only (Broncolor, Paul Buff). Godox is a recommendation favorite because it's lower-priced and more expandable. But it service/support is what you'd expect from a 3rd-party Chinese manufacturer, so take care which retailer you purchase from, since they will be the ones providing support.

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