Review: Pixel King Flash E-TTL Triggers
I recently posted an extensive blog entry citing six ways to go wireless with your flash and in that post I mentioned my recent purchase of the Pixel King Flash E-TTL Triggers. In this post, I’ll tell you what they do and give you my take on them.
Overall, Pixel King flash triggers work as advertised. They’re more convenient than manual-only radio triggers and they’re a relative bargain compared to radio-based TTL alternatives.
Who is Pixel Enterprise?
First of all, who exactly is Pixel King Enterprise Limited of Hong Kong? From what I gather, they’re effectively a low-cost manufacturer of camera accessories focused primarily on radio-based triggers for flashes and cameras. They also make inexpensive battery grips.
Although you can buy Pixel products certified for North American use, you won’t find many mainstream retailers carrying them. That said, I was surprised to see that my local camera store, Henry’s, does stock them (unfortunately they sell them at nearly double the online price).
To provide a quick overview of the Pixel King setup, I created a short video to show you what they look like and how the units attach to your camera and flash. In the video, I summarize how they function and point out a few of their capabilities and limitations.
In short, a Pixel King package is made up of a transmitter and a receiver. The transmitter sits in the camera’s hot shoe while the receiver attaches to your flash. Cables are provided to attach the receiver to a strobe and other compatible light accessory (see the section on accessories below for more details).
You must buy a receiver for every flash you wish to control off-camera. There are many vendors selling packages with a transmitter and multiple receivers. If you’re paranoid about equipment failures, you may want an extra transmitter and extra receiver but then your costs start to creep up.
Size, Weight & Build Quality
One thing I noticed right away is that the Pixel King units are quite large. You can see my comparison shot below alongside a Canon Elph point-and-shoot camera. They are, however, extremely lightweight even with two AA batteries. They’re so light that they almost feel cheap but the build quality is quite reasonable overall.
Operating the Pixel King is pretty straight forward. There’s a on/off power switch on the right side, a button to verify/change groups and another button to verify/change radio channel.
When you attach your flash to the receive, there’s nothing to set on the flash. It thinks it’s in your camera’s hot shoe. There’s no need to place the units in slave mode, set groups or pick channels. All of this is handled by the Pixel King receiver.
On the bottom of each unit is a standard flash mounting foot with a lock pin. It has screw-based locking mechanism so it can be firmly attached. If anything, it can get too tight and you may need a coin to loosen it at times. The foot includes a 1/4″ screw socket for direct attachment to any standard tripod or light stand without a cold shoe adapter.
The right side of each receiver has LEDs that indicate the receiver’s group assignment (A, B or C). The assigned group can be quickly changed with a press of the dedicated “GP Set” button. Again, you do not place your flash into “Slave” mode – you simply turn it on and keep it in its default mode.
A group setting can also be found on the transmitter so you can quickly configure a subset of the groups to be triggered (i.e. in case you wish to omit one quickly). The transmitter supports all possible combinations: A, B, C, A+B, B+C, A+C, and A+B+C.
The “L1″, “L2″ and “L3″ lights on the left side of the units let you configure one of seven available radio channels. These exist to avoid conflicting signals from nearby Pixel King users or other interfering devices on the 2.4GHz band. As long as the left-side LEDs match on all units, they’ll communicate with one another. Changing the channel is done by pressing the dedicated “CH Set” button repeatedly.
Though untested by me, the stated range of the units is 100 metres (that’s over 325 feet). They run on the 2.4GHz band like your cordless phone and are digital in their communications. Given that range, they should rarely misfire under normal usage and will easily send their signals through the wall of your home or studio.
LED Status Indicator
A multi-coloured LED status light on the back of the units indicates when they are on standby (red) or actively communicating with one another (flashing blue). Thanks to a recent firmware update, it also reports a low battery state (I think that must be flashing red but I haven’t seen it yet).
One great convenience is that the Pixel Kings use standard AA batteries (2 each). This keeps it simple for packing extra batteries given your flash uses AA batteries as well. According to the manual, the transmitter and receiver will function for 300 and 200 hours respectively while in standby (based on 1.2V 2400mAH rechargeable batteries).
Focus Assist Beam
On the front of the transmitter you’ll find a focus assist beam which is a simple white LED light. It lights up when you press on the shutter halfway to help you acquire focus in low light. It’s probably not as ideal and effective as the infrared light on most flashes but it’s better than nothing.
It’s worth noting that when you do press the shutter halfway, the receiver tells your flashes to illuminate their IR assist beams. If your flashes are pointed the right way, that may help you focus as well.
PC Socket Connector
Both the transmitter and receiver are equipped with an industry standard PC socket (see photo below). On the transmitter it’s used for receiving a trigger signal while on the receiver it’s used to send the signal to an attached strobe (i.e. in lieu of using the hot shoe). See the accessories section below for more details about using that socket and the adapter cables that are included.
Both units also have a standard mini-USB port which permits firmware updates. I recently did such an update successfully but it did require I use Windows and I’m on a Mac. It seems Pixel King is release updates regularly and that’s a good sign.
Transmitter Hot Shoe
There is a hotshot on the transmitter and you might think you can put your flash in there – but you can’t. I think it’s for some future accessory by Pixel. The manual states it’s “only for use with N-ETTL (flash power controller)”. I’m not sure what that is (if you know, let me know). In effect, you won’t be able to combine on-camera and off-camera flash. If you have two flashes, buy an extra receiver.
Shown above, you can see the mini-stand included with each receiver. The foot that came with your flash will probably suffice but this one is probably a bit more stable.
The transmitter and receivers each come with a hand strap the box includes a vinyl zippered pouch (not shown). The hand straps are not that useful given you don’t carry these units in your hand like a point-and-shoot camera. I left mine on but they do get in the way so I’ll probably take them off soon.
Each receiver also comes with the two adapter cables to allow triggering of devices that don’t fit in the hot shoe. There’s no TTL communication at this point but you can trigger nearly any strobe or other flash unit with one of the two connectors provided.
Above: “PC to 3.5″: PC Screwlock to 3.5mm mini phone jack
Above: “PC to 1/4″: PC Screwlock to 6.35mm phone jack.
Features and Compatibility
When attached to a compatible flash unit, the Pixel King offers the following key features:
- Radio-based triggering of your flashes within a 100m range (over 325 ft)
- Wireless E-TTL flash metering (limited to one power setting for all flashes, ratios are not permitted)
- Flash exposure compensation in E-TTL mode
- Flash exposure lock in E-TTL mode
- Manual flash power settings (unique power level for up to 3 flash groups)
- All shutter sync options: 1st curtain, 2nd curtain and high speed sync
- High speed sync up to 1/8000 second
- Flash zoom control (“auto” and manual zoom)
According to the manual, the Pixel King receiver is compatible with the following third-party flashguns and their TTL capabilities:
- No support for ratios in E-TTL mode (e.g. you can’t specify 2:1 for A:B)
- Cannot mix E-TTL and manual modes at the same time
- Incompatibility with camera’s built-in optical flash-triggering system (obviously)
- No support for flash exposure bracketing
- No on-camera control of flash settings without “EX II” flash units
- No support for stroboscopic flash
- Transmitter’s built-in hot shoe cannot accept a flash
Manual vs. TTL Control
Many people I know, and photographers I follow online, consider themselves “strobists”. This means they’re masters of small flash units for advanced off-camera lighting. Most of these people do all their work with manual power settings on their flashes and use radio triggers solely to fire the flashes. They often rely on light meters to asses the correct exposure.
Such strobists will easily overlook the benefits of Pixel King triggers as they don’t need or want “TTL” flash metering. They will buy something less expensive like Cactus or Yongnuo branded radio triggers. Some will spend more and get the popular PocketWizard Plus II or Plus III transceivers.
What these people might be overlooking is that TTL-enabled triggers mean the triggers speak the camera’s proprietary two-way flash language. It’s the reverse engineering of this protocol that allows the units to deeply integrate with the camera. Canon owners of “EX II” series flashes get the added advantage of full flash control from the camera menu (that’s not trivial).
In manual mode, you can configure the power setting of each flash group without ever touching the flashguns. You can also set 1st curtain, 2nd curtain or high speed sync remotely and then also change the flash zoom level… all remotely.
This extra communication might also help the Pixel Kings achieve a maximum sync speed of 1/8000th of a second. A PocketWizard Plus III, for example, tops out at 1/250th sec. and the Cactus v5 triggers have a max of 1/1000th sec.
For me, the ability to set the manual power levels on the camera for each group is a major benefit. I will never have cross the room or reach up to my boom to access the back of the flash unit and change its power. I can rapidly experiment from the camera and adjust to changing conditions without making people wait.
I do of course appreciate the TTL capabilities and 1/8000th sec. high-speed sync. I think I’ll use those primarily while I’m outdoors (i.e. less of a fixed studio setting). Whenever the subject-to-flash distance is constantly changing, TTL avoid many hassles. When outdoors, your flash is often used as a fill light and must be used with high shutter speeds. I want my flash trigger to keep up with me, not limit me.
To get a feel for what “on-camera” control really feels like, watch this short video I prepared below. I walk through some the options you get with the Pixel King on a Canon 7D and two “EX II” flashes (one 580EX II and one 430EX II). You will notice a bit of flakiness with the camera menus but it’s not unworkable. Hopefully Pixel is aware of the issue and will patch those quirks via a firmware update.
The biggest weakness of the Pixel Kings is its lack of ratio support in E-TTL mode. It would be amazing if you could set an A:B ration like 2:1 (i.e. one-stop more light from flash “A” relative to flash “B” while the entire power levels are still set automatically). It’s not a must-have for me but it’s the biggest nice-to-have that’s missing. Perhaps a firmware update will fix that but I figure it’s a major limitation of their design.
Other than that, pro photographes would probably prefer that the units be “transceivers”. That means one unit can be both a transmitter and receiver as needed. This makes it easier to prepare for equipment failures as you’d only need to buy one extra unit for backup purposes. As it stands now, you’d have to buy an extra transmitter and receiver to cover your bases.
One minor issue for me is the size of the units. They’re light but they’re not terribly compact. I like that they take standard AA batteries but I’m sure they could be shrunk down with a bit more engineering. I’d be fine if they took AAA batteries instead of AA (as long as they don’t use flat batteries).
And finally, Pixel King screams “Made in China” when you read the manual (was it machine translated?). I took a snapshot of one page for the fold-out manual so you can see what I mean.
Pixel King has a predecessor called the “Pixel Knight”. It’s smaller than the King but I think it’s less capable overall. It also uses flat batteries which I would definitely avoid.
In addition to the Knight, there are non-Pixel options if you’d like to compare TTL-capable flash triggers on the market today. You’ll find, however, that most other brands are much more expensive (they were out of my budget for sure).
One big advantage of the three non-Pixel alternatives listed below is that they can all do ratios in TTL mode. If you really need that capability, you might go with one of those but be ready to pay for it.
- Pixel Knight (Canon and Nikon)
- PocketWizard FlexTT5 (Canon and Nikon)
- RadioPopper PX (Canon and Nikon)
- Phottix Odin (Canon only)
Overall, I love having radio-triggers. I grew weary of Canon’s built-in optical system and its misfires pretty easily. Outdoors, the optical system becomes unusable and you can forget about placing yourself below or in front of your flashes. Radio-based triggers simply don’t fail as line-of-sight is not needed.
A move to radio-based triggers usually means given up on TTL and on-camera control. Luckily, Pixel King present an affordable option that is both radio-based and TTL capable. The Canon units, when used with EX II series flashes, gives you back that on-camera control.
Though it’s not perfect and it lacks TTL ratios, I would still strongly recommend Pixel Kings to anyone considering a more basic radio trigger. For $150 or less, you can get a transmitter and receiver. For $240 or less, you can get a transmitter and two receivers. These are good prices relative to alternatives like PocketWizard FlexTT5 transceivers which will run you $230 each (i.e. $690 to control two flashes).
If I’ve sold you on these and you live in Canada, avoid Henry’s and checkout ProPhotographyGear.com. If you’re in the USA have a look at Amazon and eBay for the best deals. If you live elsewhere, just Google “Pixel King” and your country name and I’m sure you’ll find some nearby.
If you have radio-based triggers, let me know what you have and how you like them by commenting on this post. If you have TTL-capable radio trigger, I’d really like to hear about your experience.