Upgrading Firmware at the Speed of We-Need-it-Yesterday
New cameras are exciting, especially when they incorporate new technologies that improve camera performance or the user’s creative capabilities. What’s not so exciting is when you take your new camera out on assignment only to find out it won’t perform as accurately and/or consistently as well as your previous camera model. In all likelihood it’s firmware related – causing communication problems between the new camera and your flash triggering system. The language might be the same, but the new dialect causes confusion.
When the PocketWizard product engineers at LPA Design catch wind of new cameras, they prime the coffee machine and, using the earliest available production cameras from Nikon and Canon, begin testing every facet of the camera to determine how well it works or doesn’t work with PocketWizard products before releasing firmware upgrades. During these test trials the engineering team determines what needs to be tweaked or in some cases, completely re-engineered to better ensure PocketWizard triggering devices perform as expected.
A recent case in point is Nikon’s introduction of their newest DSLR, the D810, which replaces Nikon’s popular D800 and D800E. PocketWizard’s engineering team performed exhaustive tests with the new camera to assess and remedy any compatibility issues with the PocketWizard MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 radio transceivers. Considering the complexity of the upgrade process, it’s pretty impressive when you hear LPA’s engineering team was able to hammer out the bugs and release a reliable firmware upgrade in two weeks’ time.
A conversation with Patrick Clow, LPA Design’s Technical Support Manager, explains the complexity and attention to detail that goes into testing compatibility issues between new camera models and PocketWizard radios before releasing firmware upgrades. Between Canon and Nikon, PocketWizard’s engineering team must establish complete compatibility between PocketWizard’s product line and about 60 cameras and 20 flashes. And this figure doesn’t include Sekonic light meters and the various studio flash systems PocketWizard radio triggers are compatible with.
As Patrick describes the process – “There are lots of factors in testing: each shutter speed, every aperture, image stabilization, lens choices, camera battery levels, flash choices, rear curtain sync, MASTER devices and modes, zones, shooting modes, flash durations, and lots more. When you start to multiply all of the factors together, you quickly get into the millions of possible combinations – you couldn’t test them all in several lifetimes.”
“For the numbers geeks out there, we use a pairwise system to generate grids of test setups. They are still gargantuan, so we edit those grids based on our experience, knowing what changes we made in the firmware, and targeted (towards) the cameras we want to test. In its simplest form, each camera gets a bare minimum of 10 hours of testing assuming nothing pops up. If it does, we often end up testing it all over again. The latest firmware had 15 new cameras in it, several requiring multiple rounds of testing as we reverse engineered unique behaviors. We also re-tested previously compatible cameras to ensure continued stability. It was a really big project.”
In many ways, firmware upgrades involve thinking the process through backwards. “Our compatibility and features are built entirely on reverse engineering someone else’s totally custom, non-standardized and evolving communication interface and then applying precision timing to that hard-won knowledge. Microseconds matter to us. We do things differently from virtually everyone else in the industry and that’s why we can pull off technologies like HyperSync®, or controlling the power level of studio flashes like the AlienBees with a Nikon or Canon Speedlight.”
New cameras inevitably come with unknowns and according to Patrick, Nikon’s new D810 didn’t disappoint LPA’s Engineering team. “The latest cameras had some interesting things going on under the hood. TTL for the D810 and D4S, for example, acts differently than previous Nikons at a specific focus distance so we had to figure out how to work through that anomaly. We did it, and we even modified our own firmware so that if Nikon changes that behavior with a future camera firmware upgrade, or releases another camera with the same behavior, we should still be good to go.” Canon’s newest DSLRs came with their own set of issues. “Even within the same generation or family of cameras, (Canon cameras) can have strangely different behaviors. In the past we’ve spent considerable effort figuring out these behaviors and making special cases to manage them.”
“With this last round of firmware we went beyond that – we retooled a major piece of our system to be more flexible. It should allow us to roll with the punches much more easily and add new cameras to the ControlTL system more quickly. PocketWizard firmware update version 3.700 for Nikon includes full compatibility with Nikon’s D810 as well as Nikon’s D610, the D4S, Df, D7100, D5300, D5200, and D3300. PocketWizard firmware update version 6.700 for Canon has also been released, bringing full TTL compatibility to Canon’s EOS 70D, 1D X, 6D, T5i/700D, T5/1200D, T4i/650D, and SL1/100D. With these two new releases, all currently manufactured DSLRs from both Nikon and Canon perform with full TTL capability when using the ControlTL feature on PocketWizard MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 Transceivers.
In closing our conversation, Patrick made a point of mentioning his support team at LPA and the time and dedication they pour into their respective responsibilities. “Thousands of hours, several drums of coffee, and a few dozen buckets of peanut butter pretzels have gone into this milestone. “I just want to give a shout out to the engineers and testers that made it happen: Tim, Steve, Mark, Gary, Andrea, Ryan, Sarah, Zack, Ian, Heather, and Seth (and Steve, Chris and Ashley). We have a great support team with Lorei, Heather, Nick, Hannah, Deb, and all the great folk at MAC Group! Thank you!”
For more information on how to update PocketWizard products via USB connection and to view current release notes for Nikon firmware update version 3.7 and Canon firmware version 6.7 visit: http://www.pocketwizard.com/support/downloads/
The PocketWizard MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 are now fully compatible with the following recently released Canon and Nikon DSLRs:
Canon – EOS 70D, 1D X*, 6D*, T5i / 700D, T4i* / 650D, T5 / 1200D, SL1 / 100D
Nikon – D810, D610, D4S, Df, D7100, D5300, D5200, and D3300
* Now with TTL compatibility.
For a complete compatibility list, please visit: