The Quantum FreeWire
The Pro Wireless TTL System That Turns Heads

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Hook up couldn't be easier: set the unit for "TX" to turn it into a transmitter. Next plug in the dedicated cable to your TTL compatible camera. (In the case of a leaf shutter like the Hasselblad you also need a sync cable.)

When Quantum, the well-known innovators and manufacturers of workhorse Turbo battery packs and robust Quantum Qflash portable strobe equipment, announced that they were introducing a wireless TTL flash transmitter, a lot of eyebrows were raised. "Wireless TTL with a Qflash?" asked a pro I know, "You mean you just use a transmitter on the camera and your off-camera flash is totally TTL? That's what they're claiming?" Why yes sir, that's exactly what they're claiming. Now mobile pros are not restricted only to their proprietary wireless TTL systems. Quantum is offering a complete dedicated TTL radio slave system.

Radio Remotes
I know how radio remote strobe slaves work. I've used them since the early 1980s, and have been using a Pocket Wizard system for the past five years. On the ease of use and reliability scale, wireless radio remotes are a 10. Never worry about cords, funky slave eyes, or even flashes popped by spectators. The radio only responds to you, and the new generation is not affected by airport transmissions, taxicab radios, or even military frequencies. They just plain work.

These two FreeWire units are identical, but the unit on the left has the dedicated Hasselblad module and is set up as a transmitter. The unit on the right needs no module and is the receiver.
The idea of taking a complicated thing like a wireless radio slave and combining a complete camera-brand-specific TTL system seems like science fiction to me. A dedicated unit that works with one camera, maybe, cause after all, a lot of stuff has to take place in a 100,000th of a second. The shutter has to open; the sync has to be sent to the transmitter; the transmitter must send a signal; the receiver must pick up the signal; the receiver must fire the flash; the camera must sense the flash output by reading the amount of flash bouncing off of the film or CCD; it must then send a "squelch" command to the transmitter to end; and then the whole process has to be repeated until the flash ends its fire, and then the shutter has to be closed. That's a lot of bang-bang stuff, and the potential for mistake or failure seems tremendous. I've used the Canon system with a single 550EX, but the prospect of an entire system of Quantum Qflash heads all wirelessly synced and off-the-film Through The Lens exposure control seemed too good to be true.

Ever the skeptic, I tested out a complete FreeWire system. Using a Hasselblad 503CW I assembled a local/remote system that consisted of a Qflash T2 on-camera, and a remote Qflash T2 using the FreeWire off-camera. While wedding pros have been using the local/remote system for decades, there's always that hit or miss feeling when shooting like this. You know what I'm talking about--those instances when the remote flash fires and bleeds into the auto-flash "eye" for the main flash. Instead of elegant two-light images you get underexposed rim lighting. (If you've ever shot this way you know what I'm talking about.) The further your remote light gets, the worse the problem gets. In extreme instances the main flash can be fooled very badly and emit almost no front lighting at all.

The remote end of things shows the wiring setup. Plug the FreeWire into the Qflash and the Qflash into the Turbo battery.

Pro Units
Unpacking all of the Quantum stuff reminded me why this stuff is so popular. The Qflash units and Turbo batteries are big and bulky, but they're clearly pro units designed to take pro abuse. I've been using the same Turbo battery for over a decade, and it still holds a 100 percent charge and fires my Vivitar 285 for hundreds and hundreds of pops per charge. While my style of pro photography lends itself more to bigger, bulkier, and more expensive units like Balcar's excellent Concept P2 battery-powered studio strobes, I have several occasions every year when the T2/Turbo combo would be perfect!

Once I got the two Turbo packs charging I began to explore the FreeWire units. Quantum only makes one FreeWire--it may be set up to transmit or receive, and operate in one of four individual zones. The zones are important for the kind of work I do. When set up on a location like a factory I might want to bracket a series of exposures with different heads firing and not firing. By switching the zone switches on the transmitter, I can easily control whether the on-camera and all four of the off-camera flashes fire, even if I'm in full manual exposure mode. In addition, each unit has eight independent channels to allow any series of transmitter/receiver combinations to work together or not. It sounds confusing but it's really not. This kind of infinite control really comes in handy whether you're trying to tackle a complicated lighting problem on location or just set up a bunch of T2 units to work in full idiot-proof mode.

The controls of the FreeWire are easy. Set to either transmit or receive, and choose one of eight independent channels.

As with most radio slaves, the FreeWire units can also double as remote camera triggers. Imagine having your Hasselblad set up behind the backboard of an NBA game, six T2 units up in the rafters, eight FreeWires all totaled, and total automatic wireless TTL coverage. Wow!

In The Studio, Or The Field...
It all sounds good, but does it work as advertised? To find out I set up a typical event/wedding ring on my Hasselblad. I bolted a T2 to one of my brackets, hung a FreeWire unit off of the bracket, then plugged the FreeWire into the Hasselblad's six-pin remote flash jack and the on-camera T2 into the FreeWire's Quantum standard eight-pin accessory jack. (Following so far?) Next I set up another T2 on a light stand, hung a FreeWire next to it, plugged in another Turbo pack, and hooked everything up with another eight-pin cable. Once powered up I made sure that the T2 units were switched into "TTL" mode. I set up the Hasselblad as if I were using any standard TTL flash unit, and I began firing away.

To test the accuracy of the TTL mode I first fired the T2 plugged directly into the camera, but about 3 ft away from the lens. I tried this with a cable and with the FreeWire. Results? Identical. Next I tried the on-camera/remote setup I described earlier. To really see if the TTL exposure made a difference I tried it two ways--first I shot with the T2 units in auto mode, set for f/5.6. This is the typical method that an event or wedding photographer would use. After this test I set everything back to full TTL and fired away.

The beauty of the FreeWire is that this shot had a single on-camera Qflash in a small softbox and a single remote unit through a small striplight, yet no matter where I shot from, every shot was perfectly exposed. Certainly moving the on-camera flash in and out would have resulted in an odd ratio if set to auto, but not with TTL.
Photos © 2002, Jay Abend, All Rights Reserved

The results were interesting. First of all, the auto mode of the T2 units is very impressive. I've been using old shoe mount units for a long time and the accuracy of the T2's was a revelation. While straight on two-unit shooting was excellent in both auto and TTL modes, as one of the light sources begins to move farther and farther off-camera the difference becomes apparent. Once one of the heads gets at least 90° off-axis the TTL mode really shines. As the auto modes continue to expose each flash separately, resulting in some over and underexposure scenarios, the TTL mode kept everything looking great. Of course in TTL mode there is no way to designate one head as the "main" light source and change its exposure, but at least you're guaranteed of dead-on accuracy.

Since I did not have a remote auto eye plug-in unit for either T2 I couldn't test the accuracy difference between the two modes when the heads were fired through Chimera softboxes, but I did try it out. For me, this is the deal maker. I took the on-camera flash and mounted a Chimera Mini softbox, then put the second flash head about 12 ft away and mounted it to a Chimera Small striplight. Shooting in a living room I was able to move about cordlessly, change lenses, change backs, and do everything I needed to do, and all the while my color negs showed almost exactly the same exposure from shot to shot. It's really a remarkable level of freedom--moving lights in and out, changing lenses and shooting angles and generating one perfect frame after another.

Shooting with the FreeWire system was a barrel of fun. As a radio slave system it is certainly among the most sophisticated units around. The near infinite level of control and Quantum's deep and broad array of accessories makes it a formidable unit on its own. Add in the ability to operate in full TTL mode with one or several flash heads and with any number of TTL compatible camera systems and you've got a winner. If I had any criticism I would love to see the ability to control ratios--so that each head could contribute a certain percentage to the exposure; I'd also like to see the FreeWire sync with camera manufacturers' TTL units in addition to the T2.

Whether you shoot CEOs or brides, take a good look at a complete FreeWire system. Sure, we're talking about a serious investment for the whole rig as I tested, but the freedom of operation, the spot-on reliability, and perfect frame after frame exposure makes it a wise choice.

For more information, contact Quantum Instruments, Inc., 1075 Stewart Ave., Garden City, NY 11530; (516) 222-6000; fax: (516) 222-0569; www.qtm.com.

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