Find the right Speedlite flash for you
© Syl Arena
Canon's series of Speedlite flashguns range from the professional 600EX-RT and the recently introduced 430EX III-RT to compact units like the 320EX and 270EX II. Lighting expert Syl Arena advises on what to look for when selecting the best Speedlite for your needs...
To make the navigation of your choices easier, this guide is made up of three sections: Speedlite advantages over in-built flash, features to consider when buying a Speedlite and model-specific comments and recommendations. We will start by comparing Speedlites with pop-up flashes and examine the key advantages of using an off-camera flash.
Most photographers find their way to a Speedlite after exploring the use of the pop-up flash built into their cameras. Here are a few advantages of the Speedlite over integrated units:
A Speedlite has greater range
Due to the diminutive size of the flash tube in a pop-up, its effective range is typically 0.6 to 3.6 metres. By comparison, the range of most Speedlites is two to four times greater.
Speedlite heads can be tilted/swivelled
The pop-up flash always fires straight ahead. This limits the opportunities to soften the look of on-camera flash by bouncing it off a nearby wall or ceiling. Most Speedlites feature a head that can be tilted up for ceiling bounce flash. More advanced units can also swivel the head to the side, too.
Speedlites can be zoomed
Many Speedlites have a lens that can be repositioned either automatically or by hand so that the pattern of the flash is adjusted to the view of the lens. This concentrates the light in the zone that the camera will see and helps extend the effective range. A pop-up flash does not have this same flexibility.
Speedlites offer high-speed sync
When shooting outdoors in bright sunlight, you will want to use your Speedlite for a bit of fill flash to soften the shadows. Because the ambient light is bright, your camera will often want to use a fast shutter speed. Speedlites offer a special flash mode called High-Speed Sync that enables the use of faster shutter speeds. Pop-up flashes are not powerful enough to provide high-speed sync and, thus, the camera's range of shutter speed options will be more limited outdoors.
Greater separation between lens and flash
As a general rule, the larger size of a Speedlite creates a greater distance between the lens and the flash. This can be very helpful when you want to drop the shadow behind your subject when shooting in tight quarters.
Features To Consider When Buying A Speedlite
Control via camera LCD
For many photographers, the easiest place to control a Speedlite is via the large LCD on the back of their camera. This unique feature of the Canon system enables access to every Speedlite menu item via the LCD and is available in a wide range of languages. The following Speedlites will communicate with compatible cameras (models introduced since 2007, such as 40D and newer): 600EX-RT, *580EX II, 430EX III-RT, *430EX II, 320EX, and 270EX II. (*discontinued model).
The mode of your Speedlite determines how the flash power (brightness) is set. There are several useful options open to you.
All Canon EX Speedlites offer Canon's automatic flash mode. In E-TTL, your camera works with your Speedlite to determine the proper amount of flash for the shot. This is very helpful in fast-paced situations or when you want a bit of fill flash.
(ii) Manual Control
Most Canon Speedlites have a Manual mode. In Manual, you control the flash power. This is a benefit when shooting a series of portraits, still lifes, or any situation where you want a consistent amount of light from shot to shot. Note: 300- and 200-series Speedlites do not have LCDs, so Manual mode must be accessed via the camera's LCD.
(iii) Group Mode
With radio Speedliting, Group mode has become very popular. It enables control of up to five different slave groups in any combination of E-TTL and Manual modes. Group mode is available on the 600EX-RT and 430EX III-RT.
(iv) External Flash Metering
This feature on the 600EX-RT and 580EX II provides the capabilities of automatic power setting without the pre-flash metering used by E-TTL. It is a special-use feature sought by professionals and advanced amateurs.
Being able to angle the flashhead independently of the Speedlite body provides creative control; such as when you want to bounce the flash off a wall to soften the shadows. Also, when using a Speedlite as an optical slave (described below), a moveable head also allows you to aim the slave sensor (on the front of the Speedlite) directly at the master while aiming the flashhead at the subject. 600-, 500-, 400- and 300-series Speedlites tilt and swivel. The 200-series Speedlites only tilt.
In dim ambient light, an AF-Assist light on the Speedlite provides a bit of light on which the camera can focus. 600-, 500-, and 400-series Speedlites have AF-Assist lights that cast a red grid pattern on the subject. The current 300- and 200-series Speedlites pulse white light from the flash tube as the AF-Assist. For infrequent use, the white light pulses are not a problem. If you frequently shoot in dim light, you might prefer the red grid pattern.
600-, 500-, and 400-series Speedlites have power zoom features that position the flashhead so that it matches the coverage of the lens. The creative advantage of power zoom is that it allows you to manually zoom the flashhead so that your flash lights one part of the shot without lighting other areas. 300- and 200-series Speedlites have very limited zoom options that must be adjusted by hand.
As a general rule, divide the model number by 10 to work out the maximum distance the flash could cover when using ISO 100. The higher the model number, the greater the maximum flash power and the greater the coverage and creative possibilities. The Speedlite 600EX-RT and the 430EX III-RT, for example, both offer powerful lighting possibilities.
Optical Wireless Master
Canon's built-in wireless system makes it easy to get started with off-camera flash. Canon offers two systems of communication between a master flash and slave: optical and radio. The optical master is connected to the camera and sends instructions to the off-camera slave(s) via a series of pulsed flashes from the flashtube. When the limited range of a pop-up flash acting as a master becomes an issue, a 600- or 500-series Speedlite in the hotshoe can provide more options to control optically-slaved Speedlites. [Note: the new 430EX III-RT acts as a master in radio wireless only. It cannot serve as an optical master.]
Optical Wireless Slave
When using a Speedlite or pop-up flash as the optical master, you must have a compatible Speedlite (or Speedlites) on the receiving end. The following Speedlites will work as optical slaves: 600EX RT, 580EX II, 580EX, 430EX III-RT, 430EX II, 430EX, 420EX, 320EX, and 270EX II.
The convenience of Canon's radio wireless system is that the signal will pass through walls and light modifiers (which is not the case with optical wireless). Also, it is easier to use a radio slave in bright sunlight. If pointed straight at the sun, an optical slave may not see the signal coming from the master. Canon offers two Speedlites that work in the new radio wireless system: the 600EX-RT and the 430EX III-RT. Each will work as a radio master and as a radio slave. [Note: It is not possible to use radio and optical wireless at the same time.]
Advanced users want options for reducing the recycle time between shots. If you shoot in situations where you need the fastest recycle times possible, choose a 600- or 500-series Speedlite because they have the ability to get additional power from the Canon CP-E4 External Battery Pack.
Model-specific comments and recommendations
600EX-RT: For professionals and advanced amateurs
The flagship of the Canon Speedlite system features an interactive LCD menu system that displays the functionality of the control button as the mode and wireless settings change. Additionally, the 600EX-RT opens up new territory with radio-enabled wireless communication between master and slave. Conveniently, the 600EX-RT is fully backward compatible with preceding generations of Speedlites that use optical wireless.
430EX III-RT: For dedicated hobbyists
The new 430EX III-RT introduces an entirely redesigned menu system that eliminates most of the buttons. Navigating the Speedlite's controls is so intuitive that new users will feel comfortable very quickly. Further, the 430EX III-RT has enough advanced features to impress a dedicated hobbyist. For the first time in Canon's history, a mid-range, 400-series Speedlite can be used as a master Speedlite-specifically as a radio master. The 430EX III-RT can also be used as a radio or optical slave (but not as an optical master).
320EX: For novice photographers
The 320EX provides many features that will enable a novice Speedliter to learn on- and off-camera flash photography. It can be used as an optical slave and even features an articulating flash head to allow the slave sensor on the front of the Speedlite to be aimed at the master while the flash is aimed at the subject. Additional features, such as Manual power control and high-speed sync are available when the 320EX is attached to the hotshoe of a camera that enables External Speedlite Control via its LCD. The 320EX cannot be used in radio wireless.
270EX II: For photographers who need a compact Speedlite
The 270EX II is a compact flash that pairs well with the Canon pocket cameras, like the EOS M and PowerShot G-series. Its compact size makes it a good choice for lightweight travel kits, especially when used with a coiled E-TTL cord to move the flash away from the lens. When set as an optical slave, the 270EX II is always a member of Group A.
Biography: Syl Arena
© Syl Arena
Photographer Syl Arena became fascinated with photography at the age of eight when an aunt gave him a Box Brownie camera. He later studied at the Brooks Institute of Photography, before earning a BFA in photography at the University of Arizona. Today Syl Arena shoots the people, lifestyles and products of central California for advertising, editorial and corporate clients. He runs a regular blog, PixSylated.com, and in 2009 founded the Paso Robles Workshops. An expert in flash, his best-selling book ‘Speedliter’s Handbook: Learning to Craft Light with Canon Speedlites’ is available in print and digital formats.