By Syl Arena
In the second part of this series on 'Getting the most from your Canon Speedlite flashguns' I will be looking at the importance of shadows, using on-camera fill flash, using a single off-camera Speedlite, controlling multiple off-camera Speedlites via Canon's built-in wireless system, and how to create dramatic shadows with softboxes.
I often hear photographers say: "I need to learn to light." Let me suggest that knowing how to use shadow is more important. Take a look at the photographs below. What do you see? In the left hand tab what appears to be a blank pane of white is actually a sheet of paper that has been lit equally from both sides. Now take a look at the photo in the right hand tab - made after the paper was crumpled and then flattened. You get a sense of the paper's texture because of the shadows.
The Importance of shadows
From the camera's perspective, the on-axis flash from a Speedlite in the hotshoe creates flat light because it illuminates the left and right sides of the subject rather equally. When you move the flash off-axis - meaning to one side of the camera or the other - then the Speedlite throws a shadow across the subject. Compare the two photos of the cowboy: the left hand tab with on-camera flash and the right hand tab with off-camera flash. Again, it's not the light that creates the sense of shape and depth; it's the shadows.
I know this sounds crazy, but the brighter the ambient light, the more likely it is that you will want to use your Speedlite flashgun. As advanced as our cameras are, technology is not yet able to mimic the full range of human vision. In a brightly lit situation - think: midday, outdoors, full sun - our eyes can see details in the brightest brights and the darkest darks. Our cameras, on the other hand, have a more limited dynamic range and compromises must be made: either the exposure is made for the highlights and the dark shadow details will be lost to pure black, or the exposure is made for the shadow details and the highlights will blow out to pure white.
By Syl Arena
When on-camera flash works well - fill flash
A backlit portrait is a classic situation where the dynamic range of the camera falls short of the ability of our eyes to see. As you can see below, if the background is recorded properly, then the subject will be too dark. The solution is to slip your Speedlite into the hotshoe and activate it via E-TTL.
Canon's Evaluative Through-The-Lens (E-TTL) technology makes quick work of bringing the range of contrast down to a point where neither highlight or shadow detail will be lost. When the camera senses that the ambient light is bright, it is programmed to use the Speedlite as a fill flash rather than as the main source of light. In an instant, E-TTL measures the amount and location of the ambient light and compares that to the amount and location of light returning from a low-power preflash. If the Speedlite is not panned or bounced, the camera will also take the camera-to-subject distance data into consideration. Then the camera sets the power on the Speedlite as a fill flash.
By Syl Arena
Moving one Speedlite off-camera
I've long said that it's where you put the one Speedlite that you have that matters most. When starting with off-camera flash, the easiest option is to use an E-TTL cord - a special cord that carries the entire message from the camera's hotshoe to the foot of the Speedlite. Note: PC-sync cords are not the same as E-TTL cords. A PC-sync cord carries only one message - "Fire now!" For E-TTL and wireless work, you need to maintain the full communication path between the camera and Speedlite.
Canon's OC-E3 Off-Camera Cord provides a quick way to move your Speedlite out to arm's length. When shooting a crowded event, I often hold a Speedlite in my left hand and operate my camera with my right. It takes a while to get used to this 'shooting style', but it's a quick way to work through a crowd. Locking the Speedlite into a flash bracket and connecting it to the camera via an E-TTL cord is another option. For a bit more distance, I've connected two OC-E3 together and found that they work reliably. However, for any distance longer than two metres, I prefer a straight E-TTL cord rather than a coiled cord. A straight cord will lie on the floor whereas a coiled cord will tend to snag between the light stand and camera. If you tug on a coiled cord, you may topple your light stand.
Although Canon does not offer an extra-long E-TTL cord, I have had great success in using third-party cords up to 10 metres. The first advantage of an extra-long cord is that its cost is much less than the cost of a set E-TTL radio triggers or an additional Speedlite to use as a slave.
By Syl Arena
Controlling multiple off-camera Speedlites wirelessly
For shoots that require the use of multiple Speedlites - either because additional flash power is required or because light from multiple directions is desired - I have found the wireless communication system built into the 500-series and 400-series EX Speedlites to be robust and reliable. The key to success is to learn how the wireless system works so that you can understand its capabilities and limitations.
Here's a run-down of the basic concepts of Canon's built-in wireless flash system:
- The master is connected to the camera's hotshoe - either directly or via an E-TTL cord. Options for the master include: any 500-series EX Speedlite, the ST-E2 wireless transmitter, the MR-14EX Macro Ring Lite, and the MT-24EX Macro Twin Lite.
- The slave or slaves can be any 500-series EX Speedlite or any 400-series EX Speedlite. Remember that the Macro Ring and Twin Lites cannot be used as a slave.
- The master sends instructions to the slave(s) via an encoded series of pre-flashes. The staccato of pre-flashes happens immediately before the actual flash; so you will typically only see one burst of light.
- All Speedlite modes - E-TTL, Manual, and Multi - can be used wirelessly. When you switch the mode on the master, the slave(s) will automatically switch mode during the next series of pre-flashes. Keep in mind that in wireless Manual the slaves are still controlled by the pre-flashes; so the use of simple optical slaves on non-Canon flash is not possible.
- The receiver on the slave Speedlite is the black panel on the front, just above the red AF-assist panel. This 'eye' must be able to see the signal from the master's pre-flashes. When shooting outdoors, this means that the slave must have a line-of-sight path directly to the master. It's also important to position the slave so that the sensor is not looking directly at the sun. When working indoors in a room with reflective surfaces, such as light-coloured walls or large mirrors, you may find that the master's signal will bounce enough so that a direct line-of-sight path to the slave is not required.
- You can slave any number of Speedlites, but each must be able to 'see' the master.
- To eliminate on-camera flash from the master, it can be disabled. This means that it will send the pre-flash instructions to slaves and then remain dark during the actual exposure. Note: even with the master disabled it will still appear to flash when it sends the pre-flashes.
- The master and slave(s) must be on the same channel (1-4). This enables up to four Canon 'Speedliters' to work in close proximity without activating each other's gear.
- The slaves can be assigned to any of three groups - each having it's own power level. The master is always a member of group A. In E-TTL, the power levels of groups A and B are controlled as a ratio between the two. Avoid assigning a Speedlite to group C unless you have the need for three distinct groups. The power of group C is handled via a special Flash Exposure Compensation (FEC) that is relative to the power output of groups A and B. In Manual, the power of each group is dialled in directly via the master.
- If you have a 580EX II flashgun and an EOS 40D, or newer DSLR camera, you can control all of the wireless functions via the LCD monitor on the camera. Given that the icons on the Speedlite LCD are rather small, controlling the Speedlite via the camera is a unique advantage that is not available on other brands of photo gear.
By Syl Arena
In the following section I discuss the additional advantages of the extra-long E-TTL cord when it is used to move the master off-camera when shooting with multiple Speedlites.
Creating dramatic shadows
Although Canon didn't design the wireless system with the thought that the master would be anywhere other than in the hotshoe, I've had great success moving the master off-camera with an extra-long E-TTL cord. One reason to do this is economy - rather than disabling the master to prevent on-camera flash, you can have the master adding valuable off-camera light after sending instructions to the slaves.
The long E-TTL cord also eliminates the need to position the slaves into a relatively narrow zone - meaning that I routinely spread the slaves out and position the master where all the slaves can see it. Yet another opportunity is to put the master and several slaves inside a large softbox and control the system from the camera's LCD monitor. The photo of the model, shown above, was created in this manner. Further, a master inside a softbox is still able to control nearby slaves outside the softbox.
In the photos of the model, above, you can see the evocative mood that I created by firing three Speedlite 580EX II flashguns inside a 70cm Westcott Apollo softbox. By pushing the softbox in close to the model, I created light that wraps around. Yet, by underexposing the ambient light, I created the deep shadows that give the image its true power.
By Syl Arena
When creating a dramatic play of light and shadow in your images, it is also critical to consider how you are capturing the ambient light in the scene. Although you typically cannot control the amount of ambient light, you can control how the camera records it. Just because a room is relatively well lit doesn't mean that you have to show it as being well lit. Instead, you can create dramatic shadows by lighting the subject with your Speedlite(s) and underexposing the ambient light by two to four stops.
There is little mystery in a scene that is lit evenly. If you are shooting in Av or Tv, you can dial the ambient exposure down via Exposure Compensation (EC) - typically by two or three stops, depending upon your camera). If you require more underexposure than EC can provide, switch the camera to Manual mode and dial the exposure down directly via the shutter or aperture.
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. Syl later studied at the Brooks Institute of Photography, before earning a BFA in photography at the University of Arizona. Today Syl 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 Syl’s latest book, 'Speedliter’s Handbook: Learning to Craft Light with Canon Speedlites', will be published in October 2010.