By Syl Arena
I view my Canon Speedlite flashguns as mobile and versatile light generators that operate best when they're not confined to a camera's hotshoe. Yes, a Speedlite on top of your camera will act like a genius when it comes to fill flash (as discussed in Part 2 of this series). But beyond this, Canon Speedlites offer many advanced features that open up broad horizons of creative opportunity - often in ways that cannot be matched by studio flash.
So, to conclude this four part series, let’s explore four areas of advanced Speedliting. I also wish to share a few insights on how I use a Speedlite’s Custom Functions. In this article, I will explore four main topics:
- High-Speed Sync (HSS)
- Using multiple Speedlites
- Cross-gelling for creative effect
- Multi/stroboscopic Flash
If there is a reason to become an expert at Speedliting, it is High-Speed Sync (HSS). HSS is a Speedlite-only function. You can’t do HSS with mono lights and studio strobes. There are some 'workarounds' for these other types of flash, but I think they are as cumbersome to implement as these bigger lights are to lug around. For me, the ultimate test is whether I can shoot at 1/8000sec; I can with Speedlites, but not with studio strobes.
HSS changes the way your Speedlite fires
In normal flash mode, your Speedlite fires as a single pulse of light. In HSS, the Speedlite turns into an ultra-fast strobe light that turns on and off up to 35,000 times per second. The staccato of light is so fast that the Speedlite effectively becomes a continuous light source for the brief duration of the exposure – this enables virtually any shutter speed to be utilised with flash. More traditional types of flash, such as studio strobes, are limited to the relatively slow native sync speed of the camera (typically 1/160sec to 1/250sec).
The normal sync speed for a camera is the fastest shutter speed at which the first curtain completely clears the sensor before the second curtain begins to close. At this and slower speeds, the Speedlite is able to fire when the sensor is completely exposed. When the camera’s sync speed is exceeded, the second curtain begins to close before the first curtain has opened completely. So, there is no point during which a Speedlite’s flash will cover the entire sensor. HSS pulses the Speedlite rapidly so that it emits light during the entire exposure.
By Syl Arena
To activate your Speedlite in HSS, push the ‘Flashbolt H’ button on the Speedlite. You will see the HSS icon appear near the upper left corner of the Speedlite’s LCD. For convenience, when the shutter is at or slower than the sync speed, the Speedlite will fire in normal mode. It is only when the shutter speed is above the sync speed that HSS activates. This is extremely handy when you are moving quickly between bright and dark settings.
There are two primary reasons to use HSS. The first is when the photographer desires to shoot at a wide aperture (to create shallow depth-of-field) under bright ambient light. If the subject is lit from the side or back, and requires a bit of fill flash to reduce the contrast of the shadows, then activating HSS will enable the camera to fire at the fastest shutter speed required to offset the use of the wide aperture.
HSS also provides great opportunities for the use of flash when an extremely fast shutter speed is desired – either to freeze high-speed action or to significantly dim the ambient light for creative effect.
The one downside to HSS is that the ultra-fast recycling consumes a significant amount of power. To facilitate this nearly continuous output of light, the Speedlite loses 2.5 stops of power. Another way to think about this is that 1/1 power in HSS is about the same as 1/6 power in normal mode. I’m of the opinion that, in order to make the trip into HSS worthwhile you should pick up at least two full stops of shutter speed. So, for a camera that syncs at 1/250sec, this means that there’s not much point in using HSS at 1/320sec, but there is at 1/1000sec.
For fill-flash applications in bright sun, the power 'hit' in HSS is generally not an issue. On the other hand, if the objective is to freeze high-speed motion from some distance or to turn a scene lit by noon sun into a moonlit night, then the use of several Speedlites may be required. Fortunately, Canon’s built-in wireless control system makes simple work of controlling multiple Speedlites.
By Syl Arena
Using groups of Speedlites
Once you get the hang of creating great light with a single Speedlite, the hardest part is already done – you can then explore the vast horizons that open up when you use additional Speedlites. The addition of a second and third Speedlite to your kit enables you to create many additional types of lighting that aren’t possible with a single Speedlite.
Sometimes you’ll use your Speedlites as individuals, with each one filling a specific job. At other times you’ll team your Speedlites together so that their power works together. Either way, your photographs will have more dimension and power.
Advantages of multiple Speedlites
There are four main reasons why shooting with multiple Speedlites makes sense:
- Light shaping: the ability to send light from two or more angles gives you the ability to shape the light and the shadows according to your vision.
- More power: if you have a single Speedlite firing at full power, then adding a second Speedlite provides an additional stop of light.
- Faster recycling: for shoots where a faster recycle is critical, firing multiple Speedlites at lower power will be faster than firing a single Speedlite at higher power.
- Redundancy: inevitably, gear fails. Having an additional Speedlite or two will ensure that you can keep shooting if, and when, any gear falters.
Classic three-light set-up
The classic three-light set-up has a key light that provides the greatest amount of light on the subject, a fill light that keeps the details in the shadows, and a hair or rim light that provides a bright line of separation from the background.
For this shot, the key and fill are on opposite sides of the lens; angled in about 45º. The rim/hair light is always behind the subject. Additionally, the rim/hair light is placed high and angled down. If it has a narrow throw and hits only the hair, then it’s a hair light. If it spreads more widely and falls across one or both shoulders then it’s a rim light.
By Syl Arena
Wireless manual flash
A classic headshot is a perfect situation for running your Speedlites in Manual mode, as the distance between each of the lights and the subject is not changing. Furthermore, if you have a number of different headshots to shoot, then you won’t have to fiddle much with the lighting when the next person steps in for his session.
Remember, Canon’s built-in wireless system handles Manual as well as it handles E-TTL. For this shoot, where the hair light was almost touching the ceiling, it’s very handy to be able to change the power level from the LCD on the back of the camera.
I’ve trained myself to assign the light(s) on the left side of the camera into group A and those on the right side into group B (while not a big deal in Manual, I find that this habit is very helpful when using A:B ratio control in E-TTL). So, for this shoot the fill light was group A, the key light was group B, and the hair light was group C.
All three lights were controlled from the master Speedlite flashgun that was bolted into the hotshoe of my camera. To keep the master from spraying on-camera flash on the shot, I disabled it—meaning that it sent instructions to the slaves and then remained dark during the actual exposure. If I had three Speedlites rather than four, I would have moved the master to the key light position and controlled it via an extra-long E-TTL extension cord.
Getting dramatic with gels
Most photographers start using gels on their Speedlites to blend the flash into the ambient light. I demonstrated this on page 11 of Part 3 of this series, where I used a CTO gel on a fill flash at sunset.
Once you move beyond the precision of matching one light source to another, the world of gels gets very colourful. Colour effect (a.k.a. theatrical) gels literally come in a rainbow of colours. So, how and why would you want to use colour in your photographs? Here are a few ideas:
* Create ambience – you can change the mood of a scene completely with a gel. Want scandal? Go with red. Want sadness? Go with deep blue.
* Tint the shadows – if the key light on your subject is warm, then tint the fill light with a cool gel. The next time you watch a movie, you will see that this is done all the time.
* Spruce up a dull scene – what do you do when you arrive on location and discover that the background is plain, boring white? You can dim the ambient with the shutter and then turn the background into any colour you want with a gelled Speedlite.
By Syl Arena
Using White Balance creatively
With a digital camera, you can think of White Balance (WB) as another creative tool. By changing to a specific White Balance, your camera effectively adds the opposite of that light source to the file.
If you gel your Speedlite to match the White Balance, then the flash will appear neutral white. If your White Balance and gel do not match (known as “cross-gelling”), then your image will have a colour cast, either in the portion lit by the ambient light or the portion lit by the Speedlite.
For example, consider what happens when a Tungsten White Balance is used under daylight – the combination yields a strong blue cast. The reason for this is that, in broad strokes, blue is the opposite of amber. So, to increase the blueness of a blue sky, switch your camera into Tungsten White Balance. Then, by lighting the subject with Speedlites gelled with full cuts of CTO, the subject will appear very neutral in colour and the sky will appear very saturated.
By Syl Arena
Multi mode - flashing again and again
The most under-used mode on Canon Speedlites is Multi. This stroboscopic mode fires one or more Speedlites for a specified number of flashes at a specific rate per second. Unlike a traditional disco strobe, which cannot be controlled in terms of either the exact number of flashes or the exact interval, a Canon Speedlite in Multi mode can provide precise and repeatable control. When used scientifically, stroboscopic flash can be used to study motion. When used for fun, stroboscopic can create memorable photos of sports action and theatrical gesture.
To shoot Multi/Stroboscopic images you need the following:
- A subject: a subject that moves is best. The motion does not have to be smooth, like a golf swing, but it helps. Also, light-coloured objects are easier to photograph stroboscopically than dark objects.
- A black set: Having a dark place to shoot is a great help. Since the exposure will be relatively long, even a small amount of ambient light can add up.
- A camera: any Canon EOS camera will do.
- A Speedlite(s): you must have at least one 500-series Speedlite. You can shoot several Speedlites in Multi via wireless mode.
- A tripod: The exposure in Multi mode is often several seconds. You will want to lock your camera down on a solid base.
- An electronic shutter release: Although it is possible to fire the shutter via the on-camera button, an electronic shutter release will allow you to focus on the action.
- An external battery pack: Using an external battery pack will help with the reliability of your stroboscopic work. If you don’t have an external pack, make sure you are using freshly charged batteries.
Setting your Speedlite for stroboscopic flash
After switching your 500-series Speedlite into Multi mode (by pressing the Mode button to cycle through E-TTL, Manual, and then into Multi), you will use the ‘SEL/SET’ button and the Select Dial to specify the following:
- The number of flashes: this is the total number of flashes that you want the Speedlite to emit (two, 10, 50, etc.).
- Hertz (Hz) rate: this is the frequency of the flashes. One Hz equals one flash per second; 10Hz equals 10 flashes per second.
- Power level: Multi mode fires the Speedlite at a fixed power level that you set. Doing stroboscopic flash in E-TTL is not an option. You may use any power level at or below 1/4 power. The power level you select will determine the number of pops you get out of the Speedlite.
Remember, when something on the Speedlite LCD blinks, it is asking if you want to change/set that value. You use the flashgun’s ‘SEL/SET’ button to cycle through the options. You then specify the amount you want for the setting by turning the flashgun’s Select Dial. A push of the ‘SEL/SET’ button confirms your choice and starts blinking the next option.
By Syl Arena
The number of flashes
Shooting with stroboscopic flash is often a matter of best guesses. For instance, the number of flashes that you need is determined by the entire duration of the motion that you want to capture and how close you want the segments of that motion.
If you are driven by precision, then use a stopwatch to time the golfer’s swing or the ballerina’s jump and divide that by the interval of time that you want between pops. If the sequence of the swing or jump takes three seconds and you want three flashes per second (3Hz), then the number of flashes is nine.
My approach is more intuitive. I just guess at the interval, dim the lights, and start a series of test shots. I adjust the number of flashes after each test shot until I obtain the desired effect.
Maximum number of flashes
When shooting stroboscopic, there is the risk that you can overheat your Speedlite and cause permanent damage. There are two mechanisms built into the Canon system to prevent overheating: a thermal circuit (only on the Speedlite 580EX II) and the programming of the Speedlite. The maximum number of flashes that a Speedlite will allow in Multi mode is based on the power level and the frequency of the flashes. The table below shows the data for the Speedlite 580EX II.
Maximum flashes the Speedlite 580EX II allows based on power levels and flash frequency
|Power Level On Speedlite|
Setting the Hertz rate
As with the number of flashes, I think it is best to have an experimental attitude when working in stroboscopic. The best advice I can give you on setting the Hertz rate is to guess and then do a test shot.
Setting the power level
There is no such thing as metering in Multi mode. You have to dial the power level in on the Speedlite directly. Like the Hertz rate setting, it always starts with a guess and a test shot. As when working in Manual mode, if you don’t know, then dial the power to 1/8 and see what happens. Keep in mind that the light portions of the subject that overlap will appear brighter than areas without the overlap.
By Syl Arena
Your minimum shutter speed needs to be long enough to capture all your flashes. So, if you have set your Speedlite to fire 12 times at 4Hz, your exposure needs to be at least three seconds long – that’s 12 flashes fired divided by four per second = three seconds.
If you are shooting on a black set (one with no ambient light), you can use extremely long exposures – most Canon EOS DSLRs have shutters speeds as long as 30 seconds. If you need a longer exposure, switch your camera into Bulb mode, and be sure to use a shutter release cable.
Custom Functions (C.Fn) are special options that you can program into your Speedlite. Think of them as the way to personalise your Speedlite. Among the settings you can change are: distance (metres/feet), flash metering modes, power settings, and the operation of the AF-Assist beam.
Historically, the sequence of Custom Functions changed with the introduction of each new Speedlite model. Fortunately, when the Speedlite 430EX II was introduced, the Custom Functions used the same numbers as those on the Speedlite 580EX II.
By Syl Arena
Setting Custom Functions
Custom Functions reside in the circuitry of your gear so they will not be wiped out when you change batteries. If you have a Speedlite 580EX II or a Speedlite 430EX II and a compatible camera body that displays the Speedlite’s menu on the camera’s LCD monitor, then this is the way to change the Custom Functions. The Custom Functions will be listed in plain English (or the language of your choosing) with the options listed in detail.
For the original 580EX and 430EX flashguns, or if you don’t have a compatible camera under your EX II Speedlite, you will have to change the Custom Functions on the Speedlite’s LCD.
The ‘must-change’ Custom Function
I leave most of the Custom Functions in their factory default settings. The one that matters most to me is ‘Auto Power Off’ which the factory sets to 0=Enabled. For me, it’s much easier to carry extra batteries than to be distracted by a Speedlite that’s gone to sleep in the middle of a shoot. So, I always disable the Auto Power Off. Here’s how to do it:
- On the Speedlite 580EX II, switch C.Fn 01 to 1
- On the Speedlite 430EX II, switch C.Fn 01 to 1
- On the Speedlite 580EX, switch C.Fn 14 to 1
- On the Speedlite 430EX, switch C.Fn 01 to 1
Biography: 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', is now a best-selling photo book on Amazon in the USA and is available in Europe.