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Technique

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Syl Arena examines Canon’s new radio Speedlite flash system

March 2012

By Syl Arena

Canon’s launch of the Speedlite 600EX-RT flashgun and the Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-RT is a quantum leap forward in flash technology. For the first time ever, two-way radio communication between master and slave has been built into a Canon flashgun and transmitter.

For those photographers who, like me, have used the previous generations of Canon Speedlites for many years, the introduction of an entirely new system raises the legitimate question of whether or not to upgrade. While the entire range of benefits from this new technology is not realised without the use of a 2012 model Canon DSLR camera (the EOS-1D X or EOS 5D Mark III), I discovered compelling functionality when pairing the new Speedlite system with pre-2012 cameras. In this article, I will share the insights that I gained after putting the new gear through extensive tests on several shoots using my EOS 5D Mark II and EOS 60D DSLRs.

© Syl Arena

Please click on the window above to watch a video of Syl Arena comparing the new Speedlite 600EX-RT flashgun to the Speedlite 580EX II.

New LCD and menu system – easy to learn, easy to remember

While the radio system offers amazing potential (for reasons that I will discuss below), I think that the new interactive menu system and the dot matrix LCD of the 600EX-RT are equally revolutionary. For many, who shoot with just a single Speedlite, this new user interface will be reason enough to upgrade.

In previous generations of Speedlites, every icon was stuffed onto a single screen and illuminated as necessary. Now, with a dot matrix LCD, the icons are no longer hard-coded onto the screen. The new technology provides icons that are larger than before and have a consistency in layout. For instance, the mode icons (ETTL, M for Manual, Multi etc.) are now displayed consistently in the upper left corner of the screen. So, learning and remembering the interface is easier than before.

Another important feature of the new LCD technology is that it provides for an interactive menu system. While the new Speedlite flashgun and transmitter retain the four-button layout under the LCD screens, the function of each button changes in response to mode and wireless settings. Essentially now, we have a ‘one button, one function’ system. It is no longer necessary to remember that some functions lie beneath other functions. The label for each button is displayed on-screen above each button. One only needs to remember to press the right-most button to scroll through additional menu options for advanced features like Multi and wireless shooting.

© Syl Arena

Please click on the window above to watch a video of Syl Arena examining the new Speedlite 600EX-RT flashgun’s buttons and LCD.

The new LCD also means that the cryptic codes for Custom Functions are a thing of the past. Rather than having to remember that C.Fn. -01 1 meant that power saving has been disabled, the new system shows a Speedlite with zeds (ZZZZ…) floating away. Press the Set button, and you see the options 0 - Off and 1 - On. Setting Custom Functions directly on an EOS camera's LCD is still easier, because you can read the descriptions in the language of your choice. Still, for on-the-fly changes during a shoot, the new LCD makes quick changes to the Custom Functions possible without having to have a 'cheat sheet' in hand.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the usefulness of the LCD’s ability to change the colour of the background light. I have my flashguns set so that the backlight is green in normal and master modes and orange in slave mode. This makes it quite easy to confirm that the flashgun is, indeed, set as a slave.


Breaking the line-of-sight connection

The addition of 2.4 GHz radio into the 600EX-RT and ST-E3-RT units opens up a world of functionality that could not exist with the previous, optically based, wireless communication between master and slave. Now the signal can penetrate opaque surfaces, which I quickly discovered enables shoots that were impossible with the old optical system.

My set for the portraits above was a small balcony at an apartment that overlooks San Francisco. If you click on the Set tab, you will see that the balcony was just over a metre deep and about three metres across. For the shoot, I used a Speedlite 600EX-RT in the hotshoe of my EOS 5D Mark II as master and a pair of 600EX-RTs firing into the Kacey Beauty Reflector. My shooting spot was slightly forward of the dish and wedged against the door frame.

© Syl Arena

Balcony set shot showing a close-up of two 600EX-RTs attached to a Kacey Beauty Reflector.

As much as I love the light coming from the Kacey Beauty Reflector, in the past I have found that its design makes it virtually impossible to use it with optically controlled Speedlite flash units. As you can see in the detail shot (shown left), the front-facing slave sensors are literally pressed up against the Kacey beauty dish. To further complicate the situation, for this shoot, I found it necessary to angle the head of my on-camera master Speedlite to the left so that I could bounce fill flash off the wall of the building. Thanks to the radio control capabilities, the shoot flowed very smoothly despite the extremely tight confines of the balcony area.

© Syl Arena

Please click on the window above to watch a video of Syl Arena examining the wireless capabilities of the Speedlite 600EX-RT flashgun.


Slaves that talk back to the master

One of the unexpected windfalls of the new radio system is that, for the first time ever, the slaves can talk directly with the master. Previously, with the optical system, the master would flash instructions and the slaves would follow. Now, when each slave has recycled, it sends a ready confirmation to the master. When all the slaves check in as ‘ready’ the master (flashgun or transmitter) illuminates the test button in red and, optionally, sounds a beep.

This two-way communication proved invaluable for the shot above, which is a concept shot for a snowboard ad series based on the theme of ‘Spring Training’. Not only was the snowboarder balancing on a stack of concrete blocks and a tyre, but also I was perched on a ladder trying to direct him as I framed the shot through the lens. Neither the model nor I wanted to remain aloft any longer than was necessary.

As you can see in the set shots, I used a pair of Westcott Apollo 70cm softboxes for fill flash. The upper box had a pair of 600EX-RTs and the lower softbox had a single 600EX-RT. To maximize the flash output, I pulled the diffuser fabric to the side, which meant that the optical slave sensors were blinded by the sun reflecting off of the silver interior. Using the ST-E3-RT Speedlite Transmitter in the hotshoe of my EOS 5D Mark II, I was able to concentrate on guiding the model’s gestures on this precarious set rather than worry about whether the slaved Speedlites had fired or not. I knew as soon as I heard the beep from the ST-E3-RT that the all of the slaves were ready to go I could fire another frame.

© Syl Arena

Snowboarder ‘Spring Training’ shot set-up showing a pair of Westcott Apollo softboxes – the upper box with two Speedlite 600EX-RT flashguns and the lower box with one Speedlite 600EX-RT – and ladder for shooting from.

© Syl Arena

Snowboarder ‘Spring Training’ set showing a pair of Westcott Apollo softboxes – the upper box with two Speedlite 600EX-RT flashguns and the lower box with one Speedlite 600EX-RT – with diffuser fabric pulled to the side to maximise flash output.


Extended wireless range

Another compelling reason to upgrade is that the radio system provides greater range that the optical system. Canon states in the user manuals for the 600EX-RT and ST-E3-RT that the effective range of the radio system is 30 metres, which is twice the range of optically controlled slaves.

To put this to the test, I headed outside onto a road near my home. There I found that I was able to change modes and set Flash Exposure Control (FEC) or change power on a 600EX-RT from a distance of 100 metres. This test was conducted in the countryside, where there were no nearby sources of radio interference. In a business or industrial environment, where RF interference is likely, I’ve no doubt that the range will be closer to that stated in the user manuals. Still, for wedding and event photographers, I think that the extended range of the radio, when combined with the freedom from line-of-sight issues, makes a compelling argument for the new system.

The question of Sync Speed

The area of greatest uncertainty about the new system is that of sync speed. Canon states, in the user manuals, that for pre-2012 modes (every Canon DSLR camera other than EOS-1D X and EOS 5D Mark III) the maximum sync speed is depreciated by one stop. This would mean that, for example, on an EOS 5D Mark II, the maximum sync speed would be 1/100sec. My experience, on both my 5D Mark II and 60D, did not confirm these limitations. To the contrary, I have been able to shoot direct hotshoe flash and wireless flash at all shutter speeds in both normal and High-Speed Sync (HSS).

As you can see in the series above, I successfully shot across a wide range of shutter speeds, from 1/60sec to 1/1000sec, with my EOS 5D Mark II. When I changed the shutter speed from 1/125sec to 1/250sec, the camera shifted the trio of 600EX-RTs into High-Speed Sync (which I had previously set as my sync option on the ST-E3-RT attached to my camera’s hotshoe). At 1/500sec, E-TTL continued to increase the flash power to accommodate for loss of flash power in HSS. Then, at 1/1000sec, the flash power appears to dim, not because of sync issues, but rather because HSS consumes more power as the shutter gets faster.

My experience, across nearly 1,000 shots with the new Speedlite system, is that there are no issues with sync on either the EOS 5D Mark II or EOS 60D cameras. Of course, the experience of others, using different cameras under different circumstances, may yield different results.


Other improvements

Canon has made a number of other improvements to the 600EX-RT and ST-E3-RT units that increase the system’s functionality and ease-of-use over previous generations of Canon Speedlite flash units.

  • Dedicated wireless button – we now have a dedicated button that cycles the 600EX-RT from normal mode to master to slave. This can be set to cycle into the radio system only, the optical system only, or into the radio system and then the optical system. As with the new LCD technology, this new button makes the 600EX-RT far easier to use in wireless mode than its predecessors.
  • Locking switch – the power switches on both the 600EX-RT and ST-E3-RT now have an intermediate step that locks the settings. This is extremely helpful when shooting in low light situations where an inadvertent change to settings might not be noticed. So now, once you have set the flashgun and transmitter to your needs, you can move the power switch to prevent further changes.
© Syl Arena

Please click on the window above to watch a video of Syl Arena examining the Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-RT.

  • Wider and longer zoom – the zoom on the 600EX-RT now ranges from 20mm to 200mm. As I routinely set the zoom on my flashguns manually to create the effect of a vignette, I appreciated the tighter pattern created by the extended zoom. I expect that sports and wildlife photographers will find the extended reach of the 600EX-RT to be appealing.
  • Linked Shooting – both the 600EX-RT and ST-E3-RT have the ability to fire remote cameras. This is accommodated via the NC-E3 cable on pre-2012 cameras and through the hotshoe of the EOS-1D X and EOS 5D Mark III DSLRs. I’m sure that wedding, sports, and wildlife photographers will discover many benefits of this new technology.

Using the new system with existing Speedlites

One of my first questions about the new Speedlite system was: ‘Will it work with my existing arsenal of Speedlites?’ The answer is both ‘no’ and ‘yes’. Let me explain. Canon’s implementation of radio in Speedlites is a quantum leap forward. It relies upon technology that didn’t exist five years ago, when the Speedlite 580EX II was introduced. So, at present, there is no way to directly control previous generations of Speedlites through the new radio system.

© Syl Arena

An ‘old-school’ optical slave attached to a Speedlite 580EX flashgun via a camera hotshoe.

That said Canon has done a brilliant job of carrying forward all the features of the old 580EX system into the new 600EX-RT system. Specifically, in addition to radio, the 600EX-RT also has the same functionality as the 580EX II flashgun when switched into wireless via optical transmission. I found that the 600EX-RT is happy to serve as a wireless master or slave with my 580EXs and 580EX II flashguns. The caveat is that every flashgun must use the optical system. You cannot control a remote 600EX-RT via radio and have it optically control 500-series or 400-series Speedlites.

However, I have discovered a ‘work-around’. By attaching old-fashioned optical slave sensors to my 580EX flashguns, I was able to trigger them in conjunction with the 600EX-RTs firing as radio slaves. So, in this instance, it is possible to use both radio and optical wireless at the same time. The caveats are:

  1. All the flashguns have to operate in Manual mode so that there is no E-TTL pre-flash.
  2. The optical slave sensors must be the green-based Sonia sensors (the only ones I have found to work with Canon Speedlites).
© Syl Arena

An ‘old-school’ optical slave attached to a Speedlite 580EX II flashgun. Note that an optical slave sensor can be attached directly into the 580EX II’s PC-sync port.

So, using this work-around, I was able to put one 600EX-RT and two 580EXs inside of an Apollo softbox and fire all of them via radio. The only downside is that I could not adjust the power level from my camera. Still, given the low cost of the slave sensors, this seems like a sensible ‘stepping stone’ towards building a system built entirely on the new radio technology.

(Note: the 580EX II has a PC-sync port which to which an optical slave sensor can be attached directly. For earlier generations of Speedlites, you must attach use a hotshoe adapter between the foot of the flashgun and the optical slave sensor.)

Final thoughts

My initial journey with Canon’s new Speedlite system was an emotional rollercoaster. Initially, I was elated to learn that we now have state-of-the-art radio control. Then my enthusiasm plummeted as I read about in the user manual about limitations on sync speed and the inability to work simultaneously in radio and optical wireless.

© Syl Arena

Three Speedlite 600EX-RT flashguns firing as radio optical slaves.

Now, after putting the system through several challenging shoots, my enthusiasm has escalated to the realm where it is now fair to call me a ‘zealot’. I have seen first-hand that the new system enables shots that would not have been possible with the old system. Not only does the new gear make the impossible possible, it makes the impossible easy.

Like any new technology, early adapters will pay a much higher price than those who wait. Think about the cost of a moderately sized HDTV five years ago compared to the cost of giant HDTVs today and you will get my point.

The decision to embrace the new technology now will be directed by one’s financial resources and needs. For wedding and event photographers, the new system is a natural. For those who want a navigation system that is intuitive and easy-to-remember, the new system is attractive. For those who do not need the functionality of radio wireless or the convenience of the new menu system, then the need to upgrade immediately is less compelling. Either way, I have no doubt that, five years from now virtually every Speedliter who shoots multiple flashguns will have fully embraced the system that Canon has given us today.

Biographie: 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.