Syl Arena Glad To Be Alive

Left: The day after brain surgery. Right: ten days later with my son, Tony.

Just a quick thanks to all who have offered up prayers and sent words of support over the past few months. I am now in that class of people who have walked away from a medical train wreck. Literally I am one in ten.

On November 10, 2015, I had a seizure at home which lead to a CT-scan at the local emergency room which lead to a 150-mile flight in a medical helicopter to a regional medical center in Santa Barbara (no, I did not have a window seat). At Cottage Hospital, the world-renowned neurosurgeon, Dr. Alois Zauner, and his team injected me with radioactive dye and then drove a catheter from my groin into the center of my brain to seal a leaking aneurysm (a bubble on the side of an artery). Effectively, I underwent brain surgery without losing any of my trademark crazy, red locks.

Specifically, I had a subarachnoid hemorrhage; which is a type of stroke. I spent two weeks at Cottage, mostly in the neuro-ICU. As is typical after brain events, my body chemistry was whacked. My pituitary gland persistently instructed my kidneys to hold onto lethal amounts of sodium. My blood pressure, in response, stayed at stratospheric levels that causes strokes. Eventually the doctors and dedicated  NICU nurses at Cottage helped me find a path to recovery.

Although I did not learn the stats until I returned home, it was obvious during my mandated, daily walks that I was in far better shape than most of my neighbors in the stroke unit. Those stats continue to come back every day—my type of stroke kills half of its victims outright and leaves 80% of the survivors with lifelong disabilities. I am among the amazingly-lucky 10% who get back to their daily lives without significant, longterm deficits. Yes, through this experience, I now see life as a gift to be protected, treasured, and used wisely. That sentiment used to sound schmaltzy. Now I know its truth.

My advice to all, like the former me, who lead over-paced, stress-filled lives is to access what truly is important and then shift your priorities. Also, if you are told that you have high blood pressure, heed the warning. The meds that I now take for my blood pressure cost about $8.00/month (less than two trips to Starbucks). While the docs think that I was born with the aneurysm, a spike in my blood pressure likely caused the bleeding in my brain.

My view on the need for medical insurance has evolved. In two weeks at the hospital, my medical bills topped $400,000. My out-of-pocket expense was $250 thanks to the medical insurance that I have through my day job (teaching high school art + photography). A few years ago, when I was a globe-trotting workshop instructor, I did not have medical insurance. If you are still ducking out on medical insurance (despite Obamacare), at lease get a high-deductible policy in place. Most people can somehow survive a $5,000 or $10,000 hit (the amount expended before I was loaded onto the helicopter). Beyond that lies financial devastation.

I will be back out on the road soon. If you’re in the NYC-area, I’ll give a free (thanks Canon!) seminar in the B&H Event Space on Thursday, April 14. Check out the details here on B&H’s site. Mid-summer, I have a week-long workshop on flash photography at the Rocky Mountain School of Photography. Check out those details here on RMSP’s site.

Again, thanks to all who offered up prayers and sent words of support. Your energy truly made a difference. Onward!



On This Week In Photo #434, I join Frederick Van Johnson and Sara France for a spirited, hour-long conversation about recent events and announcements in the world of photography. You can watch (or listen) to it right here on TWiP.

Speedliting Events In NYC This Week During PhotoPlus

Heading to PhotoPlus this week? Click here for info on my free Speedliting events. And…when you see that guy with the crazy red hair, be sure to come up and introduce yourself as a PixSylarian.




Thanks to the support of Canon USA, I have four Speedliting events in NYC during the PhotoPlus Expo that starts two weeks from today. All are free, but you do have to register for admission to the events.

Thurs. Oct. 22, 10:00am – 12:00pm—B&H Event Space “New Frontiers for Lighting with Canon Speedlites” The long wait for the first shipments of the 430EX III-RT Speedlite is almost over. In this seminar I’ll share my experiences with this new Speedlite (the short version is that I think it’s amazing and a huge value). I’ll also provide a complete update on my workflows with Canon’s radio-enabled Speedliting system. Click here to register at B&H.

Thurs. Oct. 22, 3:00-4:00pm—Canon Live Learning Studio, PhotoPlus Expo (Javits Center)—live shooting demo with the 430EX III-RT Speedlite. Click here to register for the PhotoPlus Expo.

Fri. Oct. 23, 3:00-4:00pm—Canon Live Learning Studio, PhotoPlus Expo (Javits Center)—live shooting demo with the 430EX III-RT Speedlite.

Sat. Oct. 24, 10:00-11:00am—Canon Live Learning Studio, PhotoPlus Expo (Javits Center)—live shooting demo with the 430EX III-RT Speedlite.

[P.S. I’ve a new post queued up for next week that provides a complete review of the new LCD and interactive menu system used on the 430EX III-RT. Dare I say it? Sure. I think that the new 430EX III-RT is easier and faster to use as a radio master than the600EX-RT. I’ll explain why next week.]

Check out the 430EX III-RT on | B&H Photo | Amazon |


The new 430EX III-RT Speedlite integrates fully with Canon’s radio Speedliting system and can work with the 600EX-RT as either a radio master or radio slave.



Canon Professional Network, a great online resource produced by Canon Europe, just published my new article on deciding which Speedlite is the best for your needs. In the article I walk about:

  • Advantage of a Speedlite over pop-up flash
  • Features to consider when buying a Speedlite
  • Model-specific features and recommendations

Click here to read the article on CPN’s site.



Following the recent publication of my updated Speedliter’s Handbook, I had many overdue promises to fulfill. The foremost of which was to spent more time with my family. Now that I’ve made good on that promise, I’m pleased to announce that I’ve created the Exposure Quick Guide that I mentioned in the Handbook’s  Chapter 2: Exposure Exposed.

You can read the entire guide here and download PDFs designed for mobile devices and for printing (links below). Of course, this is just a tiny fraction of the info that you’l find in the new Handbook. (To take a peek inside the Handbook, check out this post.)


Page 1 of the Expsoure Quick Guide covers the idea of a stop and shows the whole-stop increments of shutter, aperture, ISO, and flash power.


Page two of the Quick Guide covers how I decide on which camera or flash setting to change.

Page two of the Quick Guide covers how I decide on which camera or flash setting to change.


Page 3 of the Quick Guide covers how I manage ambient light and why shutter speed does not affect flash exposure.

Page 3 of the Quick Guide covers how I manage ambient light and why shutter speed does not affect flash exposure.


Page four of the Quick Guide presents my simple and advanced workflows for lighting portraits.

Page four of the Quick Guide presents my simple and advanced workflows for lighting portraits.

Download The Quick Guide Here

Two steps: 1. click on one of the following links and 2. right-click/”save as” after it appears on screen.

Mobile layout: single pages that you can scroll (Syl Arena Exposure Quick Guide Mobile)

Print layout: designed for double-sided printing (Syl Arena Exposure Quick Guide Print)

Please Write A Reader Review of ‘Speedliter’s Handbook’

Every voice matters…especially when shopping online. If you’ve read the new Speedliter’s Handbook, I would be very grateful if you’d head to your favorite online bookseller and write a quick review. Your thoughts will help other photographers find the book online. Thanks!

Speedliter’s Handbook on:

Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon DE, Amazon CN, Amazon JP

Barnes & Noble

Book Depository (ships to Australia!)



After 14 months on the project, I have finally crossed the finish line. The new Speedliter’s Handbook is heading to press and will start shipping in early August.

We’ve made five laps around the sun since I wrote the original Speedliter’s Handbook. In those five years, much has changed about the way I use Speedlites. Of course, Canon’s introduction of the 600EX-RT system—with its built-in, two-way communication—was reason enough to update the book. Yet, this new edition is so much more.

Virtually every word, photo, and diagram in the first edition has been evaluated and either polished or cut. Additions/expansions in the second edition include:

  • Coverage of every current Canon Speedlite from the 600EX-RT down to the 90EX along with tips on using older Canon Speedlites and models from other manufacturers
  • A new chapter about maximizing the benefits of on-camera flash
  • An expanded portfolio of portraits made with a single Speedlite
  • A complete update to my survey of light modifiers and gels
  • A greater emphasis on step-by-step workflows
  • A greatly expanded discussion of Canon’s camera-based menu system for Speedlite control
  • And, of course, complete coverage of how to use the radio-enabled 600EX-RT system by itself and with earlier generations of Canon Speedlites.f

The new Handbook is suited for Speedliters at all levels. If you don’t have the 600EX-RT system, rest assured that I’ve completely updated my coverage of earlier generations of Speedlites to incorporate my latest workflows for flash photography. If you don’t shoot Canon, as before, about 60% of the Handbook is non-demonimational (meaning that the concepts apply to all brands of lighting gear).

Pre-order the Speedliter’s Handbook on Amazon

Learn small flash with Syl at Santa Fe Workshops (July 19-24, hurray-just a few spaces still open)

Learn Canon Speedliting with Syl at Maine Media Workshops (August 2-8)


A Detailed Peek At The New Speedliter’s Handbook

There are 24 chapters and 400+ pages in the new Handbook. Here’s how it is organized:

[Note: Click through on the spreads below to read an actual PDF.]


Chapter 0: Quick Start Guide To Speedliting

Chapter 0: Quick Start Guide To Speedliting—A crash course in the basic ideas of creating photos with flash, including how to control your Speedlite from the LCD of your camera (which makes flash photography so much easier!).

Part 1: Before Speedlites, There Was Light

Chapter 1: Learn To See Light

Chapter 1: Learn To See Light

  • Chapter 1: Learn T0 See Light—How to see light, how to describe light (example above)
  • Chapter 2: Exposure Exposed—The fundamentals of camera exposure broken out in ways that relate to flash photography
  • Chapter 3: Mechanics Of Light—Why light behaves in certain ways
  • Chapter 4: Manage The Ambient Light—How to wrangle the ambient (background) light in flash photos
  • Chapter 5: Position Is Relative—Where to position your flash for specific purposes

Part 2: Speedlites Fundamentally


Chapter 6: Meet The Speedlites

  •  Chapter 6: Meet The Speedlites—A detailed buttons-and-dials tour of each of the Speedlites in Canon’s current lineup, from the 600EX-RT down to the 90EX. New to this edition is a discussion of non-Canon E-TTL Speedlites and economy-oriented Manual-only Speedlites (example above).
  • Chapter 7: Control Your Speedlite—A detailed look at the settings found on a Speedlite (mode, sync, etc.).
  • Chapter 8: Flashing Manually—When to shoot and how to maximize the benefit of your Speedlite in Manual mode
  • Chapter 9: E Is For Evaluative—When to shoot and how to maximize the benefit of your Speedlite in E-TTL mode
  • Chapter 10: Specialty Flash Modes—How to use the other Speedlite modes, such as: Multi, External Auto, External Manual, and Group

Part 3: Off-Camera Speedliting


Chapter 13: Radio Speedliting, Canon’s New Frontier

  • Chapter 11: Triggers For Off-Camera Flash—A survey of the many ways to fire an off-camera Speedlite in Manual and E-TTL mode
  • Chapter 12: Optical Wireless, The Canon Way—The details about how to set up master and slave Speedlites in optical wireless, including detailed button-and-dials diagrams for all the current Speedlites and how to do the same on the LCD of your camera
  • Chapter 13: Radio Speedliting: Canon’s New Frontier—The details about how to set up master and slave Speedlites in Canon’s new radio wireless, including detailed button-and-dials diagrams for the 600EX-RT Speedlite and ST-E3-RT transmitter and how to do the same on the LCD of your camera (example above).

Part 4: Gear For Speedliting


Chapter 14: Go Ahead, Mod Your Speedlite

  •  Chapter 14: Go Ahead, Mod Your Speedlite—My updated survey of my favorite small modifiers that can be attached to Speedlites (example above)
  • Chapter 15: Those Big Modifiers Always Get In The Way—My updated survey of my favorite large modifiers to which you mount Speedlites
  • Chapter 16: Get A Grip—How to attach your Speedlite to stands and other devices in a wide range of situations
  • Chapter 17: Keeping The Energy Up—My updated survey of batteries and external power packs

Part 5: Speedliting In Action


Chapter 19: Portraits With One Speedlite

  •  Chapter 18: Getting The Most From On-Camera Flash—the new chapter provides a wide range of strategies for on-camera flash, both pop-up and Speedlite
  • Chapter 19: Portraits With One Speedlite—an expanded chapter on a wide range of portraits that can be made with one Speedlite (example above)
  • Chapter 20: Portraits With Multiple Speedlites—an updated chapter on how two or more Speedlites can be used to create great portraits
  • Chapter 21: Gelling For Effect—an updated chapter on how I use gels for color correction and creative effects
  • Chapter 22: Slicing Time With High-Speed Sync—an updated chapter on how I use High-Speed Sync in a variety of situations
  • Chapter 23: Gang Lighting—an updated chapter on how I create synergy by using several Speedlites together as a unified light source

Pre-order the Speedliter’s Handbook on Amazon

Learn small flash with Syl at Santa Fe Workshops (July 19-24, hurray-just a few spaces still open)

Learn Canon Speedliting with Syl at Maine Media Workshops (August 2-8)




I continue to plow forward on the update to the Speedliter’s Handbook — which includes all the necessary insights on how to operate the 600EX-RT Speedlite. I expect that the new edition will be out by mid-summer. (See it here on Amazon.) In the meantime, here is a laundry list of online resources that I have produced that cover the 600EX-RT system and Speedliting in general.

600EX-RT Specific

Mastering The 600EX-RT With Syl Arena — a video presentation that I did for Canon Digital Learning Center

The 600EX-RT System — an article/video that I did for the Canon Pro Network in Europe

PixSylated articles — here’s a list of articles that I’ve published on PixSylated

Videos Of My Talks At B&H

Quick Start to Off-Camera Flash with Canon Speedlites

Modifying Speedlites

Getting The Most Out Of Canon Speedlites

Canon Pro Network: General Speedlite Info

Getting The Most From Speedlites (Part 1: Controls & Modes) — another article for the Canon Pro Network

Getting The Most From Speedlites (Part 2: On- and Off-Camera Flash) — another article for the Canon Pro Network

Getting The Most From Speedlites (Part 3: Modifying Flash) — another article for the Canon Pro Network

Getting The Most From Speedlites (Part 4: Advanced Speedlite Strategies) — another article for the Canon Pro Network

Hands-On Learning

Flash Photography – Rocky Mountain School of Photography, June 6-12, 2015

Crafting Dramatic Light With Small Flash – Santa Fe Workshops, July 19-24, 2015

Canon Speedlites Demystified – Maine Media Workshops, August



While updating the information in my chapter on batteries for the new edition of the Speedliter’s Handbook, I came upon a relatively new service advisory from Canon (December 2014) that advises against the use of lithium batteries in virtually all Speedlites. Canon acknowledges that lithium batteries may become extremely hot when used in Speedlites.

This should be considered breaking news for Speedliters. I checked the user manuals for the last five Speedlite introductions and they all say that lithium batteries can be used in the Speedlite.

I said a long while back that lithium batteries are bad for Speedlites. Five years ago, when I wrote about my AA Battery Torture Test in the original Speedliter’s Handbook, I reported three disturbing facts about the performance of lithium batteries during the test.

  • When a 580EX Speedlite with lithium batteries was fired at full power every 20-seconds (the standard interval in my AA Battery Torture Test), the average flashes-to-failure was 52 pops. This compares to averages of 165 for alkaline and 235 for low-discharge nickel-metal hydride batteries, like Eneloops.
  • When the Speedlite with lithium batteries was fired at full power every 3-minutes, the average flash-to-failure rose to 218. It’s not that the lithiums lacked the electrons. Rather, they just like to hold onto them—which is why they can hold a charge for many years.
  • Most importantly—under the standard 20-second test interval, the sets of lithium batteries would be too hot to hold immediately after the test—on the high side of 140ºF/60ºC.

Recommended Batteries For Speedlites


My favorites: Eneloop batteries and Maha C801D charger

My favorite batteries for Speedlites are Eneloops. They are low-discharge rechargeables. Low-discharge is the key. Regular nickel-metal hydride batteries will lose most of their charge while sitting for a month in your bag. The low-discharge chemistry in Eneloops holds onto most of its charge for up to a year. (Eneloops here on B&H / Amazon)

The key to happiness with rechargeable batteries is the circuity of the charger. You need a charger that treats each cell as an individual. Otherwise, the charger will turn off when the strongest cell is charged—leaving the weak cells undercharged. My favorite charger is the Maha C801D (here on B&H / Amazon).

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If you are in the NYC-area, I hope that you will join me at the B&H Event Space on Sunday, March 15 for a free seminar—Crafting Great Light With Canon Speedlites. I will provide a complete update to how my workflow has changed since I started with Canon’s 600EX-RT radio Speedlite system. I’ll also cover how Canon’s new cameras continue to make Speedliting easier. Of course, I will also share loads of insights into how I used Speedlites to create shots like the one just below—lit with a single Speedlite and the Strobos grid kit. Thanks to Canon USA for sponsoring this event. Hope to see you at B&H!



My original vision was to show how separate red, green, and blue lights can be combined to form the secondary colors—cyan, magenta, and yellow.

My obsession with color continues. Last night I worked on a photo to open the “Mechanics of Light” chapter in the new Speedliter’s Handbook. My original vision, much along the lines of the photo above, was to demonstrate how separate sources of red, green, and blue light combine to form all of the other colors.

In the photo above, you will see that the secondary colors of light—cyan, magenta, and yellow—appear as shadows. For instance, the magenta shadow on the left is created where the skull blocks the green light coming in from the right side—leaving red and blue to merge into magenta. Conversely, you can see the green light on the right side of the nose where the bone blocked the red and blue light coming from the left side.

Original Idea Lightroom Gallery-600px

A portion of the first shoot. I went after my original idea from a number of angles.

As is the case sometimes, the picture I had in my head was better than the photos I was making. As you can see above, I explored the interplay of the light from a number of angles. The screenshot (out of Lightroom) shows about a third of the shots that I made before I decided to take a break. I had an interesting idea in my head, but did not feel that my photos were capturing that vision.

Discovering A New Path For Personal Work

When I came back, I impulsively crumpled a sheet of paper and positioned it where the skull had been. In an instant, I understood how to fill the gap between my vision and the shots I’d made previously—I needed to show the camera more faceted surfaces. More importantly, as I marveled at the tie-dye colors that I’d cast onto the white paper, I knew that I had found a new visual path to explore as a photographer interested in abstract images. [Read about my abstract Color Fields here.]


An impulsively crumpled sheet of paper helped me close the gap between my vision and the shots that I was making.

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