If I were to announce…
that Canon introduced the world’s best interface for flash control–a Speedlite interface that was big, colorful, and easy-to-understand–you would think it was news…right? You might also think it was fantasy. Well, it’s real and I’m three years late in making that announcement. It happened in mid-2007, when Canon released the 1D Mk III camera and the 580EX II Speedlite. The world of off-camera flash should have shook back then, but I did not feel anything. Thereafter, with every new Canon DSLR annoucement, there should have been major aftershocks. We Canonistas have had a revolutionary Speedlite user interface in our hands for three years and no one is whooping about it (not even the marketing department at Canon). Are you still scratching your head trying to figure out what I’m talking about? It’s the ability to control every aspect of an EX II Speedlite from the back of our cameras–on menus that are big, colorful, and easy-to-understand.
I discovered this capability quite by accident about a year ago when I bought my first 5D Mk II and paired it up with my then year-old 580EX II. I literally tripped into the ‘External Speedlite Control’ menu while looking for something else on the my camera’s LCD monitor. So, for the past year, I’ve gone from being barely able to find the ‘External Speedlite Control’ menu to thinking of it as an indispensable part of my Speedliting technique. I’m sure once you come to understand the potential, you’ll see it as indispensable too. And, if you’ve never seen a good reason to upgrade to an EX II Speedlite, you’ll likely change your mind about that too. I sure have.
My days of struggling with Canon’s miniscule icons on the Speedlite LCD panel are over.
I’ve not been shy about sharing my thoughts on the challenges of the Canon Speedlite interface. In fact, my July 2009 rant on PixSylated (‘My Canon Speedlite Wishlist‘) has been expanded by the comments of nearly 400 other photographers – which is the record for all of my blog articles. Much of what I discussed in the Wishlist has to do with icons and menus. Well, for the past month or so, I’ve been thinking that it’s time for a re-write of the wishlist. Now that I have the on-camera menu control of my Speedlites, I’m a much happier camper.
Pop quiz #1: which of the above two interfaces do you find easier to understand? Your assignment is to disable the on-camera master Speedlite so that it does not throw on-camera flash at your subject (most often, that’s a very good idea). On the left, you have the 580EX II LCD. You have to look for the three lines coming out of the Speedlite icon and then figure out which of the buttons to push so that the three lines go away (hint: when in doubt, always try the ZOOM/EverythingElse button). On the right, you have the menu choice from the LCD on my 7D. Even without my reading glasses, I can see it clearly.
If the Speedlite has a button or dial for it, you can read it on your camera’s LCD.
So, what Speedlite functions can you control on your camera’s LCD? Every last one. Seriously. You can even Zoom the Speedlite from the back of your camera.
Custom Functions on-camera. A new way to translate the Dead Sea Scrolls.
If you’ve ever tried to change a Custom Function on a Canon Speedlite, you’ve encountered what is probably the most-cryptic system of digital control in the entire photo universe. Having to pry open a hidden cover and move microscopic switches would be easier than decoding the nuances of 0 and 1 on a Speedlite LCD.
Hidden tip > The one Custom Function that I always want to disable is the one that saves power by putting the Speedlite to sleep. I carry lots of batteries. I want my Speedlite to stay on and vigilent; waiting for me to give it something useful to do. So, on the 580EX II, the 430EXII, and the 430EX, I set C.Fn-01 to 1. On the 580EX, I set C.Fn-14 to 1.
Now, cue the Halleluia Chorus, Canon’s world’s-best camera LCD system also gives you the ability to read all of the details about a Custom Function and its options in plain English (or French, or German, or whatever language you have your camera set to).
Pop quiz #2: which of the above two Custom Function interfaces do you find easier to understand? Silly question, I know. Left: LCD panel on the 580EX II. Right: LCD monitor Canon 5D Mark II. Both screens are asking the same question.
Putting the pieces together.
So, what do you need to get this great functionality? You need the right Speedlite (you have 3 choices) AND a compatible camera (you have 17 choices). The reason that I never discovered the on-camera control for the first year that I had my 580EX II is that I used it in a 5D. The original 5D cannot communicate with a Speedlite this way. It was when I parked the 580EX II on my first 5DM2 that the magic door appeared.
For the Speedlite, it must be on of the following:
• 580EX II
• 430EX II
For the camera, it must be the EOS 1D Mark III or have been introduced after the 1D Mark III. Basically every Canon EOS and Powershot camera introduced from mid-2007 on has this capability. Here’s the current list of cameras that will communicate with a compatible Speedlite:
So where do you find it on the camera menu? Good question. It’s not in the same place or labeled the same way on all cameras. Rather than balloon-up this article even more, I’ll do a follow-up post soon. Basially you want to look for something that says “Flash Control”, “External Speedlite control”, or something similar.
Maximizing the power of the Canon LCD-control system.
Obviously, the initial benefits of controlling your Speedlite from the LCD of your camera is that the screen is much easier to read and understand. So, if you have just one Speedlite, the system will remove the obstacles to activating the functionality that you want.
The real magic happens when you turn on the wireless system and move the master off-camera. I’ve written elsewhere how fond I am of using an extra-long E-TTL cord. (Read this article for the basics.) So, think about the power of moving your master Speedlite off-camera and still being able to control all of its functions from your camera. Once you get the hang of controlling the Speedlite from the back of your camera, it will save you valuable time during a shoot.
Here are the three main advantages provided by this unique combination of shooting wireless with the master moved off-camera on a long E-TTL cord.
• You can use an off-camera master to add valuable light to the shot. Normally, if my master is in the hotshoe, I will disable it so that it does not fire during the shot–so that it does not throw on-camera flash at the subject and kill the quality of light. Don’t worry–the disabled master sends the instructions to the slaves. Moving the master off-camera, means that it can now communicate instructions to the slave(s) AND contribute valuable light (meaning the it creates light that has interesting shadows).
• You can position the master in a position where the slaves can see it. The Canon user manual assumes that all the slaves will be in front of the camera and within the 80º spread of an on-camera master. I’ve never found this to be typical of how I shoot multiple Speedlites. Also, if a slave has to look towards the sun to see my on-camera master, it will likely not see the instructions. This happens frequently when I’m shooting high-speed sync outdoors in full sun. So, being able to move the master off-camera means that I can put it in the most advantageous spot for all the slaves to see it.
• You can put the master and slaves inside a softbox. The challenge of using a softbox with a Speedlite is that the Speedlite throws all its light out the front–so there will likely be a hotspot at the center of the softness. In contrast, a studio flash has a cylindrical tube that throws the light sideways. While I am quite fond of the convenience of the Lastolite Ezyboxe Hoshoe (which mounts a single Speedlite at the back), when I need more light, I use the Westcott Apollo. The unique design of the Apollo is that the flash is mounted inside and pointing backwards. This allows the light to swirl around before it flies through the front. So, by using the Lastolite TriFlash and an extra-long E-TTL cord, I can mount a master and two slaves inside the Apollo and control everything in E-TTL or Manual from the back of my camera. Amazing.
Feel free to gloat, just a bit, Canonistas.
Now, here is another truly mind-blowing bit of news…the Nikon CLS does not have this full range of on-camera LCD capability. Sure, I’ll say it again. Nikon CLS does not have the breadth of Canon’s on-camera capability for controlling Speedlites.
Last week, I was tutoring a friend about how to use her Nikon Speedlights. At a particularly troublesome point, I said, “let’s pull it up on your camera’s LCD, here like this…”. When we could not find a way to do it, I phoned Mr. Hotshoe’s assistant to ask where to find the on-camera Speedlight menu. He couldn’t think of how to do it and put Mr. Hotshoe on the line. There was some of the usual Canonista-to-Nikonian confusion in our dialogue. I was eventually asked by Mr. Hotshoe “why would you want to do that?” Later, it occurred to me that this question was analogous to being asked by my dog, Ruby, why she would want to see the world in color. Not that my sensei, Mr. Hotshoe, resembles a golden retriever in any way…other than perhaps in his enduring loyalty to friends, but I digress.
Not wanting to doubt the ubiquity of Mr. Hotshoe’s expertise in all things Nikon, I still could not believe that this technology does not exist in Nikonlandia. So, chalking it up to the possibility of one of our lost-in-translation events, I phoned my buddy MD Welch (his Notes-From-The-Field blog here) — who shoots Nikon corporately by day and Canon for his personal work. If anyone could translate my query from Canonista into Nikonian, MD could. So he went to work the next day, fired up the D3x with an SB-900 and went searching. When he came up dry, he phoned a couple of other Nikon pros and asked them. “Nope” was his succinct report. “Can’t do it on Nikon.” I now call him Mr. Bernstein and refer to myself as Mr. Woodward, because I think we’ve discovered something really big that no one is talking about.
So there, if you’re feeling puny because you shoot Speedlites rather than Speedlights, strap an EX II Speedlite onto your camera, find the ‘External Speedlite Control’ menu and go to town.
Portions of this article excerpted from my to-be-published ‘Speedliter’s Handbook‘, coming November, 2010.
For a calendar of my seminars and workshops on Speedliting, click here.