I receive emails every week from Canonistas asking my thoughts on whether they should buy a Canon 580EX II (introduced 2007) or the new 600EX-RT. It’s a fair question. The short answer is that, for the reasons I outline below, I don’t recommend buying a new 580EX II. I think the real options are either a new 430EX II, a used 580EX II, or a new 600EX-RT.
Quick Look: Canon 600EX-RT (compared to 580EX II)
- LCD Display—larger, active-matrix LCD (as shown above, right), capable of displaying a wide range of icons and messages, backlight can be green or orange (I set custom functions so that orange appears when Speedlite is a slave and green in non-wireless and master mode.)
- Menu System—it’s now interactive, the menu options and button functions change based upon the Mode
- Control via On-Camera LCD—able to be controlled via camera LCD on Canon models intro’d since mid-2007 (40D and newer). 2012 cameras (1D X, 5D Mark II, Rebel T4i) have a new graphical interface that makes Speedlite control a breeze.
- Beep—now it’s easy to know when your flash is recycled
- Zoom—range is now 20mm-200mm, a small, but helpful, change
- Radio Wireless—now has two-way radio built-in that provides much longer range and much wider angle of coverage than with optical wireless. Signal will pentrate walls, softboxes, etc. Master will not beep until all slaves have checked in as ready
- Optical Wireless—Full compatibility with optical wireless system used by 500- and 400-series Speedlites (but not able to use radio and optical wireless simultaneously)
- Wireless Activation—Dedicated button to activate and change modes in wireless system
- Optional Speedlite Transmitter—ST-E3-RT Speedlite Transmitter has radio only (not compatible with optical wireless used in older Speedlites), long range and wide angle of coverage, controls are identical to 600EX-RT
- Group Mode—(new with 600EX-RT and requires 2012 or newer model camera) allows for individual control of up to 5 groups. Able to individually control each group: on/off, assign Mode (Ettl, Manual, etc.), and control power functions.
- Flash Power—virtually the same as the 580EX-RT.
- Street price = $579 (Oct. 2012) Check current 600EX-RT price here.
Quick Look: Canon 580EX II (compared to 600EX-RT)
- LCD Display—smaller LCD with all icons baked into screen (as shown above, left)
- Menu system—uses small icons. Buttons must do multiple jobs (especially wireless button on right).
- Control via On-Camera LCD—Able to be controlled via camera LCD on Canon models intro’d since mid-2007 (40D and newer)
- NO beep—must rely upon Pilot button to advise that Speedlite is ready to fire
- Zoom—24-105mm is very similar to coverage of 600EX-RT
- NO radio—Wireless control facilitated by optical flashes from master (mistakenly called “infrared”). Must have direct, line-of-sight path between master and slave(s).
- Optical Wireless—Full compatibility with optical wireless system used by 500- and 400-series Speedlites
- Wireless Activation—wireless system activated and controlled through the Zoom button (slower and rather confusing at first)
- Optional Speedlite Transmitter—ST-E2 Speedlite Transmitter is 20 years old, short range and angle of coverage, controls are different than Speedlites
- No Group mode—limited to three groups, no way to power individual group on/off or to run one in ETTL and another in Manual.
- Flash Power—virtually the same as the 600EX-RT
- Street price = $474 (Oct. 2012) Check current 580EX II price here.
Quick Look: Canon 430EX II (compared to 580EX II)
- LCD Display—smaller than 580EX II, but it does not have to display the Master icons for wireless
- Menu system—essentially the same as the 580EX II
- Control via On-Camera LCD—essentially the same as the 580EX II
- Pan/Tilt of Head—pans 180º to left and 180º to right (580EX II pans 180º in both directions)
- Zoom— essentially the same as the 580EX II
- Optical Wireless as Slave Only—the 430EX II cannot work as a master. It is fully compatible with Canon’s EX Speedlite system as an optical slave.
- No External Power Jack—the 430EX II cannot be attached to an external power pack for more rapid recycling. The 580EX II and the 600EX-RT can use external power packs.
- Flash Power—about 2/3 stop less than 580EX II / 600EX-RT
- Power Increments—full stops vs. the 1/3-stops of control provided by 580EX II and 600EX-RT
- Power Range—1/1 to 1/64 vs. 1/1 to 1/128. Because the 430EX II starts at a lower max. power, its min power is about the same as the 580EX II and 600EX-RT.
- Street Price = $269 (Oct. 2012) Check current 430EX II price here.
Making the Decision—First Speedlite / Wireless Slave Only
Value-Priced Speedlite—if you are on a budget, my recommendation is that you buy the 430EX II rather than either of the two Speedlites mentioned above. The 430EX II (but not the 430EX) can be controlled from the camera LCD of most Canon DSLRs. (See this article for more info on how to do this.) It is fully compatible as a slave with Canon’s optical wireless system (so you can control it with the pop-up flash on many Canon DSLRs). It puts out almost as much light as the big guys (technically about 2/3-stop less). And it costs just $269 (Oct. 2012). I think that the 430EX II is a great first Speedlite when economy is your #1 concern. Check current 430EX II price here.
Future-Proof Speedlite—if the price of the 600EX-RT is not beyond your means, then this is the one I’d start with — even if you’re a novice. Even if you have no desire to work with multiple Speedlites now, the new LCD and interactive menu system on the 600EX-RT makes it much easier to learn Canon Speedliting. There’s no doubt that going forward, Canon will built it’s Speedlite system on the new radio technology. I’ve no doubt that once you get the hang of running one Speedlite, you will soon want to run a second and eventually a third. So, in terms of the future, the 600EX-RT is the way to start.
Making the Decision—Wireless Master
Value-Priced Master—if you already have one Canon Speedlite that can be a slave and you’re looking to add another that can be a master AND economy is a big concern, then I’d look for a used 580EX II on eBay or elsewhere. Please note that I said 580EX II and not the original 580EX. The big improvement in the EX II is that its entire menu system can be displayed on the LCD of many Canon DSLRs. This is a very important part of my workflow. (See this article for more info on how to do this.) Why did I suggest used rather than new? Because if economy is a big concern, then a used 580EX II provides the greatest value for a Speedlite that can be a master. They typically go for $275–$350 on eBay. If you’d rather buy a new Speedlite to use as a master, then I’d spend the extra $105 over the cost of a new 580EX II and buy the 600EX-RT to get the new menu system and the future-proofing.
Future-Proof Master—even if you have a bag of 500-series Speedlites (as I did) that operate on optical wireless (as opposed to radio), I’d start adding 600EX-RTs to my kit. This is similar to my situation when I bought my first 580EX II—I always used it as the master over my older 580EXs because I could pull up the menu of the 580EX II on my camera’s LCD. Over a couple of years, I replaced all of my original 580EXs with 580EX IIs. Now, they cycle is repeating itself with the 600EX-RTs replacing the 580EX IIs. If you’re going to get a new Speedlite, cut back on your coffee habit for a month, and spend the extra $105 on the 600EX-RT.