There are a number of considerations that go into selecting a Speedlite. Let’s run through the list.
- Compatibility with your camera—I use Canon Speedlites because I shoot Canon cameras. If you shoot Nikon cameras, then you want to look for Nikon Speedlights. While 3rd-party brands may be compatible with your system, I’ve never found one that works as well as the genuine article.
- Moveable head—Most hotshoe flashes have a head that can be panned sideways and tilted up. Some units spin 180º right and left. Others spin 180º one way and 90º the other.
- Zoom—Most hotshoe flashes have the ability to adjust the spread of the light by moving the flashtube in the head. Some units require you to make this adjustment manually—either by pushing a button or by actually pulling the flash head out a bit. More advanced units have motors that move the flashtube. High-end units will actually zoom the flash to match the focal length of your lens. (That said, I often zoom my Speedlites to a very narrow coverage so that I only light a portion of the frame and not everything that the camera sees.)
- Wireless communication—There is great flexibility in having multiple Speedlites working together. The 600EX-RT and the Transmitter St-E3-RT communicate by radio. The 600EX-RT can also communicate with older units optically. The 600EX-RT and the 580EX II can be a master (sends instructions). They can also work as slaves (receives instructions); as can the 430EX II, 320EX, and 270EX II.
- Future-proofing—Canon’s newest generation of Speedlite gear (the 600EX-RT and ST-E3-RT) use radio for wireless communication. Older generations (580EXII, 430EX II, etc.) only have optical connection. If you are starting into small flash today, consider whether it makes sense for you to have the new technology going forward.
Canon Speedlite 600EX-RT
This is the flagship of Canon’s Speedlite family. It features a much improved LCD that features a menu system that changes interactively as well as a new set of icons that are easier to understand. Compared to all previous Canon Speedlites, the 600EX-RT is the easiest to learn and use. This unit is also the first to incorporate radio communication between master and slaves (which must be other 600EX-RTs). Thankfully, the 600EX-RT is fully compatible in optical mode with the previous generations of Canon Speedlites. So, if you have a handful of 580EXs and/or 430EXs, you can still use the 600EX-RT as an optical master; which enables you to start future-proofing your kit as you add new 600EX-RTs one by one and retire the older units.
Canon Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-RT
Canon took a giant leap forward with the introduction of the ST-E3-RT. This lightweight unit can replace a 600EX-RT in the camera’s hotshoe as a radio master. The screen, buttons, and menu system are exactly the same as the 600EX-RT; so it’s very easy to put the ST-E3-RT to work immediately.
Canon Speedlite 580EX II
I’ve used the venerable 580EX II for years. Until Canon’s introduction of the 600EX-RT system in March, 2012, this unit was the flagship of the Speedlite family. I understand that Canon is no longer manufacturing the 580EX II, but there are still large inventories to sell, so it is not marked as a discontinued model. Still, for the $100 difference between this model and the 600EX-RT, I would spend the extra money as a way to future proof my system. The 580EX II can work as both a master and a slave—in optical mode only. There is no way to get this unit to work as a radio slave.
Canon Speedlite 430EX II
This is my favorite Speedlite for novice shooters. It has plenty of power (about 2/3 stop less than the 600EX-RT at max. power). It works as an optical slave (controlled by either the 580EX II or the 600EX-RT in optical mode). If you’re looking for an economical flash to start your journey as a Speedliter, this one gets my recommendation.
Canon Speedlite 320EX
I’m such a fan of the 430EX II that I have a hard time recommending the newer 320EX. It does incorporate an LED light that can be used when shooting video—but on-camera video lights have the same shadow-flattening quality as on-camera flash. So, for virtually the same price, I’d buy the 430EX II.
Canon Speedlite 270EX II
This tiny Speedlite runs on a pair of AA batteries. It’s a nice flash to pair with a PowerShot camera. If you use a coiled ETTL cord, you can create nice off-camera light with an easy-to-carry kit. Works as a wireless slave in Channel A only.
Canon Speedlite 90EX
Canon’s newest Speedlite is also its smallest. The diminutive 90EX is designed for work with Canon’s new mirrorless EOS M camera, but has full capabilities to work with any Canon camera that has a standard hotshoe. The 90EX can be an optical master that will control up to three groups of slave flashes, with full ratio control in half-stops from 8:1 to 1:8. The maximum working range is about 20′. Still, for a flash that weighs less than 2 ounces, this is a welcome addition.
Canon MR-14EX Macro Ring Lite
Although not branded by Canon as a Speedlite, the MR-14EX can be used as an optical master to control other slaved Speedlites. The unique ringflash design surrounds the lens with light–creating a nearly shadowless light that is great for macro work. (I think my dentist photographed my mouth with one of these once.) Very nice for jewelry photography as well.
Canon MT-24EX Macro Twin Lite
As with the MR-14EX, the MT-24EX Macro Twin Lite can be used as an optical master to control other slaved Speedlites. This is particularly helpful when a bit of background light is needed while shooting extreme macro shots in the wild. Each of the lights can be swiveled around the ring or removed entirely. (Really RIght Stuff makes a great adapter that provides complete control. See it here.)
Rogue FlashBender Large
I’m a big fan of the Rogue FlashBender Large and often have three of them in my gear bag. It’s a 10″ x 11″ flexible panel that straps onto your Speedlite. It can be used as a bounce card, as a flag (blocks light from background), or rolled as a snoot. Rogue makes smaller FlashBenders. The Large is my favorite.
Westcott PocketBox Set
Here’s a value-oriented set of three folding softboxes that will soften the light from your hotshoe flash. The kit includes the PockBox Max (8″ x 12″), the PocketBox Round (8.5″), and the PocketBox Mini 6″ x 7″). The kit also includes a zippered cae and an educational DVD. This is a great way to get started with portable, soft light.
Lastolite Ezybox Speed-Lite
I confess that I’m really rough on my gear. The contents of my bag are always changing in response to the needs of a specific shoot. When flying, I cram extra gear into a small carry-on roller that goes with me on the plane. All this means that I continue to find new and improved ways to mangle gear. The Lastolite Ezybox Speed-Lite is one mod that proven its durability again and again. It’s an 8″ square softbox that straps directly onto the head of your Speedlite. The fabric on each side is held tight by a steel band. It folds up and slides into a zippered case for transport. When shooting fast-paced events and in crowded spaces, the Ezybox Speed-lite will create beautiful light just by holding the flash at the end of your arm. Highly recommended.
Dome Diffusers (model specific)
A dome diffuser essentially is a translucent plastic box that you push onto the end of our flash. Nikon includes them with their Speedlights. Canon does not. No biggie. The purpose of the dome diffuser is to intercept light that wants to go forward and turn it sideways so that it can bounce off other nearby surfaces (all this bouncing helps soften the shadows). The little-mentioned secret about dome diffusers is that they consume 2-3 stops of flash. So, if you’re trying to squeeze every photon out of your flash, then pull the dome diffuser off and bounce the light some other way (such as with the Rogue FlashBender Large listed above). Still, I carry a couple of dome diffusers in my Speedlite kit because when used in close to the face, they create dramatic falloff in what is called the “bare-bulb” effect. You’ll need to buy a dome diffuser that is made specifically for your flash.
Strobros Beauty Dish + Grid Set
My favorite Speedlite grid is cobbled together from two kits: the Strobros Mini Beauty Dish and the Strobros Grid/Diffuser kit. The Mini Beauty Dish (certainly an oxymoron as beauty dishes have to be larger than the subject to work) holds the 5″ grids out away from the flashhead. I don’t use the reflector disks that come with the kit as I want the light to fly directly forward to the grid. The grid kit contains three honeycomb grids (roughly 1/4″, 1/8″, and 1/16″). I use the middle and the smaller grid the most. Feel free to toss the thick plastic “filters” that come with the grids. I’ve never found a use for them.
Vello Honeycomb Grids
The Vello Honeycomb Grids sit directly on the face of the flashhead and attach with two strips of velcro. This is a good way to get started with grids, but I find the Strobroas Beauty Dish stays in place better and that it’s faster to change grids. Still, when space is a concern, I switch out to the flat grids as they are more compact and easier to cram into a corner of my kit.
Rogue Grid Kit
The folks at Rogue have come up with an innovative way to use two grids to create three difference spread patterns (45º, 25º, and when used together, 16º). The grids are held slightly off the face of the flashhead by a flexible strap. Rogue also sells a gel kit made specifically for use with their grids (which is a handy combination).
I’ve tried every way to gel Speedlites. It ultimately gets down to how quickly can I get the gel on/off and how sloppy I can be in placing the gel. The reasons for both of these expectations is that when gelling fill flash at sunset, I often have to change the gel to follow the increasing warmth of the sunlight. So, I’ve become a big fan of the Honl Speedstrap—which is a fuzzy strap that you stretch around the head of your flash. Honl gels (or gels that you make yourself) have hooked strips along the edges that tightly hold onto the fuzzy Speedstrap. I also use the Honl Speedstrap when using the Vello Honeycomb Grids listed above.
Honl Color Gels / Filter Kit
The advantage of using Honl gels (which they call “filters”) is that they are large enough to fit over the fat head of Canon’s and Nikon’s largest Speedlights. This is important to me because a wmall gap between the gel and the flash will throw white light into the shot. Use the color correction gels to make your Speedlite look like a different type of light (CTO = tungsten, CTB = shade)). Use the color effects gels to create dramatic effects. Buy the sampler kit and you’ll get one of each gel (color correction and color effects).
Rogue Gel Kit
Rogue has assembled a wide range of color correction and color effects gels into a well-packaged kit that includes a case and dividers. The gels are large enough to easily work the large Speedlights. They attach to the flash via a rubber band (which is actually black in the kit, but I used blue here to make it easier to see).
Rogue Master Lighting Kit
Here’s an easy way to get all of the Rogue flash accessories: three FlashBenders, the diffuser for the FlashBender Large, the grid kit, and two gel kits (for the grid kit and direct attachment).
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