So, I’ve arrived two weeks early for my upcoming ‘Canon Speedlites Demystified‘ workshop in Maine. (There are still a couple of seats open here, in case you’re interested.) With the introduction of Canon’s 600EX-RT system last spring, I’m really looking forward to sharing what I’ve learned about maximizing the benefits of the built-in radio communication between master and slave. The shot above of my friend Alex Huff on her balcony above San Francisco is an example of a situation where the new Canon radio gear made my shoot much simpler. Let’s take a look.

Shooting On A Wafer-Thin Balcony

Our set was a wafer-thin balcony on a hilltop above San Francisco.

 Alex’s balcony is 4′ deep and 8′ wide…maybe. So there was barely any room out there for Alex, me, and my lighting gear. Nevertheless, she gamely climbed into the corner of the railing as I pushed the Kacey Beauty Reflector in close on the boom of an Avenger C-Stand. I’ve been a fan of the Kacey Beauty Reflector for many years. It’s essentially a 22″ Mola beauty dish that is made of rugged plastic rather than metal. As you can see above and below, it’s designed to mount a pair of Speedlites stacked head-to-head. An internal disk intercepts the light from the flashes and sends it backwards and sideways. The effect is that the light becomes very soft while still maintaining some directional quality to the shadows. For a shoot like this, the flexibility and strength of a boomed C-stand is the only way to go. Note that I used two sandbags to keep it in place.

The 22" Kacey Beauty Reflector is designed to work with a pair of Speedlites.

Now this is a situation where optically-triggered slaves would have been a pain. The only place on the balcony I could stand was to the left of the beauty reflector–with my back crammed up against the wall of the building. The geometry just wasn’t there to do this shoot with old-school optical links between master and slaves. If you shoot Canon, the optical eyes on your Speedlites are on the front–right up against the bracket of the beauty dish. If you shoot Nikon, the optical eyes are on the right side of your Speedlights–so they face in opposite directions when mounted to the Kacey.

Canon’s new radio link between master and slaves is made for situations like this. I did not have to worry about maintaining a line-of-sight connection between my camera and the Speedlites on the back of the Kacey. As conveniently, I could control the whole system from the easy-to-read menu on my camera’s LCD panel. So, despite the tight quarters, I was able to concentrate on my subject and the shoot.

Managing The Exposure

My simple formula for location lighting begins with an evaluation of how my camera records the ambient light. Take a look at the shot below. This is how my camera captured the late-afternoon light. It’s also a fair representation of how I saw the world in front of my lens. The sun had just dipped below the horizon, but it was not yet blue hour.

The ambient light as my camera wanted to record it: 1/13", f/8, ISO 400

For consistency from frame-to-frame, I did this shoot with my camera in Manual mode. Then, as I changed the composition from wide to narrow, horizontal to vertical, etc. I didn’t have to worry about the exposure changing. As long as the distance between my subject and flash is not changing and as long as the ambient light does not change significantly, I can shoot with the same camera settings.

Dimming the ambient served two purposes. First, it saturated the colors of the sky. Second, it enabled me to light Alex so that she snaps off the background. With the ambient dimmed, you get a sense of her environment, but are encouraged visually to concentrate on her. To dim the ambient, I dialed the shutter speed down about 3 stops from the metered shot above.

The ambient light as I wanted it to appear: 1/80", f/8, ISO 400.

I turn my lights on only after I have sorted out the exposure for the ambient light. To keep the lighting consistent from frame to frame, I set the Speedlite Mode to Manual (via the LCD on my camera). Then I dial the power on the flashes up and down (again via the LCD on my camera) until I have the light that I want.

The result of my dimmed ambient and the flash is that you concentrate on Alex.

NYC. Sept 19. B&H Event Space.

I will be speaking about my work with Canon’s new Speedlite system in the B&H Event Space at 1pm on Wednesday, September 19. Registration for my talk–New Frontiers for Lighting with Canon Speedlites–will open soon. I’ll post the link here as soon as it goes live. Thanks to the generous support of Canon, this event is free.

Additional Resources

> More details about this shoot will appear in my upcoming book Light and Lighting.

> I wrote a detailed piece on the new Speedlite system for Canon Europe. You can read it here.

> Watch my hands-on video about the new 600EX-RT here on Vimeo.



Tagged with:

10 Responses to Flashing Above San Francisco

  1. […] Using the 600EX-RT, Syl balanced the ambient light with flash, resulting in a very cool image. The complete writeup, with breakdown and before/after shots, is on Syl’s blog. […]

  2. Wick Smith says:


    With the ST-E3 and two 600 speedlites, is there any way to disable the flash on one of them from the controller or the camera, short of turning it off at the flash? If it’s inside a softbox or high up, that’s pretty inconvenient. Sometimes you get an unwanted reflection from one of the lights and you’d like to turn it off for a shot or two.

    • Syl Arena says:

      @Wick – Yes, the new system offers Group Mode, which allows you to turn individual groups on and off as well as the change their mode individually. You need to have a camera that knows about radio attached to the ST-E3: the T4i, 5DM3, or 1DX. Previous cameras do not have an understanding of the radio functions programmed into their firmware.

      • Wick Smith says:

        Thanks, Syl. I have the requisite equipment; I just don’t see how to do it. I have the 5DM3, ST-E3 and two 600EX-RT. Don’t see a way to turn one group off.


        • Syl Arena says:

          @Wick – Be sure that you select Gr in Mode (same place that you select ETTL, Manual, etc.). They you will have access to the individual groups.

  3. Jim Conroy says:


    Great shot, of course, but it appears that the background in the final shot is a bit brighter than the prior shot (to establish the ambient light settings). Is this the case, and what were those final settings? Also, how do you factor the changes for the fast fading light from test shot to final shot?


  4. Theo B. says:

    Hi Syl, love your stuff! Can you tell me exactly which bracket / mount you are using on the back of the KBR to put two flashheads into it? I want to buy the KBR but am hesitating because of the cost of their own bracket. Which one did you use and did you need to modify the KBR to accept that bracket?

  5. […] hanging around PixSylated for a while, you already know Alex. I shared some pix I made of her in this post last August.) Alex graciously agreed to share her secrets about how she creates her chiascuro […]

  6. […] accordingly. You can read about one shoot that I did with a stacked pair of 600EX-RT Speedlites here on PixSylated.  There’s only one source: Kacey […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *