January 3, 2011 — Comments are now closed for this post. Thanks to the 100s of shooters who shared their opinions. The dialogue about Canon Speedlites and small flash continues in the many articles you’ll find in the ‘Speedlighting & Small Flash’ category. If you’re interested in learning my Speedlite techniques, check out my Speedliter’s Handbook — nearly 400 pages of how-to and why-to on Canon flash.
Original post starts here > As a lifelong Canon shooter, I’ve been witness again and again to the power of Nikon’s CLS Speedlight system. In fact, most of the inspiration I found to explore the potential of Canon’s Speedlites came to me while assisting on a variety of shoots for Nikon’s leading CLS demo-man, Joe McNally. [If you’re thinking “Joe Who?”, let me be the first to welcome you to the planet and suggest that you check out his books on small-flash here and his blog here.]
What types of small-flash inspiration? Let’s see. There was the elephant-with-the-slinky-model in the dry lake bed followed by the silk acrobat hanging from the crane at sunset. There was the ballerina hoisted above the field of sunflowers and the bride in the desert gale. There was the girl holding the pool cue in the smokey bar. There was the leathery guy with the full-sleeve tats. And, of course, the Shining-esque model in the bay windows. Most recently, I spent the better part of two weeks in McNallyland a guest instructor at Joe’s One-Day Lighting Workshops in NY (read my review here and check out Joe’s workshop pix here, here and here.) It’s impossible to be witness to the making of so many great photographs and not be inspired.
Now, don’t get me wrong. For the most-part, I’m a happy Canonista. My first Canon, an A-1 purchased nearly 30 years ago, sits in a place of prominence atop the bookcase next to my bed – meaning it’s one of the first and last things I see every day. I think that the 5D Mark II is an amazing value in the DSLR market and praise the brilliance of adding 1080P video to it. There are a lot of lenses for the Canon system that Nikon has yet to make or only recently introduced. So, as I said, I’m a relatively happy Canonista.
But, there is no doubt, after working on location and in the studio with Joe over several years, that Nikon’s CLS Speedlight system is much more intuitive to use. Why does this matter to me? Well, as a creative, I rely upon my intuition a lot. The more intuitive a process is, the more creative I become. The more creative I am, the more interesting my pictures become.
So here’s my wishlist of features that I hope Canon will incorporate into a new generation of Speedlites.
Syl Arena’s Wishlist For Canon Speedlites
1. Put the wireless switch back on the outside. 90% of my Speedlite photography is multi-unit wireless. I still use a 580EX (which was discontinued in 2007) as my master because it takes too long to switch in and out of wireless mode on Canon’s flagship model – the 580EXII. Virtually all of my event photography uses a Speedlite carried aloft on a stand or boom. This remote unit is controlled by the master parked on top of my camera. Of course, because I want to create interesting light, I program the master so that it talks to the remote but doesn’t actually flash during the exposure. When something interesting happens right in front of me that the remote can’t cover, I want to flick a switch and get the shot with the camera-mounted Speedlite before the opportunity disappears. With the 580EXII, to go from master to solo mode, I have to hold down a button, turn a dial and then press another button – meaning that I miss the spontaneous shot in front of me every time.
2. Design the external wireless switch with four options. Canon, when you re-engineer the wireless switch and put it back on the outside, give me four options – solo, master with flash, master without flash and slave. I’m fine with having to hunt for functions through menus as long as I don’t want to change them very often – like the disabling the sleep/power saving options in Custom Functions. But, I want options that I change frequently to be right at my fingertips. So, I want to choose whether the master contributes to the exposure or not via an external switch rather than an a menu item. Also, “Off” means off — as in the unit is powered down completely. Use “solo” or some other descriptive term to describe a unit that’s working by itself.
3. Come to understand that not everyone lights from the front. Canon’s E-TTL II assumes that Speedlite remote groups A and B are lighting the subject from the front. It’s built upon the classic (think “outdated”) notion that a portrait must be lit with a key and fill at 45º in front of the subject. What if I want to use window light as the key, the A-flash as fill at 90º and the B-flash on the background? I’m not following Canon’s rules when I shoot like this. Don’t worry, the system can actually handle my errant behavior. For the future of creative photography, it would be helpful if Canon would abandon the “must light from the front” attitude.
4. Adopt a better icon for wireless mode. Virtually every Canon shooter to whom I’ve taught wireless flash has had the same reaction I did when I figured out that Canon’s icon for the wireless menu is a lightening bolt / sync arrow tipped on its side (yes, the one to the right of “Zoom”). The reaction to this little insight is always amusement mixed equally with confusion. So, please Canon, find a better icon for wireless. How about an old-fashioned radio tower with those circle lines around the top?
5. Ditch the “Master / Slave” language. Maybe “Master” and “Slave” don’t have the same connotation in Canon’s native tongue as they do in English. But here in the U.S., it’s time to ditch “Master/Slave” for more acceptable terms. Blame it on the era of PC if you must. Nikon already uses “Commander/Remote” – which I think is great. If not that, how about calling it “Tx-mode” and “Rx-mode”?
6. Call groups what they are – “groups”. Canon uses the term “Slave ID” for groups. Yet the LCD on a 580 says just “Slave”. It also says “Slave” to mean a unit set in remote mode. Since we’re going to ditch the word “Slave” for “Remote” or “Rx-mode” anyway, let’s get a label on the screen that matches what we actually say anyway – “Group”.
7. Get rid of the ratios. You have to be really old-school to be comfortable with ratios (which I am, actually). Ratios are an archaic way of controlling light levels among different groups of Speedlites. Who wants to remember that 8:1 really means that there’s 3-stops more light on the A-side than the B-side? Dump this approach and jump into the 21st-century. There’s a huge market of Canon shooters who want to be able to control multiple Speedlites without having to do the math of how the light level from one relates to another. Nikon shooters have the ability to control the EV level of each group independently. I want this same ease-of-use. Dumping the ratios in favor of an EV approach will also enable Canon shooters to turn individual groups on and off – which is a huge feature when checking the quality and quantity of light coming from a specific group.
8. Create a true 3- or (better yet) 4-group control system. Those of us who have taken the time to get our heads around ratios (which only work for two groups), still struggle with the logic of using flash-exposure-compensation to control a C-group. There is so much to remember these days, having to remember that C-group works differently just adds to my burden. Canon, if you offer a 4-group system, then you’ll sell more Speedlites because shooters like me will come up with crazy shots that absolutely need Speedlites in four different groups. Heaven forbid that the Canon engineers think of a Speedlite system that could handle five groups…
9. Offer a digital control unit. Our ST-E2 wireless controller is an anachronism when compared to the functionality of Nikon’s SU-800 commander unit. If all you want to do is control a key light and a fill light, then the ratio slider on the ST-E2 gets the job done. But, I want to have digital (not slider) control the output of all my groups and to handle each group independently and to be able to switch a single group or multiple groups from E-TTL to Manual and to turn specific groups on/off and to do all these things without having to dig down deep into a menu hierarchy on the back of my camera.
10. Add a built-in optical trigger. It won’t take up much room. It won’t require a lot of circuity. Heck, it would probably fit right in where the relatively-useless thyristor photo-eye sits right now. An optical trigger solves a load of problems when mixing Speedlites with studio strobes. Studio shooters often want to a just a splash of light on set or to conceal a light within the frame. (Canon, consider this to be a perfect opportunity to sell more Speedlites to guys who are used to using lots of lights.) An optical trigger would also make a Speedlite more friendly in the midst of lights from other companies. Again, ease-of-use will drive users to the Canon system. Making the whole system proprietary means that few outsiders will want to change jerseys.
11. License the RadioPopper technology. The gateway to selling more Speedlites is not to find more people to buy their first unit. Rather it’s to add functionality that makes it really easy for existing owners to want to add more lights to their shoots. Wireless E-TTL is good. Radio-controlled E-TTL is great. Free me of the need for line-of-sight communication and I’ll likely put 3 Speedlites in a softbox or stuff them in small spaces on a set where a studio heads won’t fit. Wedding and event shooters totally understand the limitations of line-of-sight. I want to be able to stop worrying abut the position of the remotes relative to my master unit. Over half the size of a RadioPopper is dedicated to the battery and getting the TTL code out of or into a Speedlite. There’s got to be a bit of space inside a Speedlite for the actual circuits that make a RadioPopper work. I’m convinced that the first company to add radio-transmitted TTL to their flash units will leave their competitor in the dust for a long while.
12. Add a couple more stops of Flash Exposure Compensation. There are many instances where I want just a breath of light from my Speedlite and bump up against the minus-3-stop FEC limit on the 580EXs. If a Speedlite has a 7-stop power range, how about giving me 7-stops of FEC so that I don’t have to jump over to manual in challenging situations? Jumping over to manual means that I have to keep more factoids in my head while I’m trying to concentrate of the light and subject in front of me.
13. Stretch out the Zoom. I’m hard-pressed to think of a situation where I was shooting long lens and wanted to zoom a single Speedlite to illuminate a distant subject. Yet, I routinely use the Zoom button to restrict the cone of light so that I can place a tighter pool of light right where I want it. Detach yourself from thinking that the Speedlite zoom was made to match the focal length of the shot and you’ll see the greater logic of using the zoom as a built-in light modifier. For me, “Snoot” would be more descriptive than “Zoom”. So, you could say that I want a longer snoot on the next generation of Speedlites.
14. Include a dome diffuser. I’m sure the guys at Stofen are really happy with the status quo. I’m not. In my world, a dome diffuser is a must-have for every Speedlite. Just as I use the Zoom button as a snoot, I use a dome diffuser to enhance the effectiveness of Speedlites when shooting through umbrellas or panel diffusers. So, every time I buy a Speedlite, I also buy another StoFen. It would cost just a few nickles if a dome diffuser were packaged with every Speedlite. If Canon did this, the quality of light for the average shooter would go way up (and they’d like their photos more and tell their friends about their great camera and…).
15. Include a gel holder. The use of gels for color-correction and color effects has become commonplace. I’m not asking for a computer-chip solution – largely because I’ll continue to cut my own gels from larger stock to save money. What I’d really like though, is a way to hold a gel in place without the use of gaffer’s tape or a LiveStrong braclet. As with the dome diffuser, if every Speedlite came with one, then they’d cost just a few pennies each.
16. Ditch the penguin. There has to be a better way to diagram the use of wireless flash in the manual. Seriously.
17. Give me a breath of hope that Canon actually cares about their Speedlite system. As I said at the top, I’ve been a Canon-shooter for nearly 30 years. I’ve also been pulled into the orbit of Joe McNally’s amazing lighting style – a style that pushes his Speedlights into situations never dreamed of by the guys who write the manuals. One only need to read Strobist for a while to understand that there’s a revolution underway in the world of small-flash. Canon dominated the DSLR market for so many years, I truly worry that they just don’t care about their Speedlites.
Speedlite Features That I Don’t Want To Lose
1. Keep the High-Speed Sync Button on the outside. I use high-speed sync frequently (which I wrote about here, here and here). Being able to jump in and out of HSS at the push of a button is very helpful.
2. Continue to have incremental control between full and half-power. Canon gives us 1/3-stop control all the way from full-power to 1/128. Nikon lacks this ability to fine tune until you’re under half-power.
3. Keep the wireless sensor on the front. It’s easy for me to figure out where the sensor is if it’s on the front. If it’s on the side (like a Nikon), then I have to remember which side.
4. Keep the new battery door. Heaven help us if the guy who designed the door on the 580EX gets his job back. I’m perfectly happy with the design of the door on the 580EXII.
5. Keep the lever-lock as it is on the 580EXII. Give me a round disk (as on the 580EX) and I’ll over-tighten it again and again. The lever-lock on the 580EXII was made for simpletons like me. It gets the job done and stops me from over-doing it.
Why I’m Sticking With Canon – For Now
Honest. I didn’t plan on this article growing to manifesto proportions. But it did. So, it’s fair to ask why I don’t just jump over to Nikon and get what I want right now. After all, most of the items listed above are already standard issue with Nikon Speedlights.
1. Nikon is no more perfect than Canon. It just happens that, when it comes to flash, Nikon has been the innovator. On the other hand, it’s only since the introduction of the D3 less than two years ago, that Nikon has had truly competitive DLSR technology. I’m quite happy that Nikon’s back in the pro-camera game again. Regardless of our brand-preference, all photographers benefit from vigorous competition among the manufacturers.
2. It’s not all about the flash. Bodies and flashes may come. Bodies and flashes may go. Good glass can hang around for a long time. I’ve a good selection of Canon lenses. I’m very happy with the quality. Every photograph I make requires a lens. Not every photograph I make requires a Speedlite. To jump over to Nikon for their Speedlight technology would mean a complete liquidation of my Canon lens inventory – at a hefty price to reacquire comparable Nikon glass.
3. Canon is likely to remain the leader in DSLR-based video. There’s no doubt that the convergence of still and motion is upon us. I’m convinced that still shooters will have to morph into the world of motion or watch their skills become technologically obsolete. Given that Canon has been in the business of making broadcast television equipment for some time, I’m willing to bet that it will remain on the leading edge of dual-purpose (still-motion) cameras.
Tell Canon What You Think – Add A Comment, Then Tweet!
I can’t guarantee that Canon will even read what I’ve written. Eyes at Canon are watching the comments. Nevertheless, So, if you are a Canon shooter, I encourage you to lend your thoughts, wishes and gripes about the Speedlite system via the comment section below. Hopefully, if enough of us share our experiences, Canon will hear about this and take a look incorporate our ideas into a new generation of Speedlites (someday). [ NOTE: Keep your comments constructive. All blatant Canon and Nikon bashing will be discarded by the grumpy moderator.]