Here is my guide to selecting and using Speedlights. I’ve pulled together this mini feature article to help get the basics covered ahead of the release of my new DVD on mastering Speedlight portraits. All the pictures in this article were taken during the making of my forthcoming DVD on how to master the Speedlight.
I have spent the past 18 months shooting location portraits almost exclusively with multiple Speedlights from both Nikon and Canon. I tested these units to near destruction and I can report that both the Canon and Nikon systems performed equally well. When all the features of the latest Speedlights are fully utilised, the kind of pictures you can create with these little flash units are truly outstanding.
Don’t be put of by the dreadful pictures in the instruction booklets that come with the Speedlights. I can’t believe how a camera manufacturer can make these books so dull. It is like shooting the pictures for a guide to Ferraris in a traffic jam on the A34 in the rain. Someone sat at a desk next to a potted plant is not inspirational subject matter. No wonder people can’t stand reading instructions.
Here’s a quick run down on the Camera manufacturers flash systems and a brief look at the alternatives.
Infra red triggering. Operating remote TTL metered flash using line of sight infra red triggering has always required careful flash positioning in order for the system to work reliably, and sunlight on either the sender or receiver infra red lenses causes problems too. Even with these restrictions I have found it possible to take dramatic shots in daylight if I plan the shot around the flash triggering limitations.
Nikon pop up flash triggering system. You can use the built in flash on the cameras that have them to trigger the remote flash units. This is a great feature and enables occasional use triggering without the need to buy the pricey SU-800 or use a second Speedlight as a master commander. The pop up flash system has three distinct disadvantages: 1. Even with the built in flash set to non firing mode it gives out a pre-flash that causes people to blink. I find the percentage of blink shots caused by the pre-flash makes it unusable for wedding work. 2. In order to make quick changes to the remote flash settings you have to access a sub,sub,sub,menu on the back of the camera. Yes, this menu screen can be assigned to a user button or favourites menu but it is still a bit fiddly. 3. When the pop up flash is activated the PC sync socket on the camera is disabled. So you can’t mix flash triggering systems.
The Nikon SU-800 commander. This commander unit is a dual system device and comes factory set in ‘macro’ photography mode. Many of my delegates are unaware that there is a tiny micro switch inside the battery compartment that switches the unit into remote flash commander mode. Without this switch position change allows you to alter the remote flash power with just one click and the status of the flash set up is on the display all the time. The SU-800.
The Canon flash control system. The Canon system has two controllable groups; A and B with group C assigned to a back-light role. You simply select the ratio function on the ST-E2 or a 580 EX11 in Master mode and you have control of the balance between group A and B with an impressive 6 stop range. An 8:1 A:B setting doesn’t boost Channel A as might be thought, it cuts channel B by three stops and visa versa.
The Canon ST-E2 commander. This little box of tricks costs about £100 less than the Nikon unit but does not have the same functionality. The lighting balance between groups is controlled by ratios rather than specific group settings. The ST-E2 has a mechanical design weakness that lets the lower red lens ‘pop off’ when removing the unit from the camera. The simple remedy is to remove it from new and super glue it in place. This will ensure you don’t have to replace a lost one. The other weakness is the indicator LEDs on the rear panel are hard to see when shooting outside in daylight. Both the Nikon and Canon commanders take odd sized lithium cells and would be better designed to take AA or AAA lithium batteries.
Here is the Damien Lovegrove exposure system for infra red triggering: I set my camera to ISO 200, and select 1/200th of a second as my shutter speed. Then I adjust the lens aperture to taste depending upon the look I’m trying to achieve. The smaller the aperture the more dramatic the picture and the harder the flash has to work to correctly expose the shot.
High speed sync. One of the many features of both Nikon and Canon systems is that you can take pictures at settings higher than the standard sync speed but there is a drawback. As the shutter speed increases the power of the flash recorded on the CCD diminishes. So It is possible to use fill flash for instance in sunlight at high shutter speeds and wide open apertures but It’s not generally possible to cut the ambient exposure by a couple of stops at the same time. The only way to compete with the sun with a Speedlight at a sensible working distance and be creative with the exposure is to work at the flash sync speed. Until now that is. Pocket Wizard, a US company known for it’s radio flash triggers has reinvented the flash timing system in it’s Mini TT1 and Flex TT5 units and can eak out between 1 and 2 stops more flash power at high shutter speeds. This means Canon users can now shoot at f/4 and be creative with our exposure. How cool is that. This new Pocket Wizard radio triggering system was recently introduced into the UK market in Canon guise and the Nikon version of the Pocket Wizard system is just around the corner, probably available in the first quarter of 2010 (my guesstimate). Please click for more information and my experiment findings on the Pocket Wizard TTL system ratio tests ~ findings and Pocket Wizard TTL exposure comp tests ~ findings
Here is the Damien Lovegrove exposure system for TTL radio triggering using Pocket Wizards:
I shoot at my beloved f/4. I set my ISO to 200 and I adjust the shutter speed to taste. I suppose I could use ISO 100 but to be honest I can’t see the difference and when I get my Nikon Pocket Wizards I can use the same ISO 200 as my base. That way I can keep things simple.
Nikon SB-800 Speedlight. This flashgun has been the main work horse of the Nikon system for quite some time having been recently replaced by the SB-900. However it remains a favourite amongst many pro shooters because of it’s rugged reliability and it’s compactness. The SB-800 offers a fifth battery option within a battery block attached to the side of the unit. Few people use this as it makes the unit uncomfortable to hold and often blocks infra red signals when the flash is rigged off camera. The SB-800 has a complicated menu system and strange notation for the buttons. For instance in order to zoom the flash lens in to a tighter setting you have to press the button with a picture of a tree on it. Do tree photographers use flash? Apart from a few oddities the SB-800 remains a fully featured pro lighting tool.
Nikon SB-900 Speedlight. How could Nikon have bettered the wonderful SB-800, well in the new 900 they have addressed some of the 800s failings and built in some more at the same time. The zoom button is now labelled ‘zoom’ and the complicated multi stage procedure to switch the flash between remote and local use has been replaced with a simple switch. Many shooters have reported overheating of the SB-900. I have disabled the function that stops the flash from working under thermal overload by changing the custom function settings in order to not get caught out in a critical situation. I risk melt down but it hasn’t happened yet. The new SB-900 is about 30% bigger than it’s predecessor and comes with a clumsily fitting diffusing dome. When designing the SB-900, Nikon took the opportunity to fit a 360 degree rotating head rather than the 270 degree head of the SB-800. Don’t be fooled by the new 200mm setting on the zoom though, it really isn’t that much tighter a beam of light than the SB-800 set to 105mm.
Canon 430 EX11 and the Canon 580 EX11 Speedlites. The 430 EX11 is a neat little unit that fits nicely in the palm of your hand. It recycles quickly and quietly and shares a similar switch and function layout as it’s big brother the 580 EX11. The 580 EX11 is about 30% bigger than the 430 EX11 and it has a more fully featured menu system. Switching between regular working and remote working is fiddly on the 580 EX11 and takes a button hold and several button pushes. Unlike Nikon, Canon have taken a step back in the evolution of the 580 EX11 from the mark 1 version by dispensing with the simple ‘local, remote, master’ switch.
When comparing these two offerings from Canon I noticed the zoom function beam pattern on the 430 EX11 at 105mm looked a tad weak when compared to the 580 EX11 when it was set to the same 105mm. In reality the 430 EX11 is no more than half a stop behind the 580 on light output, it’s just the when the lens is zoomed in the light pattern is less tight and not as bright as a result. Although the 430 EX11 is about £160 cheaper than it’s big brother it does miss out on a few key features that sets the 580 EX11 on the top shelf of the shop. The 580 EX11 has a master mode and a PC sync socket for instance. It also covers more focus aid points from it’s inbuilt AF illuminator. Most of all though the 580 EX11 is a bit brighter when it needs to be and this really matters to me.
Incidentally I love the way the new Canon 5D mk2 can set the custom functions of either the 430EX11 or 580EX11 Speedlites and the remote triggering functions of an attached 580 EX11 Speedlight.
Nissin Di866 Professional Speedlite available for Canon or Nikon. As an equipment tester for a Warehouse Express I regularly get the chance to try out kit that is not on my wish list. The Nissin Di866 is one such bit of kit. Putting the uncool naming aside I decided to give it a thorough work out in Nikon guise. Once I’d figured out how to get the batteries into the fiddly carriage and switched the unit on I was pleasantly surprised by the simple yet effective system for telling me what is going on. Switching the flash between remote and local modes is so easy. The flash gun uses a colour LED display rather than a standard LCD display and this means the graphics relate to the mode you are in. And if that was not enough, as you rotate the flash gun the screen and switch functions change accordingly. This really is a wow factor and I can’t under estimate how much better the Nissin controls are to those on the Nikon SB-900 or Canon 580 EX11. The screen displays colour icons like apps on an iPhone. The unit seems to work well with all the infra red functions doing exactly what they should in my tests. The plastics look inferior to those found on Nikon and Canon Speedlights and the head only rotates 270 degrees. If you are looking for another Speedlight for a Nikon or Canon system then do consider the Nissin as an option.
Metz 58 AF-1 Another fully featured flashgun that I’ve yet to try that has versions for many of the camera systems including Sony, Samsung, Olympus, Pentax, Panasonic, Nikon and Canon is the Metz 58 AF-1. I’ve had Metz flashguns in the past with my Hasselblad H2 camera and I was impressed with them then so I would definitely be keen to try the new 58 AF-1 model.
Although the majority of pictures in this feature article were shot using Canon equipment my new DVD features both Nikon and Canon cameras and Speedlights.
Please feel free to comment on this article or the pictures below.