Canon Speedlite Buyer’s Guide

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Canon Speedlite range

Unlike cameras and lenses, new Speedlite models don’t come along often. In March 2012 Canon introduced the Speedlite 600 EX-RT – a brand new Speedlite with a built-in radio transmitter for the ultimate in flexibility and control. Naturally, now that there are two different methods of wireless control within Canon’s Speedlite range, this creates a certain amount of confusion. In this article I will take a close look at the current range of Canon Speedlites and explain how to choose the model that is best for you.

These are two systems:

Optical wireless flash

Used in all wireless Speedlites except the 600EX-RT and the ST-E3-RT Speedlite Transmitter. Requires line of sight between master and slave units to work.

Radio wireless flash

Used in the new Speedlite 600EX-RT and ST-E3-RT Speedlite transmitter units. Uses radio signals to communicate between master and slave units. No line of sight required and the range is greater than optical wireless flash. Takes the place of third party radio transmitter units such as those made by RadioPopper and Pocketwizard. Backwards compatible with optical wireless flash units.

Buying guide

While I can’t predict the future it seems likely to me that Canon will release more Speedlite flash units that use radio wireless flash. That means Canon EOS owners are facing a period of transition as optical wireless flash is gradually phased out.

If you’re thinking about buying a new Speedlite then Radio wireless flash is a much better system, and may ultimately save you money as there is no need to invest in a separate radio trigger outfit. Budget permitting, it makes sense to buy a Speedlite 600EX-RT as it is compatible with both systems and is the most future-proof in the current range.

But there are valid reasons for buying Optical wireless flash Speedlites. Not least being that it is potentially less expensive, especially if you have no intention of using the wireless function or are quite happy to work within the limitations of the Optical wireless flash system.

If you already own an older Speedlite, you may be wondering if you should upgrade to the 600EX-RT. A lot depends on how you control your Speedlite units. Some of you may already own a radio trigger. That reduces the need to buy into the new system, for the time being at least. My advice is to wait and only upgrade when you need to. The time to make a purchase is when you’re bumping up against the limitations of your current gear, and buying the latest Speedlite will resolve that. Another benefit of waiting is that prices tend to gradually come down with time. Canon may also release another Speedlite which is more advanced or more suitable for your particular needs.

Speedlite nomenclature

Here’s how Canon’s naming system works:

Example: Speedlite 600EX-RT

600: This number indicates the power of the Speedlite (divide by 10 to calculate the guide number). The main benefit of greater power are that you have more light to work with, enabling lower ISO and smaller aperture settings if required. Also comes in useful when attaching diffusers (which spread the light, effectively reducing the power of the Speedlite by as much as two stops).

EX: The Speedlite belongs to Canon’s newest range of Speedlite units and that it is fully compatible with all digital EOS cameras.

RT: The Speedlite uses Radio wireless flash. All other Speedlite flash units use Optical wireless flash and don’t have these initials in their name.

Other initials you will come across:

ST: Speedlite Transmitter
MT: Macro Twin lite
MR: Macro Ring lite

The Canon Speedlite range

Now let’s look at the Speedlite and Speedlite transmitter units themselves. Prices are based on current retail value at Wex Photographic (UK) and B&H Photo Video (United States):

Speedlite 600EX-RT (£469 / $549+tax)

Speedlite 600EX-RT

The 600EX-RT is the newest and most advanced Speedlite unit. The main difference between this unit and the others in the range is the built-in radio transmitter. It is the only current Speedlite unit which uses Radio wireless flash technology to communicate with your camera, the ST-E3-RT transmitter or other 600EX-RT Speedlite units.

It also supports Optical wireless flash for communicating with older Speedlite units and an interface that is easier to use than its predecessors. It can be used as a master unit or a slave unit. With a guide number of 60 it is the most powerful Speedlite unit yet made. While at the moment it is the only RT Speedlite in Canon’s line-up it is reasonable to assume that Canon will introduce more models in the future.

Who is this Speedlite for?
The 600EX-RT (guide number 60) is for the photographer that wants to use the most advanced Speedlite unit available and take advantage of the built-in radio transmitter to control the Speedlite unit from the camera to control other RT Speedlites. However, if you already own a third-party radio transmitter system such as PocketWizard then the built-in radio transmitter may not be of interest. You could save some money by buying a second-hand 580EX or 550EX instead.

Camera compatibility
You can only use every single feature of the 600EX-RT with EOS cameras made in 2012 or later (currently the EOS 100D, 650D, 700D, 70D, 6D, 5D Mark III, 1D-X and EOS M). You can use the 600EX-RT as a master unit in either radio or optical wireless mode with any digital EOS camera.

The Speedlite 600EX is a version of the 600EX-RT without the radio transmitter. It is sold in countries whose regulations prevent the use of radio transmitters that use the frequencies occupied by Canon’s Radio wirelesss flash system.

Speedlite 580EX II (second-hand only)

Speedlite 580EX II

The 580EX II (guide number 58) was discontinued by Canon with the introduction of the Speedlite 600EX-RT. I’ve included it in this list because many readers may own one. You will no doubt be able to buy these units on the second-hand market for some time to come, and that may be an opportunity to save money if you don’t require the radio wireless flash.

The 580EX II can be used as both a master unit and a slave unit in the Canon optical wireless system. It is a powerful flash unit that was the top of the range until it was discontinued. It is not compatible with the radio transmitter technology of the 600EX-RT.

Other Speedlite units you may be able to buy second hand include the 580EX, 550EX and 430EX. Providing they are in a good working order it may be an opportunity to put together a Speedlite system at a discounted price.

You may come across other second hand Speedlites without the EX suffix such as the 540EZ or 480EG models. Avoid these units as they are not compatible with digital EOS cameras (although they are compatible with some EOS film cameras) except in manual and stroboscopic modes. Only Speedlite with the letters EX in their name are fully compatible with digital EOS cameras.

Speedlite 430EX II (£209 / $299+tax)

Speedlite 430EX II

The little brother of the 580EX II Speedlite. The 430EX II (guide number 43) can only operate as a slave, and not a master unit, in Canon’s optical wireless system. It is not compatible with the radio transmitter of the 600EX-RT or the ST-E3-RT Speedlite transmitter. The advantages of this Speedlite is that it is smaller, lighter and less expensive than the 600EX-RT.

Who is this Speedlite for?
The 430EX II is ideal for photographers who already own a 580EX II Speedlite (or similar optical wireless Speedlite that is a master unit such as the 580EX or 550EX) and need a supplementary flash unit or two for multiple Speedlite set-ups. You could also think about buying two 430EX II Speedlite units instead of a single 600EX-RT (the viability of this depends on how you plan to operate the flash units).

If you have any plans to use the new radio transmitter wireless system then this is not the Speedlite unit for you. It is reasonable to expect that Canon will replace this unit with a similar one that is compatible with the radio transmitter of the ST-E3-RT or 600EX-RT Speedlite used as a master, although impossible to know when this might happen.

Speedlite 320EX (£188 / $199+tax)

Speedlite 320EX

The 320EX (guide number 32) is designed for photographers who need a relatively small Speedlite unit to use for fill-in flash or as a supplementary light in a multiple Speedlite optical wireless setup, where it operates as a slave, but not a master unit. It is not compatible with the radio transmitter of the 600EX-RT or the ST-E3-RT Speedlite transmitter. It isn’t powerful enough to use as an off-camera flash unit with a diffuser attached.

An interesting feature of this Speedlite is that it has a continuous light that lasts for up to four hours with fully charged batteries. It is designed for use as a video light when used with an EOS camera in movie mode.

Speedlite 270EX II (£137 / $149+tax)

Speedlite 270EX II

The 270EX II (guide number 27) is a pocket sized Speedlite that you can use as a more powerful alternative to your camera’s built-in flash, or as a small unit to provide fill on cameras that don’t have a built-in flash such as the EOS 5D range. You can use it in an optical wireless setup, where it operates as a slave, but not a master unit. It is not compatible with the radio transmitter of the 600EX-RT or the ST-E3-RT Speedlite transmitter. It isn’t powerful enough to use as an off-camera flash unit with a diffuser of some sort attached.

Speedlite 90EX (£120 / $99+tax)

Speedlite 90EX

The 90 EX is (guide number 9) similar to the 270EX II except that it is less powerful and cannot act as a slave unit in an optical wireless setup. It is not compatible with the radio transmitter of the 600EX-RT or the ST-E3-RT Speedlite transmitter. While it will work with any EOS camera it is designed specifically to accompany the EOS M and comes with that camera if you buy one in a kit. At current prices the Speedlite 270EX II gives much better value for money.

Speedlite MR-14 EX (£469 / $549+tax)

Speedlite MR-14 EX

The MR-14 EX is a ringlight flash unit designed for close-up and macro photography. It has two tubes that are separately controlled so you can vary the ratio between the power of each. It is not powerful enough to act as a ringlight for portraits. It comes with a controller that acts as a master unit that lets you add one or more optical wireless Speedlite units that you can use to illuminate the background or provide backlight.

Speedlite MT-24 EX (£750 / $769+tax)

Speedlite MT-24 EX

The MT-24 EX is designed for use in close-up and macro photography. It is similar to the MR-14 EX in concept but is more powerful and uses two small flash heads instead of a ringlight arrangement. It comes with a controller that acts as a master unit that lets you add one or more optical wireless Speedlite units that you can use to illuminate the background or provide backlight.

ST-E3-RT Speedlite Transmitter (£299 / $287+tax)

ST-E3-RT Speedlite Transmitter

The ST-E3-RT Speedlite Transmitter is a master unit for the Canon radio wireless flash system. It allows you to control three groups of Speedlite units from the camera. It works with any digital EOS camera but it can only control the 600EX-RT Speedlite and is not compatible with older Speedlites.

ST-E2 Speedlite Transmitter (£175 / $220+tax)

ST-E2 Speedlite Transmitter

The ST-E2 Speedlite Transmitter is a master unit for the Canon optical wireless flash system. It allows you to control up to two groups of Speedlite units from the camera (but not three groups like you can if you use Speedlite that is also a master unit such as the 580EX II or 600EX-RT). It is designed for EOS cameras that don’t have a built-in master unit such as the EOS 5D range and APS-C cameras built before the EOS 7D. The range is less than the radio transmitter of the ST-E3-RT Speedlite Transmitter and 600EX-RT Speedlite.

Further reading

You can learn more about the Canon EOS system with these articles:

How to Choose Your Next EOS Camera

New Canon EOS cameras

Inside the EOS 5D Mark III

Understanding EOS ebooks

Understanding EOS ebooksYou can learn more about the Canon EOS system with my Understanding EOS series of ebooks. Click the link to learn more.

 

 

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3 Responses to “Canon Speedlite Buyer’s Guide”

  1. Ian says:

    Hi, I found this an interesting article but I’d be grateful if you could expand on which of the models will work with my 600D. I’m considering purchasing a Speedlite, my budget will probably stretch to the Speedlite 430EX II and I would want to use it on camera and as a single off camera unit. Will this model work OK and can I easily trigger and operate it with my 600D? Thank you for your help.

    • Hi Ian, the 430EX II will work with your EOS 600D. The 600D has built-in wireless flash control so you will be able to control the Speedlite from your camera as long as it is close enough and there is line of sight between the two.

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