Choosing the Best Canon Speedlite Flash for Your Needs - Digital Photography School

Choosing the Best Canon Speedlite Flash for Your Needs

speedlites.jpg

As Canon continues to expand the Speedlite family, more photographers struggle to know which flash to buy.

So let’s take a quick run through the current Speedlite lineup, from low end to high end, to see if we can determine which flash is right for your needs.

SPEEDLITE 270EX II

canon_270ex.jpg

Starting with the least expensive flash, the 270EX II is a “mini” Speedlite that lacks some of the key functions found in the larger flashes.

It has no infrared focus-assist beam to help you focus in the dark (instead it does that annoying strobe thing), and while it can tilt to bounce from a ceiling, it cannot swivel from side to side.

It lacks a manual power mode, so even though it can serve as a remote TTL slave using the Canon wireless (light-based) signaling system, it cannot be used with third-party radio triggers.

Given these limitations, I see only three situations where the 270EX II makes sense:

1. You need some quick fill flash on one of the professional cameras (5D, 1D, etc.) that lack a built-in pop-up flash. The 270 makes a great replacement for that missing flash.

2. You have one of the small G-series Canon cameras that has a flash hot-shoe, but which would be overwhelmed by the size of a full Speedlite.

3. You need a very lightweight or very inconspicuous flash for some reason.

Otherwise, I suggest moving up to one of the full-size flashes.

Get a price on the Canon Speedlite 270EX II at Amazon.

SPEEDLITE 320EX

canon_320ex.jpg
The 320EX is a new flash designed to serve two purposes simultaneously. It’s a traditional flash for still photography, but it also contains a white LED to provide continuous light for shooting video with the new video DSLR’s.

Unfortunately, I found the 320EX to be the worst of both worlds. It was mediocre both as a still flash as as a video light.

As a traditional flash, it lacks the focus-assist beam, the manual power mode, and the automatic zoom head found on the larger flashes (you can zoom it manually—if you remember to.)

As a video light, its LED is only useful in fairly dark situations. It can’t provide enough fill light to overcome even moderate backlight, and for shooting professional-looking video it’s not an option. (However, it could be a lifesaver in a truly dark setting where you suddenly needed to shoot some video.)

I find that when I’m shooting video, I need stronger lights, and when I’m shooting stills, I need a more capable flash.

So I sold my 320EX on eBay and used the money toward another 430EX II.

Get a price on the Canon Speedlite 320EX at Amazon

SPEEDLITE 430EX II

canon_430ex.jpg

I consider the 430EX II to be the core of the Canon flash family.

It’s a reasonably priced, fully functional flash that does everything you need a flash to do. As a first flash purchase, I recommend the 430.

It has the focus-assist beam to help you focus in the dark. It can swivel and bounce. It can be used in manual mode with radio triggers, so it makes a great remote slave either with a third-party radio system or with the built-in Canon wireless system.

And although the 430EX II is somewhat less powerful than the larger flashes, I find its smaller size and lighter weight more comfortable for long hours of on-camera flash photography.

I love the 430, and I have lots of them. If you remain a Canon shooter for long, you may end up with lots of them, too.

Get a price on the Canon Speedlite 430EX II at Amazon

SPEEDLITE 580EX II

canon_580ex.jpg

The 580EX II is the “big brother” of the 430EX II. It’s a bit more powerful, a bit more sophisticated, a bit larger, a bit heavier, and a LOT more expensive.

I only see one reason to spend the extra money for a 580EX II. It can be used as a Master to control slave units in multi-flash setups using the built-in wireless (light-based) triggering system.

Given its high price, I don’t see a need for more than one 580EX II in your kit. I would get one to serve as your Master when you decide to experiment with the wireless triggering system, and after that, just keep buying 430’s as your slaves.

And if you have one of the newer cameras, like the 7D, 600D, and others, where the built-in flash can act as a master, you may never need a 580EX II at all.

Get a price on the Canon Speedlite 580EX II at Amazon

SPEEDLITE 600EX-RT

canon_600ex.jpg

That’s “RT” as in “radio transmitter.” This new Canon flash has radio triggers built right into it.

This triggering technology may eventually replace the old light-based triggering system (which is also built into the 600), because the older system is less reliable, limited by distance, and requires a line-of-sight between the master and slave.

Many of us have been manually attaching third-party radio triggers to our flashes to get this RT functionality, and now Canon has built it in. Hoorah!

But it comes at a very high price (currently around $600 per flash, and you need multiple flashes, of course, to use the trigger technology).

Personally, I don’t plan to buy a 600EX any time soon, because I get the same functionality for about half the cost by using third-party radio triggers (even TTL triggers!) with the less expensive Canon flashes like the 430EX II. And I have a big investment in this existing set of flashes and triggers.

However, if you are starting out with little previous investment, and you like the convenience of having your radio triggers built-in, and you have a big budget, then the 600EX RT may be right for you.

It also makes sense for professional photographers who work their flashes very hard (like wedding photographers) because it’s a powerful, robust flash with better built-in protection against over-heating from heavy use.

Get a price on the Canon Speedlite 600EX-rT at Amazon

I hope this quick summary has helped you with your flash decision.

You can watch a video version of this review at: http://steeletraining.com/tutorials/speedlite

About the Author: Phil Steele is the founder of SteeleTraining.com where you’ll find free photography tutorials and training. If you are interested in learning to use your Canon flashes off-camera you may want to check out his online video course teachingoff-camera flash portrait photography with speedlights.

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  • http://www.flickr.com/tsayguy Henry

    This is a great piece for beginners, Darren. I hate to be that guy, but is there such an article here for the Nikon equivalents?

  • http://digital-photography-school.com/ Darren Rowse

    Not yet Henry – but we’ll do our best to find a Nikon photographer to write one.

  • Carol P

    I would also be interested in the differences in flashes for Sony as well. Or any articles for sony camera’s, equipment and accessories. I Know Nikon anc Canon are more commonly used but being a Sony user I find it hard getting the same type of comparison information.
    Thanks for the great articel!!

  • http://gautsch.net Guido

    I wish that article came out a week ago…I just bought a flash last Tuesday!

    I was torn betwen the 430EXII and third-party options and in the end went with a Nissin Di866 MkII…it’s even more powerful than the 580EXII, can act as a master, does TTL, works wirelessly with my 60D and costs less than a 430EXII, at least if you go the HK option. Michaels wanted A$550 for it, as did the other camera shops on Melbourne’s Elizabeth St (if they sold it that is). I got mine for $280 delivered with 8 XX Eneloops. It’s ridiculuously powerful, well-built and full-featured…what more do you want? It even has an USB port for firmware updates if you happen to buy a camera down the road that the flash doens’t support at the point of purchase :)

    I’m an absolute beginner when it comes to Speedlites, so feel free to ignore my advice, but for me, there was no reason to pony up and spend more for less power/features.

  • http://mayurhulsar.wordpress.com mayur

    couple of months back I bought my very first strobe 430EX II and very happy about it. its powerful yet less bulky. I use a third party radio trigger and that’s the best way rather investing in a high price setup at least for beginner’s like me.
    though I got intimidated to buy cheap versions of flash guns at my place, but fortunate enough I didn’t settle down for one.

  • Hans

    I only have on TTL-flash, the rest is all manual strobes with cactus-triggers.
    I’ve worked with borrowed TTL-slaves, but found myself manually controlling them anyway to get better results.
    Still, the 430 EXII is one of the best flash units I’ve ever used, if I´d have the cash to spare there would definitely be at least one of them in my bag.

  • Bart

    You’re not very enthusiastic about the 270EX. I own the Nikon equivalent (SB400) and it sees more activities than my other three flashes (SB600, equivalent of the 430) combined

    * It’s light and small – there’s no penalty carrying it around, unlike it’s bigger siblings
    * It’s more powerful than a popup *and* it can bounce
    * When using it, it doesn’t intimidate my subjects as the bigger flashes do since it looks like a toy.

    I’m not saying this is the only flash one should have. What I do know is that when it comes to these small flashes, the world can be divided in two groups: those that don’t have them, and those that love them.

  • Chris Guillou

    Thanks for the article, I was wondering what wireless third party triggers you would suggest. I’m currently using cactus’ but their failure ratio is really pissing me off lately :-(

  • http://pupius.co.uk Dan Pupius

    The 580exII also allows an external battery pack, where the 430exII does not. If you have situations where you need high power with fast recycle time this can be invaluable.

  • Steve

    Just like Guido, last Christmas I went with the Nissin Di866 MkII. I got it for basically the same price of a 430 and it has all the extra features of the 580. I love it, and I’m actually wondering if I should even bother getting the Canon 430 as a slave or If I should just get another Nissin.

    BTW, in the article you state that the 550D pop-up flash can act as a master. While you can actually optically trigger a slave flash (like you could with any camera, even a phone) you can’t really change its settings. They only added remote flash controls in the 600D.

  • http://flickr.com/serzhanja Sergejs Babikovs

    Ha, I’m using a 380EX, it’s dirt cheap and does its job well. Ain’t going for the high end speedlites

  • http://www.triarctic.com Dustin Brown

    I second the use of an external battery pack on the 580. It is critical when you are shooting an event that needs a high-power flash with ultra fast recycle times.

  • http://www.clphotography.co.uk Chris

    I use the 430EX for wedding photography because it’s light and powerful enough to fill in outdoor portraits or bounce indoors. To soften the light I use a large globe diffusor. Recycling time can be as much as 5 seconds with ordinary alkaline batteries, but investing in a couple of sets of 2900mAh NiMH batteries drops the recycling time to less than 1 second. Best of all, my EOS 7D can operate the 430EX wirelessly which is great for wedding portraits requiring flash from one side or low down, etc.

  • Chris

    I have the 430 and have been reading about using it as a slave. Does it have a mount/stand that can be used to sit it down?

  • Chris

    I use the 430EX and want to slave it. Does anyone know if it has a mount/stand that can be used to position it while shooting?

  • Shannon

    I love my 430 EX-II. I shoot with a 7D and I use my flash off camera with the built in wireless system. I would recommend this one. I did a lot of research before choosing my flash and it would take a lot to change my mind.

  • http://www.lsarecruitment.com.au/ recruitment specialists

    Is this works for Canon 60D??

  • Glenn

    I´m very close into buying my first flash and I have been researching this quite a bit over the past few months. For the money, I think the best option is the Nissin Di866 MkII, as it is the only flash in its price range to offer HSS (High Speed Synch) as well as the ability to be a wireless master flash, something the cheaper YongNuo yn565EX or the Canon 430EXII do not offer.
    This flash also has the ability to fire a subflash for fill light that is built in if you bounce the flash off the ceiling, something that even the Canon 580EXII doesn´t have.
    The disadvantage compared to the Canon 580EXII is that it is not weather sealed (neither is my camera either), and a slower recharge time after a full flash and a little bit more noise.

  • http://www.symbolphoto.com Boston Wedding Photographer

    While i do use a lot of OCF, i do mostly with Elinchrom Quadra’s etc. I like having the power to set the mood. Though if you are into ETTL, i think the 600RT is quite the amazing flash.

  • http://www.voeloon.com jomy

    hi again

    Voeloon speedlight is the top brand in China.pass the Fcc,ce,iso9001 and iso14001
    http://phoenixy.en.alibaba.com/

    any question chat with we .thx
    sales@fomito.com
    fomito01@hotmail.com

  • Tod

    Are there any articles on the cheaper generic brand flashes?

  • Dennis Delima

    I am new to photography, I have EOS 600D and I use 430EX, so far I am happy for the wireless capability of the flash, Now I’m planning to add 2 more 430EX. 1 will be mounted on my camera and 2 will be sync triggered remotely.
    My question now, how many remote slave flash the 600D can handle? Help please..

  • Sascha Kleiber

    I find that article rather uninformative. I thought you were giving tipps on which flash is best for what purposes… Like best practice. The information above can also be read on amazon.

  • Kathleen Mekailek

    I rarely use flash but have two just in case. I have the 270 that came with my camera kit and is great for pictures of babies when I want to get in close ( I usually fit a small softbox over it and bounce it at the same time. I also have a used 380 (which isn’t even listed that I used when I shot a wedding and some nighttime shoots.

  • Brett Ossman

    I liked the article. Clarified some things I wasn’t quite sure about. However, I think some of the comments may have interested me more. LOL I’m thinking about my first flash, and am now looking into the Nissin Di866 MkII.

  • Omar Spence

    You dont really need a second 600rt, you can use the ST E3 RT controller for $300, but the only downside is the lack of an af beam on the controller. I currently use 2 speedlight 430s with a cowboy studio radio setup i bought for $40 on Amazon with no worries at all. If you use fast glass, the 430 will cover your needs quite well.

  • http://www.smallfish-bigpond.com/ Kerensky97

    Do any of the Canon Speedlights have the ability to trigger remotely when they detect another flash? It’s considered a poor-man’s way to trigger a remote flash but it’s not proprietary like the canon wireless. It’d be cool if us non-canon uses could use an on camera flash to trigger a borrowed speedlight off camera.

  • http://www.smallfish-bigpond.com/ Kerensky97

    Do any of the Canon Speedlights have the ability to trigger remotely when they detect another flash? It’s considered a poor-man’s way to trigger a remote flash but it’s not proprietary like the canon wireless. It’d be cool if us non-canon uses could use an on camera flash to trigger a borrowed speedlight off camera.

  • Gooosberry

    very useful, confirms my approach at a key tie. i have 4 yn622’s and 2 430exii’s, so I want one more flash! looks like 430 or 3rd party equivalent

Some older comments

  • Dennis Delima

    April 11, 2013 09:48 pm

    I am new to photography, I have EOS 600D and I use 430EX, so far I am happy for the wireless capability of the flash, Now I'm planning to add 2 more 430EX. 1 will be mounted on my camera and 2 will be sync triggered remotely.
    My question now, how many remote slave flash the 600D can handle? Help please..

  • Tod

    September 16, 2012 04:57 pm

    Are there any articles on the cheaper generic brand flashes?

  • jomy

    July 25, 2012 12:59 pm

    hi again

    Voeloon speedlight is the top brand in China.pass the Fcc,ce,iso9001 and iso14001
    http://phoenixy.en.alibaba.com/

    any question chat with we .thx
    sales@fomito.com
    fomito01@hotmail.com

  • Boston Wedding Photographer

    June 21, 2012 04:41 am

    While i do use a lot of OCF, i do mostly with Elinchrom Quadra's etc. I like having the power to set the mood. Though if you are into ETTL, i think the 600RT is quite the amazing flash.

  • Glenn

    June 21, 2012 04:02 am

    I´m very close into buying my first flash and I have been researching this quite a bit over the past few months. For the money, I think the best option is the Nissin Di866 MkII, as it is the only flash in its price range to offer HSS (High Speed Synch) as well as the ability to be a wireless master flash, something the cheaper YongNuo yn565EX or the Canon 430EXII do not offer.
    This flash also has the ability to fire a subflash for fill light that is built in if you bounce the flash off the ceiling, something that even the Canon 580EXII doesn´t have.
    The disadvantage compared to the Canon 580EXII is that it is not weather sealed (neither is my camera either), and a slower recharge time after a full flash and a little bit more noise.

  • recruitment specialists

    June 14, 2012 03:19 pm

    Is this works for Canon 60D??

  • Shannon

    June 7, 2012 05:32 am

    I love my 430 EX-II. I shoot with a 7D and I use my flash off camera with the built in wireless system. I would recommend this one. I did a lot of research before choosing my flash and it would take a lot to change my mind.

  • Chris

    June 1, 2012 01:05 am

    I use the 430EX and want to slave it. Does anyone know if it has a mount/stand that can be used to position it while shooting?

  • Chris

    June 1, 2012 01:02 am

    I have the 430 and have been reading about using it as a slave. Does it have a mount/stand that can be used to sit it down?

  • Chris

    May 30, 2012 06:58 pm

    I use the 430EX for wedding photography because it's light and powerful enough to fill in outdoor portraits or bounce indoors. To soften the light I use a large globe diffusor. Recycling time can be as much as 5 seconds with ordinary alkaline batteries, but investing in a couple of sets of 2900mAh NiMH batteries drops the recycling time to less than 1 second. Best of all, my EOS 7D can operate the 430EX wirelessly which is great for wedding portraits requiring flash from one side or low down, etc.

  • Dustin Brown

    May 30, 2012 01:22 am

    I second the use of an external battery pack on the 580. It is critical when you are shooting an event that needs a high-power flash with ultra fast recycle times.

  • Sergejs Babikovs

    May 29, 2012 03:01 am

    Ha, I'm using a 380EX, it's dirt cheap and does its job well. Ain't going for the high end speedlites

  • Steve

    May 28, 2012 08:59 pm

    Just like Guido, last Christmas I went with the Nissin Di866 MkII. I got it for basically the same price of a 430 and it has all the extra features of the 580. I love it, and I'm actually wondering if I should even bother getting the Canon 430 as a slave or If I should just get another Nissin.

    BTW, in the article you state that the 550D pop-up flash can act as a master. While you can actually optically trigger a slave flash (like you could with any camera, even a phone) you can't really change its settings. They only added remote flash controls in the 600D.

  • Dan Pupius

    May 28, 2012 06:30 am

    The 580exII also allows an external battery pack, where the 430exII does not. If you have situations where you need high power with fast recycle time this can be invaluable.

  • Chris Guillou

    May 28, 2012 04:55 am

    Thanks for the article, I was wondering what wireless third party triggers you would suggest. I'm currently using cactus' but their failure ratio is really pissing me off lately :-(

  • Bart

    May 28, 2012 03:56 am

    You're not very enthusiastic about the 270EX. I own the Nikon equivalent (SB400) and it sees more activities than my other three flashes (SB600, equivalent of the 430) combined

    * It's light and small - there's no penalty carrying it around, unlike it's bigger siblings
    * It's more powerful than a popup *and* it can bounce
    * When using it, it doesn't intimidate my subjects as the bigger flashes do since it looks like a toy.

    I'm not saying this is the only flash one should have. What I do know is that when it comes to these small flashes, the world can be divided in two groups: those that don't have them, and those that love them.

  • Hans

    May 27, 2012 05:18 pm

    I only have on TTL-flash, the rest is all manual strobes with cactus-triggers.
    I've worked with borrowed TTL-slaves, but found myself manually controlling them anyway to get better results.
    Still, the 430 EXII is one of the best flash units I've ever used, if I´d have the cash to spare there would definitely be at least one of them in my bag.

  • mayur

    May 27, 2012 02:19 pm

    couple of months back I bought my very first strobe 430EX II and very happy about it. its powerful yet less bulky. I use a third party radio trigger and that's the best way rather investing in a high price setup at least for beginner's like me.
    though I got intimidated to buy cheap versions of flash guns at my place, but fortunate enough I didn't settle down for one.

  • Guido

    May 27, 2012 11:00 am

    I wish that article came out a week ago…I just bought a flash last Tuesday!

    I was torn betwen the 430EXII and third-party options and in the end went with a Nissin Di866 MkII…it's even more powerful than the 580EXII, can act as a master, does TTL, works wirelessly with my 60D and costs less than a 430EXII, at least if you go the HK option. Michaels wanted A$550 for it, as did the other camera shops on Melbourne's Elizabeth St (if they sold it that is). I got mine for $280 delivered with 8 XX Eneloops. It's ridiculuously powerful, well-built and full-featured…what more do you want? It even has an USB port for firmware updates if you happen to buy a camera down the road that the flash doens't support at the point of purchase :)

    I'm an absolute beginner when it comes to Speedlites, so feel free to ignore my advice, but for me, there was no reason to pony up and spend more for less power/features.

  • Carol P

    May 27, 2012 10:04 am

    I would also be interested in the differences in flashes for Sony as well. Or any articles for sony camera's, equipment and accessories. I Know Nikon anc Canon are more commonly used but being a Sony user I find it hard getting the same type of comparison information.
    Thanks for the great articel!!

  • Darren Rowse

    May 27, 2012 09:57 am

    Not yet Henry - but we'll do our best to find a Nikon photographer to write one.

  • Henry

    May 27, 2012 02:05 am

    This is a great piece for beginners, Darren. I hate to be that guy, but is there such an article here for the Nikon equivalents?

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