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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.