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Which Canon Speedlite Flash Is Right for You?

Looking at buying a canon Speedlite flash but not sure which one is right for you? In this post Phil Steele sheds some light on the topic (PS: if there’s anyone in our readership who’d like to do a similar post on other brands we’d be interested in publishing it).

Investing in a hot-shoe flash can be an intimidating step for many photographers. No one wants to suffer the buyer’s remorse that comes from spending hundreds of dollars only to discover that you made the wrong choice.

To help you avoid this “newbie tax,” I’d like to offer some guidance in discovering which Canon flash is right for you.

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As of this writing in 2010, the Canon Speedlite flash lineup consists of three options: the 270EX, the 430EX II, and the 580EX II. (We won’t consider the specialized macro flashes here).

Canon 270EX Speedlite

Starting with the least expensive model, the 270EX is a small, pocket-sized hot-shoe flash powered by two AA batteries. It costs approximately $150. In my opinion this flash is only a marginal improvement over the pop-up flash found on most Canon SLR cameras, and therefore does not make economic sense for most photographers.

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Unlike its larger brethren, it cannot be swiveled from side to side, and its angled bounce head, which allows you to bounce light off a ceiling, is pretty wimpy compared to the full-size flashes. Despite a price that is more than half that of the larger 430EX II, it lacks many useful features such as the infrared beam to help you focus in the dark, and the ability to act as a remote slave in multi-flash setups. And of course, it just doesn’t pack the power of the larger flashes.

However, there are a few cases where this little flash makes sense. The 270EX may right for you if:

  1. You really need a tiny, lightweight, or inconspicuous flash with more power than your camera’s pop-up flash.
  2. You are shooting with a Canon Powershot G11 or similar hot-shoe-equipped pocket camera that would be absurdly overwhelmed by the weight of a full-size flash.
  3. You are shooting with one of the Canon professional cameras (such as the 1D or 5D) that lacks a built-in pop-up flash, and you want a small, lightweight device to create on-camera fill flash.

Outside of these conditions (and for anyone shooting with a Canon SLR equipped with a pop-up flash) I don’t recommend the 270EX. If your camera has a pop-up flash, you can emulate the bounce ability of the 270EX with an accessory like the Lightscoop for a small fraction of the price.

Canon 430EX II Speedlite

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Moving up to the Speedlite 430EX II, we step into the realm of Canon’s full-size hot-shoe flashes. Powered by 4 AA batteries, the 430EX II sells for about $250 and offers all the features you’d expect in a full-size flash, including the ability to swivel in any direction, to bounce off walls or ceilings, and to help you focus in the dark with an infrared assist beam. This last can be a real life-saver in low-light situations where you can’t get a focus lock with ambient light.

The 430EX II is my preferred flash for most event-photography situations where I am shooting with the flash on the camera. Even though I could use the more powerful 580EX II, I find I usually prefer the lighter weight and smaller size of the 430 when I’m going to be carrying the camera for hours and sometimes shooting one-handed. The larger 580 starts to seem monstrous by comparison.

Canon 580EX II Speedlite

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As versatile as the 430EX II is, however, it lacks one crucial feature that may steer you to the larger Speedlite 580EX II, despite the roughly $450 price tag. The 580EX II is the only Canon flash that can act as a Master in multi-flash setups. If you want to experiment with off-camera flash using the built-in Canon wireless flash system (and who doesn’t?), then you will eventually need a 580 as your master control unit.

In the bargain the 580 also offers more power than the 430, and other slightly enhanced capabilities. But the real deciding factor for the 580 is the master control function. So if your only goal is to shoot with the flash mounted on the camera, and if you never intend to do off-camera, multi-flash setups, then I would not suggest spending the extra $200 for the 580EX II. In my opinion, the additional power is not worth the extra cost.

Also note that the both the 430EX II and the 580EX II can serve as remote slaves in multi-flash wireless setups. So I would argue that you never need more than one 580EX II flash. Invest in that mothership one time to get your master unit, and then for any additional slave flashes, I would simply buy the less expensive 430EX II.

So, in summary, I recommend:

(links point to Amazon where you can get a price)

  • 270EX – Only if your camera lacks a pop-up flash, or you really need a tiny, pocket-sized flash despite the limitations.
  • 430EX II – As your first flash for on-camera use, or as a remote slave.
  • 580EX II – As a master control unit when you are ready to try wireless, multi-flash setups.

I hope this helps with your flash purchase decisions.

philsteele.jpgAbout the Author: Phil Steele is the founder of SteeleTraining.com where you’ll find free photography tutorials and training.

If you are interested in off-camera flash with Canon Speedlites you may want to check out his online course “How to Shoot Professional-Looking Headshots and Portraits on a Budget with Small Flashes.”

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