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HeySyl -- The Q&A Blog of Photographer Syl Arena

“OK, so I’m battling with flash … challenge accepted. My 2015 project is to make inroads towards understanding it! I just watched your YouTube lecture which really made a lot of things click with respect to balancing ambient light and the strobe … great video, thank you … I have a lot of experimentation ahead of me, I have a 1st gen Canon 7D and a 580EXII. I am about to buy 2 x Pocket Wizard IIIs and some diffusers (shoot through umbrella, maybe a softball of some sort) an umbrella stand, possibly a 2nd strobe of some sort). One thing I am keen to do now I have seen your video, is buy your speed light book … should I wait for the 2nd edition? It’s not clear what the additional material is … Does it just cover the new Canon 600 EX RT flash, (in which case the 1st edition is probably fine). OR should I wait till the April release of the new book? Any guidance on which book would be much appreciated.” Tim, UK

Since you are just starting out with flash, my first suggestion is to not buy the PocketWizards. They will be overkill for your current needs and, in some ways, make it harder for you to learn flash. Don’t get me wrong — PocketWizard is a great brand. But, you will not be able to access your camera’s External Speedlite Control menu (a feature unique to the Canon Speedlite system). For me, this is very important part of my workflow. I make all of the setting changes to my Speedlites (other than zoom) on the back of my camera. With a manual radio trigger, like the PocketWizard Plus IIIs, you have no access to the menu and you have to walk over to your Speedlite every time that you want to make a change.

My suggestion is to use the pop-up flash on your 7D as an optical transmitter and your 580EX II as an optical slave. This will give you a wide range of options and the ability to control the settings via your camera’s LCD.

As for which edition of the Speedliter’s Handbook to buy…consider buying a used copy of the 1st edition now and the new edition when it comes out. You will be able to learn a lot in the months to come from the first edition and then build on that experience with the new material in the second edition. Thanks for your question.


“Why if I shoot with 600EX in E-TTL attached to my 5D Mark III, do I always have black backgrounds? I tried Aperture-Priority and Manual modes on my camera, changed ISO, but nothing helps. I’m shooting with evaluative mode and syncro 1/60″ to 1/200″.” Andrea, Italy

[This answer applies to all form of flash, not just the 600EX-RT.] In a flash photo, there are actually two exposures: the flash exposure and the ambient exposure. When the ambient light is low, your subject is lit by the flash exposure and your background is lit by the ambient exposure. If your subject is leaning against the background, then the flash will light both. If there is a separation between your subject and background, then you need to think about them separately.

Canon’s automatic flash mode, E-TTL, is programmed to change the role of the flash based on the amount of ambient light. When the ambient light is bright, the Speedlite’s role is that of fill flash–the ambient light illuminates the subject/background and the Speedlite fills the shadows on the subject. When the ambient light is dim, the Speedlite’s role changes so that it is the main light on the subject. In this case, when there is a separation between subject and background, the background is lit by ambient light only. This background light may or may not be captured — depending upon the shutter speed.

When you limit the shutter speed on your camera to a maximum of 1/60″ (seems like a good idea if you always handhold your camera), then the ambient exposure may be too short to record any significant details in a dark background.

One way to understand this is to set your camera to Av (Aperture-Priority) mode and keep your Speedlite turned off. Then see what shutter speed your camera wants to use. If it is significantly less than 1/60″, say 1/15″ or below, you should expect your background to be dark in your flash photos. To offset this, you can raise your ISO until the camera indicates that the shutter speed is 1/60″. In Av mode, you will have to keep an eye on the shutter speed.

I prefer Manual mode on my camera when shooting in low light. I use the aperture setting to control the depth of field, the shutter speed/ISO settings to control the background (ambient light) and the flash power to control the light on the subject.


“I have a Canon 7D, 430EX II, and an Impact strobe. I can fire either light using the built-in optical feature. When I try to fire the two lights together, the camera does not capture the flash. Both lights appear to fire. I also fire the 430EX II using an off-camera cord and the strobe will fire, again the flash is not being captured. I need help.” Dave, California

With the introduction of the radio-enabled 600EX-RT Speedlite, Canon distinguished this new system from the previous wireless system with the terms “radio wireless” and “optical wireless.” These are important concepts for Speedliters. All Canon Speedlites prior to the 600EX-RT that can work as a master or slave use the optical wireless system. The 600EX-RT can work in either radio or optical wireless (but not both at the same time).


When set to radio wireless, communications between the master and slave(s) in the 600EX-RT system are invisible. In optical wireless, the instructions are sent from the master to the slave as a code via a super-fast series of pulsed flashes. Then, at the final instant, the shutter opens and the Speedlite fires. This pre-flash code happens in both E-TTL and Manual mode.

Sometimes the term “optical wireless” is confused with “optical slave eye.” The latter is the sensor and circuity in some flashes and strobes that will fire the unit when it senses a bright burst of light coming from another flash.

Your Impact strobe has an optical slave eye. So, when you are using the 7D to control your 430EX II as an optical slave, the Impact strobe fires prematurely when it sees the pre-flash instructions from the master.

When you use the 430EX II on an extra-long E-TTL cord, be sure that you set the Speedlite to Manual mode rather than to E-TTL mode. E-TTL fires a pre-flash (different from the optical wireless pre-flash) so that the camera can measure the amount of light coming back from the subject and set the flash power accordingly. This E-TTL pre-flash will also trip the optical slave eye in your strobe prematurely. When you use your Speedlite in Manual mode, there is no pre-flash. When the Speedlite fires, the optical slave eye on the strobe will fire.

You could also use an inexpensive radio trigger system, like the Cactus V5 or Cactus V6. You will need one unit in your camera’s hotshoe as the transmitter and one unit for your Speedlite (connected by the hotshoe on the receiver) and one unit for your strobe (connected by the included cord).


“I was wondering how to fit a Canon Speedlite 600EX-RT to a Westcott 43″ Apollo Orb Speedlite Kit shoe mount. Would this be directly?  Just read your “Lighting for Digital Photography” and learned a lot. Can’t wait for the updated Speedliter’s Handbook to come!” Christopher, Switzerland

I’ve long been a huge fan of the 43″ Apollo Orb softbox by Westcott. It provides beautiful, soft light — even with a single small flash. The unique feature of the Apollo softboxes is that the Speedlites mount inside (facing backwards) so that the light bounces around the metallic silver lining before it heads out the front diffuser.

If you buy the economical Speedlite kit that is linked just above, you will receive the Apollo, a stand, and a swivel adapter. The Westcott swivel adapter features a vice-type cold shoe into which you can lock the foot of your Speedlite. So you will not need anything else to get started.

After you fall in love with it, you will likely want to upgrade the swivel adapter to a Manfrotto 026 Swivel Adapter. The adapter that comes with the Westcott kit tilts forwards and backwards — but not side-to-side. It’s not a big deal when starting, but eventually you will want to angle the light in from the side. The Manfrotto 026 enables the softbox to be tilted and twisted at the same time.

For shooters that do not have the radio-enabled 600EX-RT system, they should consider adding an extra-long E-TTL cord so that they can control the Speedlite settings (mode, power, etc.) from the External Speedlite Control menu on the back of their EOS camera.

Most of the Apollo softboxes are large enough to mount several Speedlites. You will want to use a multi-flash bracket, like the Triple Threat, to hold the Speedlites and the shaft of the Apollo softbox. If you have a radio-enabled system, then they should all be set at slaves. If you have an optical wireless system, then one should be a corded master and the others set at slaves.


“Since I try to buy equipment only once and can’t afford to experiment, I was looking at the RadioPopper PX system to finally meet my Canon 7D and pair of 580EXs needs. The 580EXs have already failed to speak to one another while sitting beside each other (yes one was aimed directly at the flash-mounted camera), I have two Adorama 600w that could use a device too, and a 430 EXII to all be used anywhere and in any config. Alas, it looks like I would have to sacrifice one 580 to master what I already paid for the camera to do. Any workarounds? (I don’t want an extended flash cord, thanks, or manual-only, or non-e-TTL II or pay for crutches (sleeves) for the PocketWizard system).”  Bruce, Texas

So, there are a couple of questions here.

  •   What can I check when my Speedlite system fails to fire in optical wireless?
  •   What can I use to fire ETTL and non-ETTL gear together?

Here are the settings to check when a slaved Speedlite does not fire:

  • off-camera Speedlite set as an optical slave (look for red AF light to blink on the front to confirm this setting)
  • front of slave Speedlite is turned toward direction from which master’s signal will come (turn Speedlite’s head as needed to face subject)
  • slave channel is set to same as the master: 1, 2, 3, or 4
  • slave group is not set to C when A:B used as a ratio on the master (best not to use group C unless absolutely necessary)

Following these four steps, I’ve successfully shot Canon Speedlites as optical slaves under a wide range of conditions–including outdoors under bright sun. Whenever possible, I prefer to not add gear to my system so that I don’t have additional settings to learn / utilize. The more gear I add, the more chances there are that something will not work.

As for the RadioPopper PX system, it has been proven worthy by thousands of photographers under many situations. Keep the following in mind:

  • You have to use a 500-series Speedlite in the hotshoe of the camera to generate the instructions that the PX transmitter will send. If you want to use the External Speedlite Control menu system on your camera (which I find to be a huge help), then the Speedlite has to be a 580EX II.
  • You have to buy the PX-T transmitter to sit on top of the master Speedlite (currently $129).
  • You have to buy a PX-RC receiver for every slave (currently $189).
  • You will have to buy a RadioPopper receiver (like the JR2 receiver — currently $129) for each of your monolights. Remember that these strobes will continue to work in manual mode, so you have to adjust the power by hand on each unit.

There’s no doubt that the convenience of radio Speedliting is a huge asset during a shoot. My suggestion: add the price of the new RadioPopper gear that you’re thinking of buying to the resale value of your existing Speedlites (check out values on Craigslist or eBay) and use that as motivation to sell your current Speedlites and upgrade to Canon’s new ST-E3-RT transmitter and the 600EX-RT Speedlites. Then you will have seamless radio control and an amazing menu system that makes easy work of controlling slaved Speedlites.


“I have two 580EX Speedlites and one 580 EX II Speedlite. Are they compatible with the new ST-E3-RT Transmitter?” Albert, California

The short answer is ‘”no.” The ST-E3-RT Transmitter only speaks by radio. So it is not compatible with your 580EX Speedlites.

With the introduction in 2012 of the 600EX-RT Speedlite and the ST-E3-RT Transmitter, Canon added new vocabulary to the Speedliter’s lexicon. The wireless system used by the 500-series and 400-series EX Speedlites is now called “optical wireless” because it uses a series of light pulses from the master to communicate instructions to the slave.

“Radio wireless” is the name for the new technology built into the 600EX-RT and ST-E3-RT (the “RT” stands for “radio transmission”). Both the master and slave talk to each other via invisible radio waves.

The 600EX-RT can operate as master or slave in radio or optical wireless. Note: it cannot do radio and optical at the same time. Since the 600EX-RT is fully backwards compatible with earlier models that run on optical wireless, you could transition your kit over to radio wireless by adding 600EX-RT Speedlites as the means allow—at first operating the 600EX-RT in optical wireless and then switching to radio when you added another 600EX-RT or the ST-E3-RT Transmitter.



“In college, 30 years ago, I shot fraternity/sorority parties. Used a Stroboframe and a Vivitar 283. Shot at f/8 and had great results. Now, I have a 70D and 580 EX and want to shoot and be able to control depth of field. Can’t figure out the flash or camera settings for good, consistent results. Sometimes, the flash won’t sync in Av mode.” —Randy, Indiana

Your old Vivitar 283 had a thyristor sensor to control flash duration (longer = higher power). You’d set the ASA/ISO and a distance range on the side of the 283. The dial would then tell you the aperture to set on your camera. The camera would fire the flash. The flash would turn itself off when enough light came back in the sensor (based on the settings that you dialed in on the flash).

The 580EX Speedlite does not have a thyristor. The 580EX II and the 600EX-RT do. The sensor is the little bucket on the front of the Speedlite in the red plastic panel. On the 580EX II, External AUto mode is activated via Custom Function 5-Option 2. On the 600EX-RT, External Auto mode is activated directly via the Mode button on the left side of the flash. Both Speedlites will take the aperture and ISO settings from your camera and control the flash automatically. You can read more about External Auto mode here on the Canon Digital Learning Center.

Your 580EX does fire in ETTL—which is also an auto flash mode. In ETTL, the camera fires a low-power pre-flash from the Speedlite and measures the amount and location of the light coming back into the lens. The camera compares those flash readings to ambient readings made just before and after the pre-flash. ETTL stands for Evaluative Through The Lens—the evaluation is the comparison of the ambient and flash meter readings in the camera. Based on these readings, the camera sets the flash power. The advantage of ETTL over External Auto is that ETTL tries to balance the flash with ambient light (assuming that the ambient light is not extremely dim).

I suspect that you flash sync in Av mode actually has to do with the shutter speed that the camera selects. In Av (aperture-priority) mode, you set the aperture and ISO. The camera then sets the shutter speed. When the ambient light is dim, the shutter speed can become extremely long (slow). One way around this is to switch your camera into Manual mode. Dial in the longest shutter speed that you can handhold (typically 1/60″ for shorter lenses). Dial in the aperture for the depth of field that you want. Adjust the ISO to balance the exposure or set the ISO to Auto. In today’s world, digital noise from higher ISOs is much easier to fix than motion blur.


“I feel I am at a crossroads with my lighting setup and welcome your advice. I currently own six Canon 600EX-RT Speedlites and two ST-E3-RT Transmitters. I use them with the Canon 5D Mk III. I have various light mods for them from Rogue Flashbenders, Wescott Rapid Boxes to the Apollo 43″ Orb and stripboxes. I am at a point where I need to make a decision on whether or not to either purchase between two or four more Speedlites, look into QFlashes, or purchase a three light monolight strobe set up at 500 watts a piece. I won’t be starting my career in a studio, but will have access to studio space. I am a strong advocate for Speedliting and with today’s equipment and modifiers, I believe one can, for the most part, match a lot of studio setups. I also am aware that Speedlites cannot cover all situations I may encounter in my work. I would welcome your advice on the subject, as I respect your work and opinions.” –Don, Minnesota

To a large degree, it’s a matter of budget and how much weight you are willing to lug around. Let’s say that you are comparing the purchase of four new 600-EX-RT Speedlites (about $2,200) to various monolight / strobe options.

Reasons to add more Speedlites:

  • You already know how to work them
  • They are modular—meaning that you can use each Speedlite for a different purpose
  • They are synergistic—meaning that that you can use multiple Speedlites together in a large modifier (your Apollo Orb)
  • The entire system can be controlled from the LCD of your camera—Canon’s new Group mode enables individual control of five Speedlite groups, including the ability to turn individual groups on/off and to mix ETTL and Manual flash modes
  • You have high-speed sync as an option for using fast shutter speeds (most strobes do not have this flexibility)

Reasons to buy monolights or strobes:

  • If you shoot large modifiers frequently, the circular-shaped flash tube of a strobe will fill up a big softbox or umbrella more easily than a single Speedlite will (but you have enough Speedlites to task several to fill the large mods, already).
  • If AC-powered, you can shoot all day without running out of power
  • Faster recycle time (Speedlites on external battery packs are almost as fast)

Disadvantages of monolights and strobes:

  • Extra weight: especially if you factor in battery packs for location lighting
  • Limited integration with your fleet of 600EX-RT Speedlites (assuming that you want to use both together)
  • Cost: Monolights and strobes are inherently more expensive, so for any budget, you will buy fewer units
  • Modifiers: Some of your modifiers will work with large lights, but you will likely end up buying dedicated mods to use with monolights / strobes
  • Stands: you may need heavier stands and sand bags to keep strobes+mods stable
  • Power Range: many monolights and strobes do not dim beyond 4- or 5-stops (which can be too bright in some shoots)

If I were to look at larger lights with a budget of $2,200, I would look at:

  • Einstein E640 Strobe and the Vagabond Mini-Lithium battery pack by Paul Buff—these are the Kia of monolights, not the most durable, but a great value with several features lacking in the big-name brands. I especially like the Einstein’s 9-stop power range (down to 1/256 power) and that the flash duration gets shorter as the strobe is powered down (Speedlites do the same, but most strobes do not). $2,200 will almost buy three Einsteins and three Vagabonds.
  • Cheetah Light CL-360—similar to the QFlash, but much more affordable. $2,200 will buy three of them and a couple of mods. The advantage of the CL-360 over the Einsteins is their smaller size.

The option I most favor—add:


  • on-camera control via back LCD—reduces stress, so important during shoots
  • complete integration between all your flashes
  • with the external battery packs, your fleet of Speedlites will recycle almost as fast as larger lights
  • full-range of shutter speeds via high-speed sync
  • greater flexibility of lighting options available




“I was wondering if it was possible to mount a Canon Speedlite onto an wireless ETTL receiver off camera on which the flash believes it is mounted to the camera and use it to then optically trigger a 430 when the shutter is released. I presume it should work but it probably depends on the response times.” – Alex, UK

There is such a wide range of ETTL radio triggers made by third-party manufacturers these days, that I cannot definitively say “No.” However, I think that this is the correct answer. Anyone with a workaround is invited to share the details as a comment.

I do know from experience that it is not possible to have a 600EX-RT Speedlite working as a slave in radio wireless relay the instructions on to 500- and 400-series Speedlites by optical wireless. The 600s can do radio or optical wireless, but not both at the same time.

I have had good experiences moving a 600EX-RT radio master away from the camera on an extra-long ETTL cord (like these) and have it control radio slaves. The main advantage of this approach is that the cord is less expensive than an ST-E3-RT Transmitter and the master Speedlite can be positioned to contribute valuable light to the shot. The cords can also be used to control the 600EX-RT as an off-camera optical master that talks to 500- and 400-series Speedlites.


“Here’s something that I struggle with all the time because I am an event photographer. I am often hired to shoot theater after-party events that are fast paced and I need to move quickly from room-to-room with vastly different lighting conditions. My struggle is with white balance. In the studio it is easy to set a white balance, using an ExpoDisc or a Color Checker Passport. But in my situation I have no time to do that. I usually resort to setting my WB to Flash. Not great, but what else can I do? When doing post in LR, I often need to tweak the white balance and it slows down my workflow. Any suggestions?” –Vivian, California

Speed is the key for event photography—both in terms of shooting and for post-processing. Here are a handful of tips for event photography:

  • Always shoot RAW. This provides a wide safety net for making color corrections after the event.
  • Set your camera white balance to one setting and leave it there for the entire shoot. I use Daylight. Flash will be fine too—the only difference on Canon cameras is a bit of extra magenta in the Flash WB.
  • Shoot a white balance target every time you enter and leave a new room. I like the WhiBal card because it is very light. Your Color Checker Passport will work too. Turn your flash off and shoot the target in ambient light. You may not need these shots to fine-tune white balance in post, but they are very helpful to have on hand. They also serve as markers that the ambient light is about to change for the next series.
  • Do not worry about the difference between the color temperature of your flash and the color temperature of the ambient lights. As mentioned above, flash is a very close substitute for daylight. Rooms that are lit with tungsten (incandescent) lamps or candlelight, will have warmer light in the background–which is fine. If you try to gel your flash to match the ambient light, then your background will appear neutral (or a bit cool) when you balance the whites (like tuxedo shirts) back to white.