Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Canon 600EX-RT Flash System - A real-world test

In the last blog entry I talked about using the Canon 600EX-RT flash, and I had numerous questions about this new flash system. So I thought I would write a blog specifically on the newer Canon flashes and tell you all how it fits into my event photography.

When Canon announced the new 600EX-RT flash system a while back, I saw some potential for these units in my shooting. But, honestly, I was not sure how much I would use the new features. And, for the first couple of months, I felt as if I had just spent a bunch of money to replace my 580EX-II flashes and saw no major advantages. But, as time went on, I started learning more about these new flashes, and I saw that there were some interesting features. Now that I have taken the time to learn more about these, I realize that, not only have I spent my money well, I have some really amazing tools at my disposal. Here are my top 4 reasons why I now love the new Canon flash system:

1. The new long range wireless communication between flash units
2. A new and much cleaner user interface
3. A fast and powerful flash unit
4. Complete control of the flash from the camera

Now, after having used 3 of the 600EX-RT flash units for 6 months, I have to tell you that I think my event photography looks better than ever. Why? Because now I can set up a remote flash anywhere in a large room and know that it will reliably flash when I want it to. This added light can be used to add a whole new dimension to my photos.

The Wireless

I have always had mixed results with third party wireless systems, and never liked the additional setup that they required. Now, with the newer Canon flash system, I do not need any additional equipment. I set up at least one 600EX-RT somewhere high up in the corner of the reception area, turn on the wireless mode to "slave" and I am ready to go. With the new 2.4 GHz wireless mode, the flash units do not have to be line of sight in order to communicate.  And...unlike the old infrared wireless mode, this new wireless system works reliably in almost all situations. With the old system, I would have times when the flash units were 5 feet apart and not communicate. With the new system, I am regularly firing remote flashes from 100 feet or more.

And I love that I can easily control the remote flash from wherever I am in the room. Do I want it on or off? Powered up or down? I can control all of this within seconds.

In this photo, you can see the remotely mounted flash unit firing. Since this was a destination wedding and I did not want to travel with a light stand, I used the Manfrotto 175F Justin Spring Clamp to suspend the flash to a hook over a doorway.

Notice how the remote 600EX-RT, mounted in the far corner of the dance floor, is putting rim light on the bride's face and the groom's hair. Without this remote light, there would be little separation of the subjects and background, and they would blend into the darkness behind them.

The User Interface

Whenever I get new camera equipment, my goal is to introduce this new hardware to my workflow with the least amount of interruption and frustration, and achieve great results immediately. This does not always happen, but it is the goal. Initially, I used the 600EX-RT flash (without wireless) just like the older 580EX-II, and I did find the new interface to be slightly better and the screen layout very easy to see and navigate. But, after some serious learning from Syl Arena (the master of Canon flash), I found some really great tricks within the menus of this new flash. I now have my own custom wireless channel, I made it so that I can dial the power up or down using the scroll wheel only, and I have turned off the older wireless triggering (which never worked reliably anyways) so I can make changes quicker from the master flash.

The Power

I have always had excellent results with Canon flashes, and even though I have come to rely on good consistent flash power, I think it is important to talk about. I almost always leave the flash in ETTL mode, thus letting the flash system determine the amount of power needed to properly light my subject. Many times I will dial that up or down, depending on how much light I want on my subject. I can also change the zoom of the flash from 24mm to 200mm, although I rarely adjust this setting for event shooting. The 600EX-RT flash has plenty of power and I regularly use it outside during the day, to add light to subjects that are easily 100 feet away from me.

This photo was taken in almost complete darkness. You will notice that the 600EX-RT had no problem assisting the camera in the focus of my subject and lighting both him and the people in the background.

As much as I tried, with my desired settings, I could not get enough light on all my subjects with just one 600EX-RT
In the last blog entry I talked a little about this family portrait. Due to the fact that I was shooting at ISO 50 (to get a really slow shutter speed) and the camera was metering off of the white water, I needed to add a lot of fill flash to my subjects. I tried using one 600EX-RT flash at +3 power, but even that was not enough. I stood there in the water trying to determine my next step. I could either increase the ISO to get more light on my subjects or increase the exposure compensation. Neither of those were good options for me, because I wanted the slowest shutter speed to blur the water and I did not want to over expose the water. I could move closer to the family to get the flash closer to them, but I wanted a wide shot to include the surroundings. I knew that I needed more fill flash on the family members. It was at that point that realized I had 2 more 600EX-RT flash units in the car. My wife was nice enough to take the short hike back to the car to get these.

A team effort
In this case, I was able to take advantage of 3 features of the 600EX-RT flashes. I used the wireless (to have all 3 flash units fire at the same time), the power of these large flash units to light the subjects, and the control from the camera to set all flashes at +1 stop.

The finished product - using 3 flash units all working together.

The Focus Assist

What people may not know is that these boot flash units have a focus assist feature which helps the camera determine the proper focus even in the dimmest of light. This is instrumental to me when shooting parties / receptions where the lights are turned down or off completely. Initially, there were some issues with the 600EX-RT working with the 5D Mark III and 1DX, where it would take multiple seconds for the focus assist to communicate with the cameras. This was excruciating for me, since I would have to point the camera at my subject, wait for what seemed like hours to get a focal point, and then fire. With the latest firmware upgrades for the 5D Mark III and 1DX, this problem has been solved. Now both camera models work very well with the new flash system and the focus is very fast.

Control from the camera

Most of the newer Canon cameras have an on-screen menu which lets you change all the flash settings from your camera's menu. I don't use this very often. I am so used to making the adjustments on the flash unit, it is a hard habit to break. But, I plan on using this more in the future.

Directional light

As much as I love shooting with an on-camera flash (to keep things really simple), I also love having the ability to direct the light on my subject and not have it straight on, evenly lighting their face. There are times when I can bounce the light off of nearby walls, thus creating a virtual light source, but not always. The 600EX-RT flash lets me pivot the flash head in almost any direction. (For any beginners reading this blog, I NEVER recommend buying an external flash with a fixed head. You will want one that allows movement in all directions to give you options in the future.)

There are other times when I am outside, or in a room with colored walls, and bouncing is not an option. In these cases I may choose to use one of the 600EX-RT flash units as my main light and I will trigger that flash from the Canon ST-E3-RT Speedlite transmitter, which is mounted to my camera. I could also use a second 600EX-RT on-camera and set it as a master, but tell it not to fire.

Performance and durability

Let's face it, for any of us who shoot events for a living, we use and abuse our flashes more than most. I am sure that I have more than 100,000 flashes on my older flash units. So I need to make sure that my flash is reliable even when I am bursting out a bunch of shots. I have been using the 600EX-RT flashes now for many months and they have proven to be incredibly reliable. They recharge very quickly and I have yet to see any instance of overheating.

I am sure that, at this very moment, the bride and groom were thinking "uh oh - what about Jeff's camera and flash?". Or, maybe not.

These flash units are also water resistant, which came in handy when shooting my last wedding in the rain.

Batteries and charger (not directly related to the 600EX-RT but still important)

For the last 10 years I have generally stuck with the brands that have proven their value to me (Canon, Lexar, Apple, Gitzo, Wacom, Sigma, Epson...) but the one accessory that has proven the most unreliable to me throughout this time is the rechargeable AA battery. And up until the last couple of months I could not recommend a brand to those who asked. But, taking Syl Arena's advice again, I think I may have found a brand of battery and a charger that I can rely on.

I used to use the Power 2000 batteries but found that many of them would not charge correctly or they would overheat and literally peel apart. Batteries for me are an important part of my equipment list, and I cannot have any questionable products keeping me from doing my job. I just took all 50 of them (including a bunch of unused ones) and put them in my recycling bin. For the last 2 months I have switched all my batteries to the Sanyo XX powered by Eneloop (a weird product name) and I have been extremely happy. Every battery has worked perfectly and they hold a charge for a really long time. The most amazing thing is, I have had many receptions where I went the entire evening without having to change the batteries in my flash, and as I mentioned, I shoot a lot and push my flashes pretty hard.

When I switched to the XX batteries I also switched to the Powerex MH-C801 battery charger. I like this charger because it charges each battery separately. You can even use this charger to discharge your batteries and recondition them. I have not had to do that yet, but like that it has this feature. The other impressive feature of this reader (combined with these batteries) is the charging speed. The batteries seem to charge MUCH faster than my older Power 2000 batteries in their own chargers. 

I could have written this blog right after the 600EX-RT was released, but I am glad that I didn't. This gave me a chance to really test the flash system to it's fullest and even find the best accessories to compliment them. I hope that this blog entry has been helpful and informative for you.


DAN said...

Really appreciate your blog. I'm just getting started with flash though I've shot a lot of video with the canon 5dm2.
I note you don't mention your F-stop or shutter speed. I'm curious about that. I don't quite understand how you can get shallow DOF with a flash, and without a high-speed flash.
Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Jeff for this particular blog, and all of you quick comments on a regular basis. I do not get much time to read up on my passion of photography but find that your commens and suggestions are more clear and helpful to this amateur. I also wonder why you and other writers neglect to add all of your settings when discussing a particular photo. This info would help us get "the whole picture"
Thanks again, Larry Schimmel, Ambler, PA

Anonymous said...

Great article Jeff. Now if only i could afford a few of those 600s.

The family portrait at the waterfall is beautiful. I tried a similar shot of my girlfriend at a waterfall here in Ireland but the result was nothing compared to yours.
Keep up the good work. As an amateur photographer i find this blog very easy to understand and edcutational

Anonymous said...

Nice article, Jeff. I am surprised you didn't talk about manual flash a little more, particularly in the outdoor setting at the waterfall. I would love to trade up to the 600, but won't do so until Canon comes up with a radio version of the 430. Only full-time pros can afford three 600's, and my 580 plus two 430's could do just about everything three 600's can do if I stay within 30 feet or so.

Yuval said...

Thanks Jeff, as usual very helpful and interesting. I do appreciate your work and sharing with us.

Jeff said...

I purchased my 600EX last year just before Christmas. I've taken it out of the drawer only a couple of times. So I'm looking to sell it. If anyone's interested in getting a barely used 600EX, get in touch with me.

Jeff Cable Photography Blog said...

You should put your contact info, or send it to me, so that if anyone is interested they can contact one of us.

Pat said...

Hoping that Canon will introduce a replacement for the 430EXII with one that has the radio feature and can act as a master. I use a Canon 90EX flash as a master a lot but it isn't radio and requires line of sight and the right conditions, not too bright.

I would like this because it seems a waste to put a powerful 600EX on the camera when the straight on flash in most cases for me is just a little bit of fill. And the new Canon radio controller module seems silly since it very pricey and can't help light if I need it.

Christina said...

Excellent real world review. I have been blown away with the beauty of these flashes! Thanks Jeff!