Canon 600EX-RT review

June 18, 2012  •  14 Comments

Canon 600EX-RT Review

Above: Shooting a wedding at night time can be extremely difficult. You definitely need something to help you with focus such as the AF assist light which is featured on many speedlites. I used three 600RX-ET's to light this shot with one on the hot shoe, one over my right shoulder and behind me in a softbox, and then the last one is visible up on a light stand above their heads. The speedlites were all adjusted in manual mode. The 600EX-RT stands out from other speedlites because its new wireless transmitter capabilities allow me to adjust everything from my camera without having to run around and change settings which could make me miss the shot. 5D2, 35mm, f/1.8, 1/50 sec, ISO 640.

Overview:

The new Canon Speedlite 600EX-RT is Canon's latest and greatest flash on the market as of June 2012 and it is a direct replacement to Canon's previous flagship speedlite, the 580EX II. It is currently Canon's only radio-transmitter capable flash but I expect the replacement to the 430EX II to have a built-in radio transmitter for a lower cost to hit the market by the end of the year (albeit less custom functions, groups, less zoom functionality, and of course a lower guide number). The Canon ST-E3-RT Speedlite transmitter was announced at the same time and is able to control the new 600EX-RT speedlites but it is missing the infrared AF assist of its predecessor (which is definitely needed for dark environments) and plus I like to have the option of a flash on my hot shoe for fill light.

The 600EX-RT gains several advantages over its predecessor: greater zoom range (200mm is up from 105mm), a slightly higher guide number (60 is up from 58), a better hot shoe lock to ensure a solid connection at all times, improved durability, an included color filter holder, a new menu system and larger digital screen and best of all it receives a radio transmitter capable of at least 100 ft which can communicate settings, TTL information and achieve HSS at any shutter speed. That is what gets me excited and I'm sure it will even get Joe McNally's attention.

Prior to the announcement of the 600EX-RT you had very few options for synchronizing your small flash off camera through radio and retain the capability of sending TTL signals. Pocketwizard Flex is one of the most well known and the Phottix Odin has recently been reported to work amazingly well. The PocketWizard Flex suffers from interference from RF noise which cuts down the range and then the Phottix Odin leaves you stranded without a flash or autofocus assist light on the hot shoe.  You could use optical wireless transmission if you have line-of-sight but that is just another restriction. I want to be free of all of these restrictions, I want to be able to stop compromising between different setups and most of all I just have something that works!

Canon must have read my mind, lets cut out the middle man and have a product that does everything we need it to without having to worry about purchasing extra gear from third parties which may or may not work as specified. The more components you start adding the higher the chance you have of something going wrong. Canon's 600EX-RT is the ideal all-in-one package provided with the quality I have come to love from Canon. Yes, Canon has had some lemons such as my 580EX II but let's see if the 600EX-RT can turn things around and give us a product with some real value.

Note: For the sake of this review I'm going to stick with Canon's terminology and use the term "speedlites" as opposed to Nikon's spelling of "speedlights." This sounds like an argument between Bud Light and Miller Lite so we are going to avoid all of that since it is a Canon product we are reviewing.

Back story:

I have been prepared to replace my 580EX II since long before I ever heard of a successor because of the connection issues I have had over the past year. For starters the 580EX II goes into TTL mode (as opposed to E-TTL) when attached to the hot shoe of the camera and I have to jiggle it to get back into E-TTL, the flash emits radio frequency (RF) noise which has been a nightmare for PocketWizard's Flex system and also there are many questions about the long-term durability of the flash tube which was found to cause some slight arcing and corrosion. My flash still works but I don't know how to look inside it without breaking it. I have even had trouble syncing with PocketWizard's Plus II transceivers, possibly from RF noise but my testing is not so scientific. I just know that the combination has been unreliable and when you have clients who expect top-notch photos for their hard earned cash, you better deliver.

It is because of these reasons that I have only one 580EX II and have been looking forward to a replacement model for some time now. In fact I have been loading up on Elinchrom lights as an alternative. The 1100 w/s Elinchrom Ranger RX Speed AS with an "A" head has been giving me great results over the past couple of years and I plan to continue to use them for some time. The photo of Paige at the right was taken during our lake shoot and required the use of a 3-stop neutral density filter on my 85mm f/1.2L II lens to give us our shooting aperture of f/8.0. Shooting with the power pack and a set of PocketWizard Plus II's limited our shutter speed to the 5D MK II's max x-sync speed of 1/200 sec.

This kit is not for every day use due to the size and weight of the modifiers and those nasty lead-acid batteries which seem to weigh 15 lbs each. Lithium please?? Using a cart to roll the gear to the location was a bit difficult and extremely heavy for a two-man team. A few months ago I hurt my back and was unable to use this kit for some time. That's when I decided that I needed to get into shooting with a second set of gear that was much lighter and more portable. The problem was that high-speed sync through the use of PocketWizard's Flex TTL transmitters and 580EX II just seemed troublesome. I didn't like the 580EX II I was using and the worries about RF noise really turned me off to the whole idea. It was going to be expensive, complex and I wasn't even sure it was going to work very well. So I decided to hold off until something better came along. Well, it's here.

When I first read the press release for Canon's 600EX-RT, which was announced with the 5D MK III and ST-E3-RT, I noticed that the new flash included a wireless radio transmitter. A bit dumbfounded, I said to myself, "Does this mean I don't have to use PocketWizards anymore?" After being slightly let down by the long delays on the 1DX and the overly hyped high-ISO performance of the 5D MK III I decided that I'm still going to need a quick and easy lighting setup that I can take with me anywhere all the time since I am always on the go and working solo. I finally decided that now was the time to take the plunge to find out if these lights were everything I imagined. It turns out they are so much more. We'll get into those details in a bit but first lets take a look at speedlites in general.

About speedlites:

Working in the field can often put professionals in places where the lighting is less than ideal. Sometimes the light is so low that I can hardly see what it is I'm shooting and that is when you need to use an AF assist beam to achieve autofocus and a flash to give you the light you need to get a good exposure. The AF (autofocus) assist light is the red beam that emits from your speedlites right after you press the shutter release on the camera body while in Single-Shot AF mode. The infrared light will help you achieve focus in complete darkness. The downsides are that AF assist will not emit during continuous focusing modes and achieving focus with the beam takes a fraction of a second longer to achieve focus. This can make it difficult to get perfect focus with moving subjects. At these times I'm the kind of guy who works alone 99% of the time and need to travel as light as possible. This usually means that I have a single speedlite on my hot shoe and then try to mix that with the available light....if there is any. I do have a nice arsenal of fast primes which can definitely bring in a lot of light but the quality of that light is not always optimal, for instance reception halls with dim tungsten lights or worse - florescent.

Speedlites (spelled Speedlights if your a Nikon shooter) are small, compact, somewhat cost effective, light sources that are independently powered by a set of AA batteries or a power pack of some sort. These lights are small enough to fit right on top of your camera which is great for those of us with pro bodies that don't have built-in flash (I don't know of any top notch professionals who would ever use a pop-up flash). As much as I love to shoot available light, your going to find yourself in places where there isn't any light. I've been to events where they pretty much turned off all of the house lights and your only left with lights from the DJ. Time to break out the flash and an infrared AF assist light will be crucial for these moments when you can't even see who is in front of you. During these times I prefer to work in the shadows and put the DJ's lights to your subject's back much like you would put the sun at their back outdoors.

Note: For more information on how AF works please check out this link - http://www.cambridgeincolour.com/tutorials/camera-autofocus.htm

Above: This is an example of using a single 580EX II on the hot shoe and using available light for separation. The subjects were in total darkness and AF would have been impossible without the use of an AF assist beam. 1D4, 85mm, f/2.0, 1/125 sec, ISO 2000

You can fire speedlites in multiple ways. The most simple of which is to lock the small flash onto your camera's hot shoe (if your camera doesn't have a hot shoe you should just stop right here) and as you press your camera's shutter release it will send a signal to the hot shoe to tell the flash to fire. These systems can be a simple on/off signal or they can pass detailed information if your using a modern flash on a modern camera with capabilities such as Canon's E-TTL, Nikon's i-TTL or whatever the other companies call it. Optical triggers are included on some Nikon's I believe and most monolights which work by detecting a flash but you won't be using this option in bright sunlight or during a wedding where your lights will be triggered every few seconds by guests and you have to tell everyone to stop using flash which isn't going to happen. I even triggered the optical sensor of my battery pack with my own shadow in broad daylight. Took me a few minutes to figure out what was going on there.

Your next optical option would be to use the system of infrared integrated in most modern speedlite systems. This may be fun for a couple of experiments around the household but you will quickly find the limitations of line-of-sight and the measly range it provides. I know that some top photographers still use this system but I never cared for it and prefer radio.

We are going to skip talking about cable connections because in this modern day and age we shouldn't have cables running to all of our lights all over the place. All sorts of bad things can happen with a mess of wires but the main problem would be getting tangled in the cables and knocking over an expensive light which could potentially get someone hurt. You can save a couple bucks that way but there are so many wireless transmitters on the market that I can't keep up with them all. I stick with what I know and the industry standard has been PocketWizard Plus II for a long time.

With wireless radio transmitters you don't have to worry about the ambient light, range is greatly increased (up to 1/4 mile or more with some transmitters), they are usually universal, batteries last ages on a single charge and you can select from a large number of channels in case you have to shoot inside an arena with other photographers. The Olympics are going to be bonkers with a zillion remotes and everyone fighting over channels and such. That should be interesting to see, especially with the underwater remotes.

With the image at the right, we show Canon's entry into the wireless radio market. Having the transmitter inside the flash reduces the need for third-party transmitters dangling off the sides with cables running to the PC port. It looks clean and simple which is always welcome in my book. The system is limited to only 15 channels and a range of 100 ft. may not be enough for events like the Olympics or the NBA finals but that probably accounts for about 1% or less of the photographers in the world.

Radio transmitters such as the PocketWizard Plus II are limited in the amount of information they can pass. PocketWizard responded to demand and pioneered technology to send TTL information through a radio signal. Feedback has been mostly positive but the technology was limited by the speedlites due to the fact that many of them, especially Canon's speedlites, emitted RF noise which severely limited the range (~30 ft) and reliability of the signal. There are ways to increase the range but this requires more gear and such, here is a link to for those details from PocketWizard: http://www.pocketwizard.com/inspirations/technology/range/

Nikon had some issues with vibration reduction and a few other things throwing the sync off. There are just so many variables in this case and an intelligent radio transmitter/slave is an incredible complex device to engineer. I decided to pass on the Flex system with hopes that more reliable tech would hit the market soon enough. Canon caught me off guard when they announced that radio transmitter technology would be included in the flash. I thought they would just reduce the amount of RF noise with the successor to the 580EX II but they went ahead with a few innovations of their own and provided us with all the wireless radio goodies. If you want something done right you gotta do it yourself, right?

Brands, Canon or Nikon?

Of course there are other options and there are tons of speedlites available from third-parties. We could even get into a whole discussion about monolights and power packs but we can hold off on that for now. Today we will try to stay focused on small flash and my brand of choice, Canon.

Now before you start calling me a Canon fanboy I have to say that I almost switched to Nikon a couple of years ago. Nikon's D3s was looking tempting with the full-frame, great high-ISO quality and a solid autofocus. Unfortunately, I was turned off by Nikon due to the low availability of good glass and they had a few problems of their own with overheating in the SB-900. I have never heard of a Canon speedlite overheating....hmmm. Canon's original 580EX didn't even have a PC sync port though and wow that was a pain. I had several hot shoe-to-PC adapters break on me and my speedlites slammed to the ground. Scary sight to see but the 430EX units were pretty durable and continued working. Anyway, I'm just going to discuss things from my own personal experience and I have been shooting Canon ever since I got my first DSLR. Why Canon to begin with? Whenever I began my photography career in 2006 Canon was definitely on top of Nikon as far as bodies and lenses went. I shot with the D2xs one time with an old 80-200 f/2.8 lens and that was the last time I ever picked one up. The AF was crap, you couldn't go beyond ISO 800, and the build quality of the lens was a joke (we have a large pile of broken Nikon lenses sitting in a box in our newspaper's office). So I made my decision to buy into Canon for their reliability, color and high ISO capabilities.

If your one of those folks with enough money to switch brands every time Canon or Nikon comes out on top with some fancy new gadget then good for you. I'm not one of those fortunate folks who has enough money to throw around. As nice as the D3 looked when it first came out, I had already made my decision and was already heavily invested in Canon gear so I'm going to stick with that. I will say that I believe it is a great time to be a Canon shooter with the arrival of the 5D MK III, the soon-to-be-released 1DX, and of course the 600EX-RT.

Enter the 600EX-RT:

As soon as you open the box you will notice a nice, large instruction manual. You should probably read it but if you're like me you just toss it aside and immediately pop in four AA-batteries and start messing around. The first things you notice when compared to the 580EX II are the slightly larger head, which now allows you to zoom to 200mm, and a nice, big, new LCD screen. The menu system has completely changed. At first you may find it frustrating and confusing but you should just bear with it and practice learning how to switch between optical and radio and then finding out which modes work best for you. My first gripe would be the absence of colored menu settings such as the menu system on Canon's camera bodies. You have to flip through four menus just to find the button for high-speed sync. The build quality seems to have improved and although the flash is rated at being a couple of ounces heavier than its predecessor, I don't notice the increased weight when mounted on either of my camera and lens combinations but I do notice that the flash now fits more securely which makes it feel like part of my camera and not just an accessory.

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Above: This is your standard shot for a speedlite. The room was completely dark and I used the AF assist beam of a single 600EX-RT mounted on my 1D MK IV with the CTO gel fitted in the new gel holder to mix with the tiny bit of ambient light. The high-density CTO gel which came with the kit gave me a tone that was slightly too orange for the camera's tungsten white balance setting. The low-density gel didn't seem to be quite orange enough. It's back to the Rosco gels I suppose 1D4, 120mm, f/3.2, 1/60 sec, ISO 1600

If you have operated a Canon Speedlite before then you should feel right at home using a single 600EX-RT on the hot-shoe. In fact if you never plan to operate the flash with a radio slave you can purchase a non-RT 600EX for about $30-50 less or something like that. It is probably better to play it safe and go ahead and just get the RT model to make yourself as future proof as possible but it's nice of them to give us the option. The radio transmitter features works so well, Canon definitely made sure to simplify this incredibly complex feature set and I can image this technology becoming the industry standard within the next two years.

Above: This was about 20 minutes after I turned on my second 600EX-RT and I simply put two units, one on the hot shoe and the other behind my subject, into TTL mode and started snapping. I think I adjusted the flash exposure compensation by +1/3 stop (which is what I normally do with previous models) but that was about it. 5D2, 35mm, f/6.3, 1/200 sec, ISO 100.

All you need to do to get synced is to hit the "Z" looking button and switch between the different link options until you have the radio tower indicator in the upper right hand corner of the display and for MASTER to be displayed right above your ratios or power settings depending on the mode you are in. The "Z" button is referred to in the manual as the link/wireless toggle button but maybe we can call it the E-Z button, right?? E for E-TTL and the "Z" is the link symbol. Eigh, you'll get that one later.

Update: If you go into the custom functions (C.Fn.) list and then go to personal functions (P.Fn.), P.Fn.-06 will allow you to change the wireless button toggle sequence. Use this to disable the Optical wireless system (looks like a lightning bolt) since we know that Radio works so good that most of us aren't going to use Optical anyway. This eases the process of connecting to slaves and help prevent you from making the mistake of selecting the wrong wireless connection method. (Thanks to FunPhotons on the canon rumors forum)

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Above: I was shooting in another dark room for a presentation and wanted to add some separation between my subject and the background. The 600EX-RT slave was bare bulbed and pointed directly at the presenter's back. The head was zoomed to around 105mm but the light still seemed to spill against the wall at almost 180 degrees. I'm going to bring along my Rogue Flashbender next time. I used manual power settings with the master at around 1/4 power and the slave was between 1/64-1/32. 1D4, 120mm, f/3.5, 1/125, ISO 800

My strategy for setting up groups right now is to flip through the different sync options using the "Z" button (link/wireless toggle button), finding the icon that looks like a radio tower with the RT light on, and then flipping through the different modes to find the one I want. Setting up the slave is just as easy, flip around till you find the radio tower icon, look for the light to come on and make sure it says slave. Avoid the icon that looks like a lightning bolt, we won't be needing the optical wireless system in most instances (P.Fn.-06 can disable optical). Everything you do on the master will automatically be changed on the slave with the exception of the zoom and group. Start playing with manual mode first, set your master for Group A and the first slave for Group B. Flip over to Menu Page 2 and use the Ratio button to flip through the different options available. You now have to hit the Gr button to change the ratios. It is a bit much but I'm sure I will use this flash enough to learn it like the back of my hand eventually. For the time being, find something to practice on. I pretty much jumped straight into my first shoot without even testing the system and that was a bad idea. Do yourself a favor and practice on your cat or something, just please don't send me photos of your cat. I see enough of those on Facebook.

In order to adjust the exposure compensation you will have to flip back to Menu Page 1 and then you can fine tune your exposure depending on your subject. I'm looking forward to testing the precision of the new metering system on the 1DX with a spot meter linked to the AF point along with a few strobes set to TTL....if I can ever get my hands on one.

After getting your master and slaves connected and you get the green light, you can be synced within seconds the next time you switch them on. So before you have a shoot go ahead and preset the settings on you're speedlites and all you gotta do is turn them on when your ready. You can even save your settings now and adding a third slave requires only a couple button presses of the "Z" button (referred to as the link/wireless toggle button) and you should be good to go.

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Above: For this portrait I knew I was going to be in the man's home and I figured it would be a good time to test out more features of the 600EX-RT. Here I bounced flash off my hot-shoe for the main light and then set up two groups for the others which were aimed at the shelf and the other at his side for rim light. Both lights were bare bulbed so you can see some spill hitting the right side of his face which is what I wanted. 5D2, 35mm, f/2.2, 1/100 sec, ISO 100

The best news about linking the speedlites is that you can control everything from the master on the hot shoe! This is going to save you time and effort and makes you look professional. The last thing you want to do is run round to 10 different strobes just to change the power output or enable HSS. Now you can assign the strobes to 5 different groups for ultimate control. I prefer to set each of my speedlites to a different group if possible, this gives you more control although limitations remain with cameras that were made prior to 2012.

Despite the many warnings that the maximum sync speed will be 1-stop lower and that radio-transmitter shooting will be disabled, I have only run into one limitation so far with my 5D MK II and my 1D MK IV. If you switch over to "Gr" for group with the Mode button, you can actually set different groups to their own independent modes. Group A can be E-TTL, Groups B and C can be in manual and so forth. Well, if you try this on older bodies the settings will reset and you will get an error. It seems to be all or nothing for me right now so I'll stick with ratio and manual modes for the time being.

Above: An awesome part of the radio transmitter is that the signal is very consistent and reliable. I have tested in several environments so far and haven't had any problems. This was shot from maybe 100 ft. away from the other side of the street with the slave behind a brick wall and it continued to fire as long as I was pointed in the general direction of the slave. 5D2, 85mm, f/2.0, 1/80 sec, ISO 1000

(Updated) Custom functions:

There are many nice custom functions for the 600EX-RT. I'm going to list a few of my favorites to help you get started.

  • C.Fn.-01: Auto Power off. (1) I keep this disabled so that the flash is always ready to go.
  • C.Fn.-02: Modeling flash. (3) I keep this disabled. I hate it when I accidentally hit the modeling flash button while covering an event.
  • C.Fn.-13: Flash exposure meter setting. (1) I find this quicker and easier for setting compensation.
  • C.Fn.-20: Beep. (1) I prefer to have my slaves beep so that I know when they are ready to fire.
  • P.Fn.-06: Wireless button toggle sequence. (1) Change the toggle sequence to completely eliminate Optical since we won't really be needing it.

Above: Here is a rough idea of what the Master (left) and the Slave should be looking like with a wireless radio connection enabled and set in Manual mode. Note that the slave will not display the fact that it is in manual and being controlled by the master.

Shooting events at night:

Here's another one of the main reasons why I wanted a 600EX-RT so badly. When shooting in dark environments such as an outdoor wedding reception at night time you're going to need an AF assist beam enabled on your camera body and a couple of lights to add some separation. You are no longer going to have the luxury of a white ceiling to bounce flash from your hot shoe, there are a very limited number of power outlets available for your monolights if you bought them and you will probably only have a couple of minutes or even seconds to set up for each shot. For this event I set up three groups with my three 600EX-RT's. The hot shoe unit was Group A, the moveable light with a small weight at the base was my Group B, and I had a third light in a softbox ready to light up the dance floor with a heavy sandbag for safety as Group C. With pre-2012 camera bodies it is easier to turn off a group which is at the bottom of the menu (Group C was at the bottom of the list this time since I knew I wouldn't be using it for all of my photos).

Autofocus would have been nearly impossible in pretty much all of the reception shots without the AF assist beam from my hot shoe flash. Using a radio transmitter from a third party company would have left you stranded without AF assist in this case. I could have boosted my ISO up to 6400 to bring in some ambient light but that would have been plain nasty. I decided to fire the speedlites in manual mode because the camera had issues metering in the pitch black conditions and everything was getting blown out.

Above: With only a few seconds to set up for this shot I stuck a single 600EX-RT into the trees for some back lighting (I'll edit the stand out later for the final image) and kept both units in manual mode. The hot shoe flash was aimed high and I used the bounce card for fill. A second backlight to add some separation to the groom would have been appreciated as well as a little time to get my exposure perfect but those are luxuries that you won't always have especially when ants are starting to get to the cake! 5D2, 35mm, f/2.2, 1/40 sec, ISO 1250

Above: Setting up for the dance floor. The more lights you can get for a night shoot, the better. I set my lights up so that I could work that string of lights into the background of most of my images. While I did have a set of monolights with me that I used for the group portraits, I did not want to risk blowing a breaker since we only had enough cable to run power from a single outlet from a nearby home. 5D2, 35mm, f/1.8, 1/20 sec, ISO 1250

Above: Changing power settings from the master can be tricky at first but you'll get the hang of it. As a side note I keep a battery pack on my hot shoe flash as much as possible since it demands the most power. I generally point the head above my subjects and use the bounce card for fill light to avoid as many harsh shadows and red-eye as possible. 12 AA batteries > 4 AA batteries :)

Above: Just a little bit of rim light was enough to add some separation from the background in this shot. You don't need 10 speedlites to make magic happen but 2-3 will definitely be a good start. I plan on adding at least two more units to my kit in the future. Next time I'll remember to bring my diffusion material for the softbox to make my main light a little softer. 1D4, 85mm, f/2.0, 1/50, ISO 1000

Above: Here I used the DJ's light as the backlight and kept the remotes in the same position. The softbox unit is at camera left while the bare bulbed unit remains high in the air at camera right. A fourth remote with a purple or warm toned gel high in the air in the background would have been extra nice to fill in the black space in the top left corner of the frame. 5D2, 24mm, f/2.8, 1/20 sec, ISO 1600

High-Speed Sync:

High-speed sync is probably one of the most important features of the new radio transmitter enabled 600EX-RT. High-speed sync is going to make or break many people's acceptance of the new system and I must say that the Canon engineers have absolutely nailed it.

Above: HSS was used on a single 600EX-RT at full-power to give me a shooting aperture of f/1.2 with my 85mm lens from the shade. This was triggered with a 600EX-RT on the hot shoe with flash disabled. 5D2, 85mm, f/1.2, 1/8000 sec, ISO 100.

Ok, so most of us already know that HSS is not possible with most monolights and other large flash units. If you know of a way to achieve HSS beyond 1/300 sec without a leaf shutter please let me know because that would be super cool. I almost considered buying a medium format camera just for the leaf shutter lenses that can sync at up to 1/1600 sec or better but I am glad I didn't make that call (not like I can afford it anyway). Unfortunately I don't know of any products out there at the time of writing to get me beyond the designated x-sync speed of my cameras for large flash units. Most of the time this varies between 1/125-1/300 sec depending on the camera. HSS works by the camera telling the flash to fire a series of pulsating flashes which significantly reduces flash power. Achieving HSS requires you to have a flash with HSS capabilities and some way of transmitting that information between the camera and the flash. The easiest way to do this for a Canon shooter is keep the flash on the hot shoe and enable high-speed sync. On-camera flash isn't always appealing but works whenever you need fill-flash. Honestly I hate using fill-flash but it is necessary at times.

In the past if you wanted to use HSS with the camera off the hot shoe you are going to have to either use a cable such as Canon's OC-E3 off-shoe cord or the data would have to be transmitted through the optical sensor on the front of the flash. I believe Canon has finally broken the barrier and using the optical system is now going to be considered the old way of achieving HSS for Canon users at least. The downside to optical transmission is that you need line-of-sight at a close range (30ft) and if you try this in daylight you are going to have serious issues if you can even get the slave units to fire at all.

To fully test high-speed sync I grabbed my buddy, Sholten, who was handy. I didn't want to waste the time of a professional model (no offense Sholten) and also it is good to use a forgiving friend for test shoots in case you really mess something up. Just make sure they are patient and pay them with burritos. Our main goal of the day was to see what is possible with the new speedlites during broad daylight at around 6pm EST time. Normally wedding ceremonies are held around 3:30pm so you'll be shooting portraits and group shots around this time. I think the results speak for themselves, we overpowered the sunlight rather easily with just two units key lights and a third unit on the hot shoe for some fill light. I could definitely see myself with a Ray Flash Ring Flash adapter now. I'll see if I have a friend kind enough to lend me one next time to get that Dave Hill look going.

Above: For this shot we used three 600EX-RT's at full power with high-speed sync enabled to overcome broad daylight. Using the 5D MK II and the 24mm f/1.4L II, we set the shutter speed to 1/4000 sec, f/5.6, and ISO 100. To get this shot without high-speed sync we would have needed my Elinchrom Ranger RX kit which would have left us with a max shutter speed of 1/200 sec and the aperture would have needed to be stopped down between f/16-f/22 which is well beyond the camera's diffraction limiting aperture of f/10. More on that later.

How about shooting sports with the new speedlites? BMX and skateboard photographers will rejoice at this one for sure. Action was frozen perfectly for my needs. Setting up took just a minute and we were ready to go. I'm not sure of the flash duration at specific amounts of power output but full power is usually has the lowest flash duration of around 1/800 sec. This is a rough estimate based on estimates of the 580EX II's flash duration so your going to have to take that number with a large grain of salt. If anyone finds out the flash durations please let me know and I'll give you credit. Anyway, to be on the safe side try to reduce your flash output to 1/4 of the max power output or less which should definitely get you past 1/1000 sec. For this test we went ahead and popped all speedlites at full power. I'm going to have to test this later when there is less light outside to get some better numbers for you guys and gals.

Above: A barrier has been broken. The new wireless radio system allows me to sync at 1/8000 sec. I was concerned that the flash duration was going to be rather low (around 1/800 sec maybe) but with the shutter speed all the way at its highest speed we shouldn't have to worry about motion blur, not in this case anyway. Sholten was perfectly frozen in this image and if you zoom into his hands or feet you won't notice any motion blur. 3x 600EX-Rt at full power, 5D2, 24mm, 1/8000 sec, f/2.8, ISO 160.

Above: This is an unsharpened 100% crop of the previous image. This definitely meets my needs for stopping action in most cases. Let's try baseball or smashing some fruit next time.

Above: We can now overpower sunlight and have a shallow depth of field without the need for neutral density filters. This opens the doors to a lot of creative possibilities. Want more depth? Just bump up the ISO and stop down your lens. 3x 600EX-RT at full power, 5D2, 145mm, f/3.5, 1/8000 sec, ISO 100

HSS for fill-flash:

Fill-flash is a very common use for flash. Here's just a quick test to show that it works.

0610_pullman_

Above: A single 600EX-RT was used for fill-flash in this case. The musician was in the shade while the sun was hitting the buildings behind him. Getting a good exposure of his face would have made me blow out the background. 1D4, f/4.5, 100mm, 1/640, ISO 320

 

Update 6/22/12:

Above: I brought my Wescott Apollo softbox along for a maternity shoot in the sweltering heat. 5D2, 35mm, f/5.0, 1/640 sec, ISO 200. Two 600EX-RT speedlites were fired from camera right inside the softbox. I had to aim them directly into the diffusion material but had plenty of power after that. I'm going to probably switch back to a Chimera softbox.

Above: HSS comes in handy when you want to get the most out of your lens. I invested in a 200mm f/2.0 so that I could get superb images at f/2.0. 5D2, 200mm, f/2.0, 1/1250 sec, ISO 200. Two 600EX-RT units fired directly through diffusion material in an Apollo softbox.

HSS Limitations:

Using high-speed sync has some limitations. As I mentioned before, going beyond the designated maximum X-sync speed of your camera is not possible without using high-speed sync. If you exceed the designated limit you will start to see the bottom of the frame start to clip and become black (provided there isn't enough ambient light). High-speed sync uses a pulsing method to allow the flash to operate for a longer period of time. The faster your shutter speed, the fewer pulses of light you will be able to capture thus limiting the power output at higher shutter speeds...at least that's my take on HSS anyway.

So why would you want to use HSS? Using high-speed sync is great for shooting action in sports arenas for one but I never really use extra lights for basketball and other indoor sports so we'll skip that for now and come back to it later in an indoor sports related blog entry. Another use is of course overpowering the sun and retaining more control over your depth of field. Let's hop back to my shoot with Paige out on the lake. Our goal was to be able to see the fog rising off the lake so using a 24mm wide angle lens and stopping lens down to around f/8-f/11 would have given us all the depth we should have needed. With my shutter speed limited to 1/200 sec to match the maximum x-sync speed of my Canon 5D MK II, we ran out of room for overpowering the sun and retaining f/8. So what I had to do was crank my Elinchrom Ranger RX all the way to full power (7.5 stops or 1,100 w/s) which put us at f/20 at ISO 100. I could have used the push of ISO 50 but at a loss of dynamic range. A neutral density filter could have helped but I only had a set of 72mm filters (Canon's 24mm f/1.4L II uses a 77mm filter) and a set of gel filters for my 200 f/2.0. Exceeding the maximum diffraction limiting aperture of a camera causes the image to become softer. The limit for the 5D MK II and its 21 megapixel sensor is f/10. Beyond that, your losing sharpness at increasing rates. While this may not be too noticeable, you can definitely tell when you get in there and peek around at 100%. Nikon's new D800 boasts 36 megapixels, this has the unfortunate disadvantage of giving you a diffraction limiting aperture of around f/8. Yeah that means that f/20 is going to start getting really soft. You can try to make up for it later by adding some sharpness in post production but I prefer the image to be as sharp as possible straight from the camera. For my needs, 21 megapixels is plenty enough.

Above: Example of using a power pack to overcome daylight. 5D2, 24m, f/20, 1/200 sec, ISO 100. Light is from Elinchrom Ranger RX Speed AS with "A" head into a 22" Speedotron beauty dish modified to fit Elinchrom lights and Elinchrom's silver deflector. f/20 is well beyond the diffraction limiting aperture of my 5D MK II.

My friend Marcus was one of the first folks I know in my area to get the 5D MK III so I wanted to test to see if HSS had changed any. In our findings the 5D2 was just as good as the 5D3. Nothing gained or lost between the bodies except a few menu options and maybe something else I am missing.

Above: When testing HSS on two 600EX-RT units we found that 1/3200 sec was about the limit for the power of the on-shoe flash bouncing off an 11 ft ceiling. While you would probably never use such a shutter speed indoors but it does give us an idea of what the limitation might be for a 600EX-RT in a softbox during an outdoor shoot. The rim light which was aimed directly at the subject had plenty of power for the full shutter speed range indoors. All images for this test were shot in E-TTL mode. Results were the same between a 5D MK II and a 5D MK III using the same exact lens and speedlites.  5D3, f/2.0, 85mm, 1/3200, ISO 320

Above: Taking the shutter to 1/6400 we see that HSS significantly reduces the amount of power available from the flash. While I had enough power from three of 600EX-RT units bare bulbed and aimed directly at my subject from about 3-4 ft away outdoors, I would definitely need at least two of these in a softbox if you want to get a softer looking light outdoors and still be able to overpower broad daylight.

Pros:

All-in-one wireless radio speedlite can simplify your setups and reduce the amount of time it takes to be ready to shoot to just a few minutes, HSS works incredibly well all the way up to 1/8000 sec, range is excellent, ability to overpower sunlight and shoot at wide-open apertures, freezing motion seems to have been simplified, better build quality, fits better on the hot shoe, recycle speed seems similar to the 580EX II, zoom head now goes to 200mm, more information is now available under custom functions, gel filter holder is now included

Cons:

These units are $150-180 more than the 580EX II, the menu system could use some color, menu system is complicated at first, gel holder blocks the bounce card from extending for fill-flash, only two gels come with the flash, a few of the modes are not compatible with pre-2012 camera models, light spills in all directions without modifiers so look for a grid set or Rogue Flashbender

Conclusion:

The 600EX-RT is the speedlite I have been dreaming about for a long time. It works great as a single unit on the hot shoe and works even better when you start setting up wireless radio slaves. Setting these up for an event is easy on the back and takes just a few minutes. I can also keep a small lighting kit on me at all times for those last-minute shoots and leave my bag full of sync cords and PocketWizard Plus II's at home with my large flash units. The bad news is that I want more of these and just can't afford it. I could easily see about five of these being used for a shoot which is probably why Canon limited the number of groups to five in the first place. Of course you can have additional lights on those groups but I'm not sure of the limitation at this point in time, if there even is a limitation. I'll be looking forward to a successor to the lower cost 430EX II speedlite to use as another remote.

While I don't see three 600EX-RT units completely replacing my heavy duty Elinchrom lights for studio or wedding use, I do plan on using these with smaller modifiers and lots of different colors of gels to add some appeal to my photos.  I could even see myself using these as rim lights or background lights in conjunction with my monolights seeing that they have retained the PC-sync port for those of us who are going to have a hard time letting go of our collection of PocketWizards.

After about two weeks of use on a variety of different shoots I am starting to feel comfortable with the new menu system. Adding a little bit of color to the screen to match Canon's camera bodies would have been great. You can always control speedlite functions in the camera but I prefer to control through the master on the hot shoe. After I get a 2012 camera body I'll probably try both methods to see what works best.

While the price remains rather high, I feel like too many people are going to spend all of their money upgrading to the 5D MK III for the autofocus and high-ISO capabilities. Remember the wedding reception that I just took photos at? I used Single-Shot Mode the entire reception (doubt even the 5D3 could have focused in that darkness) and my ISO never really went over ISO 1600. That's good enough in my book. The ceremony would have been great for the 5D3's AF and speed but I'll elaborate on autofocus in another blog entry.

It would be nice to see Canon announce a low-cost receiver for this new wireless radio system for photographers who are loaded up with older speedlite models or other flash systems so that we could trigger those along with the new 600EX-RT units from our single master on the hot shoe. For people who simply can't afford a full set of 600EX-RT's, this would be a good option to help people transition to the new system. Sure you would lose HSS and the ability to control the power output of those systems but it definitely wouldn't hurt. If they do something like that then this system could totally replace my PocketWiard Plus II's. I could have definitely used a couple of extra lights with some color gels just to get some added effects during the wedding reception outdoors. In the shot at the right I was able to catch the flash from a guest and I liked the effect.

Overall if you don't already have a large collection of speedlites and want to get started with using remotes this would be a great starting point. You could always start with a 600EX-RT and then pick up a few of Canon's lower cost 450EX-RT speedlites (or whatever they will be called) on down the road to use as slaves. The 600EX-RT is going to benefit those photographers who are always on the go and need to travel light, photographers who need to be able to light an entire scene as quick as possible, sports photographers who want to freeze action at any time of day, portrait photographers who want to retain apertures of f/2.0 or greater during broad daylight, wedding photographers shooting in the dark who need fill-flash and AF assist as well as the ability to trigger remotes, photojournalism, and just about anything else you can come up with.

Compared to:

Is the 600EX-RT ($600-630) better than the 580EX II ($450)? As far as reliability is concerned, I would say absolutely. I have some nature friends who are also enjoying the enhanced zoom range which is now 200mm (up from 105mm). I would say that when my 580EX-II worked well that the two would be pretty similar in their abilities but when you get the 600EX-RT you are going to future proof your equipment because I see this new system as the wave of the future. As you grow as a photographer, your going to start finding the need for more lights even with cameras that can shoot at ISO 200,000. If the quality of the light isn't good then it doesn't matter how high you can crank your ISO up to. Plus until Canon figures out how to get perfect AF in the dark your going to need the AF assist beam for sure.

Is the 600EX-RT ($600-630) better than the 580EX II ($450) plus a PocketWizard Flex TT5 Transceiver($229) for setting up multiple remote slaves? Absolutely. You can probably get similar results but the range and reliability of the 600EX-RT is going to be much better. An unmodified 580EX II emits RF noise which cuts range to around 30 ft. vs. the 600EX-RT which I tested at around 100 ft.

Is the 600EX-RT ($600-630) better than the 580EX II ($450) plus a Phottix Odin TTL Flash Trigger ($325). Yeah, that's a no brainer. The Phottix Odin pretty much has all of the same wireless functions but you lose the flash on the hot shoe and the infrared AF assist beam. The Odin is pretty much similar to what I would imaging the ST-E3-RT Speedlite transmitter to be like but I'd rather not have one of those either.

Recommended accessories:

Rosco gels, Manfrotto Variable Friction Magic Arm, Canon CP-E4 battery pack, Sanyo's XX Powered by Eneloop (2500mAH) batteries, La Crosse Technology Alpha battery charger, Westcott Apollo Softbox with recessed front (28"x28"), Rogue flashbender (large), Ray Flash Ring Flash adapter, Manfrotto 1005BAC air cushioned stand

Update (7/23/12):

I now have the 1DX and was able to gain full control of each individual 600EX-RT. During a reception at a recent wedding, I kept the master on the hot shoe in E-TTL mode and I put two slave units in manual and controlled the output from the hot shoe. It worked great but I ended up running into the overheat problem a couple of times. I limited my camera to 6 fps and it still overheated 3 times. It takes a few minutes to cool down so I need to get another 600EX-RT for my second camera body in case that happens again... or I could have swapped with a slave unit because I was only using those at 1/64th power. Keep in mind that I shot over 1,800 frames at this reception in a 2 1/2 hour time period.

Update (7/23/15):

Well it's been 3 years since my last update on these units and they still rock! I've changed a few of my modifiers over the past year and for my on-camera unit I now use medium sized Rogue Flashbenders although I'm considering a jump to the large size. 

Over the past week I've discovered the Cheetahlight CL-360 and the Cheetah L4500 battery pack (aka Flashpoint Streaklight 360ws and Flashpoint Blast Power Pack BP-960 from Adorama or the Bolt VB 22 and Cyclone PP-400DR from BHPhoto.) The battery pack can seemingly power just about any flash (up to 1800 full-power pops) which is great because you just need to buy the proper cable. Since these kits appear to be three times more powerful than a 600EX-RT at about the same price, I'm going to test them out. I've also grown tired of Canon's CP-E4 battery pack. It's overpriced and the quality just doesn't match the rest of Canon's products. So, for my next wedding I will be powering two 600EX-RT's with a single Cheetah L4500. The main reason I probably won't be able to fully replace Canon units with the Cheetahlights is due to the need for the focus assist beam during weddings and late night shoots.

After a quick test I'm finding the Cheetahlight to be a notch faster for full-power recycling speed. I've got a 2-to-1 power cable for the L4500 on order which should put the Cheetah unit far ahead of the Canon CP-E4.

More to come soon, these are exciting times!


Comments

Spike(non-registered)
>>But many are not aware that the Canon 600EX-RT is only fully compatible (meaning do wireless radio ETTL II) with only four models:<<

This is a lie. It appears to be intentional as the poster is also talking about a non-existent flash, see this page -

http://www.lightingrumours.com/mysterious-internet-troll-promotes-non-existent-brand-2480#.U4junZSxTnp

The 600EX-RT has full compatibility with all EOS cameras released since 2012, including the 70D and the 6D. Compatibility with pre-2012 cameras has some minor limitations.

In addition, the poster claims that "The 600EX-RT wireless radio is limited & can't do radio in 2nd and HSS." Anyone who has the 600EX-RT knows it does HSS.

It would benefit your post to remove the bizarre "ad" for non-existent cameras that is lying about the Canon product.
cesur(non-registered)
Hi thanks for the detailed run down..very interesting.

Im have some issues with my 600ex rt multi flash setup. I have been trying a simple setup for bridal party entering a reception. I would have one flash in the corner to serve as a backlight for bridal party entering reception through main door. I would set it to Slave group B ett-l +2/3 . I would have my master 600 ex rt on my 5d mkiii also set to ETT-l +1 . Im faced with the issue of a inconsistent flash firring rates with slow recycle time. Adjust iso to 2500 changes nothing. I feel as though the slave (backlight) is making incorrect flash power output causing slow/ unworkable recycle time. Since rear light is not recycled in time, my main flash on hot shoe is not firring until the slave has recycled. This is causing me great frustration and missed shots. Some times I mat get of 2 shots in 3 secs, sometimes less and sometimes none. Very confusing! I then changed the rear light to manual mode 1/64th power it seemed to work better , however my master on hot shoe was on ett-l and not recycling as fast as the slave, thus not allowing either light to fire. I finally changed both flashes to manual and problem was solved, however I had to stop down and change aperture to adjust constantly to subjects closer to the flash. If you could shed any light on the my situation it would be greatly appreciated. Both flashes had fresh batteries installed prior to the reception starting. The room was fairly dark, however I had similar issues in brighter reception.
An(non-registered)
Nice write up.

But many are not aware that the Canon 600EX-RT is only fully compatible (meaning do wireless radio ETTL II) with only four models:

1. ATG Canon EOS-1D C
2. ATG Canon EOS-1D X IR
3. Canon EOS-1D X
4. Canon EOS-5D Mark III

How many photographers have these cameras? Not many.
Any lower models are potluck.

All Canon speedlites including 600EX-RT have overheating & shutdown problems.
The 600EX-RT wireless radio is limited & can't do radio in 2nd and HSS.
You required two 600 just to get AF assist beam and only one wireless radio ETTL II. Over 40 feet the master flash is lost.

The best bang for the money that many are going for is the ATG Gold MG8k Flash Kim X3.
This is so good that most camera stores have lower the price on Canon 600EX-RT as well as the Quantum Trio.
Or stores are getting returns after getting C & Q.

The benefits on the ATG Gold MG8k Flash Kim X3 are:
- Master/Slave
- Dual Flashheads
- ATG 1 second recycle time when needing 1/1 full manual power
- Recycle faster than Profoto B1, Quantum Trio, Canon 600EX-RT, Nikon SB-910 and Sony HVL-F60M.
- No overheating
- No shutdown
- ATG 9 wireless flash modes
- ATG 1st, 2nd and HSS wireless radio ETTL II from many EOS
- ATG 1/12,000 flash sync with studio monolight
- ATG AF assist beam better than all Canon's
- ATG Red Dot Socket
- HV Port Socket
- Color/Rotatable LCD
- Very easy to use & set-up

Truly,
An
iphoto27@yahoo.com
Rizwan(non-registered)
great article, thanks for taking the time to post
Porta(non-registered)
This is called photography, Awesome Canon 600 pics. I like all the pictures and the detailed information.
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