Saturday, July 12, 2014

Canon Flash system reviewed

Canon has an interesting flash system of which I have personally used several items namely the 420EX, 430EX, 580EX2 and the ST-E2 flash controller. As a Canon user, you're doubtless expecting me to praise the Canon flash system. I'm not. I think it's absolutely the most appalling garbage I have ever encountered.

Back in the 1990s I was using a Metz 45 CT1 flash unit. That took 6 x AA NiCad batteries. That was sufficient for quite a lot of flashes. I forget how many. That flash was left on full power and the exposure calculated in my head from the distance, f-stop and the flash power. The Metz 45 had a metric guide number of 45. This equates to an imperial guide number of around 135. In real world figures that means that when a subject is 10 meters (30 feet) away, I can expect perfect illumination given 100 ISO film at f4.5. At 5 meters, I can use f5.6. Using 400 ISO film (which is what most people used), at 5 meters that f5.6 became f11. It really was quite a good flash. Doing these calculations became second nature and rarely was a photograph underexposed. Certainly the flash had auto modes and some models such as the CT 5 had TTL metering that hooked up to cameras with built-in TTL metering.

Roll forward a few years and we now have the God-awful Canon EX flash system. That's recently had an "upgrade" to use wireless flash triggering as opposed to infra-red triggering but even with all this, they missed out putting a wireless controller into the cameras. Instead to use wireless flash triggering it's necessary to buy the ST-E3 controller. Talk about expensive!

Let's look at the price of the most basic remote set-up using the currently available Canon equipment.

  • Canon 600 EX-RT $550
  • Canon 430 EX2 $299
  • Canon ST-E3-RT $290
  • Canon ST-E2 $225

That's $849 for the more expensive option or $515 for the cheap option. That's absolutely blooming ridiculous!

Looking at the controller itself and the flashes, they're even more ludicrous. There are so many modes on them that they need a manual just to be able to use them. Most have non-illuminated LCD screens that require a flashlight to view at night. Gone is the spontaneous response to things. The modes have to be checked or the exposure could be way off. They are simply not conducive to quick use. The manual for the 580EX2 is about as ridiculous as the camera manuals. Over a hundred pages to flip through just to find out how to use the darned thing.

The manual for the 430EX2 is no better - a huge great thing. When all you want is illumination either with full manual or TTL metering, instead of a simple dial that goes between Manual, TTL and possibly 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, 1/32, 1/64, 1/128 power there's an LCD and buttons to poke and peer intently at. If you're like me and have eyesight that could be better, reading those LCDs and the text on the buttons can be challenging in daylight. At night, forget it!

With the flash controllers, they allow TTL metering via radio but do not improve the simplicity of the system. It's still very complex. The latest controller, the ST-E3-RT has so many functions that it needs more pokey little buttons and a hard-to-red LCD in order to control even the most basic features.

Sadly, with the almost complete lack of recognisable manual controls on Canon cameras, it has now become very hard to take control of an exposure. It has almost got to the point where you just put the camera on auto and let it do the photography.  There just are way too many controls.

Photography should be about the picture, not about playing with the miserable little controls on the camera. To my mind, flashes should be as like the Vivitar 283 as possible albeit with the option of TTL metering. The camera should be as close to a Nikon FM as possible with just a shutter dial and an aperture ring. The depth of field scale needs to make a return too. Sure - have a frame review and delete function. Have RAW only output and leave the rest well alone - it can all be fiddled with on the computer. We don't need to do all the wacky things it's possible to do on a camera.

Nobody needs all the weird and wacky functions on these flashes. I have had a 580EX2 for 6 years and have never ever used the strobe effect. I have never ever used the tilt/swivel feature of the head. I have never ever used the modelling light function. I have only ever used it as TTL and at minimum power manual. I have used no other modes.

Scoring the Canon flashes out of 5:

  • Usability - 0
  • TTL - 5
  • Manual mode -1 (if you can find it in the menus)

Overall score: 2 out of a possible 5

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