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Best Canon flashgun in 2021: which Speedlite will be best for you?

Included in this guide:

Best Canon flashgun in 2020: which Speedlite will be best for you?
(Image credit: Canon)

If you're a Canon user, it makes loads of sense to pick up one of the best Canon flashguns. Canon's range of ‘Speedlites’ has been greatly expanded over the years to cover a broad selection of user types and budgets, so whether you're looking for something simple and affordable or a sophisticated tool for professionals, the best Canon flash units will have something for you.

The more basic Speedlites will tend to be smaller and more transportable, but still packing in useful features like a tilting head that lets you bounce the light from your flash off a wall or ceiling for a softer, more diffused look. Some will have a swivel mechanism to further expand your choice of angles, though cheaper units may forgo this.

Some Speedlites also employ a zoom mechanism, with more sophisticated models offering a mechanised version with a larger range, able to automatically track the focal length or zoom setting of the lens you're using for efficient synergy between camera and flashgun. The way a zoom works on a flashgun is by narrowing the beam, meaning it's more effective at greater distances.

Something that's common to all Speedlites, even the most affordable, is an infrared wireless slave mode. This allows it to be controlled remotely using cameras with a pop-up flash that has a wireless master mode, and this means you can physically decouple the flashgun from the camera and put it in different places. Off-camera flash is one of the most exciting techniques a photographer can learn, opening up a whole new world of creative possibilities while still allowing the user to take advantage of features like TTL (Through The Lens) flash metering.

Flashguns higher up the range will have master and slave modes with RF (Radio Frequency) linking rather than infrared, which means they have a greater operating range and also don't require an unobstructed line of sight, meaning you can get really creative with your positioning.

Canon Speedlites provide users with the option to use front-curtain or rear-curtain sync. What this basically means is determining whether the flash fires at the beginning of the exposure or the end, which is useful for creating specific effects such as light trails from moving vehicles, or when you're dealing with a moving subject coming towards you. 

• Read more: How to use flash for your photography

Advanced flashguns will also offer HSS (High-Speed Sync) mode. This allows the flash to work in synchronicity with your camera’s fastest shutter speeds (though with reduced light power), opening up possibilities for fast-action shooting as well as working in bright daylight, when slow speeds may simply be necessary for a balanced exposure. Various flashguns also have a programmable repeat or ‘stroboscopic’ mode; this lets you fire a series of flashes during a long exposure to create a sequential shot of objects in motion. 

Let’s take a closer look at the best Canon flashgun options on offer… 

Best Canon flashguns in 2021

(Image credit: Canon)

1. Canon Speedlite EL-100

A sensible choice for entry-level SLRs

Gn (ISO 100, meters): Gn 26
Bounce / swivel: 0-90 / 150-180 degrees
Zoom range: 28/50mm (manual)
Wireless master/slave: Master/slave IR
Dimensions (WxL): 65x92x71mm
Weight: 190g
Reasons to buy
+Advanced flash modes+Master/slave wireless options
Reasons to avoid
-Basic on-board controls-No LCD information screen

Canon’s entry-level Speedlite isn't quite as well specced as its more upmarket siblings - maximum power is just Gn 26, and it omits an LCD screen. On-board controls are also very limited, but the EL-100 does at least have a basic mode dial with setup options for wireless infrared master functions in addition to simple slave operation. Manual zoom settings are limited to 24mm or 50mm focal lengths (full-frame) but this time horizontal swivel is available as well as vertical bounce. Surprisingly for a budget-friendly flashgun, programmable repeat mode is available as well as the more usual high-speed sync and rear-curtain options.

(Image credit: Canon)

2. Canon Speedlite 430EX III-RT

A class act to suit enthusiast-grade cameras

Gn (ISO 100, meters): Gn 43
Bounce / swivel: 0-90 / 150-180 degrees
Zoom range: 24-105mm
Wireless master/slave: Slave IR/RF
Dimensions (WxL): 71x114x98mm
Weight: 295g
Reasons to buy
+Powerful and sophisticated+Intuitive onboard controls
Reasons to avoid
-Wireless master only in RF mode-No programable repeat mode

If we had to pick just one Canon Speedlite, it would be the 430EX III-RT. It’s quite compact, but rich in features and boasts wide-ranging on-board controls and an LCD screen that combine to deliver an immensely intuitive interface. Unlike the more basic Speedlites in Canon’s range, this one has a larger zoom range of 24-105mm that’s motorised to track your lens’s focal length or zoom setting, dedicated to both APS-C format and full-frame cameras. Recycling speed is quick even after a full-power flash, at around 2.5 seconds if you use NiMH batteries. The Speedlite is supplied complete with a diffusion dome, which is useful for softening the quality of light. Full wireless RF (Radio Frequency) master/slave functions are available for use with other compatible flashguns, although there’s only a wireless infrared slave mode, so you can’t use this Speedlite to trigger others that only have an infrared receiver.

(Image credit: Canon)

3. Canon Speedlite 470EX-AI

An artificially intelligent flashgun, ideal for beginners

Gn (ISO 100, meters): Gn 47
Bounce / swivel: 0-90 / 150-180 degrees
Zoom range: 24-105mm
Wireless master/slave: Slave IR
Dimensions (WxL): 75x130x105mm
Weight: 385g
Reasons to buy
+‘Intelligent’ bounce and swivel functions+Powerful maximum output
Reasons to avoid
-Limited features in some areas-Expensive for a ‘beginners’ flashgun

A real novelty item, the 470EX-AI’s main claim to fame is that it brings artificial intelligence to flash photography. As such, it can automatically work out the distance to the object you’re shooting, plus the distance to the ceiling or adjacent wall, and work out the optimum bounce and swivel angles for the best results. That’s the theory, at least, and it does actually work very well in practice. Beware, however, that fully automatic mode only works with cameras launched after the second half of 2014 and is unavailable even in some newer models, including the EOS 1300D, M3, M5 and M6. Maximum flash output is slightly more powerful than in the 430EX III-RT and recycling speed is virtually the same, although battery life is rather shorter, due to the extra motorization of the bounce and zoom head. It also lacks the RF wireless communication of the 430EX III-RT, and the programmable repeat mode of the EL-100.

• Read more: The 50 best camera accessories you can buy right now

(Image credit: Canon)

4. Canon Speedlite 600EX II-RT

Canon’s top-flight Speedlite is aimed squarely at professional photographers

Gn (ISO 100, meters): Gn 60
Bounce / swivel: -7-90 /180-180 degree
Zoom range: 20-200mm
Wireless master/slave: Master/slave IR/RF
Dimensions (WxL): 79x143x123mm
Weight: 435g
Reasons to buy
+Mighty maximum power output+High-end, weather-sealed construction
Reasons to avoid
-Old-fashioned interface-Very expensive to buy

Compared with every other Speedlite in Canon’s current line-up, the range-topping 600EX II-RT has the most powerful Gn 60 maximum output and the most generous 20-200mm motorised zoom range. It’s also the only one that features a slight downward tilt, useful for close-up photography. The 600EX II-RT is also better connected, with the availability of full wireless master/slave functions in both RF and infrared options. Built to take the grind of a busy professional photographer’s lifestyle, this Speedlite has a particularly tough and weather-sealed construction, including a rubber shroud on its mounting plate. It runs on the usually four AA batteries but also has a socket for connection to an optional external power pack. Like only the budget EL-100 Speedlite, it adds a programmable repeat mode to the usual options

(Image credit: Canon)

5. Canon Speedlite EL-1

Canon's latest and greatest flashgun is a pro's dream come true

Gn (ISO 100, meters): Gn 60
Bounce: -7 to 120 degrees
Zoom range: 24-200mm
Wireless master / slave: Master and slave, IR/RF
Dimensions: 84.4 x 149 x 136.4mm
Weight : 687g (with battery)
Reasons to buy
+Built for punishing use+Rechargeable Li-ion power+Super-fast recycle times + active cooling
Reasons to avoid
-Overkill for most users-Hugely expensive

The Speedlite EL-1 is Canon's flagship flashgun and has been designed specifically for high-end professional use. As such, it's the first Speedlite to carry the famous Canon ‘red ring’, normally only seen on L-series lenses. The EL-1 is built for endurance and dependability, with a weather-resistant design that uses sealing similar to that on top Canon cameras. Canon has paid special attention to the EL-1’s battery life, recycle times and continuous operation performance. It’s powered by a new lithium-ion LP-EL battery pack which offers approximately 335 flashes at full power and recycle times as short as 0.1-0.9sec. The Speedlite EL-1 has its own internal cooling system with a fan to allow up to 170 full power shots in quick succession without overheating, while a new Xenon flash tube increases durability, accuracy and consistency, offering manual power settings down to 1/8192 power. The Speedlite EL-1 is without doubt Canon's best-ever flashgun, but unless you're a pro shooter who really needs this level of dependability, the ultra-high price is hard to justify for most photographers.

(Image credit: Canon)

6. Canon Macro Ring Lite MR-14EX II

A classic ring light that’s great for close-ups

Gn (ISO 100, meters): Gn 14
Bounce / swivel: N/A
Zoom range: N/A
Wireless master/slave: Master IR (no slave)
Dimensions (WxL): 130x112x25mm
Weight: 455g
Reasons to buy
+Independent left/right control+LED modeling lamps
Reasons to avoid
-Lacks power for longer shots-You might require adapters

Unlike regular Speedlites, the MR-14EX II is based on a separate hotshoe-mounting control unit and a circular flash head that mounts around the front of a lens. As such, it’s ideal for shooting close-ups and is directly compatible with most of Canon’s macro lenses. However, you might need a 67mm or 72mm attachment thread Macro Lite Adapter to suit some lenses. Although you can rotate the flash head on the lens, in normal configuration it has two semi-circular flash tubes on the left and right, the power of which you can adjust independently. This enables shadowless macro lighting when both sides have equal power, or the addition of shadows to give a more three-dimensional effect. LED modeling lamps at the top and bottom help with composition and accurate focusing.

See also Best ringflash for macro photography


(Image credit: Canon)

7. Canon Macro Twin Lite MT-26EX-RT

The latest and greatest close-up flash solution

Gn (ISO 100, meters): Gn 26
Bounce / swivel: Variable
Zoom range: N/A
Wireless master/slave: Master IR/RF (no slave)
Dimensions (WxL): 62x56x49mm
Weight: 570g
Reasons to buy
+Powerful and versatile+Infrared and RF master modes
Reasons to avoid
-Can’t produce a ring light effect-Very expensive to buy

Much more powerful than Canon’s older MR-14EX II Macro Ring Lite, this recent addition has a Gn 26 rating, and is based on twin flash heads rather than semi-circular flash tubes. This gives you greater control over the independent positioning of each flash head, although you can’t replicate the classic ring light effect, sometimes used in portraiture to produce halo shaped catchlights in the eyes. The main hotshoe-mounting control unit has an intuitive layout and connects to the flash heads via chunky coiled cables. You can also trigger other compatible Speedlites with a choice of infrared or RF wireless communication.

Read more:

The best flashgun in 2021: the best strobe units for Canon cameras, Nikon and more

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Matthew Richards

Matthew Richards is a photographer and journalist who has spent years using and reviewing all manner of photo gear. He is Digital Camera World's principal lens reviewer – and has tested more primes and zooms than most people have had hot dinners! 

His expertise with equipment doesn’t end there, though. He is also an encyclopedia  when it comes to all manner of cameras, camera holsters and bags, flashguns, tripods and heads, printers, papers and inks, and just about anything imaging-related. 

In an earlier life he was a broadcast engineer at the BBC, as well as a former editor of PC Guide.