Not just for the dark times in life, the best flashguns are equally useful for filling in the shadows on a sunny day. Canon’s current range of ‘Speedlites’ has something for everyone, so how do you go about picking the best Canon flash to suit your needs?
Starting simple, the most basic Speedlites tend to be small and compact but still offer a tilting head for bouncing the flash off the ceiling or a wall, for a softer lighting effect. However, they may lack a swivel mechanism, so you can’t bounce the flash off the ceiling if you’re shooting in portrait orientation. They also only tend to have a rudimentary zoom mechanism. More advanced models have a motorized zoom with a bigger range, that can automatically track the focal length or zoom setting of your lens. This enables greater flash power at longer focal lengths, as the beam is narrowed accordingly.
Even the most basic models have an infrared wireless slave mode, so they can be controlled remotely from cameras in which the pop-up flash has a wireless master mode. Using the flashgun off-camera gives you greater freedom and versatility for creative effects. You’ll still be able to take advantage of TTL (Through The Lens) flash metering, which generally gives accurate exposures automatically. As you move up the range, flashguns will typically feature wireless master and slave modes, either with infrared control or more powerful RF (Radio Frequency) linking, which increases the range and doesn’t require an unobstructed ‘line of sight’ path.
All current Speedlites give you the option of front-curtain or rear-curtain sync, the latter enabling the flash to fire at the end of an exposure rather than the beginning. This is useful, for example, when shooting moving vehicles at night, so that their light trails spread out behind them rather than in front of them.
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More advanced flashguns will typically add an HSS (High-Speed Sync) mode, so that you can use flash up to and including your camera’s fastest shutter speed, albeit with reduced maximum power on tap. This is a bonus when using flash to fill in the shadows under direct sunlight, so that you’re not limited to the regular sync speed of your camera.
Some models also feature a programmable repeat or ‘stroboscopic’ mode, in which you can 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 2020
The most inexpensive of Canon’s Speedlites, the 270EX II is also the smallest. In fact, it’s wonderfully compact and can squeeze into a spare coat pocket, making it particularly travel-friendly. The downside is that it has a relatively rudimentary feature set, with virtually no onboard controls nor an LCD screen. You therefore need to make all adjustments via in-camera menus, which can be a bit more long-winded. Back on the plus side, it has a wireless infrared slave mode for off-camera flash, accessible via a simple switch on the rear. There’s a simple push-pull manual zoom option, equating to 28mm or 50mm focal lengths in full-frame terms. High-speed sync and rear-curtain modes are available but, running on just two batteries, recycle speed after a full-power flash is quite lengthy, at around six seconds.
A relative newcomer to Canon’s Speedlite range, the EL-100 has roughly the same maximum power output as the older 270EX II. It’s a little bigger and heavier but still runs on two AA batteries rather than the normal four, and omits an LCD screen. Again, onboard controls are very limited, but the EL-100 does add 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.
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 onboard 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.
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.
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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
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
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.
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