The Canon Photographer’s Guide To Upgrading Your Equipment – Part III: Flashes and Lights

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Polaroid PL160D first impressions product photos (1 of 12)ISO 200

Flashes and lighting are one the biggest and most critical parts of upgrading your camera system in order to expand your creativity. Once you start using them, it’s simple to get hooked. One of the biggest arguments against using a flash was that high ISO results are just so good now. The problem with that statement is that a flash will still give you the light where you need it; therefore adding creativity to your image. If there is no light to begin with, why raise the ISO level?

As a Canon system owner for years who now just concentrates on lenses and flashes, I can tell you from experience how to upgrade.

Be sure to check out Part 1 (Lenses) and Part 2 (Bodies).


Disclaimer: Before I go on, I should let you know that this guide comes from my own personal knowledge and the mistakes I’ve made over the years. At the time of publishing this piece, the Canon 5D Mk II is now discontinued but because of good lighting, I can still stick to it and my awesome Sigma lenses. The right light is much more important than any camera sensor.

Also, if you want to delve deeper into this, consider purchasing from Adorama or renting from Borrow Lenses.


Chris Gampat The Phoblographer lights are better (1 of 1)ISO 3200

Canon 430 EX II

Chris Gampat New York Comic Con 2010 cosplayers booth babes (12 of 38)The Canon 430 EX II is how I started to dip my toes into the world of flash photography. For a fairly affordable price, I was able to use a flash with full TTL metering and get some really jaw dropping results that I was really happy with for the time. That flash helped me shoot many of my first weddings and some events as well.

The 430 EX II has a lot going for it: it’s small, it’s fairly powerful, it has TTL metering, can be used as a slave flash to be triggered by your camera or another flash, and it’s pretty simple to use.

Had I made the decision all over again though, I would’ve went right up to the 580 EX II or 600 EX RT. The reason for this is because the 430 EX II mainly just serves as a kicker light for my portrait setups now.

In the end, it was still worth it though; but it doesn’t stay in my camera’s hot shoe at all.

Yongnuo 560-II

Shot for Gear Patrol using the Yongnuo 560-II
Shot for Gear Patrol using the Yongnuo 560-II

The Yongnuo 560-II is an extremely affordable flash with no TTL features but with a lot of still very advanced capabilities. For example, it can shoot stroboscopic (which lets you show more motion in progress), it can act as a slave, and it also has a recycle beep sound just like a monolight to tell you when it is ready to fire again. This is very useful for photographers than often opt to get the flash out of the hot shoe; which is how I primarily use it now.

In all honestly, this is a flash that seems to be designed to be used off camera and on a stand with a modifier. Due to the lack of TTL metering, you’ll need to otherwise set the flash manually. We don’t recommend it for events, but instead for portraiture.

Vivitar 285HV

The Vivitar 285HV isn’t a TTL flash either per se, but it makes all manual settings very simple. There are a couple of knobs that first set the ISO. Then there is another for the aperture of your lens; which is also color coded. These color codes correspond to another knob which sets the flash power output. When actually used in person, it becomes quite simple to use and master.

Of any flash that I use now, this is perhaps the one I reach for the most when I go for on-camera hot shoe flash shoots. There are many photographers these days that still use this flash despite how old it is now. However it is sturdy, reliable, and affordable.

We’ve got even more budget flash options here for you if you’re just getting started.

Canon 580 EX II

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer RoundFlash and OCF Gear Cord Test With Jill (3 of 15)_PerfectlyClear_0001

The 580 EX II was and still is an excellent flash. Mine survived a six foot fall and with a little bit of repair, continued to function. It can act as a master flash to wirelessly set off other flashes, it can go stroboscopic, it has weather sealing, and s extremely reliable. Plus, it works TTL with your Canon camera; which means that metering won’t be much of an issue at all.

The only thing that may hold a person back is the price tag. For less money, one can get more power out of a monolight but at the sacrifice of portability. Also, we really recommend this flash to those that want to get very serious about either semi-professional or professional photography.

If you want to wirelessly set off other flashes with the 580 EX II or your camera, check out our guide to Canon’s Infrared Wireless Flash system.

Canon 600 EX (and EX-RT)

The 600 EX and the RT version of the flash are Canon’s newest flagships. The 600 EX is essentially the 580 EX II with more power and a simpler interface coupled with a new design.

However, the RT version is much different. Canon came out with their own radio system with their flashes and the RT version can be set off with said radio transmitter. For the best results though, it works with the least flaws when using newer DSLRs like the 5D Mk III, 1D X, and others.

Now, we’re about to get more into Radio Triggers and light modifiers. But if you don’t want to spend the money on those, consider the OCF Gear TTL cables. These are made by Syl Arena, and are some of the best cables I’ve used. To this day, I sometimes still use mine for shoots.

Radio Triggers and Light Modifiers

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Chimera Speedring with Softbox for Speedlites review (6 of 9)

This is where we start to get more complicated. Now, we’re focusing on taking the flash out of the camera’s hot shoe more and putting it somewhere else–effectively giving you more creative freedom with your lighting. Before you go on and read, you might want to put the following links in another tab for you to read later. First up in our intro to Light Modifiers. Also be sure to check out this post showing the Effects of Various Light Modifiers.

Phottix Odin TTL Radio Triggers

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Phottix Hands on Review (2 of 6)

When it comes to TTL radio triggering, many pros opt for the offerings from PocketWizard in the form of their Flex and Mini triggers. They work well, but for the money a little company called Phottix does an excellent job with the Odin TTL triggers. If you’ve got an older Canon DSLR, you’ll also find that this does a better job of TTL metering than Canon’s own infrared system. Since the introduction of the 1D X and 5D Mk III though, Canon’s metering game has been stepped up though.

What makes these triggers so special is their high level of reliability, simple interface controls through the commander, excellent battery life, reliable TTL metering (though when used off-camera and in a light modifier we would still recommend manual control, which is also possible with these triggers), affordable price, and the overall feeling of how much trust you can put into these triggers.

Mary and Tommy's Engagement (27 of 46)ISO 100

Canon ST-E3-RT Radio Transmitter

Canon, as stated earlier, is the only manufacturer to have stepped into the wireless radio transmission game as of the publication of this article. The transmitter is currently meant to only be used with the 600 EX RT flash. The transmitter can do nearly anything that most other triggers can do with some limitations. For example, it can only control so many flashes at once. Additionally, the range is rather limited compared to radio triggers made by companies with years more experience. However, it is an option.

PocketWizard Plus III

The PocketWizard Plus III triggers are the standard in the photo industry for radio triggers. Though they may not allow you to have control over your flashes and monolights the way that Phottix and Canon do, they have the best reliability of any transmitters out there. Plus they have a bunch of really cool features. The triggers can be set to be both transmitters and receivers, one or the other, extend the range of another receiver/transmitter, and have ports to work with nearly anything that is industry standard (such as PC ports or sound ports.)

Of any triggers, they’re also amongst the most affordable; but man do the batteries die quickly. If you need the reliability though, you’ll probably invest in up to four or more of these things. I personally own two.

Editor’s Note: if you’re a wedding photographer, you’d generally stop here. Speedlites are the industry standard in event and wedding photography for a good reason. Want to step up your game even further though? Then continue reading.

Our Entry Level Monolight

Impact LiteTrek

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer New York Comic Con 2012 Photos (3 of 33)ISO 200

The Gradus Group developed the Impact LiteTrek: a rebranded and revamped ConanMark light with slightly different features than the original. The LiteTrek is a steal for what it delivers: a powerful 400 watt seconds of light, an excellent umbrella reflector, a sturdy case, stroboscopic lighting abilities, variable power outputs, and an overall compact package that can be placed on a bike and ridden over to a location for shooting.

For the money, you really can’t go wrong. I used to own one before upgrading to the Paul C Buff Einstein E640. We recommend that you also check out B&H’s infographic to see just what kind of results you can get with the light.

lens rental

Our Mid Range to Pro Level Monolight Recommendation

Paul C Buff Einstein E640

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer New York Comic Con 2012 Photos (4 of 33)ISO 200

This is the light I reach for these days for almost any shoot I do. It is supremely more powerful than my speedlites and also more affordable. Even though it doesn’t have TTL, we should think about it this way.

The average Speedlite: $400 (100 watt seconds)

The Einstein E640: Got mine for $600 (640 watt seconds)

In order for me to get the equivalent amount of power, I’d have to spend well over $1,000 in Speedlites.

So what else does the American Made Paul C Buff Einstein E640 give me?

– Variable power output.

– A consistent modeling light so that I can see where my shadows fall and get a preview of my image.

– Faster recycle time for when you’re in the zone and shooting lots.

– A much better battery pack in the form of the Vagabond Mini

– A totally digital interface

– Very good color consistency which translates into less time editing.

– Very portable for the abilities that it has.

– Enough power to work flawlessly with 7 foot parabolic umbrellas.

Keep this in mind for when you get to this stage.

Profoto D1 500/500 Airs Studio Kit

Profoto is one of the reigning kings of the studio world. These are for photographers that require the absolute best in everything: reliability, ruggedness, color consistency, lots of power, etc. The D1 air system also has an intuitive control interface that is used by studio photographers, wedding photographers (who typically go to TTL systems in speedlites), and more. Part of what makes the Air system so excellent is the fact that it uses its own radio system; which is an odd factor considering they are under the same parent company as PocketWizard. The reason for this is because the commander gives control over the lights and otherwise would need various radios due to regulation laws across the world.

To this day, it remains to be one of our favorite studio lights and the ones that I aspire to get my hands on one day.

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Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.