For a couple of years now, I’ve been working with the Strobist system; older Speedlights, used in manual mode with wireless triggers. Strobist took the photographic world by storm with this system, and for good reason. It’s cheap, it’s highly effective, and once you figure out what you’re doing, it’s easy.

The setup I have now lets me light pretty much anything I want. I can setup a studio in my living room and create complex light, or I can walk into a college gym and pump out enough light to shoot sports. I’m comfortable enough with the gear now that I can usually nail down the correct ratios within a few shots. And the whole thing cost me less than a single 580 EX II.

Lighting Kit in Bags

Yet I’m still thinking about changing systems. I’ve flirted with the Canon Speedlite system off and on for a while. I even have a 430 Ex that I use on-camera when the situation requires it. But up to now, using several Canon Speedlites off-camera required either a ST-E2 Speedlite Controller ($200) or a 580 EX II ($450). The ST-E2 uses IR signals to control remote Speedlites, so line-of-sight is essential. Based on its reviews, it works well – when it works. Just don’t try to shoot from too far away, or without good line-of-sight. The 580 EX II communicates through flash pulses; it still needs a line-of-sight, but there’s more flexibility (you can bounce the pulses, etc). But it seems slightly ridiculous to me to buy an expensive Speedlite flash just to use as a controller for other expensive Speedlites.

Enter the Canon 7D, the first Canon camera to finally step up to the plate and match Nikon’s Creative Lighting System by including a commander mode in the built-in flash. For anyone who’s gone Strobist, the built-in flash is just about worthless. But now that it can be repurposed, a whole new set of possibilities open up. Now you can control up to three groups of Speedlites – with several Speedlites to a group – all from the camera. With full use of E-TTL II. With full remote control over the Speedlite settings.


Very cool.

There are two gripes with my current setup: 1.) To adjust a strobe, I have to physically change its settings. This may sound petty, but when your strobes are spread out over a large room and you have to go to each, lower the lightstand, change the setting, & raise the lightstand back, you’ve just sucked up several minutes of time. Time when you model is standing there tapping her foot; time your subject may not have.

Gripe 2.) There is no flash exposure metering. No E-anything. Any time I shoot a scene, I have to judge the light, decide on the proper flash exposure, dial it in, and test it.

A switch to the Canon Speedlites would change both of these issues. As I mentioned before, using the built-in commander mode I could change the settings on any of my flashes from the camera itself. And since all the wireless communication is between Canon units, they all speak the language – E-TTL is back in play, auto exposure metering works, and I can let the camera calculate lighting ratios. Which means that when I do have to adjust the Speedlight settings, it won’t necessarily mean dialing in a new manual level, but simply dialing in a -2 FEV value. And now that value will change with the overall exposure – so when I’m working outside and a cloud passes over the sun, the entire system will dial down. When the cloud passes, the entire system dials back up.

There are the pros. But there are still cons; for starters, there’s still a line-of-sight restriction, especially when working at distances outdoors. And there’s the obvious expense: 430 EXs run $250 each.

I haven’t made a decision yet, but this is definitely something I’ll be thinking about. Got an opinion? Hit me up in the comments.

Brent Pennington is a freelance photographer and the driving force behind The Roving Photographer. When he\’s not working with portraiture or promotional clients, he’s usually in the field, hiking, or kayaking in pursuit of nature and wildlife shots.

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