With the introduction of the EOS 7D, Canon finally took the initiative to play catch-up to Nikon in an area where they had been woefully lacking: wireless flash control.  For years Canon has been not only in the backseat, but in the far back of the bus, when compared to Nikon’s Creative Lighting System.

The 7D was the first Canon DLSR to include a Speedlite commander mode in its built-in flash, a feature that captured my attention very quickly.  For years now, Nikon users have has commander capabilities built into their DSLRs, SB-800 Speedlights, and dedicated commander units.  Canon shooters, on the other hand, have had…well, very little.

Very little, that is, if you’re looking for TTL control.  If you’re shooting Strobist-style, with manual flash settings, then any “dumb” radio triggers will work (although all units except the Canon 580EX lack PC ports, so you’re left at the mercy of hotshoe adapters).  So long as you don’t mind running from flash to flash to change the output, this works okay.

But for TTL flash, there were exactly two options: the antiquated ST-E2 Speedlite Transmitter, or a 550EX/580EX flash hotshoe-mounted in master mode.  The ST-E2 only shoots forward along the lens axis and only triggers groups A & B; if you want to use group C, you’re out of luck.  That leaves a 550/580EX, and personally I’ve always found the idea of using a $500+ 580EX on-camera as a master unit incredibly annoying; it’s large and somewhat unwieldy, and it seems like a very poor utilization of an expensive flash.

Canon ST-E2 Speedlite Transmitter

The 7D stood to correct this with a built-in master capability; suddenly your Canon Speedlites can be controlled from the camera’s menu system.  Set your groups, ratios, manual output – no more running between flashes, it’s a whole new level of control in the camera, where it should be.

Problem is, it doesn’t work very well.  Consider the physics: the 7D’s flash measures 1″x.25″ in size.  That’s a hugely unimpressive .25 square inches total.  And because of the pop-up mechanism, the flash head will only face forward; there’s no bounce or swivel.  It’s underpowered, tiny, and restricted – puny is the word that comes to mind.

After having used it in a range of situations, I’ve become disenchanted – while it was a good idea, and a noble try at matching the Nikon system, I have to say that it is ultimately of little use.  If your Speedlites are in front of the camera, with no obstruction between them and the built-in flash, then it’ll work pretty darn well.  But start adding in any variables – the sort of variables and setups that you’ll actually find in the real world – and the whole thing falls apart.

Half way through my last studio shoot, with half the Speedlites failing to fire simply because of their physical placement, I broke down and threw the 580EX on the hotshoe and flipped it to master mode.


Instant change.  Immediate improvement.  Suddenly I’m blasting commands out of a flash with a 2.75″x1.5″ emitter (that’s 4.125 square inches).  An emitter that can be tilted and swiveled around a complete hemisphere, with enough power to bounce it off a ceiling.  Where before I was working in a corner with only partial success, I was able to blanket an entire room with command signals.

Overlay of Canon 7D built-in flash vs. 580EX Speedlite flash.

Sadly, there’s just no way around it.  For dependable communication coverage and command capabilities, you need a master-capable Speedlight on-camera.  The built-in mode is more gimmick than useful tool, and frankly I believe that it should be relegated to the Rebel series, as it’s more likely to fit the needs of a hobbyist/advanced amateur with a single off-camera Speedlite than it is a professional with a full setup.

What Canon needs is a whole new unit.  There are faint rumors of a new Canon Speedlite coming soon.  My guess is that it will be a unit designed to challenge Nikon’s SB-900 (which is a very impressive Speedlight).  It will certainly retain a master mode, and will likely interface its menus with the newest EOS cameras.  But in my opinion, this is still a stopgap measure.

I return to what I said before – using a $500 Speedlite solely as a commander, adding little or no actual light to a scene, is like buying a BMW and using it only to run for groceries.  A flash with the power of a 580EX is meant to be used to light a scene!

Canon needs to go back to the drawing board and design a brand new commander unit, one that will bury the pathetic ST-E2 and give professional photographers a real option when it comes to commanding their Speedlites, which they’d then be free to use off-camera as lights.  This new unit would need tilt/swivel capability, and whether it uses visible or IR light pulses would depend on the engineers, but it should be designed to throw an aimable, powerful command pulse, with no option whatsoever for actually adding light to the exposure.

Let us use our commanders to command and our Speedlites to light!

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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