Horsing Around With The New Canon 600EX-RT Speedlites

I got a chance to take my new Canon Speedlite 600EX-RT’s on a shoot. The location was Music Meadows Ranch near Westcliffe, Colorado. I was there to create some images to promote a new workshop I am teaching this fall. The workshop is “Western Landscape and Action” and hosted by Twin Compass (www.twincompass.com).

Backlit shot of horses running towards camera shortly after sunrise in Music Meadows Ranch in Westcliffe, Colorado

This was not lit with any artificial light. It is just a cool backlit shot of horses coming at the camera shortly after sunrise. Shot with a Canon 1Ds Mark III and Canon 400/f4 DO

I bought the last two 600EX-RT’s that Samy’s Camera had at the Palm Springs Photo Festival earlier this April. After a 10 minute lesson from a Canon rep at PSPF I found the menu buttons more intuitive than the 580EX-II’s I have been using.

I was still feeling the pain of sticker shock from this purchase a week later. These units are expensive and the system is not worth investing in unless you have at least 2 units. Even with a minimalist system of one 600EX-RT and one ST-E3 you are out $950-$1,000. The pain quickly faded when we put them to use and after two shoots they have performed very well with ease.

I have not been able to get a ST-E3 transmitter that works with the radio wireless system with these new speedlites yet. So for now I have to use one unit as a transmitter limiting my lighting options to very simple, one light, off-camera set ups.

Here’s what I really like about them: It takes less time to get operational on wireless radio mode than it does attaching Radio Poppers to the older 580 series speedlites. The Radio Poppers have been a savior for me the past few years giving me what I needed: a wireless flash system that works in any light and behind walls, trees, etc. The 600’s simplify and streamline the wireless speedlite workflow. This is a great asset under high pressure situations like some assignments and fast breaking photo ops where a speedlite is needed. No more carrying different size batteries or working with mounting brackets that often break and having to turn on two electronic units.

Upon turning the power on the two 600EX units and pushing 4 or 5 menu buttons we were up and running in wireless RT mode using the “Auto” channel mode in about 10 seconds. Being able to zoom to 200mm is long overdue. Zooming in to 200mm gives a little more “horsepower” using high speed sync, which I do often, and being better able to focus the light on a subject in a wide angle scene without needing a light robbing grid.

There are a few things I don’t like. First, they are bigger and don’t really recycle any faster than the 580-IIs. Second, the new radio system does not work with the 580-IIs with Radio Poppers attached. At over $600 each I think they are priced too high and again you really need at least two if you are going to use the wireless RT system. What is most disturbing is the manual claims these units can’t be used in wireless radio transmission mode with cameras older than 2012 models. (Nothing like Canon trying to sell new product at every turn.) However, on my Canon 1D Mark IV and 1Ds Mark III they worked fine in TTL and synched at all speeds. No need to rush out and get a 1Dx or 5D Mark III to use these new units in wireless radio transmission mode.

Horse sniffing photographer assistant's tripod

Lauri being “screened” by a horse checking out the tripod and a Canon 600EX-RT attached to a Dynalite Jackrabbit II battery pack

As usual when working with animals we first did a familiarization tour letting the “subjects” see and sniff all this fancy new stuff. They quickly ignored the lights when we began shooting for real.

In the horse crashing through the creek scenario, our light was flat with thick clouds over the Sangre de Cristo. Employing the speedlite enabled me to punch up the colors on Elin, the rider, and Rocky, the horse, while maintaining some rich detail in the background. Lauri was about 30 feet away from me with the strobe on a tall boom to place it just under Elin’s hat brim.

Westcliffe Colorado's Music Meadows Ranch woman owner riding a horse through a creek

Elin and Rocky riding through a creek at Music Meadows Ranch in Colorado. Scene is lit with the 600EX-RT in radio slave mode with the light on a boom about 8 feet high slightly to camera left.

At sunrise the next morning with Elin and Rocky riding in a patch of spring green grass the sun was absent on them but lighting the background mountains. I had Lauri about 75 feet in front of me so I could get a telephoto perspective. The units worked fine at that distance.

Westcliffe Colorado's Music Meadows Ranch woman owner riding a horse with Sangre De Cristo range in background

Elin, owner of Music Meadows Ranch in Colorado riding Rocky as the first rays of light hit the Sangre de Cristo. The sun was not up yet where Elin is riding so she is lit with a 600EX-RT on radio slave mode. Camera to subject distance is about 200 feet and shot with a 70-200 zoom. The flash to subject distance is about 20-30 feet.

For the saddle portrait, the slave speedlite had no problem firing through the wood walls of the barn.

Westcliffe Colorado's Music Meadows Ranch woman owner carrying saddle back to barn

Stay Out A Little Longer And Break Out The Strobe

Hispanic family mountain biking on West Rim trail along Rio Grande Gorge in Taos, New Mexico

Mountain biking along West Rim Trail, Rio Grande Gorge near Taos, New Mexico.

On a recent mountain biking shoot we stopped at one of my favorite overlooks of the Rio Grande Gorge.  The sun was below a nearby ridge so all my foreground and most of the canyon was in deep shadow.  The low angle sun about 10 minutes from sunset was basking the west slopes of the mountains and the upper part of the opposite rim.

Just the way I wanted it.  Been here before and anticipated the lighting scenario.  No problem.  Break out the strobe, attach an orange gel and use my mobile light stand (Lauri) to position the light at about the same angle the sun was hitting the background.

First shot is OK but too much light on the rock below the cyclists.  Thanks to digital we can see that now on the spot.  It’s usually a good idea anyway to shoot on the edge of your light source feathering the light up.  The second shot matches more of the light on the opposite side of the canyon and was closer to what I wanted.

Hispanic family (father and his two daughters) with mountain bikes overlooking Rio Grande Gorge along West Rim Trail in Taos, New Mexico

Family mountain biking post ride scene overlooking the Rio Grande from the West Rim Trail. Lighting on subjects from Canon 580EX2’s with warming gels and fired off camera.

Hispanic family with mountain bikes overlooking Rio Grande Gorge along West Rim Trail in Taos, New Mexico

Same lighting in this image as the one above. Flagging the flash and blocking light from spilling on the rocks in front of the cyclists came closer to emulating the late sunlight on the other side of the canyon though not as bright. In retrospect I could have gone stronger with the orange gel to a full cut CTO. I would have preferred to get a little closer to the subjects with the strobe but couldn’t because of terrain and getting the speedlite showing up in the frame. There is a limit to a speedlite’s power with a gel and grid attached. Seems like I usually shoot on the margins of the speedlite’s capability which is a good exercise.

I’ve heard too many times from shooters that “no clouds, no color in the sky” so they pack it up after the sun goes down.  I say stay a little longer and play with your strobes.  Warmly lit subject against a cool background is a tried and true formula.

The sisters on their bikes portrait was simple to do.  No color in the sky?  No problem.  A little underexposure and a cool shift in white balance fixes that.  For the girls,  one light for each girl softened with a Gary Fong Lightsphere and a half cut CTO to compensate for the cool white balance creates a pleasing light on their faces.  Here’s a tip to remember:  A big dark background will fool your flash into putting out too much light.  So I dialed my flash exposure down -1 stop.  The opposite is true for bright backgrounds.  Say you shooting into the sun and you want to light your small subject who is not lit by the sun.  You will need to pump out more light than your flash thinks it will.

Portrait of Hispanic sisters mountain biking on West Rim trail along Rio Grande Gorge in Taos, New Mexico

Sisters on mountain bikes on the West Rim Trail near Taos, New Mexico. Usually on clear days there is little color in the dawn or dusk sky. So I make it go bluer with a bit of underexposure and white balance shift toward tungsten. They were lit with 2 off camera 580 EX 2’s softened with Gary Fong Lightspheres. All this lighting gear is portable in a pack while hiking or riding. This was a great way to end an afternoon/evening shoot.

Canon Finally Offers New Speedlite But Few Are Talking About It

There’s been a lot of buzz on web groups about the new 5DMarkIII but almost nothing about a new speedlite – the 600EX-RT. I am far more jazzed about a new and more capable flash than another camera body. Why? Having a few more megapixels and frames per second will not improve your photography. But, an investment in more lighting capability, if used effectively, definitely will.

Wilderness canoe trip in Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

Lauri at camp in Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska. This 3 day trip involved a boat taxi to a remote beach, then lining our canoe up a river that drains the lake we are camped on to the ocean. All my camera gear including 3 flashes with RadioPoppers had to be packed in waterproof cases and carried in the canoe with the rest of our camping gear.

 

  • Photographer: Michael DeYoung
  • Location: Kenai Fjords National Park
  • Client: stock shoot
  • Lighting: 2 Canon 580EXII’s with RadioPoppers
  • Technique: Group A light in canoe with Honl grid lighting subject’s right. Group B in tent lighting tent and providing fill to subject’s left.

This new speedlite, though shockingly expensive, could really expand your lighting options. It’s true that for $630 (and you need at least 2 to have a working system) you could get an Alien Bees mono light and a Vagabond battery (which I have) that would throw out a lot more light. So you get more watts per dollar. But try carrying 2 AB’s with Vagabond and stands 3 miles up a trail. If you are an outdoor shooter like me who frequently carries their gear on their back or has to stuff their camera gear among a pile of other gear on a 2 week raft trip then size, portability and performance are worth paying for.

Currently I use 580EX II’s with RadioPoppers and the system has performed well in many situations. I’ve been frustrated at only having 105mm zoom capability and having to set up Radio Poppers with brackets (which break easily) on each flash with the transmitter flimsily attached to the master flash or ST-E2 with velcro. I also have to carry an additional set of batteries for the Radio Poppers.

For me, the 200mm zoom capability and built in radio wave wireless system alone is worth the investment.

You can read more about the 600EX-RT on the Canon site.

The Canon speedlite guru who’s really been testing the 600EX is Syl Arena. On his blog, you get the full scoop and a lot more information about the new speedlite than you’ll get on the Canon site.

Young adult male on a glacier hiking adventure under Wrangell-St. Elias National Park's Root Glacier, Alaska

Hiking in an ice cave under the Root Glacier, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska. The approach to the underside of the glacier was steep with loose footing. We had to pack camera gear including 2 speedlites with RadioPoppers in our daypacks.

 

  • Photographer: Michael DeYoung
  • Location: Root Glacier, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska
  • Client: Alaska Travel Industry Association
  • Lighting: 2 Canon 580EXII’s with RadioPoppers
  • Technique: Group A on master flash at reduced ratio for overall fill light.
  • Group B with Honl grid held by assistant on camera left using “hand gobo” to focus light on hiker and keep it off the ice.