How Speedlites Changed My Life

Okay, if you are not a photographer or are not into photography at all, then this post won’t interest you.
If you are into photography, listen up!  For the past few years I have noticed a trend in portraiture away from large studio lights towards speedlites, which are those off-camera flashes that are made by Canon, Nikon, and a few others.  You know the ones — they are almost small enough to fit in your pocket.
I started years ago with one speedlite (a Canon 550), but could not for the life of me figure out how to get much out of it.  Oh sure, it blasted a flash of light towards a subject but didn’t do much better of a job than the built-in flashes on some cameras (which is to say that it did a horrible job).  I became comfortable with my large studio lights as well as a series of always-on cool lights, so I rarely used my speedlite.
All that changed a few years ago as I started to read certain blogs that dealt with using small lights like speedlites.  I’m talking about David Hobby’s Strobist blog, Zach Arias’ blog, and Syl Arena’s Speedliting blog (links are provided below).  These generous guys, who take some of the most amazing portraits you will ever see, do so generally with very small lights like speedlites.  Zack Arias even has a One Light Workshop where he teaches people how to replicate his amazing photography using only one small light.  Syl Arena has an amazing blog where he takes the mystery out of speedlites and lays it down in plain language to help those with speedlites to understand how you can easily use those lights to make amazing photographs.  David Hobby’s Strobist blog was recently named one of the most important & influential blogs in the world.  I’ve been a professional photographer for almost 10 years and I still aspire to make photographs like David. 
These guys have shown me the magic of using speedlites.  First they sold me on the need to get the flash off of the top of the camera.  That is absolutely the worst place for a flash to be.  As well, no matter how many times I read the speedlite’s manual, I could not quite get my head around the axiom that “shutter speed controls the ambient light entering the camera, and the f-stop controls the amount of light hitting your subject from the speedlite”.  Now I can prop up a grey backdrop and can alter the way it shows up in the image, from pure white through to pure black and every shade of grey in between, just by altering the shutter speed … all while keeping the subject perfectly lit.
Last year I purchased a 2nd speedlite (Canon 580EX) and just recently bought the latest version, the incredible Canon 580EX II.  Let me tell you why these speedlites, and especially this latest version have changed my life. Simply put:
– I can now make amazing portraits without having to carry 100lbs of gear around.  
– I no longer have to search for wall outlets in which to plug in my lights.  
– I no longer have to shoot portraits with a huge DOF because the large studio lights put out so much power.  
– I can control all my lights from the back of my camera.  That’s right … I said from the back of my camera!
The 580EX II digitally coordinates with your camera and you can control it all through your camera’s back screen.  Gone are the days where I setup three lights and after taking a test shot realize that I have to change the settings on one or more of the lights.  This necessitated walking over to the light stand, bring the light down to eye level, changing the settings on the back of the light, raising the light back up, and then walking back to the camera for another test shot.  Repeat that process over & over again and it gets tiresome really fast.  Now, amazingly, I can look at the test shot on the back of my camera and alter the settings on all of my lights from behind the camera.  Say, for example, I noticed the background light is too bright and the fill light is to dim.  I can go into the menus on the back of my camera and easily adjust those settings.  Seriously, this is almost life-changing.  In my opinion this is almost as big a change as the switch to digital cameras!  On my first photo shoot using the new 580EX II, I had to photograph a dozen executives’ individual portraits.  These are busy people who don’t want to sit around watching me fumble with lights.  I was able to modify the settings on all my lights for each person’s skin type/clothing, simply by using the menu on the back of my camera.  It made that photo shoot so much easier than in the past, and I was instantly sold on the value of speedlites and of controlling all your lights from the back of the camera.
Here is another positive aspect of using speedlites.  The amount of light modifiers for speedlites seems to have exploded in the past few years.  In the old days about the only modifier I could find for a speedlite was a Stofen Omni Bounce (that white plastic cap that sits over your light) or a reflector that would bounce light back onto your subject if you pointed the speedlite straight up.  Now, there are numerous companies making softboxes, umbrellas, reflectors, flags, gels, grids, long ETTL sync cords, and much more.  Companies like Honl, Aurora, FJ Westcott, Lastolite, LumiQuest, Flash Zebra and more have brought out fantastic products to help speedlites act even more like the old studio lights.  I can now carry my three speedlites in a case along with a fold-up softbox and a couple of umbrellas, plus a velcro-attachable grid, snoot, gels, and more.  All that combined weighs about the same as just one of my old studio lights, and takes up less room in my car.
Okay, there is a downside.  Speedlites are not cheap.  The 580EX II retails for $599 here in Mississauga, although Vistek had a sale on them for $479 recently.  However, if you want great light without having to fumble with large studio lights, and you want something that is portable and modifiable, go get yourself a speedlite.  You can get a Canon 430EX II for under $400.  If you have the extra money and want to make the investment, get a 580 EX II and a few modifiers.
In my opinion, lighting has always been the most complicated aspect of photography.  But it doesn’t have to be.  Good lighting has previously been inaccessible to most amateur photographers and even a lot of professionals.  But it doesn’t have to be.
If you are confused about lighting for photography and if you have a speedlite, let me know.  I’m interested to know if you use it or if you barely even touch it because it is too confusing.  I am even thinking of offering some classes in my studio and outside in the neighbourhood, for those that want to feel comfortable with their speedlite and to use it to take better photographs.  What do you think?  Would you or someone you know be interested.  Drop me a line and let me know.
All the best!
John Goldstein Photography / Toronto Landscape TV (TLTV)
P.S. – Here are the links to the great blogs I mentioned above.  Check them out…
– The Strobist’s blog:
– The Strobist’s “Lighting 101” section:
– Zack Arias’s blog:
– Syl Arena’s Speedliting blog:
– Syl Arena’s PixSylated blog:
P.P.S – Because of my fondness for speedlites, I am going to sell off my five always-on Alzo “Cool Lights” on a first-come-first served basis.  These are great lights for new professional photographers and amateurs who want to consistently see where their light is going to hit their subjects.  They come with all the CFL bulbs and softboxes/diffusers.  See all the details at

Posted in Canon, David Hobby, food photography, Gold Media, lighting, One Light Workshop, PixSylated, speedlight, speedlighting, speedlite, speedliting, Strobist, Syl Arena, Zack Arias