Some time ago (back when I was using Canon) I wrote four articles on using Canon Speedlites as well as the other items you will need, you can read these articles below:
- Canon Flash Part 1 – Choosing a Flashh
- Canon Flash Part 2 – Batteries
- Canon Flash Part 3 – Chargers
- Canon Flash Part 4 – External Power Sources
Much of what I wrote still stands expect that as I now use an Olympus MFT camera the Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite is no longer an option (I don’t actually possess them anymore); additionally as I have continued to research the batteries and chargers there have been a few product introductions that have changed my recommendations slightly.
This article goes through what has changed and what still remains. I recommend that you read each article and then read my addendum to each article below:
Part One – Choosing a flash
The major change here is that I no longer have the Canon speedlites anymore (nor the STE3-RT transmitter) as they are 100% proprietary to the Canon EOS and PowerShot cameras.
Whilst the Micro Four Thirds systems (Olympus and Panasonic) all use the same flash technology and hence have better TTL based support from the manufacturers themselves as well as third parties it is not as extensive as the Canon system.
The Canon speedlites are built like tanks and are the device to use if you make your living using one of the EOS cameras, there are no better flashes and in situations where you need TTL. In fact you can use their flash system using a mix of Manual and TTL at the same time from one transmitter too.
Speedlite or is it Speed Light? You will see that throughout this article I will use both of these spellings and the reason is that generically a small hot-shoe mountable flash gun is called a “Speed Light”. However Canon use the term “Speedlite”. So when I am referring to the Canon flashguns I will use their spelling and when I refer to a non-Canon flashgun I will use the generic term.
The Cactus speed lights I come in nice black and white cardboard packing with contrasting red and white labels on them. Unfortunately the included accessories are quite basic, all three of them have a plastic stand and manual and the flashes also come with a case. Unusually the case has not pouch or slot to store the stand.
When I first handled the flash I noticed that the build quality is well below the Canon devices, there is no heft that comes with a well-built device. If you squeeze the outer casing there is definitely some give in there and the flash head rotates and tilts without having to depress a locking button. Each flash takes 4 AA batteries and the battery door is attached and seems well designed. The speed light also has various sync ports, a connector for the standard Canon battery packs as well as a ¼” 20 tripod style socket on the side. Unlike the rest of the flash housing, the tripod socket like the battery door seems to be better designed and reinforced; as this is where the most abuse is going to be given this makes sense. The flash has a guide number of 56.
The transceiver comes in similar smaller packaging and also seems to be of questionable build quality, this takes two AA batteries. It has both a hot-shoe foot on the bottom as well as a hot-shoe “socket” on the top; the device has the capability to pass TTL information through itself from the hot-shoe of the camera to the hot-shoe on top of the transceiver. This is due to the fact that both the foot and shoe have multiple control pins in addition to the standard centre terminal.
Transceiver vs Transmitter – what’s the difference? A wireless transmitter can only transmit information to a flash. The transmitter can tell the flash to fire and possibly alter some of the settings such as the power output, this depends on both the capability of the flash and transmitter used. A transceiver can act as a transmitter and also as a receiver and can be controlled by another transmitter/transceiver thereby controlling the device fitted to the transceiver’s hot shoe.
The transceiver can control 4 groups of flash (using one of 16 channels) and although there is some TTL capability if used with the right camera and corresponding flash I will be using it in manual mode. Interestingly the FL50R is compatible in this way but the newer FL-600R is not.
Both the flash and transceiver have USB ports and can have their firmware updated. This is something that is really needed; whilst the main reason is to increase the number of compatible flashguns it also uploads the latest bug fixes. I did notice at times that the remote control was not functioning properly whilst testing them. The firmware updates requires a connection to the computer with a non-included USB to mini-USB cable, the computer also has to be running Windows XP or higher.
You should also note that there is no Mac support – thank you Cactus 😦 ! Fortunately I do have access to a number of Windows computers so this something I will do over the coming holiday period.
Part Two – Batteries
I still believe that rechargeable batteries are the way to go and at the time that the original article was written the Sanyo Eneloops were the best all-round battery out there, this is almost the case today as since writing my original article Sanyo were purchased by Panasonic.
Another advance is that we are now at the fourth generation and although it is hard to work out what has changed although previous advances did bring some benefit. My recommendation is therefore to now go for the 4th generation Panasonic Eneloops. These are sold by dozens of companies in the UK along with Amazon:
As for numbers you really need to ensure that you have a complete set x2 and if you are doing this professionally then 3 or more sets should be considered. Another thing that I didn’t point out originally is that you should keep each “set” together so that as they used and then re-charged as a set, this will help you keep tabs of which are the oldest and which batteries are newer, although the ones I recommend can be charged around 2100 times there is a point where they will not be usable and will have to be disposed of responsibly and then replaced.
Part Three – Chargers
With rechargeable batteries you naturally need to have a charger to re-charge them. When I first looked into this, the recommendation was to get an 8 slot Maha charger and while this device is still a good fit for anyone charging a large number of batteries constantly it is not the best device if you have one or more problem batteries.
A better charger is the 4-slot Technoline BC-700/BL-700 intelligent AA-AAA battery charger; the BC and BL are functionally identical but the BL device comes with a UK plug. This charger provides a lot more detail about the condition of AA and AAA rechargeable devices and give you the option to recondition them too. If you read the reviews of the charger there are many stories about rechargeable batteries being brought back form the dead. The charger is half the price of the 8 slot chargers and costs £30 to £32.
I will be getting the BC-700 or the BL-700 as my only charger for now. Anyone who chargers many batteries should go for one of the Maha chargers and one of these two for when they need them.
Part Four – External Power
As already stated the Cactus speed lights have a Canon style socket so they can use the same power-packs as the Canon flash guns. I see no point in picking the expensive Canon one as the flash is not made by Canon.
I also don’t think that I need one of these at the moment either, if I do some pro shoot where I need rapid recharging of flashes then I may decide that it is worth investing in a couple of them. The main problem is that for each flash you will need 12 batteries (8 in the power-pack and 4 in the flash itself), this will cost quite a lot to purchase and then keep charged).
Part five – Other flash accessories
Although there was no part 5 in the previous Canon based articles there is a lot of things that are needed too, these are discussed in this section.
Although I didn’t think that I needed one I now own an Sekonic L-308s external light meter, you can read my article on the Light Meter here
I also own a single Manfrotto ML840H Maxima LED Panel that is very useful when doing small hands-on or unboxing videos, I have had this for some time. There are no batteries to fit as this has built-in one, the light intensity is variable and it can be used as a flash if triggered via the included pc-sync port. When used as a flash the output is 4 times the normal max brightness of the constant output. The LED light can be mounted to the included hot show adapter or tripod socket as required.
Finally I have a growing number of other flash and lighting accessories as follows:
- Manfrotto 5001B Nano Stand
- Manfrotto MN026 Lite Tite Swivel Adapter
- Frio Coldshoe Adapter V2 – now defunct as the speed lights have integral tripod sockets
- Honl Speed Strap x2
- Honl HP-Filter 2 Colour Correction Kit
- Honl Filter Roll Up (case for above Filters)
- Rogue Flashbender (Small)
- Wescott 43″ Optical White Satin Umbrella with removable Black Cover
- Neewer 43″ 5-in-1 Reflector (from Amazon)
I hope that this blog post/article has given you an insight into some of the lighting gear that I have chosen and some of the reasons behind those decisions.
In the future I want to write one or more articles about using the cactus speed lights and transceiver once I have used them in a real shoot. I would also like to do a short article on updating the firmware too. Let me know if you would like anything else.