Review: Speedliter’s Handbook

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When learning how to apply off-camera flash to your photography, beginner and intermediate photographers will find Speedliter’s Handbook: Learning to Craft Light with Canon Speedlites by Syl Arena to be an invaluable resource. Though written for Canon speedlite users, the book has advice, tips and tricks that can be applied to any brand of camera and flash.

Right away, in “Chapter 0″, Arena strives to give the novice photographer an immediate and inherent understanding of how light works. He writes, “…light enables you to see the object, shadows enable you to see its depth.” His number one thought on lighting is, “To create interesting light, you also need to create interesting shadows.” He then goes on to say, “If everything in your photo is lit evenly, then nothing will stand out.” Right there, in those three statements, Arena encapsulates the essential appeal of using a flash to improve your photography.

Part One covers light as a concept, and provides valuable information regardless of the type of flash system or brand. In Chapter One, Arena discusses the importance of learning how to see light. This may seem like a no-brainer… after all, aren’t we seeing light all the time? It’s when we start considering the various qualities of light – intensity, direction, path, temperature, shadowline, contrast, consistency, highlights, and chiaroscuro (the light’s transition from bright to dark) – that we learn to shape and use light with intent.

Chapter Two reviews the fundamentals of exposure with a discussion of the exposure triangle, depth of field, exposure and metering modes, and how to determine proper exposure. This leads into Chapter Three’s more technical discussion of the mechanics of light – color temperature, hardness versus softness, light diffusion, and the inverse square law.

Ambient light and the methods for manipulating it are discussed at length in Chapter Four. The methods for controlling the ambient exposure with shutter speed and the flash exposure with aperture are explained in detail, and it is at this point that Arena starts to build upon the fundamentals discussed in previous chapters to begin to manipulate both ambient and flash light. Part One wraps up with Chapter Five’s discussion of light placement and how changing the angle of light can impact the photograph.

Part Two starts getting into the specifics of Canon speedlites. Chapter Six is a review of Canon’s Speedlite lineup (sans the Canon Speedlite 600EX-RT introduced in 2012). It covers the features of the Canon Speedlite 580EX II (my own model), the Canon Speedlite 430EX II, the Canon Speedlite 270EX II the Canon MR-14EX Macro Ring Lite and the Canon MT-24EX Macro Twin Lite Flash. Chapter Seven covers the specific controls of each flash – ETTL, first and second curtain sync, auto and manual zoom, panning, tilting, and bouncing the flash.

Chapter Eight covers how to use manual flash. Arena actually recommends starting with manual mode, rather than E-TTL, so that users can see the direct connection between flash power and photographic output. One thing I really like about Arena’s approach is that he is always encouraging the reader to play and experiment. He believes, like I do, that the best lessons are learned and absorbed when mistakes are made. He also explains his workflow in various situations, taking the reader step by step through the settings and setup, through to the finished photograph. Chapter Nine covers the mechanics and benefits of E-TTL, and which circumstances are best for its use. There’s a thorough explanation of flash exposure compensation to balance ambient and flash light, and use of Flash Exposure Lock, the features that I find myself using the most when shooting with my Speedlite.

It is not until Chapter Ten that the discussion heads into the territory of removing the Speedlite from the camera. This is the part that intimidates a lot of novice flash users, but when you move your flash off-camera you open up a whole new realm of photographic possibilities. Arena steps the reader through a simple yet thorough explanation of the various methods for moving the flash off-camera, and the benefits and detriments of each – E-TTL cords, wireless controls, radio triggers, hot shoe adapters, sync cords, optical slaves and manual triggers. Chapter Eleven provides an extensive explanation of Canon’s wireless trigger system with respect to a single flash or a group of multiple flashes. Then Chapter Twelve explains how to combine Canon Speedlites with other types and brands of flashes and strobes.

Part Three – chapters thirteen through sixteen – provides an in-depth discussion of flash modifiers and the various equipment recommended to create a speedlite studio. This is a very informative section that is useful regardless of the type or brand of flash system. It covers stands, diffusers, umbrellas, soft boxes, reflectors, flags, grids, snoots, batteries, power packs, and much more. Arena offers gear recommendations for any skill level and budget, as well as explanations on how and when to use the various lighting modifiers.

Part Four – chapters seventeen through twenty-five – is dedicated to the use of speedlites in specific circumstances and for specific effects. Again, this section is useful regardless of your brand of flash. Arena covers classical portraiture, the use of a single flash, the use of two or three speedlites, the use of gels, high speed sync, shooting in bright daylight, event photography, and stroboscopic techniques. Each technique is supplemented by lighting diagrams and example photographs. If you need advice on how to take senior portraits, capture the soft ambiance of candlelight, use color to create a mood, shoot a wedding, create dramatic high-contrast effects, shoot outdoors with water features, create light trails, create the appearance of golden hour light regardless of the time of day, or capture high speed action shots, this section covers them all and much more.

When I purchase a new guidebook such as this one, the first thing I do is turn to the back, to the index and appendix. To me, a quality index and useful appendix will depict how useful the book will be, overall. Speedliter’s Handbook does not disappoint in this area. Appendix 1 covers speedlite terminology and photographer jargon. Appendix 2 is a comprehensive list of web resources, including the author’s blog. Appendix 3 covers how to set and use custom functions on the flash, and Appendix 4 is the author’s own six-point checklist for speedliting. The index supported every search I could think of, useful for quickly getting to the bones of a specific technique when needed.

The Speedliter’s Handbook is a fantastic resource for the use of Canon Speedlites specifically, and the use of off-camera flash in general. I highly recommend that every photographer add it to their reference library. It is available in paperback and Kindle versions.

Also, DON’T FORGET our photo contest! Please submit a single photograph that best depicts the drama that can be achieved with a single flash. Post your photo on our Facebook Page, Google+ Community, or Flickr Group Discussion (please post to the discussion and not the group in general, so I can find your photo!). I will choose one photograph at random to be the winner.

The winner will receive one copy of The Adobe Photoshop CS6 Book for Digital Photographers by Scott Kelby. This is a fantastic volume full of excellent tips for learning the nuances of Photoshop CS6. I use my copy all the time and have found my Photoshop skills to be improving exponentially.

The contest ends on Friday February 8th. The contest winner will be announced on Monday February 11th.

Photo credit: Canon Speedlite 580EX II by Robert Hornung on Flickr Creative Commons

*The Author did NOT receive any products or compensation in exchange for mentioning the Provider’s products and/or services on this website. The Author purchased this product for personal use with personal funds. We will only endorse products or services that we believe, based on our expertise, are worthy of such endorsement. This is not an advertisement.

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  • Julia Agnes

    I need this stuff!

  • clair estelle

    This is great, I just bought the 600 EX RT and it’s great. much lighter as well to the previous