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Choosing the Best Canon Flash for Your Needs

Choosing the right flash can be intimidating to beginning photographers. It’s easy to find lots of jargon-laden technical specifications, but hard to find a simple analysis in plain language of which flash is the best one for your needs.

I’m going to make the choice easy for you.

Canon Speedlite 270EX

Speedlite 270EX

If you are a Canon shooter, you basically have three options at the time of this writing in 2010: the Speedlite 270EX, 430EX II, and 580EX II.

We’re going to immediately simplify it by eliminating the little 270EX right out of the gate. In my opinion it just doesn’t make economic sense.

First of all the 270EX is small. With its head so close to the lens axis, it creates light that is not much better (in terms of direction) than the built-in flash on most cameras.

Second, the 270EX lacks the infrared focus assist beam that the larger models have to help you focus in the dark.

Third, the 270EX can’t tilt or swivel to bounce off a wall or ceiling like the larger models can. Sure, you can direct it upward, but for a few dollars you can buy a reflector that directs the built-in flash on your camera upward.

Speedlite 430EX II

Speedlite 430EX II

I just don’t see the little 270EX as a good investment. If you’re going to spend the money on a flash, I suggest getting one of Canon’s grown-up Speedlites.

Choosing between the 430EX II and the 580EX II is a pretty simple choice. It’s not so much a matter of budget (although there is a $200 price difference) but a matter of how you intend to use the flash.

The basic difference between the two is this: the 580EX II can be used as a master control unit for multi-flash, strobist-style, off-camera lighting. The 430EX II cannot, although it can serve as a remote slave.

So, if you are buying your first flash, or your only flash, I see no good reason to spend the extra money on the 580EX. I recommend buying the less expensive 430EX II as a single flash.

Sure, the 580EX has more power, which gives you a bit more range. But frankly, I rarely find myself taxing the maximum range of my flashes. And the 580EX II has three red LED’s in its auto-assist focus beam, while the 430EX II only has two, and there are other small differences. But I don’t see these factors as being worth the $200 difference in price, if you are just going to use the flash on-camera.

Canon Speedlite 580EX II

Speedlite 580EX II

In fact, the smaller size and weight of the 430EX II make it more user-friendly when loaded on a camera and carried for hours at a time, unless you absolutely need the maximum power and range of the larger flash. Even though I own both models, I typically use the 430EX II for straight-up on-camera or shoe-cord photography.

However, if you want to do off-camera-flash lighting with the built-in Canon wireless Master-Slave system, then you need a 580EX II as the master control unit.

But once you’ve got that 580EX II in your bag as a master unit, you can go back to buying the less expensive 430EX II models to use as the remotes slaves.

So here’s my recommended progression:
Your 1st Flash – 430EX II – Inexpensive and light for on-camera use
Your 2nd Flash – 580EX II – To serve as Master in multi-flash setups
You 3rd, 4th, 5th etc… 430EX II – To serve as remote slaves.

And if you’re into off-camera flash lighting, you may want to check out my course:

How to Shoot Professional-Looking Headshots and Portraits on a Budget with Small Flashes

In there I cover all this stuff in great detail and show you these flashes in use, both with the Canon wireless setup and radio triggers, in photo shoots with live models.

Hope this helps.

Amazon Shopping Links

Canon Speedlite 430EX II

Canon Speedlite 580EX II

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14 Comments

  1. Dan Heck says:

    Good discussion. Simplified and easy to understand. I totaqlly agree with your recomendations.

  2. Javier says:

    Hi,

    I am looking a flash for my canon eos rebel T2i and i am between the 580 ex or the 430 ex, no my question is i can use the 430ex off camera with a remote, i mean with a umbrella?

    and to take pictures of people the 430 ex is enough? because i know the 580ex have more power.

    I am new and I am trying to buy a flash one time not buy one and then realize does not work and spend more money.

  3. admin says:

    Javier,
    Yes you can definitely use the 430EX as a remote, and I highly recommend it. I prefer to use the 430EX for remotes instead of using expensive 580′s for that job. I also prefer the lighter 430EX for on-camera use in most situations, so for your first flash I think the 430 is a great choice.

  4. Javier says:

    Hi,

    Thanks, I forgot one question.

    I do not know if I am wrrong but here is the question.

    When the flach is on the camera the camera adjust the flash but when is off the camerra does the same wireless? how that works?

  5. Mick Stevens says:

    Is there a less expensive alternative to the 580EX II that can be used as a Master? I already own the 430 EX II.

    Looking forward to your reply,

    Mick Stevens

  6. admin says:

    @Mick, there is one way to avoid the cost of a 580 as a master: If you own a Canon 7D or 60D camera, the built-in flash can act as a master controller for remotes. (More Canon cameras in the future will probably do this, Nikon has done it for a long time). But if you don’t have one of those models, you’ll need a 580 EX if you want to do multi-flash remote setups with the built-in wireless system. Of course, the really cheap alternative is Chinese radio triggers, but those don’t transmit TTL data, it’s all manual power settings on your flashes.

  7. @Mick Stevens

    An alternative can be a YN-560 is cheap but is manual not E-ttl if you are a strobist this is not shoul be a problem another alternatives are the Lumopro

  8. Rose says:

    Hi, I have a 60D and I am not sure on which flash getting it. Eventually (1year), I will have umbrellas or soft boxes….but for now i will start only with a flash, which will be my best option. Thanks in advanced! Rose.

  9. Phil Steele says:

    Hi Rose, as a first flash I generally recommend the 430EX. There is no need to spend the extra money for a 580EX at the start. See my reasons in the article above. Cheers, Phil

  10. Hmong says:

    I have a 60d and 430exii. Looking to do some wireless flash. Is there a way to make the 60d act like the master flash without popping up the flash to trigger wireless flashes? I’m having issues with too much direct flash.

  11. Phil Steele says:

    Hmong, the flash must always fire to trigger the remote flashes. BUT, you can set it to fire only as a master signal, while disabling it as a flash that contributes light to the scene. See your manual for this setting. It’s an option in the flash menu.

  12. Marie says:

    Thanks… I have the 580 and was looking for a 2nd flash. The 430 seems like a good choice. I’ll see what is available at this time. Thanks!!!

  13. Navi says:

    Do you recommend canon 90 EX flash.

  14. Phil Steele says:

    Navi, I haven’t tried the 90EX. I think I would prefer the 270EXII which you can bounce, but the 90 looks better than nothing on a camera with no built-in flash. Here’s a thorough review of it:
    http://www.kenrockwell.com/canon/flash/90ex.htm

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