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Book Review: Speedliter’s Handbook: Learning To Craft Light With Canon Speedlites by Syl Arena

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The Canon Speedlite system is an effective and powerful flash lighting system that will let you light just about anything with professional results. With that power comes complexity, and getting your flash to create the exact light you need can be a challenge. Many times people just give up in frustration. This is where the Speedliter’s Handbook comes in.

In this book photographer Syl Arena will explain in detail everything you need to start taking spectacular photographs using Canon small flashes. He takes you from an exploration of light in general to the creation of spectacular looks using several flash units. The Speedliter’s Handbook is 432 pages in length and contains 26 chapters and four appendixes that are divided into five parts.

Before the beginning of the first part there is an introduction that gives you some information on how best to work with this book. Then there is a chapter zero called “Quick start guide to Speedliting” that is for novices to the use of a Canon Speedlite. It talks about why you shouldn’t use a pop-up flash, dealing with ambient light and other information on working with your flash.

Part One, “Before Speedlites, There Was Light,” begins with the idea that the use of the flash is about first understanding the existing ambient light that is around you, and then using the flash to light with intent. Next you get into the mechanics of exposure and learn about ISO, aperture, and shutter speed as well as depth of field, exposure, metering, white balance, and how to determine the proper exposure.

Then it is on to the mechanics of light. This includes color and color temperature, different kinds of light, how light behaves, and how to think about flash in terms of stops. You will learn more about ambient light and the way it affects the scene, how to control it when working with flash, and how to blend the two. Finally, you will learn about the lighting compass, how to work with both on-axis and off-axis light as well as light from above and below.

Part Two, “Speedlites Fundamentally,” begins with breaking down the current Speedlite families including the 580 EX II, 430 EX II, 270EX, and others. Here you will dissect a burst of flash along with looking in detail at these units. From here you will learn how to take control your Speedlite through the use of the various modes, sync, zooming as well as pan and tilt.

You will learn about manual flash and when to use it. In this section you will see how the author uses a single Speedlite in manual mode. Next you will learn about the Canon E-TTL system for controlling your flash. You will learn of the mechanics as well as the limitations.

Now that you know how to use your flash, it is time to get it off your camera. Here you will explore the different ways to get your flash away from your camera. You will learn about working with cords, as well as radio, and infrared triggers. Once you know about how to get it off your camera, you will then look at doing wireless the Canon way through the use of masters and slaves and how the whole E-TTL system works. Finally, you will see how to mix your Canon Speedlites with other lighting. This includes other small flashes, monolights, studio packs, hot lights, and how to manage your lights with florescent lights.

Part Three, “Gear For Speedliting,” examines how you can modify your Speedlite. Here you will learn about diffusers, reflectors, softboxes, snoots, grids, gobo’s, flags and other things you can affect the light. Then you will learn about using this gear to craft your light in the way you need. This is through the use of umbrellas, softboxes, beauty dishes, scrims, diffuser panels, and reflectors.

Next you will see ways to mount your light to different things through the use of stands, poles, booms, rails, as well as ad hoc items like bungee cords, straps, and using gaffers tape. You will finish this section off with learning about keeping your flash charged through the use of various battery strategies.

Part Four, “Speedliting In Action,” begins by describing the different lighting scenarios that you can uses as a basis. These include broad lighting, DMV lighting, butterfly lighting, short lighting, Rembrandt lighting, horror lighting, and much more. Then you will see how to do portraits with one Speedlite in various different ways.

Then you will bump it up to the use of two or three Speedlites and see some of the various ways to incorporate them with classic modes, clamshell lighting, creating mood, working with water, and more. From there you will work with modifying your scene with gels for effect.

From here you will see how to slice time through the use of high-speed sync so that your Speedlite will send out ultrafast bursts of low power instead of one big burst. You will see how to dim the sun through the use of shutter speed. There is a chapter on a new kind of lighting called “Gang lighting” which is a new way to think about lighting.

There is a chapter that explains the use of Speedlites to work with events. This includes strategies for lighting events with off camera flash. Here you will learn to work with off camera flash at weddings, festivals, as well as other events. Finally, you will learn to use your Speedlite to create a stroboscopic effect using both single as well as multiple strobe to get different effects.

Part Five, “Appendices,” are here to clarify things about Speedlites. The first is called “Gang Slang for Speedlites.” It contains a list of terms that are used by people who light using small flashes. The second contains web resources for Speedliters. The third contains a list of custom functions that the Canon flashes containing and what they do. The final one is a six-point check list for Speedliting. This is used when you get frustrated by too many things to remember, this will help you get back on track.

Being a Canon guy, I have worked with Speedlites for many years, and I have read a number of very good books about the system. But to me the Speedliter’s Handbook is the best I have read thus far. There is so much useful material packed into this book, and it provides for a great reference book for the future.

The Speedliter’s Handbook is fully illustrated and contains over 500 images that show and explain everything in detail. It explains the way lighting was setup and why, but it also contains examples of what happens when it is not done right. Keep in mind that while this is a book that focuses on the Canon system of lighting, much of the book can be useful for those that use other systems because the real goal of this book is to show how to photograph using light and flashes. If you want to learn how to use light better in your photographs, if you want to learn how to use flash lighting to better control what you are shooting, and if you want to learn how to use the Canon Speedlite system, then I highly recommend the Speedliter’s Handbook.

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About T. Michael Testi

Photographer, writer, software engineer, educator, and maker of fine images.