Thursday, September 20, 2012

First Impressions with the Canon 600EX-RT and Canon ST-E3-RT

Today I received a pair of Canon 600EX-RT flashes and an ST-E3-RT transmitter to play with for the next two weeks.

I have been using five Canon 580EX II flashes together with the PocketWizard Flex TT5 units and AC-3 Zone Controllers for quite some time now. Down below I will offer my opinion on differences between the two systems.

First impressions on the new Canon 600EX-RT: 
  • The flash feels rugged - heavier and more rugged than the 580EX II.
  • Button-wise, it seems similar to the 580EXII (with 2 additional buttons and a lock function on the power switch). But the similarities end there. 
  • The buttons are used to navigate through the menuing system shown on the LCD. There are lots of options, and it feels complicated, but most options are only a few button presses away as long as you're paying attention to the menus on screen and know your way around.
  •  Selecting Master, Slave or standalone modes is done through a dedicated button rather than the awful "press and hold forever" button on the 580EX II.
  • Setting the flash to sync mode (in slave mode) requires pressing a single button twice 
  • Selecting which channel to use requires working through menus (not deep, but it does require a couple of button presses) .
  • There is a Link indicator on the flash and on the transmitter to confirm that they are talking to each other 
  • In manual mode, changes made on the transmitter for manual power are reflected on the LCD screen of the slave (a nice visual confirmation that it has worked if you happen to be able to see the back of the slave).
  • While Canon still calls the settings "ratios", it appears that each channel is independent. So instead of having an A:B ratio of 2:1 for example, you can set channel A to be ETTL+1, channel B to ETTL-1, channel C to Manual 1/4 and channel D and E to off (5 groups total). 
  • I have read that, for these independent ratio settings to work, you must be using a 2012 camera (1Dx or 5DIII, for example). Older cameras will work, but are stuck with the "ratio" system.
  • Setting these various power levels takes some time as you move back and forth between selecting a channel and adjusting the power level (see the example down below which contrasts the process here with the PocketWizard TT5+AC3). 
  • The flash zoom range is now 20mm to 200mm (the 580EXII was 35mm to 105mm) so this gives you both a wider and a narrower beam of light.
  • The flashes can also be controlled (power settings, etc) through the menus on the back of the 5D Mark III. But since you have fewer buttons, it is quicker to make changes via the transmitter than through the camera's menu system. 
  • Oddly, the system came with alkaline batteries for the flashes and transmitter. For grins, I repeated the test I did a quick battery test (similar to this one on my blog) to determine best battery type for recycle time setting both flashes to full power, pressed the test button on the transmitter and measured 2.3 seconds to recycle the flash with Eneloops and 4.8 seconds for the one with the alkaline batteries.
  • Thankfully the connector for external power is the same on the 600EX as I would typically only use the flashes with external batter power for faster recycle times. 
Let's talk a bit more about the transmitter (the ST-E3-RT):
  • The transmitter is large enough that the LCD is easy to read, maybe a bit larger than I would like. 
  • It has a button layout that is identical to the 600EX, so transitioning between using an on-camera 600EX as master or using the transmitter as master should be easy. 
  • The LCD on the transmitter shows which flashes it has detected and synched with so you have a visual confirmation of which flashes are in use. 
  • The transmitter does NOT have an AF-assist light. Major bummer! In some ways this makes it more convenient to keep a 600EX on your camera instead of using the transmitter. 
Now remember these are FIRST impressions.. but let me compare the Canon 600EX-RT system with my current system made up of 580EX II plus PocketWizard Flex TT5 with AC-3 Zone Controller:
  • The AC3-Zone controller has 3 dedicated switches and 3 dials (one ech for channels A, B and C
  • The switches set flashes in each group independently to Off, Manual, or ETTL. 
  • The three dials set power levels (-3 to +3 for eTTL or 1/128 to 1/1 for manual), 
  • In my opinion, it is far quicker to "flip" one light off or on, or switch it from manual to ETTL by using one of the 3 dedicated switches, or to adjust the power levels for each using the dials.
  • For example, if I want channel C to be set to Manual 1/16 power and it's currently on ETTL+0, all you need to do with the AC3 Zone Controller is:  
    1. flip the switch to manual, and 
    2. rotate the dial left to the desired power level. 
  • By contrast, on the Canon 600EX (or transmitter) you must:
    1. pressing a button to activate the channel selector
    2. rotating a dial TWICE to get down to Channel C
    3. pressing another button once to activate the power level settings, and finally
    4. rotating the dial to the desired power level.
Pretty much everything requires that you be looking at the menus so that you know in what context you are making changes by pressing these buttons. On the AC3, since each function is dedicated, I can change flash settings pretty much with my eyes closed.

I do like that there is two-way communication between the radios so that I can verify that what I am doing on the master is being reflected by the settings on the slave. With the TT5 and AC3 I pretty much have to trust that they are working and press the test button between shots to ensure that the settings have been sent to the flashes.

The overall feel of the flash and transmitter is that they are rugged. I like how the transmitter feels sturdier on the camera than the TT5 units do.

On the Flex TT5 you plug the AC3 Zone Controller into the hot shoe of the TT5, so if you using the AC3 you cannot use an on-camera flash. Thus, even with the TT5 I still lack AF assist. (question is, why doesn't Canon just build AF assist into the camera body?!?).

One thing I hate about the Flex TT5 is that there is radio frequency interference between the TT5 and the 580EX II. This causes reliability issues in firing the flashes. To help alleviate this problem to some degree, PocketWizard supplies a "sock" (a shield of sorts) to go around the flash to reduce the RF interference. But even with the sock in place I never get more than about 20-30' maximum reliable shooting distance (and often much less) and I have difficulty shooting around walls, which is a problem radios were designed to alleviate.

So I'm impressed by the ruggedness.
I'm impressed by the reliability of the flashes to shoot around corners.
I'm impressed that Canon broke away from the "ratio" system of setting power levels.
I do wish Canon had an easier way to control the settings with dedicated switches (instead of menus to sort through) much like the AC3 Zone Controller.

Will I switch? That is still a good question... off to play with the flashes now!

For more information, check out Syl Arena's review of the system here: