My Review: Speedliter’s Handbook

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Thought I would do something a little different today on the blog.  As a student of photography I’m always try to learn from my peers.  Rather it be books, videos, workshops, or tutorials I am constantly searching out training material.  One of the areas I have been drawn to this year has been flash photography.  In particular the use of speedlites or off camera flash.  Their light weight and portability make them ideal for various situations.

I do consider myself a natural light photographer and have always tried to favor the gorgeous AZ light we have here in the southwest.  However there have been recent events where I have had to rely on my speedlites and I was thankful to have them.   So to expand my knowledge in this area of photography I purchased the Speedliter’s Handbook by Syl Arena.  The rest of this post will be my review of the “handbook”.

First Impressions: Don’t judge a book by its cover

Ok, maybe I’m a little biased here but the cover shot for the book is not one I would of chosen.  It is a great shot showing the power of the stroboscopic ability of Canon speedlites, but not quite what one would expect for off camera flash.  Nonetheless the setup for the shot is insane and is covered in full detail.  Continuing on past the cover to the table of contents gives you a great overview of what will be covered.  Topics include basics of light, moving your light, configuring the Canon speedlites,  operating your speedlite in manual or ETTL, control of the speedlites using the built in wireless system, speedlite modifiers, single  light portraits, 2 & 3 light portraits, gelling your flash, high speed sync, dimming the sun, and stroboscopic modes.

The Finer Points

The handbook is broken down into 5 parts.  Part 1 covers your typical characteristics of light.  Things such as ISO, aperture, shutter speed and how they all play together is explained in great detail.  Along with those color and temperature are also given a good review.  Perhaps the best part of this section is the author’s breakdown of the inverse square law.  His graphical explanation using the F-stop yardstick is one of the best illustrations I’ve ever come across.  Page 48 is pretty much worth the price of the book right there.   Part 1 finishes up with some examples of on and off axis lighting.

Part 2 is all about the Canon speedlites.  Seven chapters breakdown everything about the speedlites from configuration to controlling them off camera.  If you have ever tried to decipher the Canon user manual on the 580EXII you will truly appreciate the common sense breakdown Mr. Arena illustrates in this book.  Why Canon could not of done this is beyond me.   Moving along you will find separate chapters devoted to operating the speedlite in manual and in ETTL.   A nice workflow of operating the flash in manual is presented giving the reader a great basis of starting a flash based image.

Part 3 covers the light modifiers.  Here you will find 4 chapters covering various equipment to shape the light to your will.  Grids, beauty dishes, softboxes, light stands, reflectors, scrims, brackets, bounce cards, flags, etc. are covered with rationale of what each piece can do for you.   And finally the author finishes out with batteries. Not a sexy topic but you will appreciate his advice on what types and brands of batteries work best.

Part 4 gets into the actual lighting with the speedlites.  The first few chapters start with your classic lighting styles (think loop and Rembrandt) and progress through the single light portrait all the way to 3 light setups.  Following the portraits the author moves into using gells.  I found this chapter very helpful in understanding what gels can really do for you.

Continuing on are two chapters covering high speed sync and dimming the sun.  These are excellent chapters that really showcase what speedlites can do for you as a photographer.  Wedding togs often make use of dimming the sun as they are sometimes forced to shoot in mid-day light.

The next chapter covers the use of gang lighting and the benefits of multiple speedlites.  In particular the author breaks down a few examples where multiple speedlites working together as one creates very interesting light and images (the cover shot of the book is one of the examples).

Using speedlites at events is covered next.  Here the author goes over a few examples using a wedding, an art festival, and car show.  Topics covered include how to trigger the lights, gelling, and placement.

The final chapter of this section goes over stroboscopic photography.  This type of photography (multiple exposures on one image) is certainly not used in everyday shoots but more of an area to play or be creative.  The stroboscopic mode of the speedlite allows it fire at specific rate per second for a specified number of flashes.  The author covers every aspect from configuring the speedlites to power levels to illustrate this unique form of photography.

Part 5 makes up the Appendices of the book.  The author provides: a glossary list for common terms used in speedlite photography, a very good web resource list, a breakdown of the custom functions found on the Canon speedlites, and a 6 point checklist for speedliting.


I found this book to be a great resource on speedliting.  For Canon users the chapters covering the configuration of the speedlites alone is worth the cost of the book.  But not only is that documented well, the subsequent information regarding light placement, gels, etc.  make this a great reference for anyone’s library.

If you have ever considered getting into off camera flash but were hesitant to start because of the fear factor this book will put that to rest.  Mr. Arena does an excellent job breaking down every aspect into meaningful explanations using lighting diagrams and real examples.

I’ll conclude with a quote from the beginning of his book “You are not remembered for the gear you used, but by the photographs you created”.


Until next time…


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  1. I have been wanting to get more in to off camera flash… have a SB-900 sitting around collenting dust! I might need to get this one now. Thanks for the awesome review!

  2. Thinking I’m going to have to check out that book. I REALLY played with my light Sunday night during the reception…simply because I could, and I like the effects I got on some. I want to really have a full and complete understanding of this stuff!! 🙂

  3. great review. I’m currently traveling and have my flash with me but I haven’t used it once. 1st because I’ll admit I know just the basics on how to get by shooting weddings. I need to take some time experiment and this books seems like a good companion for it. Glad I found your site 🙂

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