Rudy Winston
Rudy Winston

Rudy Winston has over 14 years experience with Canon USA's Pro Products team, and has been responsible during that time for training Canon's staff on new products, creating presentations for customers and dealers, numerous writing projects, and providing technical assistance to professional and amateur photographers.

Alternatives to the built-in flash: EOS 6D

December 06, 2012

Canon has several compact speedlite alternatives often overlooked by SLR enthusiasts...with performance that would exceed what a built-in flash would likely offer.

Canon's compact, full-frame EOS 6D camera achieves part of its compactness and weather-resistance by not having a built-in flash. With a solid, one-piece top cover, the camera is certainly better sealed against moisture and dust, and by not having to dedicate space above the prism area, there's room for a full glass pentaprism – for a brighter, more evenly-illuminated focus screen – without an abnormally large external design. And, it simplifies the addition of two key EOS 6D features, the built-in GPS receiver and Wi-Fi transmitter, both of which are housed in the prism area.

All that said, there's no arguing the convenience and usefulness of a super-compact, built-in flash in a modern digital SLR, but there are several options available to EOS 6D users who may want or need this functionality in their photography. We'll look at those in this article.

What functions do users turn to a built-in flash for?

While pros may tend to turn away from built-in flashes for most of their low-light shooting, there's little doubt that even the most hardened, experienced SLR user can find value in a built-in flash from time to time. Some of the reasons users may turn to this type of flash include:

  • An easy-to-add light source if and when the shooter is suddenly presented with a picture opportunity for nearby subjects, but in dimly-lit conditions
  • An alternative to high-ISO shooting in available light, that simultaneously offers motion-stopping effects that might be hard to achieve using purely natural light
  • A convenient method to get fill flash in outdoor situations, as long as the camera is relatively close to the subject(s)
  • A built-in means of triggering one or more off-camera speedlites that have been set as "slave units" for Wireless E-TTL flash (this is currently possible with the EOS Rebel T3i, T4i, EOS 60D, and EOS 7D, as of late 2012)
What alternatives does the EOS 6D user have?

Many serious SLR enthusiasts let their minds jump right to a top-of-the-line flash like Canon's Speedlite 600EX-RT, when the subject of flash comes up. While it's obviously true that such a flash can handle nearly any speedlite-based picture taking opportunity, it's also true that it is the polar opposite of the convenience offered by a built-in flash. Its power and features come at the expense of noticeable size and weight when mounted on the shoe of a compact camera like the EOS 6D, to some degree negating one of the 6D's primary advantages.

However, Canon has several compact speedlite alternatives, often overlooked by SLR enthusiasts, which may answer the call for some of the appeals of a built-in flash, without overwhelming size, weight and cost. All can be applied to the traditional built-in flash functions mentioned directly above, and in some cases, with performance that would exceed what a built-in flash would likely offer.

Speedlite 90EX

This is Canon's most recently introduced speedlite, and it's a perfect first place to stop when considering a flash to perform tasks normally applied to a built-in flash. It's by far Canon's smallest and lightest EX-series speedlite, weighing less than 3 oz., with batteries. It's been introduced to take the place of a built-in flash on Canon's super-compact EOS M camera, but it's every bit at home atop an EOS 6D as well.

Used as a super-compact, lightweight flash for quick snapshots of nearby subjects, it becomes an ideal companion for events like receptions, parties and other situations where a shooter may be asked to break-out his or her camera and take some quick shots. Its non-assuming size and profile may sometimes make it easier to work among people, avoiding the image of a pro with a high-end speedlite and perhaps contributing to a more candid "mood" in some subjects.

Powered by two slim and light AAA-size batteries, the Speedlite 90EX covers lenses as wide as 24mm on a full-frame camera. Like a built-in flash, power is going to be somewhat limited... by using higher ISO settings, however, distance ranges can be increased to enhance its practicality as a flash for quick documenting of scenes and people:

ISO Max. distance, f/2.8 Max. distance, f/4 Max. distance, f/5.6
100 10.7 feet  (3.3m) 7.5 feet  (2.3m) 5.3 feet  (1.6m)
400 21.4 feet  (6.6m) 15 feet  (4.6m) 10.6 feet  (3.2m)
800 30 feet  (9.2m) 21 feet  (6.4m) 14.8 feet  (4.5m)
1600 42.8 feet  (13.2m) 30 feet  (9.2m) 21.2 feet  (6.4m)

Especially considering the EOS 6D's excellent image quality at high ISOs, this makes even a modestly-powered flash like the Speedlite 90EX an interesting option in lieu of a built-in flash for simple snapshooting.

Wireless flash: Speedlite 90EX as a Master Unit

Perhaps Speedlite 90EX's most compelling possibility to the serious EOS 6D user is its ability to act as a "master unit" to trigger off-camera EOS speedlites. Using traditional optical-based technology, this makes the Speedlite 90EX the smallest, lightest and least-expensive "master flash" option – far less expensive than a Speedlite 600EX-RT would be, and significantly less than the traditional Canon Speedlite Transmitter ST-E2.

Using the External Flash Control menu on the EOS 6D, a Speedlite 90EX as a master unit can perform the following with off-camera slave units within approximately 23 feet (5m) indoors:

  • Control up to three groups of slave units (A, B and C), or fire them all at even power
  • Control an A:B ratio over a 6-stop range... 8:1 ~ 1:8 lighting ratios, controlled in 1/2-stop increments
  • Provide choice of 4 channels, to avoid setting off another nearby Canon EOS shooter's wireless flashes
  • Trigger slaves to fire with high-speed flash sync (note: the Speedlite 90EX itself cannot fire with high-speed sync, but as a master unit, it can signal compatible slave units to do so)

So compared to those Canon EOS cameras with built-in flashes that can also function as master units for Wireless E-TTL, a Speedlite 90EX is a very interesting and certainly affordable way to mimic this built-in flash functionality. It's the only compact EOS speedlite that has master flash capability (keep in mind, the Speedlite 90EX cannot be used off-camera as a "slave unit"), and thus is an intriguing alternative (or addition) to a Speedlite Transmitter ST-E2 or high-end flash for master unit operation with Wireless E-TTL.

Speedlite 270EX II

For several years, this has been the compact Canon speedlite alternative to a built-in flash. While it cannot be used as a master unit for triggering off-camera flashes wirelessly, the Speedlite 270EX II will work nicely as a surrogate built-in flash, with significantly more flash power than any built-in flash would offer. And, it can be used as a compact, off-camera "slave unit" for Wireless E-TTL as well.

The big 270EX II asset for an EOS 6D user is its combination of relatively compact size and power. With more than two stops greater power than the tiny Speedlite 90EX, it's still compact enough (about 9 oz., with two AA-size batteries installed) to avoid top-heaviness with the EOS 6D camera. And, with its rated guide number of 72 (feet; 22 in meters) at ISO 100, it'll reach out to 18 feet (5.5m) at f/4, at ISO 100 – making it a very practical yet lightweight tool for those quick flash-on-camera jobs.

Additional capabilities that put the Speedlite 270EX II over and above a built-in flash, and exceed those of its super-compact little brother, the Speedlite 90EX:

  • Has upward bounce-flash capability, for horizontal shots
  • Flash head normally covers a 28mm wide-angle lens (on a full-frame camera like EOS 6D); can be manually pulled outward to narrow the beam for 50mm lens coverage
  • Has high-speed sync capabilities
  • For users who already have higher-end speedlites and/or Speedlite Transmitter ST-E2, the 270EX II can be used off-camera as a slave unit, along with any other Canon optical-based slave units
  • Used off-camera, Speedlite 270EX II can be used as a wireless remote transmitter to fire an EOS 6D camera, at distances up to roughly 16.4 feet (5m) from the camera. Note that EOS 6D's "Drive" setting must be set to Self-timer/remote/2-second delay (it won't work on the zero-delay self-timer setting), and that the EOS 6D's receiver for the flash's remote signal is on the front of the body, near the grip section.

For the experienced, critical EOS 6D user who may from time to time wish he or she had a built-in flash for those quick situations that don't really call for a big, high-end flash, the Speedlite 270EX II is arguably the most complete small-flash option in the Canon system, especially if having some measure of flash power and TTL distance capability is more important than integrated master flash capability for Wireless E-TTL.

Speedlite 320EX

This flash begins to approach the traditional shape and form of a big, high-end speedlite, but most assuredly is a lot smaller and lighter than a 500- or 600-series EX speedlite would be on top of the camera. Thus, the Speedlite 320EX is a bit different than the two very compact flashes we've just discussed. It may be the right choice for the EOS 6D user who would almost never turn to a built-in flash for his or her images, even for quick shots at a holiday party, but who from time to time would like a more compact alternative to the big high-end speedlites.

With its added size (vs. the Speedlite 270EX II), the 320EX brings these benefits:

  • Slighter greater flash power and distance range: Guide Number 78.7 (in feet; 24 in meters, at ISO 100); maximum distance at f/4 almost 20 feet (6m) at ISO 100
  • Illumination covers 28mm and longer lenses, on a full-frame camera
  • Full bounce and side-to-side swivel capability
  • Faster recycling... approx. 2.3 seconds at full power (vs. about 4 seconds for Speedlite 270EX II)
  • Four AA-size batteries provide more flashes per set... approx. 180 full-power, manual flashes
  • Full optical-based wireless slave unit capability, with choice of slave firing group A, B or C via switch on back of speedlite
  • Integrated LED illuminator provides continuous illumination for video recording of nearby subjects, or viewing-assist before flash shooting in very dim areas

We started this article out by acknowledging that the convenience of a built-in flash is something that many different types of shooter can come to appreciate, even if only intermittently. While there are sound engineering reasons why the EOS 6D doesn't incorporate one, it doesn't mean that the 6D user's only alternative is a large, high-end speedlite. On the contrary, the Speedlite 90EX and 270EX II provide excellent ways to achieve flash-on-camera imagery in more spontaneous situations, allow a little bit of fill-flash in daylight, while still adhering to slimmed-down and convenient operation and appearance.

And while it's obviously larger than a built-in flash, the Speedlite 320EX provides a much less top-heavy handling experience, vs. what a full-size, top-of-the-line flash would atop the EOS 6D camera. Any of these flashes should be in your mind if you are considering an EOS 6D camera, and either miss a built-in flash, or are beginning to see potential uses for one, and want to think of ways to mimic it on this new full-frame digital camera.

The CDLC contributors are compensated spokespersons and actual users of the Canon products that they promote.

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