Eric Stoner
Eric Stoner

Eric's professional photographic career spans over 25 years specializing in portraits, weddings and commercial photography using everything from simple lighting to very complex.

Using a Speedlite's E-TTL Automatic flash for portraits

March 24, 2015

Ever since the Speedlite 600EX-RT was introduced a couple of years ago, my life as a portrait artist changed forever. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my Speedlite 580EXII! But, the amount of additional control and reliability that the Speedlite 600EX-RT offers is, in a word, superior!

“Speedliting,” for many people, can be a scary proposition especially using E-TTL Automatic flash. One reason, and it’s a good one, is that you never really know how much power the flash is outputting. Does one really NEED to know that information? I’m sure for some of you that the answer is “yes” and I understand it, but I’m a results kind of guy! I know that these Speedlites work very well and I trust them!

How flash exposure is determined

There ARE some items you need to be aware of when shooting E-TTL – for example, Flash Exposure Compensation, but this is an area of the Speedlite 600EX-RT’s navigation interface that is very easy to understand, as you’ll see in a bit.

The principle of Automatic E-TTL flash is a simple one. It’s based on the metering system that reads light. Meters assume the scene is average, meaning this – it expects to see highlights, middle tones and shadows. Middle gray, otherwise known as 18% gray, is the standard at which camera meters read light because it is “average.” There are two different types of light meters: incident and reflective. Cameras usually have reflective meters in them, meaning that they read the light reflecting off of a subject that comes into the lens. Incident or hand-held meters measure the light that falls on a subject. I’m sure you’ve seen someone holding one of these devices before.

So why is this important? Well, to achieve E-TTL Automatic flash, the camera will instruct the Speedlite to send out a pre-flash just prior to taking the exposure. That pre-flash projects on to the subject and reflects back into the lens, allowing the metering system in the camera to tell the Speedlite how much power to output based on the aperture and ISO you have set. Again, the camera is looking for an average scene based on the closest subject the camera sees because flash can only be exposed properly at one distance due to its linear travel. If the subject is wearing average colored tones, chances are the subject will be properly exposed – but that doesn’t always happen. Let’s say your subject was wearing white. The camera sees white, but is trying to make it an average tone. It thinks there is plenty of light present, based on the white tone of the garment, so the flash doesn’t output enough power to properly expose the subject. A simple Flash Exposure Compensation adjustment to the plus side will remedy this issue. I usually start with + 1 1/3 stops of compensation.

Conversely, if your subject is wearing dark clothing, the exact opposite will happen from the last example. The camera sees a very dark scene and thinks there isn’t enough light present, so the flash will output too much power and thereby over exposing your subject. Remember, the camera is trying to make everything middle tone or average so the black or dark tones in this example will look gray due to over exposure. Again, a simple fix is in order by applying negative flash exposure compensation. I usually start at minus 1 stop on the flash.

Just as a reminder, there are two different types of exposure compensation. There’s ambient exposure compensation (making the overall natural light darker or brighter), controlled by turning the rear dial or on Rebel models, pressing the +/_ button and turning the main dial behind the exposure button. The other type of exposure compensation is Flash Exposure Compensation that’s found in a few places – on the Speedlite itself, in the Flash Control Menu or on the camera body designated by this icon.

Figure 1
Photo by Eric Stoner


On Rebel models, this feature is only found in the flash control menu on the LCD panel. Try the different available ways listed above and see what’s most comfortable for you. When a Canon Speedlite is attached to your camera, I suggest controlling the flash exposure compensation directly from the flash itself. It’s usually faster this way.

To activate this feature on the Speedlite, press the exposure compensation button on the back of the flash, indicated by the +/- button, and turn the dial on the flash to add or decrease power (Figure 2).

Figure 2
Photo by Eric Stoner


The E-TTL vs. Manual mode debate

I teach a fair amount of classes and workshops involving Canon’s Speedlite system and many photographers express their views about using E-TTL Automatic flash, stating they just can’t rely on it. My next question to them is, “Have you used it?” The most common answer is, “I once did a long time ago and I didn’t like the results so I never used it again.” I usually just smile back and ask them to stick around for a while and I’ll show them it not only works, but works extremely well with a high degree of predictability! Now, don’t misunderstand what I’m saying to you. There ARE reasons to switch to manual flash mode and dial in the exact power you need. I usually state it like this -- I use E-TTL Automatic flash until it gives me a reason not to use it and then I switch over.

Figure 3
Photo by Eric Stoner


For example, if I’m photographing someone with blond hair and my designated hair light is washing out the model’s hair (Figure 3), I need to apply negative flash exposure compensation. I have, available to me, plus or minus three stops of compensation to apply. In the example on the left, I’ve already applied minus three stops and her hair is still washed out and because I can’t apply any more compensation using E-TTL, this is a good time to switch to manual flash mode but just for the light that’s on her hair. Every other light can still remain in E-TTL.

Navigating the Speedlite 600EX-RT

Assuming you’re shooting wirelessly in radio transmission mode, it’s very easy to change any of the five groups available to manual right from the camera. You can do this with either a Speedlite 600EX-RT or Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-RT mounted on the hot shoe of your camera. If your camera was made in 2012 or later, you have full compatibility with this Speedlite system and access to “Group Mode.”

Figure 4
Photo by Eric Stoner


It’s accessible by pushing the “Mode” button (1) (Figure 4)on either the Speedlite 600EX-RT or Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-RT until you see “Gr” appear (2) on the screen. It allows the use of up to five groups of Speedlites marked A, B, C, D and E. This is an expansion from the previous three groups available on the Speedlite 580EXII system and expands the flexibility of the system tremendously. You may have more than one Speedlite in a group, but up to 15 total units while using radio transmission. For example, A group may have three Speedlites, B group may have two, C group may have five, D group could have four and E group could have just one for a total of 15.

To change any group into manual mode, access Menu 1 on the back of the Speedlite by pressing the “Menu” button on the far right until you see it appear. Next, touch the button marked Gr (3) and use the navigation dial to scroll to the group you want (4) (Figure 5).

Figure 5
Photo by Eric Stoner


Let’s assume you want to change Group C. Now, simply look on the bottom navigation bar for “C MODE” (5).

Figure 6
Photo by Eric Stoner


Touch that button once and that group is now in manual mode (6) (Figure 6). Push the +/- button or the SEL/SET button (7) to activate the power scale and change it manually to your taste by turning the dial.

It might seem complicated, but once you get it in your hands, it is very intuitive. In the example above (Figure 3), I chose to use Group C at 1/32 power in manual mode while the other Speedlites were still in E-TTL mode. I regained the detail in her hair that was lost using E-TTL. While I don’t need to go to this extreme very often, it does have its place and it’s nice to know I have it when I need it. And I don’t need to walk to each light to make changes because it’s all done right from the camera!

In contrast to setting all of your lights in manual, E-TTL gives me the flexibility for my subject to move around quite a bit more within a given area because E-TTL will change the output of the lights as the subject moves. This is crucial for me when I photograph children that move around a lot. It’s not as important if you’re working with subjects who understand the need to sit still for you. Manual mode might be more appropriate, in this example, for consistency in light output from shot to shot.

Figure 7
Photo by Eric Stoner


Looking at this natural light scene on the left above (Figure 7), we have a great background but as you can see from the portrait image on the right (also using natural light), there’s no control over the light resulting in a flat image with no dimension.

Figure 8
Photo by Eric Stoner


Adding just one Speedlite in a modifier improves this portrait tremendously (Figure 8). Placing the light in different positions allows for more or less light to spill on the background, making it brighter or darker.

Figure 9 (left) shot with High Speed Sync at 1/8000 second; Figure 9A (right) shot with a bare flash for background light
Photo by Eric Stoner


For the image on the left (Figure 9), I activated High Speed Sync, which enabled me to choose a shutter speed of 1/8000 sec., forcing the background to go almost completely black. I added a Speedlite to the background to the image on the right for a bit more mood.

Figure 10 (left) with a grid added on background light; Figure 10A (right) grid moved closer to background
Photo by Eric Stoner


In Figure 10, the only change I made from the image in Figure 9a is that I added a grid to the background light, making the light shape rounder with a nice gradient fall off. Lastly, in Figure 10A,I felt the background light needed to be tighter so I moved it a bit closer to the wall and also felt she needed a hair light so I added one more Speedlite in a strip soft box from overhead.

All of the images in this series were made using E-TTL Automatic flash and then controlled with exposure compensation. At the end of the day, the Speedlite 600EX-RT gives me the power to do what I want and in the way I want to do it!

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