Speedlite 600EX-RT and ST-E3-RT – Canon’s New Radio Flash Duo (this is HUGE news!)

Canon 600EX speedliteTogether with other news Canon today announced 2 3 new speedlite products, the 600EX speedlite and the ST-E3 speedlite transmitter. These products are truly revolutionary as they come with built-in radio control for wireless flash, making the existing optical wireless technology (with its limitations) obsolete.

The third new product is the Speedlite 600-EX without radio control technology – see the 600EX page for more information.

Canon scores BIG against Nikon

With this 600EX / ST-E3 innovation Canon scores another win against arch rival Nikon who had been seen as leading the pack in flash technology for a long time. But somehow Nikon has lost its edge over the recent years, starting with the somehow unpopular SB-900, then the SB-700 flash lacking a killer feature and the just recently announced SB-910 that is a very mild update of the SB-900 and, again, comes without any real innovation.

The wireless technology found in the new Canon 600EX alone doesn’t make the system superior, certainly. After all, there are 3rd party wireless trigger available with TTL support for Nikon. And looking beyond radio versus optical control: what matters in the end is the quality of the TTL exposure, and I’m not sure if Canon has caught up with Nikon in that field so far.

Recent Investments in Speedlite System

But if you look at recent product launches you can see that Canon was first to feature wireless mode in the entire flash line-up (Canon 270EX II); Canon was first to launch a speedlite with video light (320EX review); and now, and that is definitely the most significant step, Canon is the first to launch a radio-control system for wireless flash. There is no question that they are gaining ground, esp since the new camera bodies now also come with built-in master mode (using optical technology, however).

Canon 600EX-RT Radio-Control Speedlite

Announced at a hefty price of $629 this flash is not a bargain. But the new 600EX-RT features a long list of improvements. It’s a professional grade flash, intended for pro’s and rich amateurs.

Highlights of the new Canon Top Flash 600EX:

  • new, exclusive 2-way radio control for wireless flash
  • bigger zoom range for the flash reflector: 20 – 200mm (580EX II: 24-105)
  • AF assist supports up to 61 AF points (“1 to 61-Point High Density Reticular AF”); it’s still a triple-beam design as can be seen from the photo below
  • slightly higher maximum guide number: achieves GN 60 at 200mm max zoom; 580EX II had GN 58 at 105mm
  • control for 5 groups in radio mode, where each group can be set to a different flash mode; a total of 15 slave flashes can be controlled
  • 15 channels; according to the German Canon website the flash automatically selects the best channel in a given environment (source)
  • also supports the optical wireless control system with 3 groups / 4 channels (opposed to the also-new ST-E3 wireless transmitter)
  • New dot matrix LCD panel and backlit buttons (580EX II has simpler segment-type LCD with limited ease-of-use)
  • color gel filter holder (speedlite comes with 2 CTO gels SCF-E1OR1 and SCF-E1OR2)
  • improved build quality with materials “similar to 1D X” (source)
  • built-in camera remote mode: the flash, in conjunction with another 600EX or ST-E3 in the camera hot-shoe, can be used as a camera remote trigger (this works for up to 15 cameras, and is using the radio technology)

Unfortunately, not all new features can be discussed here (otherwise this post would be published in a couple of weeks instead of now). Stay tuned for an upcoming review of the new flash. But let me make 2 comments.

Guide Number Games

If you’ve been around on this site you’ll know that Speedlights.net is obsessed with flash power and output specs. When it comes to the real guide number of this new Canon 600-EX the question is still open whether the new flash is really more powerful than the Canon 580EX II throughout the entire zoom range. With wide panel and 14mm coverage, both flashes – 600EX and 580EX – achieve GN 15. At 20mm the 600EX is specified as GN 20 while the 580EX II only starts at 24mm, but offering GN 28 already. What can be said is that the new 600EX flash does not have more juice than the old 580EX II, at least at wide angle. (the same holds true for the Nikon SB-910 when compared to the SB-900)

Improved Ease of Use

The bigger zoom range is certainly also welcome, and it’s been the upgrade a lot of / most photographers had been asking for.

My big hope is that Canon improves the usability and ease-of-use that are a big weakness in their 580EX II flash unit. As you can see from the photo (click to enlarge!) they have designed a new interface for the 600EX, it looks a bit like a Nikon SB-910 now. I’m especially excited about the dedicated “wireless” button on the left – setting wireless mode was a huge pain on the 580EX II.

Canon 600EX-RT – Cons

Here is one thing that doesn’t get me excited about the new 600EX-RT flash from Canon:

  • the price: at $629 it’s a very expensive piece of equipment; the current 580EX II can be bought for around $460 – that’s a 36% price increase! Sure, you get the radio control for 5 groups and some other bells and whistles. But still.

If you buy only 1 flash it’s $200 more compared to the 580EX, and you can argue that this is something to live with. But if you want to take advantage of the new wireless features you really want to have more than 1 of these babies, and that’s when the math gets a bit scary: 3 of them cost you $1900 – that’s the money to spend for a 3-lights set.

But wait! If you don’t need the radio control feature, there’s still news for you: Canon releases a sister model “600-EX” (without the “-RT”) that’s still a big upgrade from the 580EX II. Pricing is not known yet as of March 2nd, but it should naturally be cheaper than the 600-EX-RT!

Canon ST-E3-RT Pro and Con

Speedlite transmitter ST-E3Together with the new flash Canon also announced a new wireless controller that’s replacing their ST-E2. Actually, you should be able to combine the ST-E2 with the new flash, because the 600EX has the ‘old’ optical wireless mode also built in.

But if you really want to jump on the radio control bandwagon there’s no way around the ST-E3-RT (unless you use another 600EX as master in your camera hot-shoe; Canon has not announced any camera body yet with a built-in radio control mode, and i don’t expect they will do this anytime soon).

Let’s start with the Good – but make sure to keep reading until the end, because that ST-E3 comes with some significant drawbacks as well.

ST-E3: The Great

  • radio transmitter for TTL and manual flash control using 2.4 GHz frequency
  • 15 selectable channels (probably auto-scan)
  • supports E-TTL II flash metering, manual flash, multi mode = stroboscopic flash; “A” mode only with selected cameras (5D mkIII, EOS-1D X)
  • specified as having a 30 meter range (same as Canon 600-EX flash)
  • uses standard AA batteries (no more 2CR5 needed)
  • dust and water protection

Significant Drawbacks

  • no AF-assist light (while the ST-E2 had one!)
  • no support for the optical wireless mode – won’t communicate with your 580EX (II) units
  • very expensive with a price of $470 (source)

ST-E3 disadvantage - no AF assistThese are pretty big ones: Having no AF assist is a big step backwards compared to the precursor ST-E2, as well as the Yongnuo clone Yongnuo ST-E2, which both feature built-in AF assist lights using a traditional red lamp (Canon) or holographic / laser-beam AF assist (Yongnuo). With this ST-E3, you have to rely on your camera’s low-light AF capabilities; that’s what this means.

ST-E3 not backward-compatible - only radio controlNext is the radio-only feature: I’m sure that the omission of any optical wireless control support will be a good thing for Canon’s sales figures, but it’s definitely a bad thing for everyone using flashes for the Canon system today. Hidden in the fine print, Canon themselves tell us about the consequence:

Because it [the ST-E3-RT] does not have an optical transmission function, the Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-RT is not compatible with earlier Speedlite models such as 580EX II“.

Bummer! Either don’t use the ST-E3, or sell all of your flashes and buy all 600-EX – that’s what this means!

More Info on the New Canon Radio Flash Combo

Sign up to email updates, like Speedlights on Facebook, or follow Speedlights.net on twitter to be notified as soon as the in-depth review becomes available.

To access Canon’s official information, check these pages:
Canon ST-E3 page
Canon Speedlite 600-EX-RT Specs page

In-depth reviews of Canon speedlites:
Speedlite 580EX II review
Speedlite 430EX II review
Speedlite 320EX review

Canon 600EX front600EX side600-EX back panel

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6 Responses to Speedlite 600EX-RT and ST-E3-RT – Canon’s New Radio Flash Duo (this is HUGE news!)

  1. Chris K. says:

    Looks great and will be buying one, but 1 question that I have not been able to read anywhere, does this flash let you use off camera flash in full manual mode? as in the 580 EX II it only let you power down the flash in Manual mode, what I mean is can you input the ISO f-stop and power down the flash in Manual like on the Nikon speedlights? thanks;)

  2. Steffen says:

    I have heart today that the new radio flash system will be only compatible to Canons cameras released in 2012. This would mean that one cannot use the ST-E3 e.g on a 7d.

    • Speedlights says:

      Hi Steffen! Thx for the comment! The flash is compatible with any Canon EOS camera – digital and even film-based when used in the hot-shoe. There are some limitations however for the radio-controlled mode with camera bodies released before 2012 – 7D is an example. What you lose is high speed sync (HSS) and the sync speed is 1 stop slower than normal – at 1/100 or 1/125 sec rather than 1/250. See here for more info: http://learn.usa.canon.com/resources/articles/2012/speedlite_600exrt_radio_basics.shtml. If you don’t use the radio wireless mode but the optical wireless mode these limitations do not apply. Frank

  3. Farshad says:

    Good job! You must be a canon user. Nikon, Canon are both good. One has advange over the other in specific area. Everyone has opinion and everyone seem to know more than camera makers. I have used canon and nikon (still use nikon) but in my opinion my sonya900 pair with Zeiss lenses gives me results that ive never seen from both canon and nikon bests. Only downfall is sony is very limited in resources.
    How about Nikon D800E for landscape? The detail you get from that camera (almost like a medium format camera), eats maybe swallows, your very good canon mark3 at cheaper price. Mark3 has better ISO. ISO is not that important when you shoot landscape on tripod or studio commercial work anyways. ISO is your last resort, shouldnt rely much on it when you can control light in better ways! Am i correct masters?

    • Speedlights says:

      Hi Farshad – I’ve always used Nikon, so I naturally thought it’s the best brand – you’re absolutely right about what you say. But since 1.5 years I also have a Canon T1i – bought it specifically for Speedlights.net testing. So now I have both Canon and Nikon at the same time. And having used Canon myself my opinion has changed a lot, and I think that the Canon system is really good, too. In some areas I prefer it over Nikon, e.g. when it comes to the video features. Frank

  4. plevyadophy says:

    Just queery.

    In your write up you say “But if you look at recent product launches you can see that Canon was first to feature wireless mode in the entire flash line-up (Canon 270EX II); ”

    Is that really correct?

    What of Olympus (their 3 series and 5 series flash)?
    And what of Alpha system of Konica-Minolta and later Sony? Certainly, until recently all of Sony’s DSLRs had wireless flash control functionality (I can’t remember if all their flashes did too).



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