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New Canon Speedlite 600EX-RT has Radio-Based Wireless Control (Updated)

by Philippe Dame on March 2nd, 2012

Wow! Announced alongside the new Canon EOS 5D Mark III is a brand new flash: 600EX-RT. It replaces the top-end 580EX II and retails for US$630 (B&H) / CAD$729 (Vistek).

What’s most interesting here is that it’s wireless system is radio-based! Even Nikon hasn’t come out with that. From what I’ve read, it does include the current optical trigger system found in the EX II lineup of flashes but you can’t mix optical and radio-based triggering. At least it will work with the EOS 7D, 60D and T3i out-of-the-box … you just won’t get the benefits of radio-based triggering. See the section below titled “Backward-Compatibility” for more on that.

UPDATE: Canon’s Digital Learning Centre has released a comprehensive article: “Speedlite 600EX-RT: Radio wireless basics

What’s odd, and frankly disappointing, is that the brand new 5D Mark III does not have the radio trigger built-in! It also lacks support for the current optical based triggering system as it doesn’t have a pop-up flash (the pop-up signals the other flashes). Same goes for the new professional Canon EOS 1Dx. In effect, if you buy the top-end Canon cameras, you get less for you money in the area or remote flash control.

Given the 600EX-RT flash is the only Canon device (so far) that can trigger similar flash units, you’d have to buy a few of these and ditch all your existing Speedlites to benefit from radio-based triggering. That’s an expensive proposition as three of these will cost you about $2,000 with taxes.

UPDATE: Canon is also releasing a new on-camera radio-trigger unit (i.e. no flash) as part of this new system. It’s called the ST-E3-RT and effectively replaces the ST-E2 optical trigger (US$319).

Compared to the current optical trigger system by Canon, the new radio-triggering system can control 5 groups of flashes (A to E) instead of 3 (A to C) but y0u’ll need the 5D Mark III or 1Dx to get control over those extra 2 groups.

In my opinion, Canon should really have built a radio-trigger into the new 5D Mark III but I can guess why they didn’t. It would make it tougher for Canon to create one camera for the international market. The FCC and other regulatory bodies tightly control radio-emitting devices. Still, 2.4 GHz radio frequencies are unregulated in most of the developed world and they could have come out with with just two bodies… one with and one without radio triggering. That doesn’t seem crazy once you learn that a “600EX” (no “RT”) will exist for countries that won’t permit the radio-triggering portion of the flash unit.

Regardless of my complaints about backwards compatibility on the wireless front, it seems like a great flash. Checkout the “First Impressions” review by Syl Arena and this video summary:

Here are some highlights of the 600EX-RT as it compares to the 580EX II

  • GN 197′ (60 m) @ ISO100 (580EX II: GN 190′ or 58 m)
  • Radio-based wireless command of 5 groups (580EX II: 3 groups, not radio-based)
  • Zoom Flash Head: 20-200mm Range (580EX II: 24-105mm)
  • Dot Matrix LCD Panel and Backlit Button (580EX II: Basic LCD)
  • Color Filter Holder for Gelatin Filters (580EX II: No filter holder)
Again, the flash unit will retail for US$630 (B&H) / CAD$729 (Vistek).

And here it is from the front and show relative to the new Canon EOS 5D Mark III:

And here it is with the new filter holder (US$32.95) and filter kit (I wish the 580EX II had this!). The filter kit includes just two orange filters (US$29.99).

Here’s how the ST-E3-RT (trigger-only) unit looks from above

Backward-Compatibility

The official word about backward-compatibility can be found in the aforementioned Canon article about the 600EX-RT’s radio trigger:

This new Speedlite remains fully backward-compatible for existing wireless E-TTL shooting. In other words, someone who already owns a Canon Speedlite system and shoots now with the current “optical” wireless E-TTL can bring the new Speedlite 600EX-RT into their world and not miss a beat. The Speedlite 600EX-RT is completely compatible with Canon’s existing Wireless E-TTL, and can be mixed freely with flashes such as the 580EX II, previous 580EX or 550EX, 430EX II or 430EX, and/or the recent and less-expensive Speedlite 320EX or 270EX II. Used with optical Wireless E-TTL, it can work as an on-camera “master” unit, or off-camera “slave” unit, and as a slave unit, it can be freely mixed with other compatible Canon Speedlites.

So conventional, optical-based Wireless E-TTL – what Canon EOS users have worked with up to now – is entirely possible with the new Speedlite 600EX-RT.

But it also breaks ground for the entire photographic industry with its world’s-first, built-in radio control for Wireless E-TTL. This is entirely separate from, and in addition to, the just-mentioned “optical” Wireless E-TTL which it’s backward-compatible with.

The Speedlite 600EX-RT offers the user a choice of Wireless E-TTL methods: radio-based or optical. The two are entirely separate, and cannot be mixed and matched in the same set-up. For radio-based control, as of March, 2012, the only compatible flashgear are the Speedlite 600EX-RT and the accompanying Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-RT (introduced along with the Speedlite 600EX-RT). Previous EOS Speedlites, like the 580EX II, are not compatible with Canon’s new radio-based systems. And, while it’s true that several third-party companies have developed accessories in the past few years to make Canon’s current Speedlites radio-compliant, these systems – again – cannot simply be mixed and matched with the new radio-based 600EX-RT Wireless E-TTL set-up.

Radio is Now a Reality

From the same article, the author includes a nice summary of the 600EX-RT’s wireless capabilities:

Through it all, demanding photographers have longed for a radio-based wireless flash system that was truly built-in to the Speedlite, not done through add-on accessories. Canon has responded to these very vocal requests, with the world’s first radio-based wireless flash system. The benefits it brings to photographers are immense:

  • Up to 98 foot (30m) distance range
    Speedlite 600EX-RT units can be placed up to nearly 100 feet (30m) away from the master unit. In practical use, you may find that 600EX-RT units can be much farther from the camera – Canon’s official specs are conservative, and account for possible radio interference from the environment some users may be shooting in.
  • Total freedom of placement
    Radio range is over a full 360˚ arc – so slave units can be positioned anywhere, including behind the camera and photographer – still up to nearly 100 feet away.
  • No “line of sight” requirement
    Radio transmission effectively moves through/around most obstacles, including most types of walls, building pillars, trees, plants, and human subjects. Speedlite 600EX-RT units can thus be freely positioned nearly anywhere in a scene, and still fire reliably as long as they’re within the roughly 100-foot working range of the Canon radio-based wireless system.
  • Full E-TTL exposure control remains possible
    The Speedlite 600EX-RT’s new radio-based wireless system remains fully E-TTL exposure compatible. E-TTL flash features, such as Flash Exposure Lock, ± Flash Exposure Compensation, and (with limitations) high-speed flash sync remain available.
  • Manual flash and more
    For users who occasionally prefer Manual flash control, this is fully within the new radio-based wireless system’s abilities. Manual flash mode, Multi (stroboscopic) flash mode, and even in some circumstances External Auto (non-TTL automatic flash, using an external exposure sensor on the front of the 600EX-RT) are all possible when using one or more flashes off-camera and triggering them via the new Canon radio system. And, it can all be controlled from the camera position, right on the master flash (or new Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-RT).
  • Control of up to fifteen 600EX-RT Speedlites off-camera
    A total of one to fifteen Speedlite 600EX-RT units can be placed off-camera, and fired using either another 600EX-RT on-camera (as a radio-based “master” flash) or an optional ST-E3-RT Speedlite Transmitter on the camera’s accessory shoe. When two or more flash Groups are established, anywhere from one to 14 flashes can be assigned to a group (A, B, etc.). Multiple groups do not have to have the same number of slave units within them. Again, the total number of Speedlite 600EX-RT slave units in a set-up cannot exceed 15, regardless of the number of groups.
  • Flash Ready displayed for each group on the Master Unit’s LCD panel
    Because of the extensive communication between the master unit and any off-camera, radio-based slave units, each slave communicates to the master unit when it’s fully recycled. When each slave unit in a group is fully ready, a flash-ready icon appears for that group on the master unit’s LCD panel. In other words, if any single flash has weak batteries and is slow to recycle, the photographer is aware that that group is not yet ready.
  • Remote firing of a camera*
    Position a camera with either the Speedlite 600EX-RT or accessory Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-RT on its hot shoe. A second 600EX-RT (or ST-E3-RT) can now be configured to fire that camera, by pressing a button… and the camera can be up to 100 feet (30m) away. Flash on the “slave” camera, triggered remotely, can fire or not fire… it’s the photographer’s choice. This is like having a 100-foot long remote cord, and not having to worry about anyone tripping over the cord!
  • New: Linked Shooting*
    Take a Speedlite 600EX-RT or Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-RT, and put it on the hot shoe of an EOS camera. Assign this as a Master unit. Now, do the same – with either an ST-E3-RT or 600EX-RT – on up to 15 other EOS cameras, assigned as “slave units”. It’s now possible to fire the “master” camera, and have the 600EX-RT or ST-E3-RT fire the “slave” cameras, up to 100 feet away from the master. Flash can fire or not fire during exposure, whichever the photographer chooses. It’s a new way to remotely control multiple EOS cameras.
  • http://twitter.com/spamalope spam

    do you think canon will release ettl wireless triggers to work with the older speedlites?

    • http://LearningDSLR.com Philippe Dame

      One hopes. That would be logical. They should design a transceiver (one that can send and receive). Sell those for $150 each perhaps.

    • http://LearningDSLR.com Philippe Dame

      Canon is also releasing an updated on-camera flash trigger that’s radio based as well, I’ll add this to my post. It’s called the ST-E3-RT (price is not yet known). See it here: http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/847531-REG/Canon_5743B002_ST_E3_RT_Speedlite_Transmitter.html/BI/7305/KBID/7821

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  • sam

    So will this flash work with the 7d, 60d, and t3i wirelessly or not?

    • http://LearningDSLR.com Philippe Dame

      From what I’ve read, it includes the optical triggering system found in the current line up of EX II flashes but the optical and radio triggering cannot be mixed. Based on that, the 7D/60D/T3i can trigger it just fine but you won’t be benefit from radio trigger whatsoever.

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  • tvstaff

    I just spent $7,000 on a 1DX and it won’t fire my 580EXII on a stand????. Canon should be ashamed!!!

    • http://LearningDSLR.com Philippe Dame

      It should come with the IR and radio trigger!

  • tvstaff

    However! The features on the 600EX do NOT all work off camera. The White Balance feature, gell feature and zoom features ALL do not work if you want to use an umbrella or soft box or hold off camaera with the radio.
    Based on the horrific 1DX defective Mirror Boxes and things like this, Canon is so off the mark for professionals right now.
    How do you sell a $7,000 body that you know is defective. The 1DX is still being sold to people and Canon knows the mirror boxes are defective. The Canon flashes are ALL moot until some quality control and inproved design comes back to Canon.

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