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[Hands-on Review] Speedlite EL-1 in Action Photography

Boasting a wide output range equivalent to 14 stops of dynamic range, along with speed in the form of a recharging time as fast as 0.9 seconds even at 1/1 output, Canon’s new top-of-the-line flash, the Speedlite EL-1, promises versatility beyond the typical flash. We passed it to Mark Teo, whose passion for action and dynamism is reflected in his commercial and personal projects, and he shares his experience. (Images by Mark Teo; account as told to SNAPSHOT. All images were shot with a bare flash to provide an idea of the Speedlite's unmodified capabilities)

 

First impressions: Larger than your typical flash, but with the power of a strobe

When I first learned about the Speedlite EL-1, I couldn’t help but associate it with Canon’s EOS-1D X lineup. Both are at the top-of-the-line, and offer outstanding performance and build quality. But I was still surprised when I saw this “EOS-1D X of Speedlites” for the first time. It was bigger than I had expected, and certainly bigger than your typical flash (dimensions: 84.4 x 149.0 x 136.4 mm; 678g with battery pack). But as I was soon to find out, what I had wasn’t a big flash, but a compact and portable alternative to studio lights.

 

Scene #1: The indoor shoot

Two lights did the job when I usually would need four

EOS R5 + RF28-70mm f/2L USM @ 28mm, f/5.6, 1/200 sec, ISO 640

I would usually need four lights to create the same effect: two lights on either side just to light the background, and another two to light the subject. The Speedlite EL-1 allowed me to achieve the same effect with just two flashes.


Behind the scenes

Details of setup:
- Light 1: Pointing at the back to create the white background and rim lights
- Light 2: Low-powered light to light the subject’s face.

For indoor shoots whether in my own studio or on location, space is a luxury.  When you move in studio lighting equipment such as studio strobes, sturdy stands to hold them, as well as all the wires, there usually isn’t much room left over.

In comparison, my setup with the Speedlite EL-1 units didn’t take up a lot of space. The Speedlites, together with the Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-RT that I used to fire the flashes remotely, support wireless shooting via radio transmission so you can keep the premises pretty much wire-free. At the same time, they provided enough power and output control to rival my usual strobe setups.

The flash output and radio transmission connection were stable and reliable, allowing me to focus on directing my subject to get the best position.


A compact, versatile, wire-free setup that provides more freedom to move

EOS R + RF28-70mm f/2L USM @ 62mm, f/2.8, 1/200 sec, ISO 800


More space, more freedom to move

When space is tight, and with those wires and huge strobes around, we tend to watch our movement. You don’t want anyone (definitely not your subject) to accidentally bump into or trip over any! But that also means that I often have to pose my subjects, which makes it harder to create action shots that look natural.

With the simpler, space-saving setup that the Speedlite EL-1 enables, my subjects can perform movements more freely. For example, for the tyre flip shot above, I could get my subject to take a few steps with the tyre while I captured the key moment.

 

Scene #2: The action sequence

Fast recycling time increases keepers for moderate-speed action

Images above: EOS R + RF28-70mm f/2L USM @ 70mm, f/2.8, 1/200 sec, ISO 800
Setup: 2 off-camera flashes on camera left and right


For scenes like this one with battling ropes, taking a burst sequence gives you more options over the rope positions captured. I took the opportunity to test the fast recycle time of the Speedlite EL-1, said to be as fast as 0.9 second even at 1/1 power—approximately 6 times faster than the Speedlite 600EX II-RT.

Shooting in manual flash mode at less than 1/1 power, the flash fired frequently enough to give me a decent number of keeper shots. Although the flash recycle rate might not be fast enough to keep up with high-speed continuous shooting, it would probably be sufficient to ensure a good number of properly lit burst shots for moderate-paced action such as events and weddings.


Tip: Switch the flash mode to “Continuous Shooting Priority”.

When taking burst shots, to speed up the flash recycling time, enable Continuous Shooting Priority (CSP) mode instead of putting the flash in M or E-TTL mode. This automatically lowers the flash output by one stop and increases the ISO speed by one stop to compensate, which makes the flash recycle faster and also saves energy.

 

Scene #3: Outdoor shoot—High-speed sync

A streamlined, dual off-camera light setup to create a dramatic moment of action

EOS R5 + RF15-35mm f/2.8L IS USM @ 15mm, f/4, 1/800 sec, ISO 400

Amid the rainy weather that plagued most of the time that I had the flashes, there was a window of sunlight and I grabbed the opportunity to do a quick shoot outdoors. The compact but powerful and versatile flash setup once again proved handy, as you can see here where I used the flashes off-camera in high-speed sync mode to freeze the movement of this skater at the peak of his trick.

In normal sync mode, the Speedlite EL-1 is capable of power as low as 1/8192. Even when using high-speed sync, the power can be brought down to 1/128 to achieve subtler effects where desired.


Behind-the-scenes

Setup: Two off-camera flashes on camera left and right, used as fill lighting

The scaled-down setup is perfect for outdoor shoots. It’s less of an obstruction to passers-by, and packing up was a breeze as we could simply just pluck the flashes off the stands and keep them. This is very convenient for time-pressed situations such as when you have back-to-back shoots in different locations.

 

Scene #4: The close-up portrait

Provides control over lighting down to as low as 1/8192

EOS R5 + RF28-70mm f/2L USM @ 70mm, f/2.8, 1/400 sec, ISO 100


Setup 
- 1 light on camera left
- 1 light on the right close to the camera to create the “glint” catchlight.

When using a flash to create catchlights, you don’t want to use a flash that’s too strong as it would make the subject uncomfortable. This is another situation where being able to use a low-powered flash comes in useful.

While this situation didn’t require me to go as low as the 1/8192 minimum, I can imagine how that low a setting would be useful for photographing insects and other macro photography subjects. It would also probably be good for concerts and other dark public venues, where a strong flash would be distracting.

Flash power affects flash duration. In complete darkness, shooting with a low-powered flash is equivalent to using an extremely fast shutter speed! Find out more about this here.

 

Notable feature: One battery pack to save the earth with

Instead of the four AA batteries that a Speedlite usually requires, the Speedlite EL-1 uses one lithium-ion battery pack: the 1920 mAh, 7.2-volt Battery Pack LP-EL. Besides being more environmentally friendly, it is also more convenient. My envious colleague lamented all the AA batteries that we have been using on our flashes and discarding!

The Battery Pack LP-EL is said to be capable of firing approximately 335 flashes at 1/1 power, compared to approximately 100 flashes on the Speedlite 600EX II-RT. While it is not compatible with the LP-E6 used on the EOS R5 as it is slightly longer, it does share the same charger.

On some third-party flashes, you feel the flash heating up even with normal use. While I didn’t shoot with the Speedlite EL-1 units all the time, I did use them for multiple shoots and there were times where I put them through multiple high-speed continuous shooting and high-speed sync sequences. I didn’t feel the flashes heat up at all. When I returned the flashes to Canon, I had not had to charge them even once.

 

Final thoughts: A compact and versatile system that’s full of potential

It was fascinating to try out Canon’s new flagship Speedlite. The Speedlite EL-1 does everything a flagship Speedlite should do, offering power, a wide range of control, stamina in terms of battery life and continuous flash, and functionalities such as high-speed sync and off-camera second-curtain sync, all within a sturdy, dust- and drip-resistant body. It would be the perfect system to take to shoot locations accessible only by mountain biking and a hike—I was prevented from doing just that by the stormy weather!

Besides how it makes such a portable yet powerful lighting system capable of replacing a strobe or two, I can see how it would be a reliable, high-endurance main flash for photographers shooting run and gun situations such as weddings and events. And if you shoot macro in addition to those, this one flash can basically cover everything.

The Speedlite EL-1 is a flash that offers huge potential, as long as you are willing to make the investment.

 

Speedlite EL-1: Specifications

Compatible cameras: EOS cameras supporting E-TTL II/ E-TTL autoflash
Maximum guide number (at approx. ISO 100): 60 (at flash angle 200mm)
Flash coverage (35mm full-frame equivalent focal length): 24 to 200mm (14mm with wide panel)
Bounce angle: 120° (up), 7° (down), 180° (left, right)
Exposure control modes: E-TTL II/ E-TTL autoflash, stroboscopic flash, auto external flash metering, manual external flash metering, continuous shooting priority mode, group firing
Flash exposure compensation: ±3 stops in 1/3-stop or 1/2-stop increments
High-speed sync: Supported
Manual flash output: 1/1 to 1/8192 (in 1/3-stop increments)
Recharge time (approx.): 0.1 to 0.9 sec (normal flash), 0.1 to 0.8 sec (quick flash)
Flash count (approx.): 225 to 2345
Power source: Battery Pack LP-EL
External dimensions (W×H×D): approx. 84.4 × 149.0 × 136.4mm 
Weight: approx. 572g (body only)

 

Not sure what to consider when choosing a Speedlite? Here are the basics:
Choosing an External Flash (1): Flash Power
Choosing an External Flash (2): What Else Can A Flash Do?

Need ideas on what to do with a flash? Check out these tutorials:
How to Capture Raindrops to Create Surreal-looking Portraits
[Flash Technique] Creating a Pop Art-inspired Night Portrait

 


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Mark Teo

Mark Teo

Honing his craft with a balance of commissioned content and personal pursuits, Mark examines life through unguarded portraiture and suspended moments. With an abiding interest in adventure sports and urban subcultures, he has photographed MMA fighters, B-Boys, pole dancers, pro skaters, Motocross riders and Formula 1 champions to name but a few. A Semi Finalist in Red Bull’s Prestigious Illume Competition, Mark shares their uncompromised dynamism and raw energy.

His portfolio spans a plethora of clients from commercial work for Nike and Puma to editorial features for the likes of Discovery Channel Magazine, FHM Upgrade and SMILE Magazine for Cebu Pacific Airlines.

Besides being invited to judge Canon’s annual PhotoMarathon in 2013, Mark’s shoots have seen him documenting the beauty of the people and landscape in a self-driven Tuk Tuk across India, to shooting nomadic horse riders in Tibet for Red Bull and most recently documenting a road trip on the back of a Vespa across Vietnam, Cambodia and Malaysia.