Recently, we were given a copy of Syl Arena’s Speedliter’s Handbook to review by the fine folks at Peachpit Press. Having been solely a Nikon user, when I first heard about Syl Arena’s book, I really wasn’t very interested. After all, Syl is the “Canon Speedliter guy”. His expertise with Canon Speedlites is known throughout the photographic community. If I wanted to learn about off-camera flash I would probably tend to go to someone who uses Nikon’s system, like Joe McNally. Syl Arena’s book would not be number one on my list of books to pick up.
I am going to tell all of you what I wish someone had told me. The title to his book is very misleading. Yes, there is information about Canon speedlites, but the majority of the book is about off-camera flash in general. The Canon specific details are secondary to the meat of the content. Separated into five different parts (with only one that is Canon-specfic), each section delves into a different aspect of shooting with flash. There are nearly 400 pages of easily digestible, yet thoroughly indispensable information.
I couldn’t help but compare the first section to the lighting “bible”, Light: Science and Magic. I struggled going through that book, trying to understand the technical and scientific jargon. Part one of Syl’s book breaks down the elements of lighting to the basics and in a language any layman can understand. He explains how to look for light (and for the different qualities of light), getting the correct exposure, and understanding the light’s temperature. These pages are worth the price of admittance by themselves.
The second part is the section that is geared towards Canon Speedlite users. He delves into the basics of Canon Speedlites; how to use them in manual mode and E-TTL, using them wirelessly, and mixing them with other lights. He goes into great detail about the 580 EXII, the 430 EXII, the 270EX, the ST-E2 and macro ring lites. Almost everything you could want to know about Speedlites is explained in great detail. If you are a Canon user this section will help you get the most out of your flashes, and again, is alone worth the purchase.
Syl moves into the next section discussing gear; lighting modifiers, batteries, and stands. Every page has pictures of the different modifiers as well as examples of what those modifiers can do with the light. He tested every piece of gear that is mentioned and tells what the results were, even down to which batteries had the highest number of “pops” and which charger has the best bang for your buck. Choosing which gear to buy can be a daunting task and Syl’s book is an excellent reference for helping to make those decisions.
Part 4 was the best part of the book for me. He goes through example after example of specific types of lighting and exactly how to achieve it. He details classic lighting styles such as broad lighting, Rembrandt, and butterfly lighting. He also talks about lighting portraits with one, two and three lights, using gels, using high-speed sync, dimming the sun and gang lighting. Every page not only has the example portrait, but also has the lighting diagram right next to it. In addition to the lighting diagram, he also gives you the exif data, the lighting info, and distance of light to the subject, so you can do the exact same set-up to try it out. Simply put, this section is a masterclass in creating and crafting light.
This book has something in it for everyone; both Nikon and Canon shooters, beginners to advanced. Even those who don’t use flash would find it useful for working in ambient light. It is extremely well-written and very easy to understand. I read a review which stated this book should be on every Canon user’s bookshelf. I would go so far as to say it should be on every serious photographer’s bookshelf. It’s that good.