LONG TERM REVIEW - CANON SPEEDLIGHT TRANSMITTER ST-E3-RT
Welcome to my long term review of the Canon Speedlight Transmitter ST-E3-RT. You often read reviews on the Internet regarding camera equipment and 90% are based on first impressions of new equipment. One of the reasons I like to post long term reviews is because I feel that only by living with a product over a longer period of time, and under lots of different conditions, do you get a real feel for how good it is. So after over a year with this new gear. Here are my thoughts.
Firstly I would like to say that this is not my first venture into wireless photography equipment. As a professional photographer I have used everything from optical slave units to the Pocket Wizard Flex TT system. In fact when I think about it I have used cheap ebay transmitters, Interfit radio triggers, Elinchrom Skyports, Pocket Wizard Multi, Pixel tr-332 (rubbish), Canons ST-E2 as well as the wireless infra red system built into Canon's 580ex and 430ex (mk I & mkII) flashes. These have all been played with extensively and used in anger on paid assignments. I suppose I'm trying to say that I do know what I'm talking about despite being the worst spelling blogger in Yorkshire. For most of my flash, nowadays, work I use one or more of my three Canon Speedlite 600EX-RT flash units. Previously I have shot on Nikon and used many models of studio and portable flash equipment.
The ideal wireless trigger is one that allows faultless communication with the camera and in doing so creates as little fuss as possible. Good battery life and weather sealing are also important but the biggest limitation is often range. What I need in terms of range is only about 20 meters for 95% of my work but just for that extra 5% I really could do with up to 50 meters. Sync speed can be important under certain circumstances as well as the ability to operate in a manual mode (for maximum control) and also an Auto function when lighting conditions are changing rapidly or you don't have time for test shots.
As with most photographers there is no such thing as a typical job. Here are a couple of examples showing the diversity of the work the ST-E3-RT have been used for.
The above photograph was taken for a PR photography job to promote a Ghost Walk through Hamsterley Forest in County Durham. It was taken in bright sunshine with the camera underexposing the ambient light as much as possible. I then used three flashes to paint the subject and background back in. As photography means 'drawing with light' I find this sort of work to be very interesting.
Another example of underexposing and then coming back in with two flashes. This is a go style for me and always works well with business and industry.
This shot shows why I sometimes need more range for the flash triggers. When doing construction and industrial photography you often need to get some distance from the subject.
For this review I will be discussing the Canon Speedlight Transmitter ST-E3-RT using the following categories of discussion
--Mounting and integration
---Ease of use - Easy to learn the system?
----Changing of modes and function on the fly
-----Consistency of exposure and firing range
------Canon Speedlight Transmitter ST-E3-RT vs Pocket Wizardflex TT
Mounting is the first place that the Canon Wireless flash system scores highly for me and in fact it is class leading. I have used so many different types of wireless flash systems and have actually had no end of problems with fiddly wires and hot shoes. When I had my Elinchrom Skyport system I would keep a spare Hot shoe (with 3.5mm jack) in my bag at all times as I had so many failures. The problem was that you plugged in your three hot shoe converters to the Skyports, made sure your triggers were switched on, made sure the flashes were set to slave (sb-580ex), made sure the flashes were seated properly on the hot shoes and then you often, quite often, found that one flash didn't work. This then led to wasted minutes of trouble shooting.
My old Elinchrom Skyport Set-up. Good but fiddly and no remote power control
This meant you have to be a whizz at diagnosing flash miss-firing, double checking and generally messing about. Not a good impression to make in front of your clients. The Speedlight Transmitter ST-E3-RT system has no cables and on the flash end you need no additional boxes or batteries or potential problems, assuming you have Canon's SB600 Rt-eX flashes then all you need is the ST-E3-RT and you are ready to rock. Wonderfully simple!
Canon have done a really good job in integrating the Speedlight Transmitter ST-E3-RT with the Canon speedlite 600ex-rt range of flashes. I suspect that the newer canon speedlite 600ex-rt flashes were designed along side the ST-E3-RT as they were released around the same time. The interface on the back of the Canon ST-E3-RT Transmitter is virtually identical to the control panel on the rear of the speedlite 600ex-rt unit which not only make the system look like the same family but (and more importantly) means that you have to only learn one set of buttons and one interface for the whole of your flash equipment.
Ease of use - Easy to learn the system?
The system is certainly no harder to use for your average photographer than the old plug and play wireless radio triggers such as the 'ebay' units and the Elinchrom Skyports. The process from cold to fully rolling is as follows.
- Switch on your flashes and your camera mounted ST-E2-RT
-- ON flash units press the link button - if you last used this flash as a wireless slave it stays in this mode so you only have to turn the flash on (very usefull as I shoot in manual 95% of the time)
---Set your flash level in manual 'M' mode or just start shooting if in E-TTL
The menu system on the ST-E3-RT itself is a bit clunky but then again that is Canon of you. Once you get used to flicking between modes and changing the manual setting remotely for each group you soon forget about the system and concentrate of the photography.
As a professional photographer I used to get pretty tired of running backwards and forward to the flashes to change the settings manually. Most reliable flash triggers five years ago did not offer any kind of remote adjustment of flash levels with the exception of the old and odd ST-E2 with its bonkers Ratio (ETT-L) feature, a transmitter that was however massively floored with its Infra-red transmission system. In bright sunshine it's line-of-sight range was measured in inches.....seriously! So I ended up using the old basic Pocket Wizard and latterly the Elinchrom Skyports. The Pocket Wizard Flex TT5 systems appeared to have great promise but I had reliability issues with mine and also found adding in those extra elements of the three receivers and their hotshoe connection meant they were not 100% reliable. The ST-E3-RT allows you to set up quickly and change you settings with the roll of a dial.
Changing of modes and function on the fly
I work mostly in manual mode and I have to say that the Canon system is just as simple as Pocket Wizards Zone controller unit once you get used to the order of button pressing. The E-TTL mode is just as straightforward as it is on the back of Canon's SB600 Rt-eX flash unit with the only additional parameter being you first choose which flash you settings apply to. All this means that if you used to working with Canon's SB600 Rt-eX or SB-SB600 then its all just the same interface. In fact I would also say if you've used any of Canon's 580ex and 430ex (mk I & mkII) flashes then the menu system on the ST-E3-RT all seems very familiar and a damn sight easier than the old 580 system!
Consistency of exposure and firing range
Obviously for any professional photographer consistent reliable equipment is very important. When undertaking business photography for a client you need to know that once you have the settings right, that they stay the same. Alternatively if you doing some fast moving PR photography and you shooting on the fly, with the E-TTL mode, you need to know that the auto exposures will always be accurate.
In both manual and E-tTTL I have found the Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-RT to be far more reliable than the Pocket Wizard Flex TT5 system. In manual mode it always fires at the required level unless out of range and the E-TTL is always pretty accurate in easy to environments where the flash is capable of managing. If your doing alot of creative or artistic flash work do not expect ETT-L to understand. It will always try and normalize any lighting situation by flooding it with flash.
Firing range is not as good as the old Skyports or basic Pocket Wizards but it is better than the Pocket Wizard Flex TT5 and TT1 system. Some people seemed to have more success than me with he Flex stuff but I found it just too inconsistent. The Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-RT could do with a bit more range and occasionally when flashes are tucked around a corner or a tree they can struggle to fire at more that 35-45 meters. Generally for me its just the fact that I want tot shoot whatever I'm photographing at 200mm so generally if I'm getting misfires I'll just come closer and shoot at 180mm. It really does not happen very often but it would be nice to not have to compromise.
Canon Speedlight Transmitter ST-E3-RT vs Pocket Wizardflex TT
The 'real world' range of these systems is similar but I found that the Pocket Wizards gave inconsistent exposure at the edges of their ranges where as the Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-RTjust either works or doesn't fire.
The Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-RT seems to give a more consistent exposure and is certainly easily to use than the less well integrated Flex system.
Other issues such as the additional components required with the Flex system and the subsequent battery issues just make the potential for problems to be increased and trust me when I say they will always play up when you need them most.
The only real advantage that I can see with Pocket Wizards Flexx TT system is that it can be used as a manual only trigger on a more varied amount of equipment where as for the Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-RT to work you really need the Speedlite 600 EX-RT. So if you were in the market to replace your flashes at the same time then getting the Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-RT and some 600-rt-ex makes a lot of sense.
I have to say that in general I have been very impressed with the Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-RT. I love the little bits of thought that have gone into the system such as you can tell when the flashes have all recycled by looking through the viewfinder for the small flash symbol. You can also look at the channel display at the top of the unit and it will tell you the status of each flash. Whether it has wirelessly linked, whether it is charged and it current power setting.
I like the big LED test button on top that will light green for a clean shot amber for some (but not all) flashes fired) and red for non.
I like the fact that it requires only 2 AA batteries that last months and it means I only now carry one type of batteries.
I like the fact that the system seamlessly goes in to sleep mode and wakes up so quickly. It even can save you custom settings.
There is a lot more that I could talk about in terms of the actual technical menus and those kind of things but I'm assuming that as professional photographers you'll know this or if you are a budding hobbyist you'll enjoy finding out for yourself.
So if we could only integrate Rear-Sync for the unit and also a coffee function, that would be perfect, thanks Canon..
* Newly-designed wireless system uses 2-way radio wave communication for enhanced communication among master and slave units. Achieves a transmission distance of up to 98.4 ft./30 m, all at a 360 degree angle.
* Up to 5 groups, or 15 individual flashes can be controlled via 1 transmitter.
* Supports E-TTL II flash, manual flash, stroboscopic and auto external flash metering.
* Dot matrix LCD panel displays all pertinent information simultaneously and backlit control panel means easy operation.
* 8 types of custom functions, 3 types of personal functions.
* Improved hot shoe contacts for more reliable information transmission and operation; compact design is approx. 2.65 (w) x 2.42 (H) x 3.05 (D) in.
Power Source: AA/LRG Alkaline Batteries x2 (Ni-MH and Lithium batteries can also be used)
Battery Life: Approx. 10 hours continuously *When using AA/LR6 alkaline batteries used (At a room temperature +23°C/73°F).
SE Mode: Power off after 5 min. of idle operation
Dimensions: 2.65 (W) x 2.42 (H) x 3.05 (D) in. / 67.4 (W) x 61.5 (H) x 77.4 (D) mm