Canon Speedlite 430EX II Flash Review

Canon Speedlite 430EX II Flash Review

You are looking at one of the most popular DSLR accessories available - a shoe-mount flash. The Canon Speedlite 430EX II Flash, at the time of this review, is Canon's middle child of standard Speedlite flashes. It contains a big amount of functionality, power and style in a modestly priced and sized body.

The Canon Speedlite 430EX II Flash replaces the Canon 430EX Speedlite Flash, so let's start with a review of the upgrades. Enhancements include 20% faster and silent recycle time, a new metal mounting foot with redesigned connection pins, a new quick release and locking mechanism, manual mode settings in 1/3 stop increments and, when used with compatible EOS cameras, all Speedlite 430EX II settings can be controlled through the camera menu system as seen below.

Canon 430EX II Speedlite Flash on Canon EOS DSLR Camera

These enhancements are nice. The silent recycling is a change that I have mixed feelings about. Silent flash charging is definitely more professional and less distracting to others, but being able to audibly identify a full flash charge is useful to me.

Overall, the 430EX II functions very well - I don't have any complaints. Actually, all of the current Speedlites work well, so to choose the right one(s) for you means looking at the other differentiators including power and features.

Pinpointing the 430EX II's position in the current Canon Speedlite system is helpful. All "EX" series Speedlites are compatible with all EOS camera bodies; therefore, I will include most of the discontinued EX Speedlite models at the bottom of the following feature and specification charts. All dimensions are WxHxD. Batteries are not included in the weight specifications (all compared flashes require 4 AA Alkaline or NiMH rechargeable batteries - definitely use NiMH for both cost, environmental and performance reasons). The ST-E2 (not a flash - a flash transmitter - more later) utilizes a 2CR5 lithium battery.

ModelWeightDimensions
Canon ST-E2 Speedlite Transmitter3.5 oz(100g)2.4 x 2.0 x 3.1"(62 x 51 x 80mm)
Canon Speedlite 270EX Flash5.1 oz(145g)2.5 x 2.6 x 3.0"(64 x 65 x 76.5mm)
Canon Speedlite 430EX II Flash11.6 oz(330g)2.8 x 4.8 x 4.0"(72 x 122 x 101mm)
Canon Speedlite 580EX II Flash13.2 oz(375g)3.0 x 5.3 x 4.5"(75 x 134 x 114mm)
Canon Speedlite 220EX Flash5.6 oz(159g)2.6 x 3.6 x 2.4"(66 x 91 x 61mm)
Canon Speedlite 420EX Flash10.6 oz(300g)2.8 x 3.9 x 4.8"(71 x 99 x 122 mm)
Canon Speedlite 430EX Flash11.6 oz(330g)2.8 x 4.8 x 4.0"(72 x 122 x 101mm)
Canon Speedlite 550EX Flash14.2 oz(403g)3.2 x 5.4 x 4.4"(81 x 137 x 112mm)
Canon Speedlite 580EX Flash13.2 oz(375g)3.0 x 5.3 x 4.5"(76 x 134 x 114mm)

A not-in-your-face size observation is that the flash height helps the light clear large and wide angle lenses - eliminating the dark half-moon commonly seen at the bottom of image taken with the built-in flash and moderate-sized lenses. The height also helps reduce the red-eye effect.

In the size and weight category, the Canon Speedlite 430EX II Flash falls between the 220EX and the 580EX II, but is closer to the 580EX II. The 430EX II is closer to the 580EX II in the features category as well.

ModelGuide No.CoverageTilt/SwivelRecycleAF AssistTTLManualCFs
Canon ST-E2 Speedlite Transmitterto 49.2'(15m)28mm or greater  up to 45 ptsE-TTLNo0
Canon EOS 50D Built-in Flash43'(13m)117mm FixedNo3 secSeries of flashesE-TTL IINo0
Canon Speedlite 270EX Flash89'(27m)128mm, 50mm90°/0°2.6/3.9 secSeries of flashesE-TTL IINo2
Canon Speedlite 430EX II Flash141'(43m)24-105mm, 14mmYes/270°3.0 secup to 9 ptsE-TTL IIYes9
Canon Speedlite 580EX II Flash190'(58m)24-105mm, 14mmYes/360°3/6 secup to 45 ptsE-TTL IIYes14
Canon Speedlite 220EX Flash72'(22m)128mm FixedNo4.8 secup to 1 ptE-TTLNo0
Canon Speedlite 420EX Flash138'(42m)24-105mmYes7.5 secup to 7 ptsE-TTLYes
Canon Speedlite 430EX Flash141'(43m)24-105mm, 14mmYes3.7 secup to 9 ptsE-TTL IIYes6
Canon Speedlite 550EX Flash180'(55m)24-105mm, 17mmYes4/8 secup to 45 ptsE-TTLYes6
Canon Speedlite 580EX Flash190'(58m)24-105mm, 14mmYes3/6 secup to 45 ptsE-TTL IIYes14

1 Guide Number is based on a 105mm flash head setting with exception of the non-zoom-capable 220ex which is based on 28mm coverage and 50D which is based on 17mm coverage.

What is a "Guide Number"?

Guide Number = Distance × f/number at ISO 100.

Put this formula into practice: For the 220EX Flash guide number of 72' and an aperture of f/8, the maximum distance from the light source should be from the subject is 9 feet (72' = 9' × 8). How about another definition: Guide Number = Power. More power is better as the flash can adjust to lower power when full power is not required, but more than full power is never available.

Angle of Coverage figures show the flash's native zoom head range and the wide angle coverage available by using the built-in (pull-out, flip-down) diffuser if so equipped. Listed focal lengths are for a full frame body. A 17mm focal length setting on a lens mounted to a 1.6x DSLR such as the Canon EOS 50D requires flash coverage of 27.2mm. Corners become darkened when using lenses wider than the angle of coverage.

Flashes listed with a single focal length range do not have zoom heads (does that make them "prime" flashes?). Longer focal lengths can of course be used with any of these flashes, but light falling outside of the framed image will usually be wasted. The Canon Speedlite 430EX II Flash will automatically compensate for FOVCF when attached to compatible smaller-sensor bodies.

In my opinion, the Tilt/Swivel option is very important. It is a big differentiator between the flashes - I'll show you why later in this review.

Recycle time specifications are based on new AA Alkaline batteries. NiMH batteries have much less internal resistance than alkaline batteries resulting in significantly shorter re-cycle times (around 33% faster). NiMH batteries also give more consistent (full) power until they are discharged while alkalines will recycle the flash more and more slowly as they expend their life. (try Eneloop batteries - they hold their charge very well). When two recycle times are given for a flash, the numbers are referencing rapid and normal charging modes respectively.

All of the above-compared Canon flashes have an AF assist beam for enabling autofocus in very dark or low-contrast situations. With exception of the 50D, these flashes project a visible red grid pattern (yielding both light and contrast) for the camera's AF to lock onto. This system works on even a white wall. This beam offers coverage for up to a specific number of AF points. In the case of the 430EX II, up to 9 AF points are covered. This matches Canon's current non-1-Series bodies nicely. This does not mean the 430EX II cannot be used on the 45pt 1-Series bodies, but AF point coverage is not as optimal. The 430EX II's AF Assist beam is useful out to about 32.8' (10m) .

E-TTL II (Electronic-Through The Lens version II) is Canon's latest (as of this review date) flash exposure metering system. A preflash along with subject distance information (when available) is used to determine the proper amount of light to provide in the immediately following full exposure flash.

E-TTL II also provides improved white balance when the camera is set to Auto or Flash white balance. "Slight variations in a flash gun's voltage and brightness can destabilize white balance in respective frames during continuous shooting. The Speedlite 430EX II compensates for this by transmitting color information from the flash to the camera. This information is then used to optimize the white balance setting for each individual image." [Canon]

Manual flash power is a very useful feature. If your subject distance, light levels and camera settings are constant, determine and manually set the proper flash power. Every exposure will be correct.

The Canon Speedlite 430EX II Flash has 9 custom functions. These are adjusted using parenthesis-shaped buttons and the set button between them. Settings are displayed on the rear LCD panel while being reviewed/changed. These nine functions are:

C.Fn-00: Distance Indicator Display (ft/m)
C.Fn-01: Auto Power Off Activation (On/Off)
C.Fn-02: Modeling Flash (3 Enabled Button Options/Disabled)
C.Fn-07: Test Firing with Autoflash (1/32, Full Output)
C.Fn-08: AF-Assist Beam (Disabled/Enabled)
C.Fn-09: Auto Zoom for Sensor Size (Enabled, Disabled)
C.Fn-10: Slave Auto Power Off Time (60 Min, 10 Min)
C.Fn-11: Slave Auto Power Off Cancel (Within 8 Hr, Within 1 Hr)
C.Fn-14: Flash Range/Aperture Info (Max Distance/Aperture Display)

The little chart below says a lot. Canon's wireless remote Speedlite Flash system opens the door for infinite creativity.

ModelMasterSlaveRemote Port
Canon ST-E2 Speedlite TransmitterYesNoNo
Canon Speedlite 220EX FlashNoNoNo
Canon Speedlite 430EX II FlashNoYesNo
Canon Speedlite 580EX II FlashYesYesPC Sync In
Canon Speedlite 420EX FlashNoYesNo
Canon Speedlite 430EX FlashNoYesNo
Canon Speedlite 550EX FlashYesYesNo
Canon Speedlite 580EX FlashYesYesNo

To create a Canon wireless Speedlite system, you need a master (the controller) and slave (remote flash). From the chart above, it is obvious that the role the Canon Speedlite 430EX II Flash plays in this system is as a slave only. There are other methods for firing flashes remotely including the popular Pocket Wizard Radio Transceivers. Canon's wireless system is based on light which requires direct line of sight (or surfaces that bounce the light). The radio-controlled systems easily penetrate objects such as walls and typically are useful over a much longer range. The 580EX II has a PC Synch In port that makes it easier to use these alternative devices. I'll give an example of remote flash use later in this review.

Here is what the current flashes look like (use mouseover links below images).

Canon Speedlite 430EX II Flash Comparison

Canon 580EX II Front | Back | Left | Right | Case | Front-Vert | Back-Vert
Canon 430EX II Front | Back | Left | Right | Case | Front-Vert | Back-Vert
Canon 220EX Front | Back | Left | Right | Case
Canon ST-E2 Front | Back | Left | Right | Case
All The Above Front | Back | Left | Right | Case | Front-Vert | Back-Vert

All of these devices are well built. Aside from the 580EX II's weather sealing, build quality is not a good reason to choose between them.

On the front, each of these flashes (and the flash transmitter) has a red window - this is the source of the AF assist light. A light from this window will intermittently flash while setup in slave/remote mode. The darker window on the 430EX II and 580EX II is the remove/slave receiver. Do not block this area when using the flash as a remote.

The size of the flash head varies somewhat between these flashes. The larger the light source, the softer the light will be. Larger is usually desired and smaller can easily be made with accessories such as snoots. However, the differences seen here are not enough to matter unless you are shooting at macro differences.

If you look above the pull-out/flip-down diffusers, you see a thin white line on the 580EX II that is missing on the 430EX II. This is a white bounce card that is useful for sending a little light forward for fill and catchlights when shooting in the bounce position.

Moving to the back of the flashes, the first thing I notice is that the slave/off switch is gone on the 430EX II (the 430EX has one). Like the 580EX II, this setting is changed on the 430EX II by holding the zoom button in. This feature is definitely not as quickly accessed via the button as the old switch - and many of us are not thrilled by this change.

The 430EX II provides parenthesis-shaped push buttons for settings changes while the 580EX utilizes a much easier/faster to use wheel. My medium-sized hands and fingers do not find the 430EX II's push buttons easy to press (they are recessed and too narrow).

A sign of the 580EX II's weather sealing can be seen when comparing the 430EX II and 580EX II back images. Metal from the hot shoe is visible on the 430EX II while the weather sealing covers the 580EX II's shoe. The 220EX and ST-E2 both have plastic mounts.

Though not obvious in these pictures, the 580EX II has an additional mode, Auto External, available via the mode button.

The 220EX, while cute, is nearly featureless on the back. The ST-E2 is very busy (but easy to use) with its ratio and channel settings and info on its back.

The left side of the flashes is rather boring. The 430EX has a flash bracket mount (for a Canon SB-E2 Speedlite Bracket) under the small cover while the 580EX II adds a very nice feature for heavy flash users - an external power port. The 220EX battery door is on the left, the 430EX II and 580EX II battery doors are on the right. The single-button tilt-swivel adjustment release is located on the right of the two larger flashes.

All of Canon's flashes come with a nice padded case. The newer ST-E2 cases are constructed of nylon like the 430EX II and 580EX II cases. The glaring omission from the cases is a belt loop. They are basically only good for storage or carry in another case. The Think Tank Photo Lightning Fast or Skin Strobe modular cases work well for this need.

Obviously, all above devices are shown mounted on a mini flash stand that is included only with the 430EX II and 580EX II. The ST-E2 is a flash master only and the 220EX is not wireless remote capable, so they typically do not need stands. The mini flash stand features a threaded insert on the bottom for mounting on a light stand. While I've used it for this purpose, I don't fully trust the strength of this piece. I may just be paranoid, but ... it's plastic. The little stand is useful - I often use it for shooting from a flat surface. Or better yet, use a Justin Clamp and mount the remote flash anywhere.

Before I get to some of the reasons for using a remote flash, let's start with the question - Why use an external flash at all? The answer may be obvious to owners of camera bodies without a built-in flash, but not so clear to those using bodies with a built-in flash. The built-in flash is great for fill flash - to light the shaded areas in a pictures (such as people's eyes under a mid-day sun) at short distances. To use fill flash, set your exposure for the ambient light, then dial in -1 to -2 EV FEC (Flash Exposure Compensation). The built-in flash will add light to the shadows and add catchlights (sparkles) to the subject's eyes.

Because the light source from the flash is relatively very small and is located very close to the imaging axis, using the built-in flash as a main light often results in a harshly-lit picture (often with red-eyed subjects). Items close to the flash are often overexposed, the background often becomes black, harsh shadows typically abound and subjects tend to become flat looking. I use direct-flash-as-main-light (typically in "M" mode) only as a last resort, much preferring to use a higher ISO, wider aperture, slower shutter speed, image stabilization, a tripod ... But, sometimes there is no choice - it is simply too dark or the subjects are in action (flash as main light can stop action) ... In this case, you simply must use the flash for the main light.

There are many, many flash accessories available for improving direct flash image quality from an accessory flash - I've tried many and like very few. They simply do not create a large enough lighting surface to significantly soften the light from direct flash - not enough to be worth the inconvenience of using them. The ones I've tried with great potential - ones that have a large enough light surface - are mounted too close to the flash head to make use of that surface. The Westcott Micro Apollo 8" Softbox) is one example.

Start combining direct flash with bounce flash and life gets better. This of course requires a light-colored surface to act as a reflector of the flash - something for the flash to "bounce" off of. The Sto-Fen Omnibounce Diffuser is my preferred bounce + direct flash option. It is small, sturdy, light and inexpensive. It produces a bare-bulb effect - sending some light in all directions. The subject is lit more softly and the background receives a more even lighting. There are other options available, but the direct + bounce concept has merit.

The Canon Speedlite 430EX II Flash head tilts and swivels - it does not need to be fired toward the subject. If the proper bounce surface is available, bounce-only flash has a huge amount of potential. Light reflects from light-colored surfaces. The bounce surface becomes the subject lighting. It can be any size up to huge. Huge light sources relative to the size and distance of the subject create soft light. Soft light is typically (not always) desired in photos. If a good bounce surface (often the intersection of a white wall and ceiling) is available, definitely use it. If it is not available, attempt to create it - with a piece of white foamcore, a reflector, etc.

Let's look at some examples.

Built-in, On-Camera, Bounce and Off-Camera Flash Portrait Comparison

A Canon EOS 50D with a Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM Lens was tripod-mounted in vertical orientation (flash on camera left) for these comparison portraits. Yes, my beautiful subject moves a bit between each comparison shot - she thought she needed a sip of tea during each flash change (you can take this matter up with her if it bothers you). :) She is sitting in a simulated corner of two white walls (the wall to camera right is actually a very large reflector in this example). A single Canon Speedlite 430EX II Flash is the only light used for these shots.

At even this relatively short distance, the 50D's built-in flash required ISO 200 and full power plus .25 stops added in post processing to reach this f/8 exposure (remember the "GN" discussion early in the review). The 220EX had enough power at ISO 100 to reach the similar exposure.

Aside from power, the shoe-mounted flashes aimed directly at the subject do not offer much (if any) image quality improvement over the built-in flash (possibly less red-eye in some shots). The first three images all look like mug shots to me. Interesting is that the shadow from the Canon Speedlite 430EX II Flash is darker than the shadow from the built-in and 220EX flashes. The 430EX II's auto-zoom feature would have directed more light onto the subject - and less would have bounced off of the side wall to fill the shadows. Of course, I could have chosen a wider angle flash head setting on the 430EX II (the cup of tea was empty by then).

Adding a flash bracket for the shoe-mounted flashes would greatly improve the image quality of this direct flash portrait simply by sending the shadows downward.

Start bouncing the flash and everything changes. Again, the source of the light becomes the object the light is bounced off of. This is typically something very large - and preferably white. In the bounce example above, the flash was aimed into a white reflector held up to the back of camera left (the edge of a wall and ceiling also works well). The large size of the light source delivers a softer light that wraps around the subject. The harsh shadows below the jaw line (right side in examples above) and on the background are greatly softened.

ISO 400 was needed to achieve the proper exposure in this bounced flash portrait. This, of course is where the additional power of the Canon 580EX II Speedlite Flash would have been a benefit. Another benefit the 580EX II has is that the flash head rotates 180 degrees in each direction. The 430EX rotates 180° in the counter-clockwise direction only (90° clockwise). In the specific example above (which is often be encountered in the field), I needed the 430EX II to rotate into the dead zone for optimal positioning. Ideally, the flash would be directed upward over my left shoulder, but I settled for rotated 180° back and tilted one click short of 90°.

Want to take your flash photography to the next level? Off-camera flash is where the action is - and for a good reason. The last example above shows the 430EX II being used in the Canon Speedlite wireless system. In this case, the 430EXX II was controlled by an on-camera ST-E2 remote transmitter and fired into a 60" white umbrella. The 430EX II is powerful enough to deliver the proper exposure level at ISO 100 in this example. The setup is really simple, the transport and storage size are minimal, the overall cost is reasonable and the results are, in my opinion at least, very nice.

The variations available for off-camera lighting are endless. The variation can be as simple as adding a second flash (you can add as may as you like) aimed at the background in the umbrella example above or as complex as your imagination will take you.

On the camera - here is a last look at the flashes compared in this review. The comparison below shows the relative size of these flashes (along with the ST-E2) while mounted on a Canon EOS 50D.

Canon 220EX, 430EXX II and 580EX II Speedlite On-camera Size Comparison

You want a Speedlite flash (or many of them) because you want better image quality - or because you simply want images unobtainable in the available light conditions. Unless there is a specific reason you want the Canon Speedlite 430EX II Flash (typically price), I recommend you get the Canon 580EX II Speedlite Flash. If you didn't find a reason for needing (now or in the future) the 580EX II's extra features, the Canon Speedlite 430EX II Flash is a great choice. It offers the features needed to obtain great images - and it will make a great slave flash when you upgrade to a 580EX II later.

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