Speedliter's Handbook: Learning to Craft Light with Canon Speedlites

By Syl Arena
Peachpit Press, $49.99 (391p. Over 500 images)
ISBN-10: 032171105X
ISBN-13: 978-0321711052

Created to help photographers use portable flashes to maximum effect, Arena has written a readable and highly informative manual to lighting with Speedlites. His choice to focus on the Canon universe of products is, in part, a conscious effort to set him apart from two of the other leading evangelists of small flash systems, David Hobby (creator of the widely read www.strobist.com blog) and Joe McNally (award-winning photojournalist and best-selling author) both of whom use the Nikon system. 

For unabashed 'Canonistas' there are several chapters specific to the current Canon line of products, how their metering system works, and how to use these flashes wirelessly. However, Arena's subtitle 'Learning to Craft Light with Canon Speedlites' is misleading, because the vast majority of the nearly 400 pages in the book is a more general manual to lighting with any portable flash, regardless of brand. Ultimately, only about a fifth of the book is Canon-specific.

A sample page from the book explaining the use of umbrellas

Over twenty informative and well-illustrated chapters cover such topics from exposure to the mechanics of light to portrait lighting techniques. Some chapters, like 'Go Ahead, Mod Your Speedlite', which describes the variety of tools to modify the quantity and quality of light from a flash, also include useful overviews of the major products currently on the market with persuasive opinions about which tool is best (or the best value) for any given task. Designed as a comprehensive manual to relatively technical topics, Arena's prose always remains light and full of pithy wisdom, e.g. 'To create interesting light, you have to create interesting shadows'. This book makes a persuasive case for getting the flash unit off the camera and exploring the myriad of affordable ways to create dynamic light in photography.

One of the book’s strengths - a detailed overview of the many subjects related to small flash - might also be a source of frustration for some readers who might want only a book on, say, portrait lighting and find explanations of Canon menus or a recap of the ISO, shutter-speed, aperture inter-relationship frustrating. But for many beginning and intermediate 'strobists', especially ones using the Canon system, Arena has created a valuable resource.

 Examples for the lighting of head shots using an umbrella

The Speedliter's Handbook is available on Amazon.com as a paperback or e-book.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions held by dpreview.com or any affiliated companies.


Total comments: 15
By rollorokka (Jan 25, 2013)

Exellent book, hence I highly recommend it to anyone interested in flash photography.

By pdcm (Feb 12, 2012)

Great book, even if you shoot Nikon, like me. And if you shoot Canon, It's a must.

By Reactive (Jan 4, 2012)

This book has a lot to offer to any Canon user. It explains every possible aspect of Canon flash equipment in complete detail. It explains a wide range of lighting techniques, and the crucial issue of balancing ambient light and flash. It explains all the accessories you could ever use with a flashgun, what they do, and the pros and cons. And every section is full of pictures to clearly demonstrate each technique. All this would be enough on its own, but around the first 50 pages (IIRC) explain the fundamentals of photography to anyone who might have acquired an SLR but has no firm photographic training. I do have one major criticism: the use of imperial units. Imperial units are not used elsewhere in photography, and mean nothing to most of the world's population. Metric is the clear system of choice for anything relating to photography, so the decision to use archaic units spoils an otherwise great book.

By ALLEN M PENROD (Nov 17, 2011)

I bought this book because I was struggling with flash photography. I consider the book outstanding-at least for a non-professional. I have tried many of the tips and setups...and they produce much better results than I was getting before. I have concluded that the author knows his subject and presents his information in an easy to learn format.

By DFlo (Nov 10, 2011)

Great to hear this book offers up tips on a diverse collection of subjects and situations! Thanks for the post Adam!

Rob Greenstein
By Rob Greenstein (Nov 8, 2011)

If you're considering the book, give a listen to the free Podcast on iTunes. Search in iTunes for "speedliter's handbook" and you'll get right to it. It runs over one hour twenty minutes and is a good insight into what Syl Arena had in mind regarding The Speedliter's Handbook. I found it an enjoyable listen. Your mileage may vary.

Karl Gnter Wnsch
By Karl Gnter Wnsch (Nov 7, 2011)

I found the book highly enlightening (I was technical corrector for the German translation, so this book is available in German now as well).
I liked the idea that it's mostly about creating the correct light (and thus shadow) for the shot to look interesting. Although you might disagree with the style Syl Arena has, the basic premises of every shot do help to develop your own skills - and that's about the best thing a book can achieve. It's simply not about copying someone else (in this case Syl Arena) but to understand how to achieve certain looks and what is possible with the flash guns you have...
I for one understand his reluctance to endorse the ST-E2, a Speedlite 550EX (or newer) as a master simply is more flexible...

By chiuvana (4 months ago)

Hi Karl,

wann kommt das Buch denn auf Deutsch heraus. Konnte es leider noch nirgends entdecken.

Paul Farace
By Paul Farace (Nov 7, 2011)

I have read Hobby and McNally material and have never seen a blatant "ONLY NIKON" focus... in fact they stress the technique, not the gear. Not sure why anyone would dis the St-E2... its not radio, but hell, it is a very valuable tool in my strobist kit - not bad for a tool that has been on the market for almost a million years in digital timeology! I will check out this book in the paper and avoid any kindle crap! Thanks!

Totomo Yap
By Totomo Yap (Nov 7, 2011)

i more prefer Joe Mcnally style.

By cordellwillis (Nov 6, 2011)

I put the following reply to another reviewer on amazon:

I'm not about to defend the author's writing on this book. I read this book along with many other portable lighting books. I think some people get angry or bothered because a book didn't specifically help them. My view is does the book help someone....even if I picked it up and it wasn't for me.

This book covers good info for the "appropriate" audience. Not everyone is the audience but it covers nearly everything I can think of that is needed to know with Canon portable lighting. Sure, he gave thumbs down to the ST-E2, but that is valid information. You may have one but the real deal is that it is not nearly as useful as even an old 550EX sitting at top your camera; think versatility.

The photos demonstrate the "light" effect that is discussed in particular situations. This helps keep other distractions at bay. Better photos would be nice to some but will take away the goal of focusing on the light that is the subject.

1 upvote
Jan from UK
By Jan from UK (Nov 18, 2011)

~ Well done! This is a good comment. I've been a photographer since Art College days (1965-69) and have found this book to be exactly what I needed for strobist purposes. My only complaint about my Canon Speedlites is that the LCD symbols on the rear panel are absolutely tiny, and murder to see, when on a shoot in poor or very bright light.

Ranger 9
By Ranger 9 (Nov 6, 2011)

Don't buy the Kindle edition! The illustrations often don't match up with the text, making it difficult to follow. If you really think you want this book, get the print version.

As to the book itself, I didn't think nearly as much of it as Adam did. I am more in line with this:


1 upvote
bed bug
By bed bug (Nov 6, 2011)

Considering that 167 out of 180 people gave it five stars on Amazon, this review is atypical.

1 upvote
By tonyjr (Jun 19, 2012)

I bought both -
Speedliter's Handbook: Learning to Craft Light with Canon Speedlites [Paperback]
Syl Arena
Light - science and magic - Fil Hunter -4th edition
So far Speedliter's Handbook: is pretty good . About 1/10 of the way thru it . Yes , I would buy again and has things I did not know in 1st few pages . Easy to read / understand
Light - science and magic - will read after I finish Speedliter's

Total comments: 15