Sunday, June 3, 2012

REVIEW: Canon ST-E3 RT Speedlite Transmitter

Canon ST-E3-RT Speedlite Transmitter

Probably for as long as Pocket Wizards have existed (the late 1980’s), photographers have been longing for the day when their flashes had radio transmission built-in. The reason is simple, the current line of sight designs by Canon and Nikon don’t scale very well to the bright outdoors and completely fail when there are obstacles in the way. As a result, Pocket Wizard has made a great business off selling expensive bulky accessories to complement the Canon and Nikon flash systems. More recently Radio Poppers came on the scene and added the ability to do ETTL which turned the flash business on its head and changed the game forever. It took a few years, but the day we’ve all been waiting for is now here. As you can see from my other reviews below on the 600EX-RT these new flashes live up to their promises:

Say goodbye to Pocket Wizards and Radio Poppers?

580EX II in the Speedlite Sock

No longer do your flashes need to look like an they are wearing an abaya. Gone are the crazy orientations and gyrations required to get the optimal range out of the FlexTT5 system. Now you just treat them like you would any flash where you mount them as needed and fire. No accessories dangling, no extra cables, no headaches – it just works. Aside from price, I see little reason for anyone to use the other systems anymore. While I liked the Pocket Wizard Mini TT1, Flex TT5 and AC7 system, this just works much better and is integrated.

ST-E3 RT Range

Max distance with the 600-EX RT was about 115 feet as shown here.
Notice the sewer cover, hydrant and lamp post.

I get more range out of two 600EX-RT’s than I’ll ever need. As you can see in the test above which uses a 600EX-RT controlling another 600eX-RT, I can easily do 115 feet reliably and one time I managed to get 125 feet, but it wasn’t reliable.

With the ST-E3, 125 feet was no problem

191 feet? No problem!. Notice the hydrant to the right.

216 feet was the farthest distance that I could reliably shoot with the ST-E3 RT.
FWIW, I’m shooting at 200mm for all of these shots!

When using the ST-E3 RT (even with alkaline batteries) I got almost twice the range than I did with just 600EX-RT’s alone. This is the opposite effect that the old ST-E2 had where it had less power than a flash so if you wanted greater distance then you needed to use a 580EX II as your trigger. Given the huge cost of the new flashes, this is very good news!


Canon ST-E3-RT Speedlite Transmitter  - Top View
Canon ST-E3-RT Speedlite Transmitter  - Top View

The ST-E2 was a dinosaur that seemed like it was developed by engineers for engineers. The new ST-E3 RT isn’t very easy to use if you use its built-in buttons, but the cool thing is that you can control it through your camera where it becomes a breeze to get the exact behavior you want.

On the 5D Mark III things were very straightforward and it felt as if it was a built-in feature of the camera. On my 1D Mark IV, things weren’t as nice because I couldn’t set any of the wireless settings from the camera. I’m hoping that will be addressed in a firmware update, but in the meantime much of what you want to control is through the ST-E3 RT itself. Fortunately that’s easier than the ST-E2 or even the 580EX II’s, but it’s still confusing and requires a visit to the manual.

You can control up to 15 additional Canon radio flashes and cameras with radio transmitters (i.e., those with a 600EX-RT or ST-E3 RT on them) from a single ST-E3 RT. This means you can do some Joe McNally kind of stuff where you light up jet’s if you really wanted to, but more practically speaking you can put lights or cameras where you need them in arenas. Personally, about 35 feet is the maximum I’ll probably ever use in my real-world usage, but it’s good to know the system is competent and reliable.

Real World Test Shots

The following shots are unedited beyond cropping. They are taken with a 5D Mark III and EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens. Processing is with Adobe Lightroom 4.1 with the default RAW processing using the Cloudy white balance.

First Curtain Sync Test
1/80 sec at f/7.1 ISO 160 at 110mm

High-Speed Sync Test
1/1000 sec at f/2.8, ISO 640 at 200mm

Here’s my setup for this second shot using my favorite flash modifier – the Lastolite Joe McNally Ezybox Hot Shoe - 24 x 24" (61 x 61 cm)


The new Canon flash system rocks and it’s turned out to be everything I hoped it would be – and more. While the price puts it out of my budget since I already have three very good 580 EX II flashes, it’s high on my wish list as I’d enjoy having the built-in radio triggers.

My main grip, beyond the price, of this component is that it is not backwards compatible so it won’t control my 580 EX II flashes. I think that’s a pretty bad omission on Canon’s part so I was pretty disappointed to see that legacy flash users aren’t given an easier migration path by making this compatible.

Some have complained that the systems lack of second curtain sync is a show stopper for them, but it’s not for me. The fact that I can do high speed sync when I need it and that I can control everything the way I want from my 5D Mark III is more than good enough for me. The great range, excellent features, and ease of use have really made me rethink my strategy to keep my existing flashes.

At this point I’m just waiting to cash in on my next big job and all the profits from it will go towards the new flash system. I’ll sell my 3 580 EX II’s and my ST-E2 and replace them with two 600EX-RT and a single ST-E3 RT as I was mostly using one of my flashes as a trigger anyway. B&H has some instant rebates until the end of the month on this system, so I could buy everything I wanted for $1517 at today’s prices so the question really is how much can I get for my existing gear? The new price of what I have now is $1632, so used I’m thinking they are worth about $1500 (based on Adorama used prices) so perhaps it isn’t such a huge jump given the usefulness of the ST-E3 RT.

This system is the real deal and I give it my highest recommendation based on my real world use. I think you’ll love everything except the price.

Click here to order your ST-E3 RT today, and/or use this link to purchase your 600EX-RT.

Additional Articles

If you liked this article, you might also like these:


If you make a purchase using links in this article, I may make a commission.

NOTE: This site requires cookies and uses affiliate linking to sites that use cookies.

If you enjoyed this article, please support future articles like this by making a donation or saving money by using my discount coupon codes. Either way, your support is greatly appreciated!

This blog is intended for freelance writing and sharing of opinions and is not a representative of any of the companies whose links are provided on this site.

The opinions provided are of Ron Martinsen alone and do not reflect the view of any other entity


Gautam said...

Can the ST-E3 RT mounted on a MiniTT1 or FlexTT5 be triggered by the MiniTT1/FlexTT5 so that it subsequently triggers off-camera 600EX-RTs. The reason why I ask is because if I have a two or more off-camera flash setup and I wish to take a exposure reading with a Sekonic L-758DR which has a PW module, I can trigger the flash from the subject while taking the reading.

Anonymous said...

Please, please, answer the above question. What I'd like to do it fire both my einsten, which has a PW and my 600RX RT using the ST E3 RT mounted on the mini tt1. said...

I have not tested it, but I don't believe it will work with the pocket wizards. They rely on the old triggering mechanism of the 580 and not the radio transmission of the 600 and ST-E3 RT.


Lincoln85 said...

If I mount a ST-E3-RT on a Canon5DMK3 with a Canon 600EX-rt as an off camera flash, will the Seconic L-758DR trigger that flash for a reading