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Using a Canon Speedlite Flash with a Sony A7

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a7r-with-st-e2-and-580exii

I recently discovered that I can use a Canon speedlite flash with a Sony A7 (or A7R) and I can even fire them remotely, so I thought I’d put together a quick post showing I did it, along with the limitations I ran into. I used a set of 580EX II flashes as my speedlites and a Sony A7R as my camera. If you have the 580EX flash (as opposed to the 580EX II) and need tips on that particular model, Steve Heap wrote a great article on how he got that flash to work with his Sony cameras.

Attaching a Canon 580EX II to the Sony A7R

a7r-with-580exii

Surprisingly, the Canon flash attaches directly to the Sony A7/A7R’s hotshoe without any issues. You’ll notice that not all of the contacts line up, which is probably why you’ll run into your first issue: There is no ETTL mode available to you when using these flashes.

There are two options at this point. You can dip in to the custom functions of your flash, or you can use the flash in manual mode. I’ll cover the steps required to work with the flash in manual mode first.

Putting the Flash in Manual Mode

In order to get the flash out of ETTL and into manual mode, you’ll need to follow these steps:

  1. Look on the back of the flash and find the “Mode” button. Press the “Mode” button until you see the letter “M”.
  2. You are now in “manual” mode. In order to adjust the flash power, hit the center button (the button in the middle of the little wheel) until you see a set of numbers (such as 1/1) start to blink. This is your flash power.
  3. Turn the wheel to the left to dial down the flash power. Turn the wheel to the right to dial up the flash power.
  4. If you want to adjust the zoom factor of the flash, press the “Zoom” button. Now you can select the zoom of the lens (the zoom is usually used in ETTL mode and adjusts to match the focal length of your lens. Larger number = narrower beam). The zoom feature can be considered another flash modifier since it affects the overall spread of the light.
  5. The max sync speed I was able to achieve with this setup was 1/250 sec

Working with Custom Functions

The other option you can use is working with the 580EX II’s custom functions. The custom functions unlock a number of options you might not have known were available to you. In order to use the custom functions, follow these steps:

  1. Look on the back of the flash and find the “C.Fn” button. Press and hold the “C.Fn” button until you see the custom functions appear.
  2. Rotate the center wheel until the readout says “Fn 05 0”.
  3. Press the center button and change the 2nd number (the 0) so the readout says “Fn 05 3”.
  4. Press the “Mode” button, which takes you out of the custom functions.
  5. What this custom function allows you to do is manually adjust ISO and f-stop settings to match your camera’s settings. Press the center button to first adjust ISO, then rotate the center wheel to select your ISO. Press the center button to lock the ISO setting in, then press the center button twice to adjust the f-stop settings.
  6. With these settings being used, you can manually set what the flash would ordinarily be doing automatically in ETTL mode. Not perfect, but hey, it’s a Canon flash on a Sony camera!
  7. The max sync speed I was able to achieve with this setup was 1/200 sec
This is what you should see if you've set the custom functions to work with manual external metering.

This is what you should see if you’ve set the custom functions to work with manual external metering.

Also just as a side note – the flash will turn itself off after a few minutes unless you disable to “auto off” option. To disable “auto off”, follow these steps:

  1. Look on the back of the flash and find the “C.Fn” button. Press and hold the “C.Fn” button until you see the custom functions appear.
  2. Change the “Fn 01 0” option so it reads “Fn 01 1” (change the 2nd number from a 0 to a 1).
  3. The flash’s “auto off” option is now disabled.

Firing a Canon 580 EXII remotely

a7r-with-st-e2

Another way to fire the Canon flash is to shoot remotely using either another flash or by using a speedlite transmitter (such as the ST-E2). You are again relegated to using either custom functions or manual mode on the flash, but in addition you’ll need to dip into the remote functions of your speedlite(s).

Using the Canon ST-E2 to Trigger your Speedlites

I’m assuming at this point you have your flashes in either manual mode or are using a custom function already, but if not, be sure to read the section just above this one – this won’t work unless the flashes are out of ETTL. If that’s ready to roll, here’s the next steps for using the Canon ST-E2 transmitter.

  1. Set your speedlite to “Slave” mode. Do this by pressing the “Zoom” button for about three seconds until you see the word “OFF” start to blink. Rotate the wheel clockwise until the word “Slave” appears. Press the center button to lock the settings in. Do the same on any other speedlites you plan to use.
  2. You should be all set at this point. Take a test shot to make sure your speedlites fire.
  3. The max sync speed I was able to achieve with this setup was 1/80th sec

Using a 580 EXII to Trigger your Speedlite(s)

You can alternately use a speedlite as a master flash to trigger other flashes. In order to do this, follow these steps:

  1. Again, make sure you are in manual mode on the speedlite. Press and hold the “Zoom” button until you see the word “OFF” start to blink. Rotate the center wheel clockwise until the word “Master” appears. Press the center button to lock the settings in.
  2. If you don’t want the master flash to fire, press the “Zoom” button until you see the little icon that looks like a flash firing start to blink (four clicks). Once it’s blinking, rotate the wheel left to turn off the flash and right to turn it back on. Note: The flash will always fire, but when the flash is in “Off” mode, the burst of light is only being used to remotely fire other flashes.
  3. See the settings above to set any flashes you plan to fire remotely into slave mode.
  4. The max sync speed I was able to achieve with this setup was 1/125th sec

Using Any Other Flash to Trigger your Speedlite(s) Optically Besides a Canon Speedlite

For some reason, Canon decided to make it so that the only way to fire a Canon speedlite optically (using a burst of light from another flash) is to use another Canon speedlite. If you attempt to do this using any other brand of speedlites or any sort of studio strobes, the flash will fire but will be out of sync. Canon flashes use a “pre-flash” that fires milliseconds before the actual flash, which is how any connected Canon flashes know to fire. Because of this oddball configuration Canon chose to use, a flash fired via a non-Canon flash will confuse any Canon flashes because the flash is looking for that pre-flash, causing the flash to fire out of sync. I have no idea why Canon chose to do this (other than forcing you to buy more Canon flashes), but fortunately I found a fix. There’s a company called Flash Zebra and they make something called an “optical slave.” The optical slave is a tiny dongle-like device that plugs into your Canon flash via the PC Sync port. Essentially what happens is that with the optical slave connected, the Canon speedlite is fooled into thinking you’ve connected a PC sync cable, and the flash will fire at the same time as all the other flashes. It works like a charm. To use the Flash Zebra Optical Slave, follow these steps:

  1. Put the flash in manual mode (detailed instructions on this are at the top of this post)
  2. Attach the Optical Slave – the flash will fire whenever another flash nearby does
  3. The max sync speed I was able to achieve with this setup was 1/200th sec – that’s the fastest of these remote options.
Flash Zebra's Optical Slave plugged into the PC Sync port on a 580EX II flash.

Flash Zebra’s Optical Slave plugged into the PC Sync port on a 580EX II flash.

You can pick up an optical slave from Flash Zebra’s website for just $16 (plus shipping).

Wrap up

I’m happy that the Sony A7 cameras work with Canon gear, as it immediately saved me money. It’s not a perfect solution though, obviously. The biggest issue you will run into with two of the remote setups I presented is sync speed. Using the ST-E2, the fastest I was able to achieve was a whopping 1/80th sec! Not so good. Using a 580 EXII as the “master” flash boosted this to 1/125th sec, but that’s still fairly slow. If faster shutter speed is important to you, the Flash Zebra Optical Slave option is the way to go as it gets you up to 1/200th sec.

Hopefully this helped anyone who was wondering about this. If I missed anything, feel free to let me know.

 

  • Bobby

    What about using a sync cable?

  • Rustom Adi Havewalla

    There is nothing great in your suggestion because you are forcing the user to use the flash MANUALLY.

    Here is a better solution:-

    Go to customs button on your 580 EX II flash and keep it pressed till you see the customs menu.

    Turn the wheel till you come to custom Function 5. Now press the Set Button and then the wheel. Turn till you get 3. Press the set button. Now your Canon Flash will work on Auto Mode at F5.6 for ISO 100 in all situations.

    Set the ISO on your Sony A7 to ISO 100.

    Here you will have freedom of movement everywhere.

    • Thanks Rustom. I wasn’t aware of the various options available using custom functions, so I did some research and updated my post. I noticed that even when using custom functions, there is still a bit of user intervention required to adjust settings (ISO and f-stop) but it’s great to know these options are available. Thanks for the tip.

      • Rustom Adi Havewalla

        Dear Tim Ford, Thank you.

        Once you are in custom 5-3 mode, you cannot do anything else. You will only have to set your camera on ISO 100 and aperture to 5.6.

        Similarly if you prefer to shoot on ISO 800, you will have to set your aperture to 16.

        The advantage of Auto over Manual is that you don’t have to keep on changing your aperture as per the distance.

        The E or AUTO mode on Canon Flashes is a great advantage.

        Nikon Flashes are even more user-friendly.

        All the best.

        • So as i understand it, the point of manual external metering is for the flash to use the old thyristor method of flash metering, with the metering sensor on the flash determining if the flash should or should not fire.

          Because there’s no way the Sony camera is going to “talk” to a Canon flash, it’s still on me to make sure I match the flash ISO and f-stop settings to the relative settings on my camera. I also noticed when I used this method on a Canon camera with a zoom lens, the “zoom” on the flash auto-adjusted to match the chosen zoom on my lens. Naturally this was not the case when using a Sony camera/lens, so I needed to manually adjust the zoom.

          In other words, the only automated function when using the Canon flash on a Sony A7 and using manual external metering is the flash determining on its own whether or not to fire. The power of the flash is determined by the ISO and f-stop settings that I’ve fed it, correct?

          • Rustom Adi Havewalla

            Dear Tim Ford,
            There is a slight mistake in your last para. If the Canon Flash 580EXII is on the Sony A72, switched on, it will fire every time. However, you will have to set your ISO on 100 and aperture on f5.6. The output for the distance will be judged automatically by the sensor on the front of the 580EXII.

            You can test this method even with a flash meter. I have found the thyristor method much more accurate than the TTL.

            I want to also suggest to you how to best use a Canon Flash on a Canon Camera in combination with an external non-Canon Radio Slave and a non-Canon Studio Flash. But that will be a different subject.

            Please contact me on rustomhavewalla@gmail.com

  • Russell Taylor

    Hi just found this article and got my little Sony SLT-A58 out and put my 430 exii on it. Brilliant! But it seems to me to be easier to set the flash to manual to control the power and just up shutter speed , aperture and ISO as required. I was shooting at 1/320th in a darkish room without issue. With a little time spent messing round , you soon get an idea of the best settings for most applications, I just left the zoom at 24mm. Fabulous to be honest!!

    • Glad to hear you got your Canon flash working with your Sony camera! I actually do put my flash in manual mode most of the time, although the fastest shutter speed I’ve achieved is 1/250th with the flash attached to my Sony A7R. Max shutter speed must differ with camera models.

  • Panagiotis Delinikolas

    Hi, I have been using the 550ex in a similar way and just wanted to add a small detail that took me a while to figure out. In order to use the 550ex in manual mode with the ST-E2 transmitter, you have to keep the MODE button pressed for several seconds while the flash is in slave mode. This was a bit confusing at first, because when the flash is in master mode, a single press of the button toggles the modes, but while in slave mode at first it seems that only E-TTL is available. Keeping the mode button pressed for 5 seconds puts the flash in manual mode with the “M” flashing.

    • It’s similar on the 580EXII – you have to hold “Mode” down for quite a few seconds in order to get it out of E-TTL. It’s definitely an important step no matter how you intend to use a Canon flash on Sony because E-TTL is never going to work the same way it would with a Canon camera body.

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  • Hi Tim – great article and as I just am moving from Canon to Sony and have four 550EX flash guns plus the ST-E2, it helped me a lot. I tend to use my flashes in manual mode (in a studio setting) most of the time and so that is no issue, but the slow sync of the ST-E2 is a bit more worrisome. I haven’t tried it yet, but what is the impact of using a higher speed – a partially exposed image? Did you ever find a work around for the ST-E2 apart from using one of the flashguns on the camera?

    Steve

    • Hi Steve,

      Yeah, the issue you’ll run into is a partially exposed image, with that dreaded black bar across the section of the image where the shutter got in the way. I didn’t find a workaround with the ST-E2, unfortunately. I recently got my hands on some studio strobes though and I’ve been using those in conjunction with a single 580EXII and the Flash Zebra Optical Slave that I mentioned in the article. I’m getting shutter speeds as high as 1/200th sec with that setup. The strobes I got were by Bowens and they came with a wireless transmitter that works on any camera with a hotshoe (I tested it on Nikon, Sony and Canon cameras). The strobes are a bit pricey at $900, but I’m loving the setup for studio work. You could even use just one of those Bowens strobes as a “master” flash, then buy one of those Flash Zebra Optical Slaves for each of your Canon flashes and you’d have a fully wireless system with high sync speeds. I plan to update this article with that setup. Here’s a link to the Bowens strobes that I’m using – http://amzn.to/1UC2ZKy

      Hope this helps!

      • Thanks Tim – I took a few shots using the 550EX on the camera but it is a bit unwieldy compared to the ST-E2. With the small zebra slaves, what actually triggers them – a flash on the camera again?
        Did you investigate one wireless option (say a Pocket Wizard) that triggers one Canon flash and that is set up as a master to trigger all the rest? Or the optical slaves would work in the same way?

        • With the zebra slaves, they are triggered by another flash. Could be a flash on the camera or a flash anywhere in the room that’s being fired (for example, mine is triggered when a studio strobe is fired off). I haven’t tried using a Pocket Wizard yet, unfortunately. I found a product by Neewer on Amazon that might provide a similar solution to the Pocket Wizard (for a lot less money). I might pick up a set of these just to see if it’s another option. Here’s the link – http://amzn.to/1rgPLZq

          • I decided to go with the Photix set at $54 instead. I’ll report back on whether the first flash triggers the second.

          • Sounds great – thanks!

          • Hi Tim – the Phottix equipment came – nicely built and compact. I did a few tests (example photos on my website: http://www.backyardsilver.com/2016/06/using-canon-speedlite-flash-on-sony-a7r/ ) and concluded that it you only need one receiver as the first flash triggers all the others, and the maximum sync speed is 1/100th second. I think this is going to be my solution as my flashguns don’t have the PC sync terminal. Thanks for all your investigation – I’ve linked back to your page for all the details on setting up the custom modes.

          • Sounds great – 1/100th/sec isn’t bad at all, especially for studio work. Thanks for the link to my page – I’ll add a link to yours as well.

          • Hi Tim – one last experiment. I turned off the Canon infra-red triggering and just used the Phottix wireless receiver – now I can safely get 1/160th second and 1/200th second is almost identical. I’ve updated my blog post to outline this new approach. So for $30 per flashgun, you can pretty much use 1/200th second as the sync speed.

          • Sweet! I guess I know what my next photography purchase will be!

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