Freeze frame: shooting street trial cyclist Duncan Shaw with the Canon Speedlite EL-1

See how Canon's flagship professional flashgun kept pace with a street trial cyclist on a demanding outdoor shoot.
An action shot taken with a Canon Speedlite EL-1 shows a stunt rider cycling down stone steps, a spray of water droplets caught by the flash.

"I've kind of been stuck in my ways, shooting with bigger kit," reveals Scotland-based action sports photographer Dave Mackison. "I often pack battery-powered studio lights, but I really only ever use them on the lowest setting. Being able to use the Canon Speedlite EL-1 and travel light on this particular shoot was a game-changer for me."

The shoot in question was a three-day assignment to record his friend Duncan Shaw, a professional mountain bike and trials rider, who was taking an action-packed spin around the streets of Bristol in the south west of England. This would be no ordinary cycling tour of the city, though. Rather than sticking to the road, Duncan would be riding, balancing and jumping on features he found in the urban environment – and the photographer would need to keep up. This demanding action assignment was the first pro shoot with the Canon Speedlite EL-1, and an excellent test of the flash's capabilities.

Dave is no stranger to this type of fast-paced shoot, having started his professional photography career on the Drop and Roll bicycle stunt show tour devised by Duncan and fellow street trials cyclist Danny MacAskill in 2014. "I came on board to help with some of the building work," explains Dave. "But when it came to our first show in Switzerland, we didn't have a photographer. So, I ended up buying a camera at the last minute and shooting the event." Commissions snowballed from there, and Dave now counts Red Bull, Adidas and Santa Cruz Bicycles as repeat clients.

Being able to travel light and react quickly without compromising on lighting power were essential requirements for this latest job. So, rather than shoot with his existing, heavier kit, Dave used a combination of two Canon Speedlite EL-1 professional flashes and a Canon EOS R5.

A split image. Left, a photographer shooting with a Canon EOS R5 with Speedlite EL-1 flash in the hot-shoe; right: a stunt cyclist balances his bike on its rear wheel on an elevated handrail.

Outdoor flash photography

The Canon Speedlite EL-1 is the flagship flashgun in Canon's Speedlite arsenal, and its advanced wireless features, powerful reach and professional build quality make it the perfect choice for flash photography outdoors. It delivers a rapid recycle time of just 0.1-0.9 seconds, enabling bursts of up to 170 full-power flashes, and features an active cooling system to prevent overheating. It's also the first Canon Speedlite to be powered by a high-performance rechargeable Lithium-ion battery.

"Before the shoot," Dave admits, "I was quite nervous about using it, just because it was kit that I was unfamiliar with. But within a few hours I felt completely comfortable in getting the flashguns set up the way I wanted."

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A stunt rider on a bright green bicycle balanced on its front wheel being photographed using two Canon Speedlite EL-1 flashes.

To conserve power and reduce the flash recycling time, Dave used the Canon Speedlite EL-1's Continuous Shooting Priority (CSP) mode. This automatically reduces the flash value by one stop but maintains the same exposure by increasing the ISO by one stop.

A photographer's hand adjusts the settings on the back of a Canon Speedlite EL-1 attached to an EOS R5 camera held in his other hand.

As you'd expect from a professional flashgun, the Canon Speedlite EL-1 flash head is highly manoeuvrable. It can pan 180° in both directions and tilt up 120° (compared to the Speedlite 600EX II-RT's 90°). It covers a focal length range of 24-200mm, extending to 14mm with the pull-down diffuser.

Faster wireless setup

One of the highlights for Dave was the simplicity of getting the camera and Speedlites communicating wirelessly with each other. "The Speedlite EL-1 has a whole new interface, and the way you navigate through all the settings makes it so much easier to use.

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"The wording in the menu is all super self-explanatory, with obvious terms such as sender and receiver. There was just minimal messing about, which is exactly what you need when you're trying to get stuff done quickly and efficiently. There's nothing worse than turning up to a shoot and having to spend too much time trying to get things set up, as you might end up missing a moment."

Dave typically used one Speedlite EL-1 on the EOS R5's hot-shoe and another mounted on a lighting stand, with the Speedlite on the camera acting as the wireless sender. "We also did some portraits of Duncan in a car park on one night. Here, I used both lights on stands, with a Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-RT on the camera to control them."

The Speedlite EL-1's built-in LED modelling light was a feature that Dave found particularly useful when photographing Duncan in the dark. "There have been times in the past when I've been shooting at night in locations where there's not been any street lighting, and I've struggled to focus. But having the modelling light really helped in this regard. It was bright enough to allow us to get everything set up and give me an idea of how it would look before we started shooting. Being able to adjust the temperature and brightness of the light is also a really nice feature."

A stunt cyclist jumps off a stone wall into a paved alleyway, a burst of flash light freezing him mid-jump.

Thanks to its new active cooling system, the Speedlite EL-1 is capable of delivering a continuous firing rate of 170 full-power flashes. High-speed bursts are possible at lower power levels, helping you capture blur-free shots of fast-moving subjects. Photograph by Dave Mackison. Taken on Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM lens and Canon Speedlite EL-1 at 1/640 sec, f/2.8 and ISO4000.

A person holding two Canon Speedlite EL-1s, one of them attached to the hot-shoe of a Canon EOS R5.

Wirelessly syncing with the Speedlite EL-1s is easy, says Dave. "With previous flashguns, I always found myself fumbling around a lot of the time." The built-in wireless radio transmitter and receiver has a working range of around 30 metres and offers wireless second-curtain sync (if both transmitter and receiver are Speedlite EL-1s).

New rechargeable Speedlite battery

The Canon Speedlite EL-1 is powered by a rechargeable and long-lasting LP-EL Lithium-ion battery, which delivers approximately 335 full-power flashes from a single charge. Reduce the output, and you can expect the LP-EL to power through as many as 2,345 flashes before it's fully discharged.

"Having a single Lithium-ion battery was a lot better than having to fumble around with AA batteries," says Dave. "The battery life was really good too. I was surprised, because we were giving the batteries quite a hammering on this shoot and doing quite a lot with them throughout the day. After a full day of shooting, they were only down to around 75% or so, which was impressive.

"The fact that the Speedlite EL-1's battery can be recharged using the Canon EOS R5's battery charger is really convenient too."

To avoid any power-loss surprises, the Speedlite EL-1 features a clear battery indicator which displays the remaining capacity of the internal battery as a percentage within the menu in addition to the familiar bars on the back. "This was useful," says Dave, "as it gave a more precise picture of how much shooting time we had left."

A composite image showing seven images of a cyclist performing a jump over a set of stone steps.

Dave ended up shooting eight single riding shots and a couple of sequence shots, where multiple images taken in quick succession were stitched together. "If you're shooting something that's quite stressful, it's so important to know that you can get your lighting set up quickly and that it's going to be reliable." Photograph by Dave Mackison.

A photographer's finger adjusts shooting settings on the touchscreen of a Canon EOS R5 with a Speedlite EL-1 in its hot-shoe.

Refined control and L-Series construction

The enhanced precision extends to the power delivery of the Canon Speedlite EL-1's flash too. In another Canon Speedlite first, the manual flash output can be varied from full to 1/8192 power.

"Because it's mostly sports that I do, dropping to 1/8192 power is not something I would necessarily use much of the time," explains Dave. "I'm always pushing the lights to the limit, to be honest, and have them quite bright. But I think if I was doing, say, indoor work, where there was some close-up detail that needed only a little bit of light, it's definitely a good option to have available."

Reliability is just as important as versatility, and the Speedlite EL-1 is built to withstand the daily rigours of professional flash photography. It features an internal fan to prevent overheating, for example. This is a benefit when you're having to fire the flash multiple times in quick succession, such as when you need to keep up with the fast pace of a stunt cyclist. The Speedlite EL-1 also sets a new benchmark in construction, offering the same level of dust and water resistance as Canon L-Series lenses.

The back screen of a Canon Speedlite EL-1.

The Canon Speedlite EL-1 's minimum recycling time is approximately 0.1-0.9 seconds, which can be almost halved to 0.1-0.4 seconds when a Compact Battery Pack CP-E4N fitted with Ni-MH batteries is attached. CP-E4N also boosts the number of full power flashes to approximately 680.

A man crouching down, using a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon Speedlite EL-1 attached in its hot-shoe.

Dave always sets his Speedlites to manual for full control, but found the Flash Exposure Memory (FEM) option useful. "You can store the last E-TTL exposure setting on the Speedlite EL-1, and then you can switch to manual and adjust it a little bit. It's a feature that I can definitely see myself using."

"I've had flashguns misfiring before or not firing at all, but the Speedlite EL-1s feel like they're a step up in terms of the way they're put together," says Dave. "I look after my kit, but sometimes you end up in situations where it's raining, or where you're shooting bikes as I quite often do, and you get covered in mud or dust. So, having kit you can rely on and knowing that it's going to take some knocks and a fair bit of punishment is a really important thing for me."

Since finishing the shoot, Dave confesses that the weather resistance and weight saving of the flagship professional Canon Speedlite EL-1 have made him want to invest in a set of them. "If you're going to use the Speedlite EL-1 a lot, as I would, then it's good value. The studio flashes I have cost over €2,000 each, but they're totally inconvenient. A lot of the time I'm shooting out in the field, and I can end up hiking up a hill or putting myself into difficult situations. The thought of having to take two big studio flashes and a heavy camera body with me isn't great.

"But on this shoot, I had both Speedlite EL-1s, the camera and all the lenses in a small bag. I wasn't used to being able to run about with something that's so small but can produce so much light."

Marcus Hawkins

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