Thursday, 29 November 2007

Canon Speedlite 430EX Comparison Test

Something new to play with, originally uploaded by xrrr.

Canon Speedlite 430EX Comparison Test

First of all let me mention that I am no test or photography expert and I wish I had the knowledge, background and TIME to write a review similar to a level of detail. But I don't!

I bought the flash unit and was curious what the benefits were. So to test the settings I took some sample pictures and have included the pictures and my notes here for the benefit of all.

If you do not agree with my amateur observations then that is fine, you can make your own mind up as all of the full size pictures are on Flickr. Just click on the photos and click the "All sizes" button to get to the large versions. If you an amateur like me and are thinking of buying an external flash unit then hopefully this will help.

Also, before you do anything with your Canon flash you absolutely need to read NK Guy's Flash Photography with Canon EOS Cameras first!

In this post I have two tests:
  1. Comparison of the camera's built in flash with the Speedlite
  2. Comparison of a few basic flash options to improve a scene
Both tests use the following equipment:
Test 1 - Comparison of the camera's built in flash with the Speedlite
This test was performed indoors at night under a standard 100w light bulb. I chose the items in the scene to give reflections, darks, lights and a bit of colour. There is also a grey card used to help with the white balance corrections.

Shot #1.1

Flash Test 1.1 - No flash, originally uploaded by xrrr.

This was my control shot with no flash. True to the various reviews of the 400D the auto white balance selection is way off. Manual correction is required but the end result is a fairly well lit scene. Perhaps a bit dark and the shadows are a bit harsh but I would be reasonably happy with that shot. We are here to test the flash though, so lets press on.

Shot #1.2

Flash Test 1.2 - Stock 400D Flash, originally uploaded by xrrr.

This is the built in pop up flash on the 400D. As with most flash photography at short range, it is very harsh. The shadows from the overhead light are softened out but the glare and reflection from the shiny objects is too much. The white of the pen and paper also loses a bit of detail. Interestingly the only blown highlights are in the reflections of the flash (which you would expect). The flash has been reflected off the shiny container onto the Mont Blanc pen case leaving a nasty light mark. At least the white balance was more accurate. Note that the camera automatically adjusted the shutter speed to adapt for the flash being switched on.

Shot #1.3
This was taken with the Speedlite 430EX pointing directly forward with all of the default settings. I was initially quite surprised by this shot as it is virtually no different to the built in flash. The shadows are slightly differently placed due to the height of the Speedlite but the glare is still there. So much for the "perfect exposure every time" claim from Canon!

To be honest I should not have been surprised as a flash is a flash and directly head on is the worst kind of flash. I think I had assumed that the 'evaluative through the lens' (E-TTL) light metering would recognise not to blast out such a strong light pulse as it is not required.

I note that my EF 35mm f/2 lens does not support E-TTL distance measurement which means the flash will use a default setting. When I get a chance I will run a test with my EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM that *does* support distance measurement. If you have no idea what I am on about then you have not read NK Guy's flash guide yet!

However, the point of an external flash is that you gain control over what it does...

Shot #1.4

This shot used the flash as it is supposed (?) to be used as I directed the flash at my white ceiling and let the light bounce onto the scene. This has created a much more even light. The hard shadows of shot #1 have been softened slightly and there is no harsh glare from from the reflective objects. The flash is a lot less noticeable, in fact the glare from the light bulb on the neck of the bottle is what catches my eye.

Saying all that, for this scene I still prefer the side light from shot #1.1 as it provides more depth than shot #1.4. More practice required I think :-)

Test 2 - Comparison of a few basic flash options to improve a scene
This test was run in the same location as Test 1 but it was an overcast daylight coming through the window on the right of the scene casting long, dark shadows. There was also a window on the far side of the room on the left of the scene. The sun was coming from the right but you can still pick up the left hand window reflections in the Seven Seas container.

Shot #2.1

Flash Test 2.1 - No flash, originally uploaded by xrrr.

As with test 1 the camera's auto white balance is terrible, but shooting in RAW allows me to fix that in the Lightroom software. The light cast on the scene makes it look a bit dull. Handy I have a flash then!

Shot #2.2

Flash Test 2.2 - Black Focus, originally uploaded by xrrr.

I have used the Speedlight with the flash pointing directly at the scene. In this test I wanted to test the difference between what focus point the camera registers because the Speedlite will use the active focus point at the time the photo is taken. This means if you use the camera like I do and keep the centre point as the main focus point, focus and then recompose before taking the shot then the flash will get confused.

In this shot, the focus point is central and focussed on the black Mont Blanc pen case. The result is that the background objects are better lit at the expense of the white paper in the foreground losing some definition. The shiny object has picked up the flash glare but because of the changed angle (looking down more) it is not as noticeable.

I am not sure why, but the camera did not change the shutter speed to adjust for the flash. I think the evaluative metering must have got hung up on the black. Lets see what happens if we change the focus point...

Shot #2.3

Flash Test 2.3 - White Focus, originally uploaded by xrrr.

This shot used the lowest focus point that was covering the white paper in the foreground. Notice how the contrast of the paper is far better and the light looks more natural. A word of caution before you think the flash made a big difference: The camera was in aperture priority mode so me changing the focus point also changes the shutter speed as I was in evaluative metering mode. So a fairly inconclusive test that I need to redo when I get chance.

There is still a lot of glare so lets try and improve it a bit more...

Shot #2.4

In this shot I aimed the flash away from the scene and bounced it off the back of my grey card (which is white). This has removed almost all of the glare from the scene and kept the lighting reasonably even. The shadows are softer and everything looks more evenly lit. Also in this final picture I only had to tweak the white balance the tiniest amount. I am not sure what happened to make the auto white balance work better but it is all good.

The external flash was not the immediate 'fix it all' solution I was hoping for but my first 50 shots on my 400D (my first SLR) were absolute rubbish as I had not learned how to use it. All of these quick tests were run with the Speedlite on the default "auto" settings so I was not making full use of the flash.

The flash unit gives a massive amount of tweaking potential that, once mastered, should prove to be a useful addition to my (ever increasing) camera kit. I never use the pop up flash just as I never use the camera's "auto" mode.

I am now considering a cheap softbox attachment for the Speedlite to see if I can get that utopian soft light for indoor portraits without having to invest in a remote flash or studio lights!

Am I glad I invested? Absolutely! I like the being in control of the flash in order to obtain better photographs. I now just need to learn how to use the thing!

I hope this was useful :-)

Tuesday, 27 November 2007


Tube-less, originally uploaded by xrrr.

I read in the Rocketboom blog recently about the NY subway map reduced to a simple picture with no text or grid lines.

This is my attempt at doing the London Underground map using the same idea.

It also looks more abstract in B&W:

Tube-less B&W, originally uploaded by xrrr.

Friday, 23 November 2007

The Fat Duck

The Fat Duck, originally uploaded by xrrr.

Last week Alison and I were lucky enough to visit Heston Blumenthal's restaurant, The Fat Duck. We opted for the 'tasting menu' which turned into over four hours of food theatre. I had the full menu and Alison had a special vegetarian variation of the dishes. We got a copy of the menu in a wax sealed envelope (pictured above).

What follows is a brief summary of what I ate! Note all the savoury dishes were served with the most amazing tasting bread and butter.

Nitro-Green Team and Lime Mousse
The waiter turns up with a bucket of liquid nitrogen and a container full of mousse. He puts a dollop of mousse on the end of a spoon and 'cooks' it in the liquid nitrogen. What happens is that the outside of the mouse freezes and the inside stays soft. As he serves it, he sprinkles green tea powder over the top and sprays a vaporizer of green tea at you as you eat it! Bizarre but very nice.

Oyster, Passion Fruit Jelly, Lavender
You get two postage stamp sized squares of jelly on a plate to enjoy. One orange and one red.

Pommery Grain Mustard Ice Cream, Red Cabbage Gazpacho
Yes it was cold cabbage soup with a dollop of mustard ice cream on top! This was a particularly good dish. Very tasty.

Jelly of Quail, Langoustine Cream, Parfait of Foie Gras
Oak Moss and Truffle Toast
This was an unusual dish to say the least.
It started with a tray of moss put in the middle of the table, a plate of truffle toast and a bowl of 'soup'.
We had to eat in three stages.
1) We ate a 'film' of moss - it was just like those breath mint films you but on your tongue but tasted of moss.
2) We ate the jelly, cream and Foie Gras layered soup whilst the waiter poured liquid nitrogen into the moss to create a 'dry ice' effect on the table that smelled of a forest. The layered soup was amazing, a bit strange as it was jelly on the bottom, cold soup in the middle and a dollop of Foie Gras on top.
3) We then tucked into the Truffle Toast.

Snail Porridge
Joselito ham, shaved fennel
This was my favourite dish. The porridge was mixed with parsley with the ham, snails and fennel on top. Absolutely gorgeous I could have eaten 3 times as much!

Roast Foie Gras
Almond fluid gel, cherry and chamomile
A dollop of roasted Foie Gras with the sauces arranged around.

"Sound of the Sea"
This was another unusual one. First a large shell arrived with an iPod Shuffle hidden inside. The waitress told us to put on the headphones and we listened to the 'sound of the sea' (sea breaking on a shore and sea gulls) for a few minutes until the food arrived. The food was served on a tray of sand with a glass top. On the glass was the food made to look like the beach just as a wave has broken: lots of seaweed, seafood, foam and 'sand'. We ate it whilst continuing to listen to the iPod. I am not sure what it was but there was seafood in there and something very clever to keep the foam foamy for the entire length of the meal.

Salmon Poached in Liquorice
Artichokes, vanilla mayonnaise and "Manni" olive oil
The was a block salmon encased in liquorice jelly. Unusual, I could not really taste the liquorice but the salmon was fab.

Ballotine of Anjou Pigeon
Black pudding "made to order", pickling brine and spiced juices
I may have had too much wine at this point but I don't really remember much about this dish other than the pigeon was served on the bone.

Hot and Iced Tea
Yet another unusual one. We got a glass of Earl Grey tea. It was not until you sip it you realise that one half is hot and the other half is cold! Not sure how they did it, may have been some jelling agent or something to keep them separate. Very unusual.

Mrs Marshall's Margaret Cornet
After reading a two page leaflet about how Mrs Beaton stole Mrs Marshall's thunder we were presented with a mini ice cream cone with a kind of apple ice cream.

Pine Sherbet Fountain
Another strange one. A sherbet fountain with a tube of vanilla rather than liquorice and a small amount of 'pallet cleansing' pine sherbet.

Mango and Douglas Fir Puree
Bavourois of lychee and mango, blackcurrant sorbet
Yes Christmas tree puree!

Parsnip Cereal
I was presented with a cereal box, a bowl and a jug of milk. In the box were some parsnip flakes that looked like corn flakes. They were good, but that was only the breakfast starter for...

Nitro-Scrambled Egg and Bacon Ice Cream
Pain perdue and tea jelly
The waiter turns up with a gas burner, a copper pan and an egg box. He tells me that these are special "Fat Duck Eggs" and there is no gas so he will have to use liquid nitrogen (natch). He breaks the egg into the pan and flash freezes it with the liquid nitrogen. The 'scrambled egg' ice cream is then served on a sweet 'pain perdue' that is supposed to be a hash brown and a cup of tea jelly.

Now this is the strange bit. The ice cream tasted like bacon! I am not sure if it was the chemicals that make bacon taste like bacon or actual bacon. All I can say is that it was bloody lovely!

Whisk(e)y Wine Gums
This was six cola bottles stuck to a picture frame showing a map of Scotland (and Tennessee). Each wine gum tasted like the scotch whiskey from the region followed up with a Jack Daniels (hence Tennessee).

Petits Fours
Carrot and orange lolly, mandarin aerated chocolate, violet tartlet, apple pie caramel "edible wrapper"
Some final deserts to eat with the coffee we decided not to order as it was an additional £15 each!

All in all, an amazing experience that I am glad I did. I don't think I would go back again unless the menu has totally changed as it was very expensive and more about the experience rather than just the food.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007


Cube-a-rific!, originally uploaded by xrrr.

I saw on the FlickrBlog that HP have created a template that lets you build a photo cube. A simple idea, but a great one. It only took 15 mins to select, print, cut out and assemble.

Pictured is the fruits of my labour.