‘The Speedliter’s Handbook’ Review

Speedliter's Handbook by Syl Arena Review
The Speedliter’s Handbook, by Syl Arena

The Speedliter’s Handbook, by Syl Arena, is the best book about off-camera flash photography that I have ever read. Go buy it – it’s that simple! (It’s available from Amazon US and UK, by the way).

If a three-sentence review isn’t quite good enough for you, though, you may want to read on for a little more depth…

What I Learnt

Wow, where to begin? Well, let’s start by saying that I learnt lots. The Speedliter’s handbook is amazingly thorough, and full of tips and tricks, but I think the biggest reason why it is so much better than other books on flash photography is because of the way Syl writes: he writes in such a down-to-earth, practical manner, that it is just so easy to understand what he is saying, and put it into practise yourself. In truth, he writes like I want to write like in this blog; trying to demystify the world of photography, writing so that the total beginner can sit down and understand what he’s trying to say.

So, if you’re totally new to world of off-camera flash, this book is the one you want to get. It doesn’t matter that it is mostly about Canon speedlites; a colleague of mine who shoots Nikon also got this book and raves about it – Syl’s advice and tips are truly universal.

Soft Light From Softboxes

Off-camera softbox flash kitchen

A shot of my wife, using techniques learnt in The Speedliter's Handbook

Let’s jump straight to a shot that I took, using the knowledge learnt from this book – see the above photo of my wife in our kitchen. (And no, it’s not an advert for Cling Film, though it does look a bit that way!)

As well as shooting and exposure tips, Syl also covers recommended equipment too, so I took his advice and got a Lastolite Ezybox Softbox for my Canon 430 EX II flash. You can see what the softbox and flash look like in the shot below:

softbox in kitchen with ambient light
The shooting setup, which also shows the ambient light

One of the main tips you’ll find in his book is that the closer your subject is to the light-source – in this case the softbox – the softer the light will be. So, with this in mind, I had my wife stand as close to the softbox (without it entering the frame) as she could. I triggered the flash by using my Canon 7D’s built-in wireless transmitter, and I’m really happy with just how soft the light is on her hair and face – really happy!

And it was just so easy to follow the tips in the book; really, really simple.

Here’s another shot from the same setup:

oni kitchen softbox flash

For Interesting Light, You Need Interesting Shadows

This is one of the main points that Syl makes sure comes across in his book: for interesting light you need to create interesting shadows. When you think about it, he’s obviously right – photos without shadows can look flat, texture-less and just plain boring, whilst photos with shadows look three-dimensional and, well, just far more interesting.

There’s a great section in the book where Syl talks about the different styles of lighting you can create by just moving your speedlite into different positions around the subject, with example photos of what each flash placement produces. Needless to say, when you just use your flash ‘straight-on’ at the subject (like when you ever use that little pop-up flash on your camera), the results are boring because there are no shadows. Simply move your speedlite at an angle to your subject, and you’ll create shadows, depth, and much better images.

With this in mind, here’s a shot of my hand, again shot through a softbox, with the speedlite up and to the right:

hand interesting light softbox off camera flash

Even though it’s just my hand, I think it’s still an effective, interesting image because of the relationship between the light and shadows – caused by positioning my flash at an angle to my hand. The light on the background also comes from the same flash, and I purposely positioned it so that the light was uneven on the background; I like that kind of diagonal light/dark divide in the image.

When You Want A White Background

In theory, you’d think it would be pretty easy to get a white background – just stand infront of something white, surely? The thing is, if that’s all you do, that background will not actually come out super-white like those professional sutdio shots you see in magazines – to get that kind of result, you need to put a flash directly on the background.

Syl covers lots of examples of using multiple off-camera flashes, and how to set them up in groups, changing their power and so on. I used this knowledge to take the below shot of my wife, using one flash (in a softbox) to put light on her, and a separate flash pointed just at the background to make sure it came out pure white:

oni pure white background multiple off camera flash

Dark, Dark Backgrounds

Conversely, you’ll find that the way to get dark backgrounds for your photos is by limiting the amount of available, ambient light in your photo to virtually none – which you can do so by shooting at high shutter speeds of around 1/200 sec, combined with low ISOs and small apertures (of around f/8 or smaller). By doing this, it means that your flash will be providing the only light source in your photo – no natural light at all. If you then make sure that the flash is positioned so that it won’t fall on your background, your background will come out nice and dark, another example below:

dark background oni photo off camera flash

My Verdict

I think it’s pretty safe to say I like this book! I have only covered a very small part of what Syl’s book teaches in this review, too – there’s just not space for me to cover the wealth of knowledge encompassed in its 432 pages.

If you shoot Canon speedlites, then you really need this book. If you shoot Nikon, then I’d say that you’d still learn loads from it.

The Speedliter’s Handbook, by Syl Arena, is available from Amazon US and UK.

I’d also recommend you follow Syl on Twitter, and check out his website too.

Update 15th January 2012: I’ve just done a new off-camera flash shot of my pregant wife which you may be interested in seeing.


  1. Ross Borgida /


    Thx for the recommendation Of Syl’s speedlite book.
    I just bought a 430 ex II flash. What size ezybox are you using? The 15×15 or 24×24 lastolite ezybox? What size do you recommend with the Canon 430 EX II flash?

    Thank you,

  2. thanks for the review, I’ll have to check this one out. I use Canon speedlights and am always interested in learning more.

  3. Hi Ross, thanks for your comment. I got the 24×24 Ezybox, and it’s been just perfect with my 430 ex II.

  4. Hi Galen, thanks for your comment – I’m sure you’ll love the book. Nice website, by the way!

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