The Switch – Moving from Canon to Nikon, Part III

The Switch – Moving from Canon to Nikon, Part III

This is Part III of a series on moving from an all-Canon setup to an all-Nikon setup for four weeks. Will I go back to Canon at the end of four weeks? I have no idea…

In this part, I’m going to focus on just one thing: Nikon’s external flash system.

CLS, you’re pretty cool

Nikon’s CLS, or Creative Lighting System, is pretty well-known for its simplicity and reliability. On the Canon side, I’m used to working in ratios to set exposure between groups. This is a tad… unwieldy, to say the least.

For example, if I want three groups for my external speedlites, I have to jump through some… convolutions. First, I have to have my friend Syl Arena’s book, The Speedliter’s Handbook handy, because Canon’s manual doesn’t really do even a halfway decent job of explaining this.  I have to set the ratio for my first two groups (A and B), then go into the master speedlite’s menu to set FEC (Flash Exposure Compensation) for my third light.

Uh… wha? For a better explanation, go to page 144 of Syl’s Speedliter’s Handbook.

With Nikon, on the other hand, you get this:

External Flash Control with the Nikon (on-camera control)

External Flash Control with the Nikon (on-camera control)

This is if you’re using the on-board camera to control your remote speedlights (which are in two other groups, A and B). But you can, of course, control external speedlights with a master on-camera. Here’s what that menu looks like…

The menu for the flash commander on the Nikon SB-910.

The menu for the flash commander on the Nikon SB-910.

The simplicity is enough to make any Canonista drool. The ability to set your remote flashes with such incredible efficiency is, well, awesome. It’s part of the reason I went with the PocketWizard ControlTL setup for my Canon flashes in the first place; I was tired of having to do the ratio conversion math in my head.

So, yeah. CLS For The Win. Here’s a quick sample image from some closeups I was making as a test.

Violin closeup. SB-910 in a Lastolite Ezybox.

Violin closeup. SB-910 in a Lastolite Ezybox.

That’s one SB-910 in a Lastolite Ezybox, set manually.

Now, here’s the thing. I’m a PocketWizard ControlTL addict. I love that I can control not only speedlites, but also my Einsteins straight from my camera with a MiniTT1 and an AC3 Zone Controller. So I rarely, if ever, use my small flash gear without those handy radios.

As a result, CLS’ benefits are slightly lost on me. Which is not to say that I’d never use small flash without my radios, but I’ve rarely had occasion to use them.

But would I be more inclined to do more on-location work with just the Nikon system and leave my Einsteins behind? I think so, yeah. There are some inherent issues with PocketWizards and the 580 series of flashes which are annoying, but they’re mitigable.

So, for pure flash goodness, I do think Nikon has the edge. Of course, Canon hasn’t been sitting on its hands, as my friend Syl was quick to point out.

All of the six functions in Nikon’s CLS are also found in Canon’s system. It’s been this way for years. Canon was never smart enough to market the functionality like Nikon was.

Nikon’s Exposure Compensation and Flash Exposure Compensation are not independent like they are in Canonlandia. If you have FEC applied and then you make an EC move, Nikon cameras also adjust the FEC proportionately. McNally told me recently that the D4 has the option to separate them. I think this is a huge difference for amateurs who often shoot in Av/ETTL. Having the ability to control the ambient exposure through an EC move and the flash power through an FEC move is nice.

One bit to try, if you have not already, it so use the 600EX-RT system with your Einsteins. I’m now totally addicted to the radio and the 600EX control UI on the 5DM3 — especially the new Group mode. BTW, Group mode makes Canon’s ratio scheme obsolete (finally!) The ST-E3-RT is small, light, and my new BFF.

As you may know, with the radio, there is no pre-flash (unless you are in ETTL). So the Einsteins fire perfectly from their slaves. I’ve not used my PW gear in many months. I hate the fact the PW disables the on-camera menu system. The big difference is that you can’t dial the power of the Einsteins up/down from the camera. I’ve grown to accept that as a fair trade.

There’s lots more Canon flash goodness available at Syl’s blog, so be sure to check that out.

I haven’t played with the 600 series flashes yet, but that’s next on the to-do…


If I do end up switching, I can see myself relying more on CLS, if for no other reason than it gives me one more point of redundancy. Canon kinda lags on this issue – there isn’t a single full-frame-sensor Canon that has an on-board flash that can control external speedlites. That’s kind of a big deal; Nikon got this right with the D800 and the D600, so you have to wonder just what the heck Canon is thinking here.

Ultimately, this will play into my decision in a moderate way. Yes, I like the additional redundancy of being able to go with CLS for lighting if my radios fail, for example. But I don’t think I’m going to base my entire decision on this one point, since more and more of my work with lights is happening in-studio, rather than on-location.

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Sohail Mamdani is a writer, filmmaker, and photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow him on Twitter or find him at


  1. I used to shoot a Cannon F1 way back, and it was easy to use. I like Cannon because I think the user interfaces are more intuitive. Recently I bought Olympus Tough and Nikon P7000. The Nikon P7000 got smashed. I will replace it with a Cannon.

    • ^ This guy completely missed the point.

      Did you also have trouble learning Windows 7? Or were you still using a Mac because it was more… “intuitive”?

  2. Hi Sohail,

    The differences between Canon and Nikon become even more pronounced when doing macro work. Nikon’s macro system (R1C1) lets you position the little flashes anywhere you like, and in pretty much any quantity, while the Canon equivalent has exactly two flashes, and they’re tethered to the flash controller with cables. HOWEVER, and this is a big deal for insect photography, Nikon has no equivalent to the Canon MP-E macro lens. You can get partway there with a Nikon bellows, but I’ve used both, and the bellows just isn’t as usable for anything that isn’t completely static. If you haven’t played with macro and flash, this would be a good time to try out both systems.


    • Hi Bill!

      Yeah, the MP-E 65 is one of the main reasons that I am a bit trepidatious about committing to the switch. That, and the fact that I absolutely, positively LOVE the Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro. That’s probably one of the sharpest optics Canon’s ever created, I think. I don’t do a lot of Macro work but I love using that lens for portraiture and for product/still life work.



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