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Go Ahead, Use Your Old DSLR Flashes on Your New Mirrorless Cameras

Go Ahead, Use Your Old DSLR Flashes on Your New Mirrorless Cameras

When I first started out using speedlights for flash photography, there weren’t many options aside from Canon and Nikon. As a result, I’ve amassed a large collection of Speedlights (and Speedlites), but now that I also shoot mirrorless bodies, are my SB-700s and 600EX-RTs any good?

The answer is a definite yes, though with some caveats.

Give It a Try

If you browse the Internet trying to find an answer about flash compatibility across brands, you’ll hear horror stories of fried electronics and voltage issues. While that may be true if you’re using a decades-old flash, most modern flashes made in the last 10 years or so will probably be fine. I’m writing particularly about Nikon’s SB-700 and Canon’s 600EX-RT flashes in this post, but I’ve had more or less the same functionality I’ll describe in this post with older SB-900 and 580EX II models.

The first thing to remember is that Nikon and Canon (as well as other first-party brands such as Olympus and Panasonic) always program their flashes to work best with their own cameras. You can get fancy features such as TTL capability, high-speed synch, rear-curtain sync, and built-in radio flash capabilities in some cases. Many of these flashes also can cast infrared patterns to help assist with autofocus on the company’s DSLR systems. If you can afford to go the matching-brand route, that’s always going to be best.

Second-best is to use cross brand-triggers, such as a Cactus Wireless Flash Transceiver, which can add some of this functionality across different models from different companies, though the downside of this approach is you are introducing a third brand to the mix, more batteries, and an extra piece that could potentially fail in a key shoot.

What to Do in a Pinch

What do you do if you only need to use this setup occasionally for a little extra light without the expense?

In a pinch, you won’t actually need anything, despite what internet fearmongers will tell you. You can stick that Nikon flash right onto the hotshoe of your Fujifilm X-T3, and you’ll be just fine. Likewise, that Canon won’t fry your Olympus E-M10 Mark II (see above, the camera’s fine, I swear). The only major catch is you won’t be able to shoot the flash in TTL mode (essentially, automatic). You’ll have to take manual control, but that’s something that’s not a bad practice anyway when shooting portraits. You’ll also have to be mindful of the maximum sync speed on your camera. You won’t be able to shoot faster than that, and so, while you may be able to work within that limitation indoors, you will likely need neutral density filters or shaded areas to compensate for the lack of higher shutter speeds to use with your light when outdoors.

I used a Fujifilm X-T1 with two Nikon SB-700 flashes to light this portrait. The light on the camera optically triggered the light on the background. Different brands can coexist just fine when it comes to lighting.

In the case of this image of my daughter, my maximum sync speed of my Fujifilm X-T1 is 1/180 (as denoted by the “x” next to that number on the dial). By adjusting the power of the flashes, I was able to dial in the right settings to get the picture I wanted. As a bonus, by using Nikon SB-700 flashes, I was able to turn the flashes into optically triggered remote flashes, meaning I was able to stash one behind the chair to light the background, and it was triggered by the hotshoe-mounted flash on the camera. Nikon offers the ability to do this by setting the flash to “SU-4” mode in the remote menu, but unfortunately, Canon’s flashes are locked to Canon’s proprietary system when it comes to any sort of remote capability. Some companies have created triggers that can essentially hack it, but again, this adds complexity. Optical triggering needs line-of-sight, but doesn’t require extra tools at least.

Summing it all up: Most flashes will work with most systems, as long as they have the same basic hotshoe design. You’ll just have to adjust power manually and work within the maximum sync speed limits of your camera.

If you have a mirrorless camera and want to dip your toe into the waters of speedlighting, use what you’ve already got. You’ll get the job done.

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Wasim Ahmad's picture

Wasim Ahmad is an assistant teaching professor teaching journalism at Quinnipiac University. He's worked at newspapers in Minnesota, Florida and upstate New York, and has previously taught multimedia journalism at Stony Brook University and Syracuse University. He's also worked as a technical specialist at Canon USA for Still/Cinema EOS cameras.

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They will find a way to sell more flashes as they have with cameras lenses etc.
It’s called marketing !!
Did you see what Canon did to third party flashes w their newest mirrorless ?

Yes, I saw that the latest Rebels removed the firing pin, which is pretty much industry standard. I was talking about this with a photographer friend and while it's definitely bad for the consumer, he pointed out how it's (unfortunately for us customers) a product manager's dream: Save 10 cents on each camera for that part, force consumers to buy Canon's flashes no mater what. My friend also pointed out that this move would also force more experienced photographers who wanted a travel/backup camera to get a more expensive model since they would want that capability and so the company makes more money that way as well. Oof.

Hi Wasim!
You mention that flashes cast an infrared pattern to help with autofocus on DSLR cameras. I find this feature tremendously useful when doing nightlife/nightclub photography (I use a D750 with an SB-700 and this feature is a life saver I'd say, as many times the lighting is too crazy and/or it's too dark to focus). Do you know if this feature is compatible with mirrorless cameras?

Hi Pablo, I've reached out to some industry contacts to find the answer for you on this, what I do know is that for EOS R mirrorless, it will strobe the flash (like when you use a pop-up flash for AF assist, not the same as infrared, I know, as this method can be quite blinding/distracting).

If I had to take an educated guess, because the phase detection systems on a DSLR work differently from sensor-based phase/contrast found on mirrorless cameras, that these systems wouldn't necessarily work the same if at all with the infrared patterns on a flash unit.

Again though - if/when I get a definite answer I'll update this response. I too shoot the same way you describe at weddings with my Canon/Nikon DSLRs and so I'd like to know as well!

Hi Wasim,

Thanks for your response! I also have the impression that mirrorless cameras don't work with infrared, and instead would use other mechanisms as the one you mentioned for the canon EOS R. I wonder how fast that focusing method would be.. But yes, certainly not as good as infrared; you'll probably have double or triple the amount of flash bursts than usual (1-2 for focusing and then 1 for the picture) :-/

Thanks for taking the time and effort to reach out industry contacts to try to answer this question. I appreciate it!

Looking forward to see if you manage to get a definite answer!

It's definitely not compatible because there's an IR filter infront of the imaging sensor. DSLRs have a separate focusing sensor with no IR filter, but mirrorless cameras focus using the imaging sensor

aah that makes quite some sense. Cheers Tim!

It's definitely not compatible because there's an IR filter infront of the imaging sensor. DSLRs have a separate focusing sensor with no IR filter, but mirrorless cameras focus using the imaging sensor

Portrait with hot-shoe flash .. ok, that's where we all started. But sooner or later the off-camera flash comes in anyway, with its own complexity. Did someone try already to use third party radio triggers, like Yongnuo or Godox, then use a Canon camera and transmitter, combined with a Nikon flash with Nikon trigger? In best case, one can use the transmitter for convenient central flash settings, in worst case the flash has to be set manually.