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Let us first mention that both Canon Speedlite 580EX (Mark I) and Canon Speedlite 580EX II flashguns are among the very best hot shoe camera top flashes available today. They are powerful, loaded with features and build to last. These units are an obvious choice for many professional photographers. But with the prices on digital SLRs going down and the emergence of the low-end consumer SLRs niche on the market the external flashes become of interest of much bigger and growing community. And with the current price of $350 for the new Canon 580EX II there is good chance people would consider this flash even though they may never need all the features of this professional piece of equipment.
The Mark I and the Mark II have the same main characteristics: guide number, angle of coverage, E-TTL compatibility, etc. But there are several things that make the Mark II a Mark II. In general all the changes are good except probably one (lack of the master/salve switch), which many people complain about, but we'll get to that a bit later.
The Mark II revision recycles about 20% faster than the previous one and makes no noise while recharging. So there is no more whining like with the Mark I. Though for some photographers this served as an acoustic aid. The whining helps to determine whether the flash is fully charged or not. So with the silent recycling it may require to check with the "ready" light more often.
The Canon 580EX II gets a bigger body and a bigger head. Our measurements show that Canon 580EX weights 13.1 oz (370 gram) with no batteries and around 17 oz (470 gram) with the batteries (depends on batteries). The Canon 580EX II is 14.3 oz (406 gram) by itself and over 18 oz (510 gram) including the batteries. So these flashguns are rather big and heavy devices.
Despite the bigger head the Mark II features a bit smaller white reflector card than its predecessor. It does not really affect the performance though.
To match the latest digital SLR bodies the Canon 580EX II is weather resistant. The foot is sealed when mounted on a proper camera, the battery compartment also features rubber sealing. The "push" button and the sides of the head are also protected with rubber, which by the way gives a better grip.
The LCD displays are about the same size. Some symbols on the Mark II are smaller (like for example the "Zoom" word). But it does not compromise the readability.
The controls on the Canon 580EX II has not been significantly changed comparing to the Mark I but all of them are refined. The four buttons in the top row on the back panel have a different tactile feeling now. They are not a bit round like on the Canon 580EX but instead are absolutely flat. And what is more important the amplitude of moving when pushed is significantly smaller. So when you press one of these buttons on the Mark II it clicks right away so you can feel that it worked with your fingertip. On the previous model these buttons never click and you have push them really deep. May be it is a minor thing but we see it as a nice improvement. The only button that feels like this on the Canon 580EX is the set button in the middle on the select dial.
The on/off switch is also better now. It is about two times bigger than before and turns instead of sliding. The old switch is kind of small and sharp. So, once again, it is a nice little improvement.
Canon did a good job changing the battery compartment door. The Mark I design has been criticized many times. The way it opens make you think that you do something wrong and may break it. The new door has a lock and opens by a spring. And as we mentioned earlier there is rubber mounted on the inside surface of the door to seal the batteries.
One of the best improvements of the Canon 580EX II is the absolutely new mounting foot's lock. The foot has a lever now not the traditional knurled nut like most the others on the market. There is also a lock-release button to quickly unmount the flash. This is very convenient, fast and easy to use. Also the mounting plate is made of metal on the Mark II instead of the usual plastic, which means it's going to get less damaged by the camera's shoe.
The new foot lock takes up the space below the select dial and it seems that there is not enough room for the master/slave mode switch anymore. So, probably Canon did not want make the body even bigger to leave the switch in place and could not find another spot for it. Or may be they've decided that it is not necessary to have a separate control to switch between master and slave wireless modes. Or may be it is too expensive to make the switch weather sealed. But whatever the reason is the switch is gone. The Canon 580EX II can be switched into master/slave mode by pressing the "Zoom" button and holding it for about 2 second. Some photographers complain about not being able to switch from master to slave and back as fast as they need or used to. It may be a problem in some cases but we are not really sure about that. And we find the switch on the Canon 580EX to be not that convenient anyway. It may be hard for some people to switch it with one finger (depending on the hands size). And sometimes it is hard to set it to the middle (master) position. So, yes, a dedicated control is always better than a non-dedicated one, but we do not see a big problem here.
The Canon 580EX II adds some new functionality to the already impressive list of features of its predecessor. The external metering sensor gives the flash the ability to calculate light output by itself (not using the camera's measurements). This can be a big help if your application requires to get rid of the pre-flash, which is always fired in the TTL mode. The second addition is the PC terminal (receive only) to use with Pocket Wizard RF remotes. The lack of this feature has also been raising complains among the photographers. Well now the unit has it.
The Canon 580EX II is an improved version of the Canon 580EX, which a Mark II is supposed to be. There is a whole pack of the improvements in the interface and usability. Functionality is extended with the external metering option and a PC terminal. Weather sealing is a plus for those who needs it and has matching SLR bodies and lenses. The performance and main characteristics are about the same. So unless you really need to switch fast between master and slave wireless modes or can get the Mark I really cheap, the Canon Speedlite 580EX II is the way to go if you are out there for a new high performance professional grade flashgun.
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