Nikon SB-900, be careful what you ask for!

I am constantly thinking about camera flashes; first of all because I use them all the time and secondly because like diamonds, you can never have too many. Several months ago I was reading customer reviews for the Nikon SB900 flash and I added one to my online wish list just for fun. I like putting things on my wish list because it doesn’t cost anything, keeps me entertained and makes it easier to find things again online. I forgot all about that until recently when someone who enjoys spending money a lot more than I do saw my wish list and bought me the Nikon SB900 flash for my birthday.

At about the same time, another very generous person I know (who was obviously tired of me constantly borrowing his flash gear) gave me a lightly used Nikon SB800 flash. I already had a Nikon SB600 flash in my camera bag so I immediately started thinking about creative ways to use all these flashes together. Having a bunch of flashes at your disposal makes you eventually begin to compare the features and benefits of each of them. Getting flashes as gifts certainly makes the decision much easier but most of the time you have to purchase flash gear with your own hard-earned cash and that made me wonder if the features on the SB900 were really worth the extra cost compared to a used SB800 or a new SB600.

If you are a wedding, event or news photographer who primarily shoots a lot of on-camera flash for a living, then the SB900 is the flash to have. In fact you probably have at least one or two well-worn SB800 flashes in your bag and are thinking of upgrading if you have not already done that. If you shoot mostly snapshots of the kids or grandkids on the weekend then the SB900 is no doubt serious overkill. The same thing is true of a lot of new camera gear and many other types of products. A long list of features makes you feel like you are getting a good value even though you are unlikely to need or use many of those features.

For casual photography you can usually get by with your camera’s built-in flash to provide balanced fill light. That little splash of light works great as long as you work within its limited range. Most of the time less is best but photographers tend to be hopeless gear fanatics who like to believe that new gear will always translate into better photographs and better photographs will translate into personal fame and professional recognition. Camera companies love that because it helps them sell more products.

The SB900 was released in 2008 as a replacement for the older SB800. Since then Nikon has officially discontinued the SB800. The price of the SB900 has come down slightly, while the cost of a used SB800 has remained about the same or even gone up. The SB600 flash is similar in size and build quality to the SB800, has fewer features and cost about half as much as the SB900.

The main advantage of buying Nikon flash units to use with Nikon cameras is their ability to communicate with each other using the Nikon Creative Lighting System, also known as CLS. The reason I purchased the SB600 flash was to use it in conjunction with the built-in flash on my Nikon D300 camera set to “commander” mode. This allows the camera and the remote flash (or flashes) to communicate with each other and adjusts the exposure automatically, while also giving you the option to adjust the power levels (lighting ratios) of the flashes in separate groups of one or more flashes per group.

Nikon’s CLS system is great but I also do a lot of work with my camera in manual mode and with the flashes used off-camera and also in manual mode. Using the camera and flash this way allows the greatest control over the direction and quality of the light but it also means that in addition to automated flash features, I need flashes that allow me to adjust power output manually. Just about any old flash with manual power adjustments can be used for off-camera flash work as long as you have a way to trigger the flashes in sync with the camera. That can be done with a simple cable between the camera and flash but I prefer wireless triggering with radio remotes instead. You can order a decent set of wireless remotes (transmitter and receiver) online for around $50 to $100. The great part about Nikon flashes and Nikon CLS is that the triggering system and power adjustment is already built-in for automatic or manual exposure control.

The SB900 is fully integrated with the Nikon CLS system but it lacks some modes needed to play well with older film cameras. The iTTL functions are limited on film cameras older than a Nikon F6 film body. That’s fine by me as I have pretty much gone digital as far as smaller format cameras go. I don’t see much point in shooting 35mm film anymore except for slide film or when I am taking photos with compact 35mm rangefinder cameras.

The SB900 is big. Way big. When it’s in the carrying case with all the included accessories it’s even bigger. The carrying case does not fit well in my normal camera bag. My temporary solution is to just ditch the carrying case. I like the extra protection but I can’t handle loosing all that valuable lens space in my bag. I can get the flash in the top of my camera bag with the diffuser dome attached if I point the head forward instead of straight up. Problem solved (sort of). Similar challenges appear when trying to stuff the SB900 in a Pelican 1510 Watertight Case.

The SB900 runs on four AA batteries. There is no fifth battery attachment (sometimes referred to as the battery wart) as there was on the SB800. I always thought that was a dumb feature anyway, since the SB800 has a power connector to use with an external battery pack and because flash batteries usually get used (and purchased) in sets of four. The SB600 does not have any provision for an external power supply so when the batteries run down you have to pop in a fresh set. I’m sure a clever person could think of ways to modify the SB600 to use an external battery but unless you are doing an all-day event it seems pointless. There could be times when you need to mount a remote flash with an external battery in a place that you could not easily access during an event (like a wedding or sports competition) in order to swap out the batteries.

The SB900 and SB800 also have built-in PC Sync terminals. This is handy if you are using radio remotes like the Pocket Wizard receivers to trigger your flashes. If you are using Nikon CLS, then the triggering system (infrared) is built in and nothing else is needed as long as you don’t need to trigger flashes behind things, around corners, far away or in blazing sunlight (yes there are a few limitations). The good news is that you can buy remote radio triggers that come with hot shoe mounts to connect the flashes, making the PC sync redundant in most cases, though you can link a couple of flashes together to fire in tandem using the PC sync. If you are using the flashes in CLS remote mode you can trigger two (or more) from the commander unit on the camera.

The Nikon SB900 has a new and reportedly better user interface. Yes, it’s pretty cool but unless you have the cash to buy only SB900 flashes then you are going to be stuck using the older interfaces anyway, at least if you plan on using the Nikon flashes together. I think the user interface is a bit of a wash because they all take some getting accustomed to but the SB900 user menu does seem to be an improvement over the previous two models.

The flash head on the SB900 can swivel 180 degrees to the left or the right. Most reviewers add the word “finally” at this point. Yes, the lack of full rotation on the SB600 and SB800 can be a little frustrating but I guess you get used to it after a while. There is an unauthorized hack to allow the SB800 to rotate 180 degrees in both directions but you can kiss your warranty goodbye if you go that route.

The SB900 and the SB800 both come with color correction filters to balance the flash output to the color of the ambient light. The SB900 filters are coded and relay the filter color to the camera (on current Nikon pro bodies only). You can easily pick up some color correction (gel) filters for little or no cost and make your own custom color correction  filters in a minute or less with a pair of scissors. Having the official version pre-cut to the correct size is convenient but not a necessity. The SB600 does not include color correction filters.

The SB900 has a flash head that zooms from 17-200mm and this added zoom range is one of the best features of this flash. The SB800 goes from 24-105 and the SB600 zooms from 24-85. All three flashes have a flip down wide-angle adaptor to allow coverage wider than the automated zoom range. In my test shots you can see that the SB900 gives the best coverage of all three flashes at both the wide and telephoto settings. In the detail shot (top left) from the SB600 you can see how the diffuser pattern appears as a dark square in the center of the frame. After making a few test shots with each flash it seems to me that the SB900 has a better quality of light at various zoom settings than the other two flashes. The SB900 has three options for shaping the flash output in addition to the various zoom ranges. You can chose “standard,” “center weighted” or an “even” pattern. I like the “even” pattern best for the smooth tonal graduation of light at all zoom settings. All three flashes are equipped with a flip down wide-angle adaptor built in to the flash head but the adaptor on the SB900 appears to offer the best coverage and quality at 11mm on my tests with the 12-24 zoom lens.

I often like using multiple flashes together so I wondered how a pair of SB600s would hold up against a single SB900. I took a couple of test shots where I hand-held two of the SB600 flashes above the camera and triggered them both with the on-camera popup flash in CLS mode. The on-camera flash was set to zero output (—). It’s not a very scientific test and it would have been better to separate the lights by a few feet and have them cross in the middle for more even illumination but I was curious to know if I could see any general difference in light output. The two SB600 flashes used together does seem to offer a nice wide angle spread of light at the 24mm setting.

When the wide angle adaptors are in use you cannot adjust the zoom range on the flash heads because it’s locked in at the widest setting. This is also true of the diffusion dome accessory for the SB800 and SB900. There is a little switch that activates when you attach the diffuser. The SB900 diffuser gives a really smooth spread of light. Some people have told me that they use this type of dome diffuser just about all the time, which would mean that they very seldom use the flash zoom head feature. The ability (and versatility) to go from punchy direct light to broad and smooth graduation of light is a big advantage and from what I see, the SB900 does this a lot better than its two siblings. Based only on the physical size of the SB900 flash head you would expect nothing less.

The SB900 is supposed to recycle faster between flashes than the SB800 but it appears to have a slightly lower guide number or power output. If recycling time is critical you probably want to consider getting an external battery pack. All that power and fast recycling may also cause overheating. Fortunately the SB900 has a thermal protection feature that will shut down the flash if it gets too hot. When the flash was first released there were a number of people who stated that the flash stopped working at critical moments, forcing them to go to a backup unit (usually a trusty SB800) or stop shooting altogether. I deliberately tried to get my SB900 to do the same thing by firing it at full power in manual mode as fast as the flash could recycle with a new set of batteries. I fired the flash 30 thirty times before it ever got anywhere near the top of the tiny temperature scale on the LED display. Maybe ambient temperature plays a part in how hot the batteries and flash head get but mine seemed to work fine in my simple experiment. If you are shooting photographs for money you should always have backup equipment on hand.

I have a strong feeling that there is a limit on the amount of light that can be generated from the power contained in a set of 4 AA batteries. Fancy zoom heads and adjustable beam patterns may have an effect on flash output but I am beginning to think that the differences are relatively slight. As you increase the Guide Number (output) of a flash the recycle time generally goes up and the number of flash exposures per a set of batteries goes down. The SB900 recycles faster than the SB800 but has a slightly lower Guide Number. Nikon states that the faster recycle time is due to their new improved circuitry. Maybe, but don’t expect the impossible. My other motto is that you can never have too many batteries either.

Any improvement in performance from a mature, well engineered product (or product line) is usually going to be incremental. What I mean to say is that while the SB900 may have improved performance over the SB800 and SB600, those improvements are actually relatively small in real life. You could argue that in the real world, anything that gives you even a slight edge is desirable (or even required) in order to keep up with or to stay ahead of your competition. Incremental improvements are what sells new products and wins all sorts of races. I did a few test shots with all three flashes just to get an idea of how the output compares. The set up is simple, camera set on tripod twelve feet from a wall in the living room using a 12-24 lens set to 12mm. The shots were all made at 1/30 second at f/5.6 in with the camera in manual mode. The flashes were in iTTL FP BL mode (full auto).

Should I buy two SB600 flashes or one SB900 for around the same cost? More features or more flashes? With two flashes you can use one as a main light and one as fill or even as a background light. Just keep in mind that the SB600 does not have a commander mode but you can use the built-in flash on CLS compatible camera bodies to trigger one or more remote SB600 flashes. You should always check specifications to make sure your camera and flash models will work together.

I wouldn’t want a hot shoe mounted flash to be any bigger than the SB900, unless of course I intended to use it as a riot shield. Despite my apprehension about the size (and price) it really is a very useful tool and useful tools have a way of winning over even the biggest tightwads and skeptics. There are a few features that I don’t think I will need or use at this moment but they are thoughtfully included if my needs change in the future.

PROS:

– State of the art flash automation for current Nikon digital camera bodies using the Nikon Creative Lighting System (CLS) and iTTL exposure metering

– Faster recycling times

– AF assist from 20-105mm focal length

– Wider standard zoom range coverage (17-200)

– Better user interface / faster access to menu system

– Thermal cut off with temperature warning indicator

– Choice of three flash output patterns (standard, even, center weighted), though you may be splitting hairs to see the difference in actual photos

– Included accessories (dedicated filter set, filter holder, diffusion dome, carrying case, stand)

– Improved flash head rotates a full 180 degrees in both directions (thank you)

– Can be used as a formidable defensive projectile once your batteries go dead

– Updatable firmware to insure compatibility with future camera bodies or to add new features and menu options (currently with the Nikon D3 and D700)

– Built in connection ports for external battery packs and flash sync triggers

– Really nice rotary on/off, master/remote switch for faster start up. You don’t need to dig through any menus to go from commander to remote modes

CONS:

– Cost (I always say that). It’s up around the cost of a basic studio flash but without the nifty light modifiers.

– Size (it’s circus sideshow big) The carrying case may not work with your existing camera bag.

– Includes many extra features that may rarely be used. This is only a con because it tends to drive up the cost of any product but it could be a lifesaver in the event that you suddenly need one or more of these features at some point in the future.

– Plastic threads on flash stand. Be careful if you are using the supplied tabletop stand to attach your flash to a light stand or tripod. Nikon had to cut costs somewhere! I don’t think it’s that big a deal but other reviewers seem to take exception. I actually use these little stands pretty often

– Still no battery level indicator (maybe someday on a future firmware update)

Recommendations:

If you have any very wide angle lenses or any very long telephoto lenses then you are going to need a hot shoe flash at some point because the lens hood of a lens wider than 18mm or longer than 200mm is likely to throw a shadow in your photograph when used with the built-in camera flash. If you need to light something relatively far away you are also going to need a hot shoe flash.  You could get an SB400, which is less expensive, lightweight and uses iTTL exposure metering. The SB400 has forward bounce only but it could be paired with an iTTL cable that would allow it to be aimed in any direction and also to be used off-camera. The next step up is the Nikon SB600, a well built flash that you can use with your camera’s built-in flash to do some amazing work with Nikon’s Creative Lighting System. It’s a good place to start and you can certainly continue to use it if you decide to add an SB900 later. I doubt that you will miss any of the more exotic features of the SB900 if you are just getting started with flash photography and off-camera lighting. The other consideration is the amount of space an SB900 will take up in your bag if you plan on traveling with it. I often think of leaving the flash (and batteries) at home when I travel but the existing light is often terrible when I arrive at my destination. A flash is very handy for travel photography and allows more precise exposure control. Size and weight are a major consideration when traveling. I would choose the smaller, simpler SB600 for travel or work within the limitations of the built-in camera flash to save weight and space.

In an ideal world I would prefer to own just one type of flash because it would make using them together much simpler and faster. If you plan on using a single flash for all your work it should make life easy but also remember that important jobs call for back-up equipment in case something breaks. You can do a lot of creative things with one flash by learning to work with the ambient light and perhaps by adding an inexpensive reflector or two to redirect the light. Less is best because you don’t need a bunch of expensive gear getting in the way of making photographs. You really can’t go wrong with any of these Nikon flashes because in the end they all do nearly the same thing in slightly different ways.

Other Resources:

http://www.nikonusa.com/Assets/Common-Assets/PDF/FastTrack_To_WirelessSpeedlights.pdf

http://nikonclspracticalguide.blogspot.com/2008/01/nikon-flash-two-separate-metering.html