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Hands-On Review: Nikon SB-900 Speedlight

I got a chance to play with a new Nikon SB-900 speedlight over the last few days and I gotta say, it's a pretty sweet flash. Long story short: Nikon has just extended their lead in the flash department.

The only drawback I can see is the "perfectly good" status of the current SB-800. And that $500 price tag, of course.

Should you get one? Swap out all of your SB-800s? Be on the lookout for cheap, used SB-800s and add more?

Hit the jump for the Full Monty review, and a few things you might want to consider.

First impression: It is much bigger than the SB-800. Didn't really seem any heavier, but definitely takes up more space. This is a consideration for a couple of reasons. One, cubic inches matter when on the road. Not so much on a single flash basis, but if you are packing half a dozen SB-900s, you could probably cram seven SB-800's in the same space.

Also, the head is a totally new design and size. This means that your current light modifiers may or may not fit the SB-900, depending on their size and/or mounting flexibility.

So here's that big ol' honker of a head. First glance, it looks to be pretty much the biggest speedlight head going, save maybe the Vivitar 285 HV. It looks bigger than an old SB-26, and certainly bigger than an SB-24.

If you can get past the size, they have done some really cool things with the extra space. The 200mm zoom rocks. Not because I am gonna direct flash with my 70-200 racked out. But because it will concentrate the beam, of light into a smaller area when used off-camera.

Why would you care? Because it effectively gives you a more powerful flash when large swaths of light are not needed. Like doing a hard-light, multi-flash portrait outdoors, for example. You usually would not want to light their feet anyway.

Rather than eat up that needless beam angle with a snoot or grid, you can zoom it in, and get some extra f-stop with the more concentrated beam. This translates into more control over the ambient light level (you can get a darker working f-stop at 1/250th, for example) for more choices in your ambient tones.

Of course, you can get a Better Beamer to stick on just about any flash to do this, but it is not built-in.

The Big Head Advantages do not stop there. It's the most sophisticated refractor/reflector system I have ever seen on a flash. They actually modulate the tube with respect to both the front fresnel and the polished, rear reflector. This gives you the ability to shape the internal qualities of the beam, too.

You can choose a normal (slightly concentrated) pattern, an even more concentrated pattern (again, yet more energy to the center for situations described above) or a near-perfectly even light distribution depending on your lighting needs.

That's a real breakthrough in speedlight design, and brings to a (relatively) small package more of the capabilities of an interchangeable-reflector studio strobe. Big props to Nikon for that.

Other advantages that argue for switching are the new CLS interface. You'll get back the time you spend wading through the CLS menus on your master flash. This would not be a reason to swap out, say, four flashes. But it might be good reason to get one to use as a master.

It's basically a manual switch and a wheel dial -- a very fast an intuitive combo for switching setting in very little time. It took a little digging to find the SU-4 mode, which we like because it activates an awesome built-in slave, but I can confirm it is included and does work it's manual-power slaved-flash magic.

I actually used that mode to sync all of the flashes used to make the shots in this post. More on that later.

Big on the advantage list: Recycle time absolutely rocks at 2 seconds with no accessory battery back. Better circuitry uses the same power source -- with much faster recycling. This is a dream with Ni-MH batts, and the fifth-wheel option is no longer needed for fast shooting. For some, this will warrant swapping out their main, on-camera flash.

The accessory SD-9 battery pack walks that already fast recycle time down to about a second at full power. And it can hobble along on just four extra batts if needed, according to the Nikon guys I spoke with.

Interesting point: The power plug on the SD-9 has two extra nubs which means it will not fit other flashes. But the design looks as if the current SD-8-type plug may fit the SB-900. This is important if you are going to be migrating other existing battery packs to the SB-900.

Thankfully, the PC jack is still there. Big ups to Nikon for including the old-school synching, in addition to the fancy-pants CLS stuff.

One other noteworthy change is that the SB-900 swings both ways -- you can go reverse 180 in either direction. This is especially useful, in that whichever way you mount a remote flash you can have the receiving window facing the master light source.

Before, there were situations in which you had to cheat that angle and lose wireless range as a result. Every flash should have this feature, IMO.

In Sync:

1. It comes with a gel holder, which totally rocks. No more tape and/or velcro. And the dome diffuser fits right over the gel holder, allowing both to be used at once. The bar-coded Nikon gel thing is a little gimmicky -- it sets your camera's WB to the "appropriate" setting. The special Nikon gels could easily be duped with a template and some liquid paper. You will not need to re-up with the official Nikon gels ($$) if you do not want to.

2. Goofy, but cool: At full power, the discharge sounds like a blaster from Star Wars ("pew, pew, pew"). Recycling is almost silent. And oh-so-fast.

3. My seven year-old boy loved the battery compartment: Individual cylindrical battery holes -- like loading a revolver.

4. Thermal shut-down protection -- which can be disabled if you are completely stupid. Cool detail: A "thermometer" in the rear display shows you if you are starting to red-line it.

Out of Sync:

1. Five. Hundred. Dollars.

2. The hot shoe is a new, thicker size that will not fit many current accessory shoes. McNally dropped one out of a Justin Clamp, which is a staple lighting tool. (The Nikon guys mentioned that about 5 times this weekend, Joe. They might be sending the black helicopters after you shortly...)

3. The new AS-21 foot must be used because of the new shoe size. Which would be fine, except for that the metal female 1/4 x 20 insert in the AS-19 has been replaced by mere molded plastic in the AS-21. This will be a problem for people who repeatedly use the AS-21 on an umbrella swivel. That's a design whiff that should not have happened. (More on that here.)

Decision Time

So, that to do?

My biggest problem is, I absolutely love the SB-800s. IMO, many of the added features are great. But I do not think I can justify switching everything out wholesale. Buying just one might be a very good idea -- I can see many instances when those extra features would make for a more useful single flash.

My other problem: They may well choose to discontinue the SB-800, which would be a crying shame. It's either that or create a whole new production line for the SB-900. The SB-800 is small, powerful and does everything. Many will continue to prefer it to the SB-900, given price difference and the fact that the core functionality is the same. Seriously, what's so wrong with this current flash?

But of course, that's how my grandmother felt about her rotary-dial ATT phone, too. I am officially old now.

I know one thing -- if they do drop the SB-800, the '900 is gonna sell a crapload of SB-600 flashes. Thats a huge price gap which many amateurs will not be able to rationalize. And the smart move for new CLS'ers might be one '900 and a few '600's. Who knows.

The SB-900s are already pre-selling like crazy. So Nikon is clearly doing something right. My hope: SB-800s go out of vogue with the doctors, dentists, and rich soccer moms and they all wind up in the used dept and on Ebay for $200 a pop.

'Cause if that happened, I'd pimp out my lighting bag like McNally's. (Only, he'd have 72 SB-900s by then...)

Lighting These Photos

For the top photo (shown again here) I set the subject flashes on SU-4 slave mode in manual, at 1/128th power. Since they were only a few inches away from each other this would be my limiting factor, even dialed down to 1/128th. A quick pop-and-chimp, and I was adjusted to the aperture that gave me a good exposure from each other's close-in light.

I shot these with a new Nikon D700, BTW. We were absolutely swimming in new toys this weekend at Shoot! The Day in NYC. Awesome little camera, that '700. D3 guts in a D300 body. Expect iPhone 3G-esque wait times for a while if you want one.

Anyway, once I got the best shooting aperture for the flash-to-flash light from the subject flashes, I manually adjusted the other lights to look good at the chosen aperture, which I believe was f/16. I shot at a 250th, to nuke the ambient away. I put the flashes on a shiny black table and shot low, to maximize the reflection.

Other lights were:

• An SB-800 aimed at the background from under the table, using the frosted diffuser for an even gradient.

• Two SB-800's as rim lights, which edge-lights all of the shiny black surfaces.

• An on-camera flash in a Ray Flash adapter, which gave me the specular highlights on the front surfaces.

You Tell Me

Nikon shooters: Are you gonna get one? Are you gonna swap out your SB-800s? Why? Why not?

I'm on the fence, and looking for feedback...


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