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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

First Grope: Nikon SB-700


When Nikon first announced their new SB-700 speedlight three months ago, I went down the feature list and immediately took notice of one thing: The lack of a PC jack.

But I recently had a chance to talk to some folks from Nikon. And they're all like, Dave, you're putting the em-PHA-sis on the wrong syl-LA-ble. It's an evolution of the SB-600, not the SB-800. (And to be fair, they've got the SB-900 for that.)

Okay, fine. Maybe it is not the most PC flash out there. But given that, what's under the hood?

First impressions after a hands-on day, inside.
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So, this is more of a test drive than a full-blown review of the Nikon SB-700 speedlight. And to be sure, if you are already familiar with the other models and Nikon's CLS system, you will get the gist of this flash almost immediately.

No word on street price yet, but full retail is gonna be $329.95. And since there will be supply bottlenecks as they roll it out, that's exactly what you'll pay for a while.

So, not cheap. But fortunately, the SB-700 is a very well-built and capable flash. Which, ironically, is why I still shoot with a bag full of SB-800s. They just keep going. If Nikon is going to wait until my '800s wear out before they sell me more flashes, they'd better not be holding their breath. I don't see those babies pooping out any time soon.

But given its features and design, the SB-700 is shaping up to be a formidable competitor to … the SB-900. Much more so than in the SB-600/SB-800 line-up, this is truly the Nikon SB-900's little brother. The design and interface are pretty much exact replicas.

It even makes the cool "pew pew" Star Wars blaster sound when it fires in full power. (Okay, maybe that is just cool to me.)


Kudos to Nikon for this. This kind of continuity of interface makes the flashes much more intuitive for multi-flash shooters. It's nice to be able to adjust a flash by feel very quickly while keeping your attention on your subject.

The SB-700 is sized like a hot dog with a bun. Feels almost exactly like an SB-800 -- size and weight -- in your hand. That, along with price, gives it an advantage over the '900 if I were in the market.

For CLS/TTL/FP sync shooters, the '700 will happily act as a master (albeit 2 groups only) or a remote (to the SB-800, SB-900 or another SB-700). So if you already have an '800 or '900, it would be a very logical addition to your bag.


The interface continuity is a big improvement over the SB-600. Here's another: The optical port is mounted flush, rather than recessed. I have to think that improves reception, if just for physical reasons. (And you can always nipple-mod it, too.)

The only time I tend to use CLS is when I am working in wireless FP sync, to kill focus on a background in daylight. But I use the SU-4 mode a lot. Fortunately this is yet another improvement over the SB-600. They did not neuter the slave. In fact, that thing is extremely sensitive. All you have to do is walk into the next room and whisper the name "Doc Edgerton" and it will fire in sync.

The button sequence for getting an SB-700 into SU-4 slave mode is just like the SB-900. Thank you, Nikon.


Like the SB-900, it has a sophisticated internal reflector system which allows for three selectable illumination patterns -- standard, centerweighted and even. I found these to be fairly subtle in practice. The one time I would likely use it would be to further boost the reach when shooting at the 128mm zoom setting (another evolution over the '600.)

The head goes 180 degrees both ways, so you will not need to do the chicken neck mod. (Most useful not for bouncing, but for being able to aim the head any direction while keeping the eye pointed at a master flash.)


Nikon seems to be following the Toyota strategy with regard to power. Which is to say the current Toyota Corolla is bigger and more powerful than my parents' original Camry back in the day.

Both the '700 and '900 are more powerful than their predecessors, with the '700 approaching the power of the (formerly) flagship '800. The apples-to-apples shot above is exact same power and beam spread between a '700 (left) and an '800 (right).

Speaking of power, there is a heat meter on the back. But even recycling full manual pops with NiMH batts every ~2 seconds, I could not get it even into the midrange temperature area. My guess, it would be pretty hard to cook one into auto-shutoff protection.

Speaking of AA's, each battery gets its own little tube -- very nice -- and they are sized generously enough to accept even the little-bit-fat NiMH's that try to squeeze in a bit more power. So you won't be whacking the thing against your palm like a pack of cigs to get the batts out.


Straightened out '700s will stack like crazy in a typical roller. But they ship in squarish cases which nestle them bent to 90 degrees. (It's a pick 'em, I guess.) The case allows for the supplied stand (with 1/4x20 jack, no metal) and the dome diffusor. There are also green and CTO hard plastic filters, which will auto-swap the camera's WB when attached. Nice touch.

In the US, Nikon supplies both a quick guide and a 120+(!) page manual set, one in English and one in Spanish. Thanks for not combining them, Nikon. Woulda been a novel…
__________


So, the big Q is, do you take the plunge? Depends.

For Nikon shooters, you have to decide if you will be using CLS and/or wireless FP flash. 'Cause SB-700s were absolutely made for that. They will fit right into an 800- or 900-based CLS setup. And if you have a '900, there is zero learning curve.

If you are not going to use the special features, your competition will be the 3rd-party multi-sync flashes, such as the LP160.

The SB-700s have awesome build quality, super-fast recycle and lots of bells and whistles. But are they worth 2X an LP160? That is totally a case-by-case call, depending on your wallet and how much you will use them.

And if you shoot Canon and you have still read this far, you would not be the first person to toss your Canon flashes and use SB's with your EOS. Just saying.


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40 Comments:

OpenID dtwainright said...

I was going to save up for a lens but I might have to try to get my hands on one of these 1st. I don't have a flash and this was a great write-up - thank you.

December 15, 2010 12:23 AM  
Blogger Orson said...

You're not the only one that loves the pew pew from the 900s.

We might be the only two, but you're not the only one :)

Orson

December 15, 2010 12:31 AM  
Blogger Greg said...

Me three.... The sound is great!

December 15, 2010 1:14 AM  
Blogger Sharna said...

"And if you shoot Canon and you have still read this far, you would not be the first person to toss your Canon flashes and use SB's with your EOS. Just saying." LOL I shoot Canon and I was wondering how I could use that Nikon flash with my Canon 7D?
Just Sayin..... :D

December 15, 2010 1:19 AM  
Blogger Gene Fama said...

Reduced-torque flashes with no remote inputs are for tourists. Flash fits in well in many places—just not on a camera.

Don't need Midge. Never bought Barbie. Didn't get the bus or accessories either. "Flash system" is an oxymoron. TTL is chicken on the menu—it's for people who don't know what to order. Anything besides power and zoom costs money that could have gone into power and zoom.

(In case you didn't notice I'm doing the Strobist version of the cops that take Dirty Harry's methods too far in "Magnum Force.")

;-)

December 15, 2010 1:52 AM  
Blogger Derek de Partee said...

David,
I love that I count on your blog to keep me updated on everything I am interested in. I am a Canon user who would gladly defect from featureless EX flashes to SB's, but you have helped lead such a great revolution in photography that now products are made for such a user as myself. The LP160 is all I could ever want. Features and price are perfect. Thanks for all your work. I can't get enough of this stuff!!!!!
Derek

December 15, 2010 2:31 AM  
Blogger shasqualimie prod. said...

a question about the sensor, i dont know if there is an answer, why is it on the side of the flash? i mean shooting in the day is a pain because i have to rotate the camera (or the flash) to get the CLS system to pick up the master flash; even at night or indoors it has a hard time seeing the commander flash. it always confused me that the sensor wasn't underneath the nikon logo on the front or on the back underneath the screen (or both). i only complain because i have to rotate the flashes if i want to move (it inhibits creativity).

December 15, 2010 2:34 AM  
Blogger shasqualimie prod. said...

a question about the sensor, i dont know if there is an answer, why is it on the side of the flash? i mean shooting in the day is a pain because i have to rotate the camera (or the flash) to get the CLS system to pick up the master flash; even at night or indoors it has a hard time seeing the commander flash. it always confused me that the sensor wasn't underneath the nikon logo on the front or on the back underneath the screen (or both). i only complain because i have to rotate the flashes if i want to move (it inhibits creativity).

December 15, 2010 2:35 AM  
Blogger trix said...

I love the StarWars, don't have any Nikon equipment, but I would like to hear pew pew from the 700s.
Anybody have audio sample?
Tried youtube-ing with no results...

December 15, 2010 3:20 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

I know nothing about modding these units, but how hard would it be to mod in an 1/8" sync to this? If it had that it would be perfect price/performance ratio.

December 15, 2010 4:04 AM  
Blogger Jaroslav said...

What was the lighting setup on those shots? Love it..

December 15, 2010 5:28 AM  
Blogger timdoc said...

Thanks for the SB-700 mini-review, and many thanks for your great blog.

I'm hoping the SB-700 improves on my biggest disappointment with the SB-600: the head pivot lock, or lack there of. It's the only Nikon speedlight I own that doesn't lock in the vertical position -- problematic when using it with an Orbis ring flash on a bracket.

Does the SB-700 lock in the full upright position?

For that matter, do other folk's SB-600s lock upright?

Thanks,
Tim

December 15, 2010 5:51 AM  
Blogger Jonathan Irwin said...

Glad to see the Japanese flash manufacturers finally fixing the (insanely) annoying 90 degree issue throughout their lineup. Anybody who occasionally has to shoot with on-camera bounce flash and naturally holds the shutter release up for verticals knows what I'm talking about! And surely these flashes are all targeted directly at wedding and event photographers, who are some of the biggest users of on-camera bounce. Yes, I know I could get a flash bracket, but my camera is too big and heavy as it is.

December 15, 2010 8:11 AM  
Blogger Robotrogue said...

Great writeup!

It helped me decide whether to go for one or not, kudos to Nikon for the plethora of features on this one (although a PC or headphone jack still would have been nice, but for a flash intended for CLS use, can't blame them for not adding one)

December 15, 2010 11:16 AM  
Blogger John said...

Thanks for the review!

Curious though that Nikon decided to package these bent at a 90 and on their side. I believe I would prefer the older method as it would seem easier to pack.

Guess they're still roughly the same area though.

Good to know about the SU-4 mode ...just wish it had a sync port.

December 15, 2010 12:28 PM  
Blogger Rangefinder General said...

I think we needed to consign the pc jack to history a long time ago. After all it is only a problem for rich kids and pros with pocket wizards.

December 15, 2010 1:30 PM  
Blogger mmontanaro said...

Thanks for the info!

December 15, 2010 1:48 PM  
Blogger Stewbphoto said...

Gongrats Nikon on another flash I'll never buy!!! Bang-up job guys!!!

December 15, 2010 4:40 PM  
Blogger rah[ma.ut]ami said...

From the review i guess SB 700 can be a commander to others SB700, SB600, or even SB900.
I didnt find any syncro jack in the SB700's picture like the SB 800. Is there any of it anyway?

I think there is the nikon's way in changing their flash quality is a bit declining because in many ways, we just find our previous SB 800 (always) even better than any other flash that they produce afterwards. Do you agree w/it?

December 15, 2010 9:00 PM  
Blogger fishtoprecords said...

Trying to reverse engineer the lighting for this shot. Pretty hard light. Clearly shot from above and behind the box. Lots of falloff in a circular pattern.

Did you use a soda straw grid? or just zoom down on the head?

December 15, 2010 10:45 PM  
OpenID john said...

Does it have quench pin to allow us of radiopoppers JrX studios? SB900 doesn't so that's not an option for me. I am loving the SB800s I have more and more. You know it's a great flash if the price of used ones are more than they cost new! I bought an extra one when they announced they were be D/C'd and now I wish I'd bought more.

December 16, 2010 5:32 AM  
Blogger Vince Edward said...

David,

Any possibility we can see a direct full power blast comparison to the SB-600?

December 16, 2010 9:26 AM  
Blogger David said...

@John-

Given Nikon's internal design of the very similar SB-900, I have no reason to believe that the SB-700 has an RP-ready quench pin.

@Vince-

Sorry, I do not own a '600. So I used an '800 instead. If it is near '800 level, it is more powerful than a '600 would be my guess.

December 16, 2010 10:30 AM  
Blogger Joe S said...

I totally geeked out at the photo you took of the box..is that just a hard light coming from above/behind the box and ring for fill?

December 16, 2010 3:40 PM  
Blogger Ken said...

Love the light, David....of the photo of the box, that is.

Ken

December 16, 2010 7:23 PM  
Blogger clspangler said...

I picked one up at my local shop for my daughter yesterday. I like the feel and the user interface is much better than the SB600. I knew the commander mode only supports two groups but there is one other difference from the 800/900. On the SB700 all groups have to use the same mode. You can't have one group fire in TTL and the other manual. There is an additional commander mode where you set a ratio between A and B. You just spin the dial to change the ratio and there is a nice graphical display showing the relative power levels. This would be a great feature for Nikon to give us in a firmware update for the SB900.

December 16, 2010 11:38 PM  
Blogger Benjamin said...

Hi David,

Long time lurker first time commenter. Love the blog.

Regarding the SB-700 and SB-900 output level in terms of "raw light" (i.e., amount of illumination provided by a full manual burst)

You seem sure they are brighter lights than their SB-600/800 predecessors.

Other information I've found indicates that the 700/900 are slightly (maybe 1/3 stop) weaker in terms of raw light output than the 600/800, and that this is somewhat offset by the expanded zoom range.

Have I described your take on the new flashes output levels accurately? If not, please clarify and if so, how do you know this?

Thanks.

December 17, 2010 9:38 AM  
Blogger Andre said...

Dave, in related news, that's a pretty cool box shot!

Let me guess:
2x gridded flash pointed down and towards the camera crossing beams 45 deg. to the camera each?

1x Orbis or similar for fill?

December 17, 2010 5:06 PM  
Blogger lasikexpert said...

I just received 3 of the SB700's over the last week and they are fantastic, even better in many ways than my SB900's. Other than the limitation of power, they are smaller, never overheat, CLS is perfect, nicer on camera, and can FP shoot at 6-7 fps. I really only will use 900's with PocketWizards (not yet config for 700) and with 70-200 lens. Soon will mix it up with 5 strobes.

December 18, 2010 2:12 PM  
Blogger rproulx said...

Here are a few more advantages of the SB-700:

The provided stand fits both the SB700 and the SB600/SB800 series, but not the SB900. The SB900's hotshoe is thicker and does not fit on the SB800 stand (nor the new SB700's). I used to have to carry around 2 different stands (800/900) and fish the right one out of the camera bag when needed. The SB700 and SB800 stands are now interchangeable :-)

The diffusion dome clicks solidly in place and does not come off as easily as did the SB-900's.

The battery cover has a lock button so it does not open as easily as the 900.

Russell

December 19, 2010 10:13 PM  
Blogger Courtenay said...

Another improvement for SB600 users is the ability to program the flash to NOT fire, but just give you better/less invasive autofocus at, say, theatrical events. Maybe Strobist.com is not the place to expect people to get excited about this, but it's useful to me :)

December 20, 2010 12:01 PM  
Blogger Joe Farrell said...

Question regarding the SB 700. Does it do repeating flash?

December 23, 2010 5:29 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

It's been mentioned a couple of times but I just wanted to add my kudos regarding the product photography here. Not just the box, but the shots of the flash itself are gorgeous. Way, way nicer than the typical photo site shots on seamless white background with perfectly even lighting.

I'll probably catch flak for not doing a search first, but if it doesn't already exist, a David Hobby guide to this type of product photography lighting would be cool.

December 25, 2010 11:14 AM  
Blogger George said...

Note that the SB-700 defaults to TTL-BL unless the camera metering is set to spot.

January 07, 2011 12:30 PM  
Blogger George said...

The SB-700 is in the TTL-BL mode unless the camera's metering is set to spot.

January 07, 2011 12:32 PM  
Blogger Jebby said...

The PC Port is dead hopefully. Wasn't there a blog posting a while back about how unreliable it was? There are plenty of hot-shoe connection methods available.

January 19, 2011 6:28 PM  
Blogger Phil Waters said...

After attending the Dave &. Joe show yesterday in Denver—great, and thanks—I'm ready to (slowly) begin building a light system around SBs (as opposed to AlienBees).

First question to the subject of this post: With only an SB-600 in hand, what would the next best purchase be toward a 2-3 light setup, the SB-700 or SB-900?

thanks…

March 23, 2011 4:23 PM  
Blogger Joe's Books said...

Hey Phil, I just sold my SB-600 on ebay and purchased (3) SB-700's. That would be my recommendation for you. Standardize on the gear so you can concentrated on making images and not dealing with different flash units. Just my opinion.

April 12, 2011 10:21 AM  
Blogger Joe's Books said...

Hey Phil, I sold my SB-600 and purchased (3) SB-700's. That is my recommendation to you. Keeps it simple to make adjustments on one type of flash and the 700 is very easy to use with CLS.

April 12, 2011 10:47 AM  
Blogger Justin Grafton said...

Anyone know why an SB700 would quit working after not being used for awhile? And if it has to do with not firing for a month or so how do you recharge it?? "Need a little wind here!" ...Tommy boy reference...

October 22, 2012 8:22 PM  

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