Review: 7/28/2008
Minor Tweaks: 8/18/08, 4/8/09

  Nikon Speedlight SB-900 Review

Even our equipment is starting to use steroids.

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The Basics

Announced with the D700, the SB-900 didn't get as much mention or notice as the new camera, but as far as I'm concerned, it's the more significant announcement. No, I'm not dissing the D700, which is a fine camera, but the D700 doesn't break new ground while the SB-900 does.

Copyright 2008 Thom hogan

After some preliminary use, I don't think there's any doubt: get an SB-900 if you're heavy into flash (and retire your SB-800 to dedicated remote wireless use). Things that are new or changed over the SB-800:

  • A redesigned user interface. Nikon finally has put some real attention into helping you control your flash quicker and easier. This is a bigger thing than most give it credit for. I can set an SB-900 far faster than an SB-800, especially for wireless use.
  • More light flexibility. You can zoom further (to 200mm), the flash correctly sets to the FX or DX angle of view, gels used in the flash will be corrected for in white balance by the latest cameras, but most importantly you can change the "shape" of the light from highly concentrated to evenly distributed (with a setting in between). This is actually the "big" thing. You have to shoot with the different settings to understand just how much we've needed more light modification from flash. Now that we have it, we'll want more.
  • Faster recycling. Need one second recycling? You can get it by using the SB-900 with the optional SD-9. But even without the external battery pack you'll get ~2.3 second recycling with Nimh batteries.
  • Lots of small touches. The flash head rotates the same amount in both directions (finally). The carrying case holds the accessories. A thermal cutout feature keeps you from frying your head (and an indicator shows you how close you are to doing that ;~). The battery compartment door is a little sturdier and less cumbersome to use. The firmware of the flash can be updated. The list is actually relatively long when it comes to small touches than are improvements.

Copyright 2008 Thom Hogan

This is all in addition to what you'd expect from the SB-800. Do note that there were some things left out (the SB-900 is not very backwards compatible):

  • D-TTL. Users of older Nikon DSLRs will find that the SB-900 is only an i-TTL flash and won't correctly work on their bodies.
  • Film TTL. Most of the old film TTL subtleties are missing, as well. There is no provision for the various balanced fill-flash modes that were the herald of film TTL.

In terms of size, the SB-900 is the largest flash Nikon has produced (the photos above are to scale--they were shot with the units side by side in a single picture, then my blue screen background was removed). Nikon has endorsed Nimh battery use with this flash (2.3 second recycling in flash, 1 second in SD-9), and it's what I recommend you use in it. Nikon lists figures using 2600mAh batteries, but anything over 2000mAh should give you a good level of performance (150 shots per charge or more).

Nikon has provided updates for the SB-900 firmware, something previously not done with Speedlight units. The current firmware version is 5.0.2, and you can install that by downloading the proper file from Nikon's Web site and using a D90, D300, D700, D3, or D3x to perform the update (these cameras must have their firmware at the current version first). You use the normal camera firmware update method (Firmware version on the SETUP menu) to update the Speedlight. With the SB-900 mounted, the Speedlight's firmware is shown as the S value (A and B are camera firmware, L is lens, S is Speedlight).

To see which version of firmware you have without mounting it on the camera:

1. Turn the SB-900 on.

2. Press and hold the OK button until the Custom Settings options appear.

3. Use the selector dial to navigate to VER.

 

Handling

The first thing you'll notice about the SB-900 is the size. I'm not joking about the steroid sub-header: it seems that everything about the SB-900 is bigger and stronger and maybe even a little more aggressive. Heck, the carrying case and plastic stand are bigger than they need to be.

Personally, I wouldn't want a "portable" flash to be any larger than the SB-900 is. As it is I have a hard time getting my flash into my carry-on (remember I use a smallish pack because of the regional jets I'm always flying on). The SB-900 complicates this a bit. The actual increases in size are modest, a half inch here, a half inch there, but taken together they mean that unit has just enough extra bulk to it that if your old packing routine was tight with an SB-800, it probably will need to be rethought for the SB-900.

Curiously, even the foot that slides into the hot shoe seems to have gained some weight: it's just enough thicker that previous models that some accessories won't work on it. Some third-party mounts and accessories are going to have a tough time with that added thickness, though if all you're using is the camera hot shoe it isn't an issue. There is a benefit to the slight additional thickness: we no longer have the slight rocking (loose mount) problem we had with some older flash units, which could trigger intermittent contact issues.

The button controls have changed from previous Nikon designs, and ironically, instead of a traditional Nikon direction pad we now have a Canon-style control wheel. But you won't care, the new design is much, much better than before.

First, we have a switch to turn the flash on, or to put it into remote or master mode. You can't accidentally move the switch to remote or master, you must press an interlock button to do so, a nice touch. The problem is that the switch and interlock button is too small. You won't be making these changes with gloves on, that's for sure. I actually have to be paying attention to make the change at all. I suppose that's a good thing, but there's really no reason why a critical switch like this has to be made as small as possible on a flash that's grown in size.

Just under the flash unit's LCD is a row of four buttons. Icons at the bottom of the LCD change to indicate what you control with these buttons. You can repeatedly press a button to get to new settings, or you can press the button and then use the control wheel to get a specific setting faster.

The one thing that might stop you for a moment is "how do I get to the custom settings?" Nikon even tried to make that more obvious by printing a "• OK -- MENU" legend on the back. That means that the OK button if pressed means "OK," but if held down will take you to the menu system, where the custom configuration settings live. Once the menus are active, you scroll between major items using the control wheel, get to the options by pressing OK, scrolling to the option you want, then pressing OK again. Easy enough to understand, though still a bit clunky (the SB-800's settings are much more clunky in this respect, so Nikon made progress here).

Unfortunately, you'll need to learn that last bit if you really want to use one of the more interesting aspects of the flash, the head head style (CW, STD, or EVEN, which stands for a tightly focused beam, a slightly focused beam, or an evenly distributed beam, respectively). Since the second button is only rarely used (for Times in repeating flash, for example), I would have been tempted to place the flash head style into that button when the button isn't being used, as it isn't for TTL shooting. Flash head style is something I want to play with a lot, but if the flash is in standby, for instance, I have to push one button, hold a second one, press that button again, use the control wheel, then press the button one last time to make a change. That's just a bit too much UI for what could have just been a slider switch.

The new gel holder is a nice touch, allowing you to quickly attach and detach gels. The simple coding on the gels allows the newer cameras (D3 and D700 at this point) to make white balance adjustments that are correct for the new color of the flash. You can even put the wide diffuser over the gel holder, so Nikon was actually thinking more about combos of things we want to do with flash than they have in the past. Of course, if you've got an old flash head attachment you like to use for diffusing, directing, or bouncing flash, you'll need to get new ones, since the actual head area is physically larger and the connect system (slots in the plastic) is different.

While the carrying case has grown substantially in size, it now includes pockets for the diffuser and gel holder, the gels, and the stand, all of which are separate from the main flash compartment, thus things don't get all scratched up quite so fast. What I don't like about the case is a common problem I find with all of Nikon's products: they just don't consider how we really use and carry these things. Basically, the carrying case has a simple, small belt loop attachment point. The loop isn't big enough for any of the "belts" that most of use on our packs and belt systems, thus we end up having to kludge a way to use the case or abandon it completely.

There's other evidence of not fully understanding the working photographer: the plastic stand now has a plastic threaded socket for mounting on stands or heads. Previous stands had an embedded metal socket. That plastic socket is going to last exactly, well, it won't last long on most shooting sets I've been on. This was a silly penny decision on a US$500 product.

Other than that, the SB-900 should be pretty straightforward for previous Speedlight users. The head swivel mechanism is still the same (though you can go the full 180 degrees in both directions now, and the primary Mode and Zoom buttons are the same. We still have the flip lock lever to secure the flash in the hot shoe, and the small diffuser and white reflector still pull out from the top of the head the same way. The battery compartment door is slightly better than the SB-800's and seems less flimsy, but it will still tend to pop open when the flash is dropped.

 

 

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Product Specification

Guide Numbers at ISO 100 feet (meters in parentheses)

14mm 43 (13)
17mm 72 (22)
24mm 89 (27)
28mm 99 (30)
35mm 111 (34)
50mm 131 (40)
70mm 144 (44)
85mm 154 (47)
105mm 162 (50)

Modes
All i-TTL modes, including wireless; Automatic, Auto Aperture, Manual flash (1/1 to 1/128 levels), High Speed (FP) flash, Repeating flash; SU-4 wireless.
Size and Weight
3 x 5.7 x 4.7 inches (78 x 146 x 118.5mm); 14.6 ounces (415g) without batteries
Price
US$499 (street)

 

 

 

Performance

In terms of Guide Numbers, things haven't changed a lot. For FX cameras, the GNs tend to be very slightly lower for the SB-900 than for the SB-800 for equivalent settings, though the ability to focus the flash head and the 200mm head position can give you a boost if you're not trying to light really wide areas and prefer to limit the flash coverage. Also, there's a bit more power at the very widest setting, probably due to changes in the diffuser. From a practical, functional level, I'd rate this all as a wash. The ability to shape the beam is actually more beneficial in actual shooting than a bit more power would be, in my opinion. Bottom line: don't expect a light level boost over an SB-800.

On the other hand, one performance aspect is clearly improved and its a doozey: flash recycling is rated as 50-90% faster than before. I actually tried this with some nearly dead batteries--which usually represent the worst case for recycling--and was surprised to still see a major difference between my SB-800 and SB-900. With newly charged Nimh recyclable batteries, the stated claim of 2.3 seconds was nearly met in my testing, and I was getting almost exactly a 100% speed boost when I moved those batteries from the SB-800 to the SB-900. That's with four batteries. Essentially, the SB-900 recycles with four batteries about as fast as the SB-800 does with five. Nice. No more battery wart on the side of my flash!

If you need to recycle even faster, try the optional SD-9, which will get you right down to the one second cycle range.

Drawbacks

  • Getting a bit bulky. In every dimension the new flash is a bit bigger. Make more room in your case.
  • Some strange cost cutting. Plastic 1/4" tripod mount? No multiple cabled TTL or TTL modes for film bodies? No D-TTL? No dedicated head style switch?

Positives

  • Best flash interface yet. Tiny quibbles aside, Nikon nailed the controls. Faster to set, easier to set, easier to understand how it's set. Bingo.
  • Styled light. The ability to control the concentration of light is exceptionally useful. Indeed, it makes you want even more control.
  • Wireless Ability. All the features you want (including SU-4 mimicking), finally in a package that can be set quickly.
  • Lots of little touches that are a modest step forward. Faster recycling, better swivel, dedicated gel holder that impacts white balance correctly, the list of little things that were added or improved is quite long.

 

 

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Highly recommended
A useful step forward from the SB-800. The styled light change is a ground breaker for portable flash.

features
performance
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