Spotlight on the SB-900

How's that for a lame headline? But it kinda works with the picture. Now let's get serious..

I got the SB-900 a couple weeks ago and have mostly stared at it trying to figure out the buttons (yes, I have read the manual cover-to-cover.) This flash has been out for a few months but I didn't really need to add a flash to my collection of speedlights until recently.

This thing's a monster. Huge flash. Almost too big, really. Most of you young kids probably don't remember the Honeywell "Strobonar" flash that was commonly called the "Potato Masher" among working press. Many an angry mob was subdued at the sight of that mighty sledgehammer. Nikon is trying really hard with this flash to take us back to those good old days, only it's more awkward to hold in one hand than the potato masher was.

One of the nice things about shooting Nikon over the past, say, 30 years, has been that all the parts were interchangeable. I can put my 40+ year old Nikon lenses on a D3, and use it if I want to. If I lost the diffuser dome from an SB-800, I could grab one from an SB-80 and it fit, no problem. Can't do that with this flash. The SB-900 is a different size, from top to bottom, than previous flashes.

The foot is bigger, so you have to use the mount that is made just for that flash if you want to stand it up on its own. So even though I have five other mounts for my SB 800's, they don't do me any good if I want to stand up my new flash.

This monster sits nearly two inches taller in my camera bag, so that it doesn't close as neatly. If I'm on the run (and there's an awful lot of running in my work — seriously, it's like being David Tennant's sidekick) I like to have everything battened down, and this bigger flash makes it a little more awkward.

None of these is really a deal breaker. I mean, I bought the damned thing, I 'm gonna use it.

On the plus side, I do really like that I can switch it very quickly from Remote mode to Master mode. There really are plenty of times when I might need to switch quickly from using the flash in TTL mode to propping it up somewhere (on its own, dedicated holder, unfortunately) as a remote flash so I could get some light off to the side. Not having to press-and-hold-the-center-button-for-two-seconds-and-then-navigate-to-the-CLS-settings-and-then-press-that-and-then-navigate-to-the-right-choice-and-then-press-"okay"-and-then-press-"exit" is an actual time saver. Today I was only using one flash, and in previous uses I've only had to use it as a remote flash off on a stand, but I really can imagine where I'd need to suddenly use it as a master one minute and a remote the next.

And, on its face, the little turny-wheel that you use to navigate through the settings looks and feels like a good idea. But in practice, I found that I ended up overshooting the settings I wanted, and sometimes accidentally moving waaaaay off the mark when I was in a certain setting (like, when I wanted to underexpose a little when shooting TTL, I'd dial it back to maybe 4 stops under in the blink of an eye when I only wanted to take it down 1/3rd of a stop.)

Nikon did add a cool feature where it's possible to adjust the bulb & interior lenses so that you get an "even" spread of light from the burst, rather than a lot of light in the middle and then a fair amount of falloff. Having played with this just a little bit, I'm not sure why I would want to ever take it off the "even" setting, just because it's kinda nice to have that sort of light spread. You can see how that spread works in these three photos, where I've started with the Even illumination option, then moved on to Standard spread, and finally have it at Center-Weighted. I've got the zoom set on 50mm here, and I'm firing straight in to the backdrop from 35 inches away.

Note that because you're spreading out the light more evenly, you get a little less in the brightest areas compared to the center-weighted option. There may be situations where this matters to you, such as if you're zoomed way out and want to get as much light concentrated in the center as possible.

When I shoot an assignment I try to travel light. I wear a belt-pack with just the stuff I might need on a shoot. Usually that's a small pouch for accessories, another for my 70-200 lens, and a pouch for a flash. That way I can shoot with one or two cameras and quickly switch the various parts around to suit my needs.

With the SB-900, there are, frankly, too many extra parts to make that style of shooting convenient. Particularly annoying is the extra plastic attachment that holds colored gels in place. It fits under the diffuser dome, yes, but beyond that it's a nuisance. On the go, it's not that easy to gently fit the gel film in to the holder and take it out again. So today, as I went in and out of offices lit by fluorescent light in to daylight and then in to a tungsten-bulb room I found myself sticking the plastic attachment in to my shirt pocket pretty often, and at the end of the day I was more annoyed by it than thrilled. I pretty much need an extra pouch on my belt for just the various parts of the SB-900.

The gels provided by Nikon, by the way, have a thickness that's measured in angstroms. (All you physicists out there are laughing your heads off.) Most gels are thin, but these babies seem extra waif-ish. With my other gels I've used one sheet of laminating plastic to thicken and toughen them, and I'll have to see if that works for these. Nikon has added a small, um, square of something (not sure if this is a chip or just a benign piece of material that passively acts on the flash) that tells the flash what kind of gel you've got on. If you're shooting on-camera with a D3 or one of the newest models, the flash is supposed to automatically set your white balance (if you're in Auto White Balance mode on the camera) so that everything matches.

Again, on its face, that seems cool. But if you're the kind of shooter who walks in to a room and thinks "gee, I better put on the appropriate gel" you're gonna already know to set the white balance on your camera to match or complement the ambient source and your flash temp. I say "match or complement" because sometimes you don't want it to match. A lot of photographers, including me, use a little bit of warming gel on their flashes while the camera is set for daylight balance, resulting in those nice warm flesh tones everyone loves. If the camera were being adjusted automatically, thanks to the chip, then I think I wouldn't like the result very much at all. You get a small indicator blip on the flash display telling you what kind of gel you've got in, but you have to look pretty hard to pick up on it.

So far I've also had a bit of trouble using it with a RadioPopper PX receiver, but I'm thinking that may be as much of a problem with the receiver as it is with the flash.

After all this ranting I guess I'm as happy to have this flash as not. As David said when he looked at this flash a while back it's probably useful to have it as my "carry" flash because I switch back and forth between Master and Remote modes. But for my next flash I'm probably going to look on eBay for another SB-800.

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