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Nikon Speedlight SB-900 Review

Nikon Speedlight SB-900 Review - After paving the way to new photographic standards in their recent DSLRs, can Nikon do the same with their flashguns? Matt Grayson is on hand to test the new SB-900.

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Category : Portable Flash and Lighting
Product : Nikon Speedlight SB-900
Price : £325
Rating :
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Launched along with the Nikon D700 DSLR, the SB-900 is a flash unit designed to compliment the new FX and DX formats.

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Nikon SB-900: Specification

  • Guide number: (20°C/68°F) 34 (ISO100), 48m (ISO 200)
  • Nikon SB-900Illumination patterns: 3 (standard, even and centre-weighted)
  • Range: 0.6m-20m
  • Flash modes: TTL, Auto Aperture flash, Non-TTL auto flash, Distance-priority manual flash, Manual flash, Repeating flash
  • Multiple flash operation: Advanced Wireless Lighting, SU-4 type wireless multiple flash
  • Compatible cameras: Nikon DX & FX and others with reduced functionality
  • Flash exposure control: Set on the camera
  • Sync modes: Works with cameras sync modes Slow-sync, Red-eye reduction in slow-sync, Rear-curtain sync, Rear-curtain slow-sync
  • Shooting functions: Auto FP High-Speed sync, FV Lock flash
  • Tilt: Down to -7°, up to 90° increments of -7°, 0°, 45°, 60°, 75°, 90°
  • Pan: Horizontally 180° to the left and right in increments of 0°, 30°, 60°, 90°, 120°,
  • 150°, 180°
  • Power: 4x AA batteries
  • Flash duration: Approx. 1/880 sec. at full output
  • Mounting foot: Lockable type
  • Size: 78.0x146.0x118.5mm
  • Weight: 415g

Nikon SB-900: Modes and features
As if producing large DSLRs wasn't enough for the R&D guys at Nikon HQ but they had to go and create a monster of a flashgun as well. Standing around 3/4in taller than its predecessor, there's plenty of improvements made to the SB-900.

Nikon SB-900 Most notably is the rear UI which now holds a plethora of buttons and switches under the large LCD information screen. The power switch in the bottom right corner has four settings for on, off, remote and master. The switch also has a locking button set in the centre to prevent switching over to the latter two by mistake.

The wheel next to the power button is for making adjustments to any modes that you can enter by using the three translucent buttons sat directly under the LCD screen. These buttons will change what they can access depending on what mode you're in, for example if you're in TTL (through the lens) mode, the left button will access flash compensation and the right button will adjust the f/ number. As well as using the wheel to scroll through the options of these buttons, repeatedly pressing them will also rotate the options available to you.

The mode button will scroll through the different modes available including i-TTL, Gn and repeating flash mode.

The i-TTL mode is the safest mode and the closest thing you'll get to auto. It uses monitor flashes before it fires properly to get a reading of the light reflected from the subject and adjusts its output accordingly. Gn is the distance priority flash mode and requires you to set the aperture and distance of the subject and the flash will handle the exposure for those settings. This is an ideal setting for macro and fine art photographers. The repeating flash mode fires multiple bursts in a strobe like effect.

The zoom button will adjust the flash head to different focal lengths up to the huge 200mm with the motor sounding like an old printer.

The SB-900 has an extensive menu system which on the surface isn't all too clear on how to access it. To get into it you have to press and hold the OK button which is signified by the blink and you'll miss it icon in between the mode button and selector wheel. The dot means tap it for confirming actions and the dash means hold it down for the menu.

Nikon SB-900: Build and handling
Nikon SB-900 The Nikon SB-900 is a solid block of flashgun and a weighty one at that. It sits around three quarters of an inch higher (around 20mm) than the SB-800 and it's overall size is bigger. The battery door feels solid with minor leeway which is probably to help compress the batteries into the bay. The shoe mount lock snaps across with a satisfying click and the buttons all have the firmness to them you'd expect from Nikon.

The pan and tilt lock is situated on the joint under a rubber covering and when manipulated, the head jerks around giving a sense of security and rigidity that the head won't move when it's sat in place. Interestingly, the head now rotates all the way around 180 degrees in both directions which is a bonus and could be useful for left handed users.

The head has a built in diffuser which, when coupled to the wide angled dome brings the coverage down to a measly 14mm. There's also a white pull out for bounce and a built in gel holder.

Nikon SB-900: Performance
I tested the flash in different situations using direct light, bounced light and with the flash off. I used the flash with the new Nikon D700 and 14-24mm lens

For the shot of the machinery I was under a thick canopy of trees so the camera had to select a higher sensitivity of ISO3200 to cope with the dark conditions. The image looks evenly exposed but is quite flat and two dimensional. The direct light image has given an even spread of light over the whole image. I also used the built in bounce card and the intensity at the centre of the image is more noticeable on this image with light falling off towards the edges.

Nikon SB-900
With the flash off, the camera was forced to select a higher ISO.
Nikon SB-900
The flash aimed directly at the machinery gives the light balanced across the image.
Nikon SB-900
A similar result from direct flash but with some fall off at the edges.
Nikon SB-900
The even light pattern setting.

The three patterns that the SB-900 can be adjusted through are standard, even and centre-weighted. The standard mode does the job of a flash with results that you're used to. When I first heard about centre-weighted I thought it would give an even spread of light like centre-weighted metering takes a reading evenly over the whole frame. However, it actually means a literal version of its name.

The flash is weighted to the centre of the frame and is more suited to use with a telephoto lens. This is the mode to use when shooting at 200mm.

Nikon SB-900
The standard pattern setting.
Nikon SB-900
The centre-weighted pattern setting.

The even mode is the one that gives an even spread over the whole image. Illustrated above are the three different patterns shot against a blank wall to see the intensity spots and fall off at the edges. All shots were taken with the Nikon D700 & 14-24mm lens set to 24mm, 1/200sec in shutter priority and the camera selected an f/2.8 aperture setting.

Nikon SB-900: Verdict
I've never been a fan of using flashguns as I prefer studio lights or ambient light, but I have to admit that if all flashguns performed to this standard, I'd use one.

The build quality is excellent as is the menu system and I've even got to enjoy the funny noise it makes when it starts up.

At £325 it's an expensive addition to your collection, but if you use flash in your photographic work then you owe it to yourself to take a look at this flashgun.

Nikon SB-900: Plus points
Excellent build quality
Loads of features should cope with every scenario
180 degree turning circle both ways
Extended range of up to 200mm

Nikon SB-900: Minus points
Expensive
Entry to menu not very clear

FEATURES

HANDLING

PERFORMANCE

OVERALL

There's no denying the performance and features of the SB-900 and for that I've given it a highly recommended.

The Nikon SB-900 flashgun costs around £325 and is available from your ePHOTOzine shop here.

 

 

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Comments


IanA 10 3.0k 12 England
29 Aug 2008 5:26PM
What Matt has failed to mention is the re-cycling speed which, amazingly, Nikon have managed to get almost as fast with 4 batteries as the SB-800 is with 5! It is that fast that there is a safety cut-out built into the gun which, if you are in a situation where the shot is more valuable than the flashgun, can be disabled and the flash will keep going until the circuitry melts!

I've used it with longer lenses than the 14-24mm that Matt is restricted to, and I can confirm that it does work well with focal lengths up to the stated 200mm with excellent coverage.

As the owner of both the SB-600 and SB-800, all I can say about the SB-900 is AWESOME!! The Creative Lighting System is already the best flash system on the market and this gun is now the top unit in that system.
Unfortunately the one I have has to go back to Nikon soon, but you can be sure one will be on my Christmas list!

Ian

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