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Nikon Creative Light System Review

Nikon Creative Light System Review - 

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Nikon Creative Light System in Portable Flash and Lighting

One of the leaders in flash technology has always been Nikon. Here we take an in-depth look at their recent CLS system.

Electronic flash replaced exploding flash bulbs long before most of us can remember, and since then there have been continuous advances in the technology - even in the current digital age. Advances in exposure consistency, power control and TTL (through the lens) exposure have grown to a stage where we can now control so many aspects of flash photography to produce vastly improved images where, just a few years ago, many would not have even used flash..

Nikon's latest product is the CLS (Creative Lighting System) which is supported by many of their latest dSLRs upwards of the D70 including the latest bodies, such as the D200 and D80, as well as the D2 professional range, along with the F6 film SLR.

There are three speedlights that are fully integrated with the system, the SB-800, SB-600 and the SB-R200. The first two are conventional guns that mount directly on the camera's hot-shoe and can be used as the sole source of light. The third, the SB-R200, is a remotely operated unit dedicated solely to the CLS system which can only be fired by a master. The master can either be an SB-800, the pop-up flash unit on one of the supported cameras or the SU-800 Commander unit that's supplied in the SB-R1C1 close up Commander kit.

Nikon SB-R200 set-upSB-R200 units are much more sophisticated than simple slave flashes that have been around for many years. While a slave flash has a simple mechanism that fires the flash when another flash in the area goes off, the SB-R200 units are capable of being set to any one of three groups and, at the same time, any one of up to four separate channels. The groups allow differing settings to be applied from the master controller, while the channels allow competitive environment shooting where one camera will not set off another camera’s flashes. The only thing the SB-R200 units will not do is fit on the camera's hot-shoe.

Nikon supply the units in two slightly different kits, as well as stand alone units to extend the possibilities. The first is the SB-R1 remote kit, comprising two SB-R200 units along with a number of accessories to fit the lights to the front of compatible lenses as well as a stand for each unit for remote set-up. Included in the kit is a hot-shoe fitting screen that is used to eliminate light from the pop-up flash when its pulse is only required to trigger the remote flash.

The second kit, the SB-R1C1, is similar, but has the addition of an SU-800 Commander unit that is required for Nikon’s professional D2 range of cameras and the F6 that do not have pop-up flash units. The Commander unit fits into the hot-shoe of these cameras to operate the system. Both kits are supplied in a neat, compartmentally divided case with a shoulder strap and full instructions are included.

Nikon SU-800So far, you may well be thinking, it all sounds very complicated but although the system is certainly sophisticated, once you have the idea and can remember which buttons to press to achieve your desired results, it is fairly intuitive.
Using cameras with pop-up flash units (all except D50/40) the commander mode is set through the camera menu and group/channel settings are set on the menu screen. With the professional models like the D2Xs and D2H, and also the consumer models D50/40, all the settings are on the rear screen of the Commander unit or, alternatively, on the screen of the SB-800 which can also be used as a Commander for these cameras.

So, what can we do with all these settings? Well, the possibilities are restricted only by your imagination. Digital capture has the huge advantage of instant results and, by ‘chimping’ on the camera’s screen and checking the histogram we can get a real time idea of how the image looks. By then adjusting the channels by up to +/- three stops in 1/3 increments we can change the lighting supplied by the remote units without moving from the camera position. A simple example of this would be where an SB-R200 is set as a hair light in a studio session. If the effect is too strong, instead of moving around the model and fiddling with the light to adjust it, the whole thing can be adjusted on screen. If, in the same scenario, an SB-800 is being used as the main light source, set on a different channel, then the SB-800 will be unaffected. If there is more than one photographer shooting the same model, for example on a club arranged shoot, then the channel setting stops George’s camera setting off your Speedlights, enabling more than one photographer to work at the same time.

The system can also be used for macro photography with up to four SB-R200 Speedlights mounted on the ring adaptor supplied in both of the kits. The lights can all be set to the same setting, giving a very even and flat lighting for recording purposes or the output can be varied to provide either light or heavier relief as the situation or subject demands. Close up diffusers are supplied in the kit so that shadows can be softened more easily and there are holders for the coloured gel filters that also come with the kits.

It is in this discipline, where light from the pop-up flash (or shadows thrown by the lens) can become a problem is where the SU-800 Commander unit really comes into it’s own as it has no flash unit built in, just being used to operate the remote units. With the pop-up cameras, the provision of an ingenious folding screen that allows the infrared light needed to trigger the remotes through, whilst blocking the white light of the flash pulse effectively overcomes the problem.

The SB-R200 is small enough to be placed behind some fairly insignificant objects without being seen and becomes the idea unit for backlighting in tight situations as well as being possible to place behind objects within the frame for lighting backgrounds and other fill jobs. The ability to change the output remotely becomes extremely handy here too.

The fill flash capabilities, when used in outdoor situations, are again a great plus for the system with the remotely adjustable capability, as can be seen in the images here. Not only for portraiture but in other disciplines, for example in wildlife where you might want to set up the lights to cover a certain perch (there is a double ended flexible clamp supplied in the kit) and then go and watch from a hide for three or four hours. Inevitably, the ambient light will change as you wait and the capability of matching the flash units to that light without exiting the hide is a huge bonus. You start off with a misty dawn, followed by some low angle sunlight that is suddenly obscured by a big black cloud. With nothing more than a few presses of the commander menu buttons, you have all three scenarios covered.

An outdoor image taken on a day with variable cloud cover and occasional sunshine. Nikon D200, ISO 100. 1/60sec at f/8


The same scene, this time using the pop-up flash as the controller with a SB-800 off to the left brightens up the subject considerably. Same camera and settings.

The system is not restricted to the lights in the kit and a master either. SB-600’s and SB-R200’s can be added as slaves and the SB-800 can be used as a slave as well as a master for situations where more power is needed off the camera. Up to three groups can be controlled (only two if using a pop-up as the controller), enough for virtually any situation.

Cropped slightly tighter and with the Speedlight moved off the camera with an SB-R200 behind Anna’s head to illuminate the wall and eliminate any shadow has produced a much better image.

Indoors, this shot has produced the inevitable shadow on the wall from an SB-800 mounted on the hot-shoe of the camera.

Overall, between the two kits and the two dedicated Speedlights, along with extra SB-R200 units being available separately, Nikon have got almost every conceivable situation covered with this system. If you only ever work in a studio, then the cost of the various components may well be more than a set of dedicated studio lights but if your photography consists of a more mobile and varied kind of work, then a kit or selection of theses units should become quite close to your heart. The only gripe we had about the SB-R200 units, along with the SU-800 master controller unit, is the batteries. They both use CR123A Lithium cells (one per unit) although, with the SB-R200 having a guide number of 10 at ISO100 they are good for around 290 cycles, a figure that will increase where full power is not always used. The SB-800 and SB-600 units use conventional AA sized batteries and a couple of sets of re-chargeable Ni-Mh cells will last a long time.

A final note, the accuracy of the exposure control achieved with a selection of these Speedlights, used under various conditions, was, without exception, amazingly consistent. With all channels set to zero compensation, usable images were continuously produced. The beauty though, is in the ability to fine-tune those exposures at will.

Above left: Using the supplied cover for the pop-up flash and reducing the output from the SB-800 and the SB-R200 by a third of a stop has levelled out the lighting to produce a pleasing portrait.

Above: In the same place, with the sun still shining, this shot using the pop-up as a master with an SB-800 to the left and an SB-R200 in the pergola as a hair-light has given Anna a ‘blasted in the face’ look.

Left: With the sun out, this ambient light shot taken at 1/30sec and f/5.6 of Anna under a pergola would normally have been met with the delete button on the D200



Canon 580 EX SpeedliteIf you don't use Nikon here's the Canon alternative
Canon have a similar system incorporated in their Speedlite range, known as E-TTL II, although they do not market it in kit form and you will have to collect the components together yourself.

Masters can be either the 580 EX Speedlite, the MR14 EX Macrolite, the MT-24ex Twin Lite Flash units or an ST-E2 Speedlite Transmitter. Slaves can be either 580 EX Speedlites or the 420 EX Speedlite and, like the Nikon CLS system, three groups and four channels are supported. A couple of tweaks in the Canon system are the transmission of white balance/colour space information from the camera and sensor size for camera mounted flashes with zoom heads to optimise the zoom setting to the various sensor sizes that Canon support.

Using the MT-24ex Twin Lite unit as a master, the system is very similar to Nikon’s CLS except that the twinlites are tethered to the controller, eliminating the possibility of using them remotely. With that exception, the two systems are comparable in their capabilities when used with master units. The Nikon system does out-score the Canon with the use of some Pop-up flashes as controllers though, managing to keep the cost down considerably.

The third party alternative. Sigma
Sigma, famous as a third party lens manufacturer, also produce a range of dedicated flashguns that include two that can be used as a master, one of which can also be used as the slave.

The EF 500DG Super is the main gun in their range and can be used both as a master or as a standard slave unit with manual settings for exposure or, when slaved to another EF 500 DG Super or their EM 140 DG Macro Flash, retains the TTL exposure control of the master. This system, although nowhere near as sophisticated as the offerings from Canon and Nikon, does have the advantage of being considerably cheaper than the other two and for those of us on a budget makes a viable alternative.

Being based on a conventional flashgun design, the TTL capabilities are only retained when either of the units capable of being the master are mounted on the camera hot-shoe and, having just the single channel, any setting applied to the master will be transferred to the slave or slaves. So, for example, a setting of –1/3rd stop on the master will result in a setting of –1/3rd stop on the slave.

The EF 500 DG Super guns can also be used as simple slaves from the camera’s built in flash with exposure control set manually. This is achievable in half steps from full power down to 1/64th so it remains versatile although the units would need to be visited in order to make adjustments. Two of the EF 500 DG Super guns would be the cheapest alternative though.

Sigma EF 500DG Super

Sigma EM 140 DG Macro Flas

James Banfield, NikonExpert advice
We asked James Banfield of Nikon’s Professional Support Department what the most common questions about their Creative Lighting System were. These were the top ones.

Q: Will the Creative Lighting System work with any of the current SLR’s/D- SLRs:
A: One of the key benefits of the Nikon Creative Lighting System is its compatibility with the current Nikon D-SLR range and the F6. This means that the same level of light control and functionality can be found not only in our top of the range D2Xs and F6 but right through the range to our entry level camera the D40. The D80 and the D200 even allow you to control two groups of lights from the camera’s in-built speedlight.

Q: What is the Creative Lighting System?
A: The Nikon Creative Lighting System is a highly flexible method for controlling multiple flash units through the camera. In its simplest form it allows a flash unit to retain full TTL flash operation wirelessly by using a infrared light to transmit information that would normally be passed through a TTL Sync Cord. We have taken this simple concept further though by allowing the photographer to control three groups of flash units. Each group can have multiple flash units allowing for complex lighting scenarios to be created and controlled easily by using a simple interface.

Q: How many photographers can use the Creative Lighting System in the same location?
A: The Creative Lighting System has 4 different operating channels allowing up to 4 different photographers to utilise the system at any one time. This is great for those situations where a normal slave unit would be unworkable - like on a catwalk for instance.

Q: What is a Master Flash unit?
A: A master flash unit is the device that controls the three different flash groups. There are currently two units that offer Master control in the Creative Lighting System: These are the SB-800 and the SU-800 (this doesn’t offer on camera flash). The pop-up speedlights found in the D200, D80, D70s and D70 also offer varying degrees of control but for full functionality an SB-800 or SU-800 is required.

Q: How far can the speedlights be from the Master flash unit?
A: This varies depending upon the device being used as a Master. An SB-800 for instance has an effective range of about 10m within a 30 degree angle but the flash guns can be positioned much wider when the SB-800 is nearer.

Q: If you where using Studio lighting then there would normally be a modelling lamp, does the Nikon system offer this facility.
A: If you hold down the depth of field button on the D80, D200 and D2 series then the flash will fire very rapidly, illuminating the scene for short periods to check shadow orientations. This facility can be turned off & on in the cameras custom menu.

Check the latest price of the Nikon Creative Light System here

Test by Ian Andrews www.wildaboutkent.com

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