LARGELY lost in the excitement of the Nikon D700 announcement was the new top-of-the-line flashgun from Nikon, the SB-900 which replaces the SB-800 in Nikon’s professional flash lineup.
It’s unfortunate that the SB-900 didn’t receive a lot of hype because this new flashgun has actually undergone some very significant changes since the SB-800 before it.
Out of the box
Since this is a top-of-the-line product, you get a lot for your money — aside from the flashgun itself, you get a filter holder, a flashgun stand and of course a selection of colour filters to balance the flash output with ambient lighting.
The pouch that comes with it is also pretty well thought-out — there’s a little zippered space at the bottom of the pouch to store all the little accessories that are bundled with the flash.
The SB-900 itself is a beast — it’s significantly larger than either the SB-600 and SB-800 — the head is easily nearly twice the size of the head of the SB-800!
On the back, the flash controls have also had a major and very welcome makeover — instead of a few fiddly buttons requiring multiple simultaneous presses to get to various features, you now get more buttons, a rotating power/remote switch and a thumbwheel for navigation.
The menus have also had a redesign — all this makes the SB-900 much easier to pick up and use without reading the manual.
Besides checking out what the large thermometer icon meant in the menus (it shows whether the bulb overheating protection feature is on or not) and the Custom Functions in the manual, I really could pick up and use the SB-900 immediately.
If I have to pinpoint one particular new tweak that I liked the most, I’d say the power switch would be it — instead of a push button, the power switch is now a tiny rotating switch which now combines the “Remote” and “Master” options.
These options used to require ploughing through menus to turn on in the SB-600 and SB-800 and their appearance on the power switch makes it way easier to quickly turn on wireless flash mode on the SB-900 — a mode I use a lot since I like to shoot macro.
The only drawback I have to mention about the power switch is that it could be a little larger — I found that the interlock that prevents you from accidentally switching to Remote or Master mode a little small and fiddly to press.
Oh yes, another tweak worth mentioning is that the flash can now rotate 180° clockwise and anti-clockwise — in both the SB-600 and SB-800 models, the flash could rotate 180° anti-clockwise but only 90° clockwise.
Sounds trivial? Well, anybody used to doing bounce flash will appreciate just how much freedom that extra 90° gives you with the SB-900.
With all the changes on the SB-900, the flashgun is very much improved in terms of general ease-of-use — after five minutes using the flash, I could navigate and change the flash options like a pro, something which I could not do with either the SB-600 nor the SB-800.
Interface and button changes aside, the SB-900 has a host of other new features — for one thing, the SB-900 now recognises whether you’re using a DX or FX Nikon DSLR (i.e. APS-sized or full-frame sensors) and the motorised zoom feature of the flashgun will zoom accordingly.
On the SB-800 apparently, the flashgun will only zoom to the actual focal length of the lens which means the flashgun is actually covering more area (and wasting more power) than needed.
Talking about flash coverage, the SB-900 also introduces totally new flash area distribution modes and you can now choose between standard, centre-weighted (more emphasis on the centre with a gentle light falloff towards the edges of the frame) and even area distribution (for even, across the frame lighting).
This feature means that you can really customise the flashgun’s light just the way you want it although it’s probably going to be a while before users in general really pick up on this.
Another nice touch — the SB-900 can automatically recognise what colour compensation filter you have clipped on to the flash and automatically set the DSLR’s white balance to the correct setting.
In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, a colour filter is sometimes used on a flashgun so that the colour temperature of the flash matches that of ambient lighting — for example, an orange incandescent filter is used on the flash when you shoot indoors with a lot of incandescent lighting to prevent a situation where the subject lit by the flash is lit by white light while the background has a yellowish tone.
With the filter on and the camera white balance set to incandescent, you get perfectly neutral results, or alternatively with the white balance set on daylight, you’ll get a warmer-hued shot.
Again, this sounds trivial but in practical terms this is a very real problem for people who do use colour compensation filters.
There are a couple of gotchas however — if you’re using a film SLR or a Nikon D100 DSLR or older, you’re out of luck — the SB-900 only supports Nikon’s modern i-TTL (intelligent through-the-lens) flash metering and not the D-TTL modes nor most of the TTL flash metering modes found in film cameras. So if you’re still using one of these cameras you’d better stick to your old flashgun.
Recycling time has also been greatly improved — with the recommended NiMH AA-size batteries, Nikon claims recycling time as fast as about two seconds and in use I found that the SB-900 recycles noticeably faster than either the SB-800 or the SB-600. Yes, and the SB-900 also seems to have gained the MyMenu feature found modern Nikon DSLRs, which allows you to hide less-used menu items from view.
There are also twenty custom functions to choose from (22 if you count the “Info” and “Reset”) so you can customise the behaviour of the flash to your liking.
Even more so than any single product introduced by Nikon lately, the SB-900 is possibly the most revamped — the flash has so many tweaks and feature changes that it makes it a very big step up from the SB-800.
While all the changes make for a really versatile flashgun, the SB-900’s size has also increased quite significantly from the SB-800 so size and weight has become and issue.
That said, the SB-900 is a real joy to use and after this review, I’ll have to save up for one.
Pros: More power; faster recycling time; flashgun head has more positionable angles; better control layout and design.
Cons: Power switch a little small and fiddly to use; bigger and heavier than its predecessors.
Guide number: 34 (ISO100, metres)
Flash modes: TTL, Auto Aperture flash, Non-TTL auto flash, Distance-priority manual flash, Manual flash, Repeating flash.
Minimum recycling times: Alkaline-manganese: 4.0 sec, Ni-MH (2,600 mAh): 2.3 sec
Other features: AF assist illuminator, Advanced Wireless Lighting, modeling illuminator, repeating flash
Battery: 4x AA-size
Dimensions: 7.8 x14.6 x 11.9mm
Review unit courtesy of Nikon (Malaysia) Sdn Bhd, (03) 7809-3688
Zoomer : Since my SB-800 have started giving me headaches for the past couple of months, maybe I should consider changing mine to this more bigger, better & easier gun… And the price is quite reasonable too, considering the multi-benefits that you’ll get from it. Don’t you think so?