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Comparing Nikon Flash Units

February 2009

We have available 5 current models, the SB900, SB800, SB600, SB400 and SB200, and in addition a commander unit that has no flash, the SU800.

Of these the choice for most is out of the SB900, SB800 and SB600. The SB900 is the top of the range, has more operating modes, is more powerful, has more features and comes with more accessories. The SB800 has most of the same facilities but its zoom range is not as great and it's older. Both also have a built in commander able to control a number of other flash units as a part on the Nikon Creative Lighting System and act as either a slave flash or the controlling one. The SB600 is also able to take its role as a slave in the creative lighting system or be used on the camera, but does not have a commander unit. The SB600 is a little over half the price of the SB900.

The SB400 is the odd one in the family in that it cannot be used as a part of the creative lighting system. It is lower powered, has less features and used on the cameras only. Mostly it is used with the lower end cameras, and it fits this role, being smaller and lighter.

The SB200 does not fit on to any of the cameras but is controlled as a slave unit by any of the commanders.

See Larger Image

Nikon SB-400

See Larger Image

Nikon SB-200

Some of the cameras have built in commanders, this includes the D80, D90, D200, D300 and D700. The D70/D70s has a far more limited commander.  As it is necessary to have flash in order to signal to the slave or remote units, cameras like the D2H/D2X and D3/D3X donít have a built in flash so donít have commanders.  Cameras that have a built in commander can use this or use an additional one added. Additional commanders come in two types the SB900 or SB800 which is both a flash and commander and the SU800 which is a commander only signalling to the slave units using a powerful infrared unit. The SU800 has the ability to reach slave units that are out of direct sight and is more powerful for studio work and the like, it also has two commander modes, a similar one to the others and a macro mode.

The commander built into the cameras is able to control its own flash or one added and two additional groups of flashes, the SU800 can control three groups of flashes and the SB900 or SB800 controls its own flash plus three groups of flashes.

Nikon SB-800

So which one is for you

If you have a D40 or D50 and photography is not a major interest, and you just want a small flash for point and shoot use, then consider the SB400, providing that you donít expect later to expand your interest as this flash unit has limited capability, power and is not a part of the creative lighting system.

If you are not, for the present time, going to run a number of flash units, donít want the extra facilities provided by the SB900 and SB800, then you may like to consider first the SB600.

If you are likely to want to use creative lighting but for the current time not want more than two additional groups and have a D80, D90, D200, D700 or D300 then again you may like to first look at the SB600, as you have a built in commander in your camera. With the D70s you have very limited single group capability from a built in commander that basically just does without linking wires.

Nikon SB-600

If you want to use creative lighting eventually, on any camera, you could in the first case still look at the SB600.

If you want to control more than one flash now, and you donít have a  D80, D90, D200, D700 or D300 then look now at getting one of the SB900 or SB800's, you can supplement it with others or the SB600 or SB200 units. If your main interest is macro or small items, for example product photography, then you may like instead to look at getting a SU800 controller and some SB200 units. These are also sold as two kits explained below.

In all cases where you want more than two groups of flash away from the camera you will need either to have a SB900, SB800 or SU800.

 

Flash unit

 

On camera

 

Slave/remote

Has
flash lamp
Has Commander Works with a camera commander
SB900 YES YES YES YES YES
SB800 YES YES YES YES YES
SB600 YES YES YES No YES
SB400 YES No YES No No
SB200 No YES YES No No
SU800 YES No No YES No

The final column shows the units that can be used on top of the camera and allow commanders. where built in to cameras. to be used. These cameras can also use their inbuilt flash, so donít need to have a unit on top in all cases where a commander function is in use.

The power of the flash units

Flash units are quoted with guide numbers, this is the historical way to compare the power of flash units. To work out how far a flash will reach you divide the guide number by the aperture of the lens being used. This assumes that the lens has a wide-ish coverage, and does not account for zooming heads and the like, which are a fairly recent development.

Flash units have the guide numbers quoted for one or more ISO levels. Usually two figures are shown, one for feet and one for metres.

From this we can calculate the following:-

Flash unit ISO 100 IS0 200 ISO200 at f5.6 Range in feet ISO200 at f16 Range in feet Stops
different
SB900 111.5/34 157.5/48 . . .
SB800 125/38 185/53 33ft 11.6ft Compared to
SB600 98/30 138/42 24.6ft 8.6ft -1
SB400 69/21 98/30 17.5ft 6ft -2
SB200 32/10 49/14 8.8ft 3.1ft -4

You can create a guide number for higher ISOís by multiplying the guide number by 1.4 for every doubling of ISO. 1.4 is the square root of 2, and is used as light spreads out in two directions so at twice the distance covers an area 4 times larger. The way this works you can also multiply the range by 1.4 for every doubling in ISO.

Therefore the SB600 has a range at ISO 400 of 12ft and at ISO 800 of 16.9ft.

The SB900 has slightly less power but a greater zoom, and a choice of three light distribution patterns. Although lower power I think its likely, in most cases, to give about the same range as the SB800, possibly further when a long lens and full zoom is in use.

The right hand column stops different

In effect you find that you get about one more stop out of the SB900, SB800 than the SB600, so can run at half the ISO for the same aperture setting. The SB400 is again one stop under the SB600, while the SB200 is 2 stops under the SB400. So we can take the same basic setup with these different units but have a limited range and in order to cope with this may have to either increase the ISO or open up the aperture. Of course in all cases they can give out less light so unless you are extremely close you donít have too much light.

In practical use the range of the SB600 and SB800 are longer than shown above as they have power zooms that concentrate the light into a smaller area when you use a longer lens.  The SB800 has a power zoom between 24mm and 105mm and the SB600 between 24mm and 85mm, the other two donít have this capability. The SB800 can also widen its area of coverage to cover the area of wider angled lenses, covering either 17mm or wider again to 14mm, while the SB600 does it in a single step to 14mm.

The SB900 is a later version and replaced the SB800, it has a larger zoom range of 17mm-200mm compared to 24mm-105mm on the SB800, you then pull out a wide angle diffuser to get to 17mm and put on the diffuser dome to get to 14mm on the SB800. As the SB900 knows if it's FX or DX format in use, it can adjust the zoom to use with a wide angle diffuser so as to get a very wide angle, with FX as wide as 12mm and DX to 8mm. You still have a diffuser dome beyond this, although it again zooms to get the best of this. The wider angle zoom will make it quicker to use when wider angle lenses are used. 

The SB900 also has a filter holder, and can be upgraded via software by connecting to a D3, D3X, and possibly a D700.

With an FX lens, wider coverage is required for each focal length, and it has been suggested that the SB900 is better at providing this.

Bouncing the Flash Light

In many cases we like to bounce the light from a ceiling to get a softer effect, as well as movement up we need a movement left and right to allow us to use the camera in portrait mode and still be able to bounce the light from the ceiling, and in some locations to bounce off walls or reflectors. We may also like to angle the light in other directions and down for closer items. The movement on the flash units is:-

Flash unit Up Down Left Right
SB900 90 7 180 180
SB800 90 degrees 7 degrees 180 degrees 90 degrees
SB600 90 degrees none 180 degrees 90 degrees
SB400 90 degrees none none none
SB200 45 degrees 60 degrees Does not connect to cameras

The SB200 is not directly connected to the camera, it is only fired as a slave and either on a ring on the front of the lens for macro photography or on its own stand.

You can also use all except the SB200 connected to a camera via a remote cord. These work in exactly the same way as if the flash was sitting on top of the camera.

Batteries used

The SB900, SB800 and SB600 use four of the popular AA batteries you will be using widely elsewhere, and the SB800 has an accessory included that allows it to be configured to use five batteries and then recycle ready for use faster. The SB400 uses two AA batteries.  The SU800 and SB200 uses one less common CR123a 3v battery, these are available fairly widely but more expensive. You will find it worth seeking out a place to buy these from in volume cheaper, if you expect to use quite a few. They last quite a time so its not really a major problem.

What comes with it:-

Flash unit case stand diffuser Other items
SB900 Y Y Y Filters, Filter holder
SB800 Y Y Y Filters, 5th battery holder
SB600 Y Y - -
SB400 Y - - -
SB200 Y Y - Filter holder and filters

The stands allow the units to be free standing, for example on a table top, but can also be used to connect them to a tripod or lighting stand. They can also be used with brollies and other lighting accessories that you get from elsewhere.

Creative lighting can be used outside as well as indoors. Its just that the signals getting from the commander is a little more critical.

Both the SB800 and SB900 has a main plus 3 flash groups when acting as a commander. The SU800 has the 3 flash groups but no main (own flash light).

Other flash modes

All the units will operate in either of the TTL modes generally used today with these cameras. All except the SB400 can have manual levels set. The SB900 and SB800 also has at least 4 other flash modes, that the others do not have including Auto Aperture, Non TTL, Auto, and Range Priority Manual as well as a repeating flash mode, allowing a number of flashes to take place with a single photo.

Controls

The SB900 has more control buttons, therefore may be quicker to set, however the SB800 is easy to set once you get familiar with it. The SB600 has fewer controls and is more difficult to set but presents no real problems as you don't have as much to set up on it. The back panel on a SB600 is fairly basic, the SB800 has more and again the SB900 has yet more, including a large number of symbols showing head positions that you are unlikely to remember.

Coloured Filters

With the SB900, SB800 and SB200 you get some coloured filters. These can be used to create coloured backgrounds, but two of the filters also allow you to change the white balance to work with ordinary room bulbs or fluorescent tubes. For example, taking a photograph down a long room lit by normal light bulbs and using flash would result in the front areas appearing normally lit and the background a yellow'y orange colour. Switching the colour balance to light bulbs and adding the orange filter to the flash allows for normal colour to be shown right down the room. Additional optional filter packs are available. The SB900 and SB200 have filter holders making the use of filters easier.

Recycling time

To get faster recycling and a lower wait time between shots the SB800 has an optional 5th battery, while the SB900 has more ability to reuse power and is a lower powered unit.

The Nikon Macro/Micro Kits

The SB200 we have discussed above was developed as a part of the macro/micro kits, although they can be used separately. If you buy a kit you get two SB200's, and a box of accessories including a ring that these will clip on to, a variety of adaptor rings allowing this holder ring to fit to a wide range of lenses, stands for the SB200's, some clever close up diffusers, filter holders and a range of coloured filters for the SB200, a bendy wire with clamps on both ends, a white reflector/diffuser panel and a device that fits onto a camera with a built in commander and covers the inbuilt flash in a way that allows it to send infrared light signals instead of a flash. These pieces fit together in a variety of ways, for example the clamp cable can support a SB200 or the reflector and a stand can be put into the centre of the ring so that a number of SB200ís can be fixed to a lighting stand. There are two versions of the kit, R1 and R1C1 . The R1C1 kit also contains the SU800 commander. You can expand this kit by adding additional SB200 flashes and there is room for one more within the case. The ring will hold up to 8, although this would be far too heavy for most lenses. These kits can be used in a wide variety of ways, and also used with others, except the SB400, as a part of the creative lighting system. We find for example that two SB200ís make extremely good background lights and a third is often used to provide hair lighting on a boom arm from a lighting stand.

See Larger Image SB- R1C1 (Macro Kit)

SU800 Commander

While in theory you donít need a SU800 if you have a camera with a built in commander or a SB900/SB800 flash, we have found the SU800 to be far more powerful, often reaching flash units when other means donít get the messages through. An example of this is where we put a flash unit behind a model pointing up at the back of their head to produce a halo light. With our mains based studio lighting system when on flash they all go, which is not the case with creative lighting, where the flashes either have to be able to see the signals to them directly or by a reflected means. The SU800 has two modes one for macro specifically and the other for general use.

See Larger Image

SU800 Commander

So what do we have

We have three SB800ís, two SB600ís and a R1C1 kit plus two more SB200ís giving us four SB200ís, so in total we have nine flash units and a SU800. In practical terms we have enough to often run two studio lighting set ups at the same time. Four of our cameras have built in commanders. In addition we have loads of reflectors, brollies, diffusers, a hi-light background, a variety of stands and far more. We only need this much so we are able to teach people to use whatever combination of units they have or are intending to get to create their own creative lighting setup and when asked to act as consultant and assist other photographers in the field. We have a SB900 on our shopping list, but we held back for the prices to drop a little.

What do you need

Nothing like as much as we have. In a separate article we are also detailing how to use reflectors and you will discover in many lighting setups that a reflector can replace a flash unit. If you are unsure what you need you may find it well worth attending the flash and creative lighting course first so as to get to use some of this, see what you need and the many options available. You will save far more than the cost of the course.

SB900 FX and DX flash unit

 


Other articles to look out for:-

 


By: Keith Park Section: Lighting and Reflectors Key:
Page Ref: nikon_flash_units Topic: Flash, Studio and Reflectors Last Updated: 04/2009
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