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Just When We Figured out the 800….

Jul 1

In Lighting, Tips & Tricks at 10:30am

Along comes the 900. I’ve had two for a few weeks now, and the unit is, well, smooth. What can I say? Ed Fasano, a General Manager at Nikon, asked me what I thought after handling it, and I told him, “Well, if the SB800 is a real nice Chevy, this baby’s a Cadillac.”

It’s bigger, stronger, sturdier. It has crucial additional features that will go a long ways to making CLS a more complete system. It has a guide number that is the equivalent to the power of a thousand suns! It will retail for $33.95 after mail in rebate! I’m lying!

Smooth light. The unit has three light distribution patterns, standard, center weighted and even. So, for the first time we can really address the quality of the light we are getting at the source, in addition to the zoom control. Have I done the old flash against the wall test to check for the distribution pattern? No. That would be waaayyyyyy too thorough for me. I kind of took it and thought I would see how it interacts with the human face in the way I often approach portraiture.

I prevailed upon my daughter Claire to take a break from the non-stop pool lounging she is currently engaged in since school let out and come out for some pictures with her best friend, Amanda. I suggested they do something to illustrate the closeness they feel as friends. Overhead is two SB900 units, bounced into umbrellas (Lastolite All in Ones) and then running through a Lastolite 3×6 Skylite Panel. The panel is diffusing light and blocking sun, as we shot this in my driveway, with some black paper hanging from the overhead door.

But I like the light. It wraps, and it is, again, smooth. It’s tough to articulate about light in a reasonable way. I use terms like smooth, rounded, harsh, angry, voluptuous, poppy, dreamy, soft, rich, evil…sounds at the end like I’ve described your average afternoon on All My Children.

But then I decided to not give the unit a break with lots of softness and went to a simple, reflected umbrella, which is not generally my light of choice. Just keep it basic and see what it can do. Amanda here is holding up the wall.

Same deal here. Umbrella camera left, up high, middling distance from Claire.

Simple is the way I might describe this. Easy, even. Running aperture priority at minus 2EV to keep the wall a bit dense and below middle gray. Claire is lit with the 900 in group A, the only light in the mix. Put a little extra power in the strobe to compensate for the muted nature of the frame.


You know the selector button in the back of the SB800. They key to the kingdom? The button that allows all? The one that was reluctant to respond when punching it in a frenzy? The one when crunch time is happening on the job and your lights are completely set but you gotta make a change and you are pushing and pushing on the button so hard you feel like you’re that kid in Gary Larsen’s cartoon about Midvale School for the Gifted? Cause nothing’s happening? Or, you happen to have a thumb the size of a ham hock, and you can mash that baby all day long and it’s giving you flat line, no response? That one?

Ugh! Mongo make flash work now.

Well, say goodbye to that puppy. See the wheel above, in the middle. Key in virtually any function with a tap on the appropriate button and spin that wheel. Plus/minus EV, groups, channels, the whole deal. Once you get yourself set, see the lock symbol? Yep, you can lock it so you don’t thunder thumb it to group 9 or something I am often prone to do. See the temp scale? Cool! Burst away! The unit will tell you when it’s heating up. It gets to the top of that thermometer, a klaxon horn sounds and a pre-recorded voice screams “Emergency Blow!” Kidding of course.

See the on/off/remote/master switch? Thank you, strobe wizards! Do you realize if you multiply how many times you use this unit over the course of your life by the number of seconds it would have taken you to punch through the SB800 4 box grid and get to the options menu and drop the 800 into either master, remote or SU-4 (let’s say, 15 seconds) that you will be given back probably enough time to watch all of the Rambo movies and seriously ponder the nuances of characterization and subtleties of the human condition that define those movies? And how much richer your life will be because of that? All due to the simple on/off/remote/master switch. No more punching through the menu. Go click, you’re there.

The unit zooms to 200. Which means it can throw light from a good distance.

The light here is TTL, zoomed to 200mm, blasting at Claire from maybe 40′ or so. Not artful, especially for Claire, but good indication of things to come, and things that might now be possible. I’m speculating I can maybe make a 900 a master, and zoom it and get more reach for the signal to my remotes. Just a hunch, and as I get cranking better with these guys, I’ll report back. Check out the shoes. I always joke with Claire that her first word was, “Chanel.” She is a fashion plate, along with her friends

Tried another simple umbrella approach on this, and thank goodness for TTL, cause I’m shooting one handed and holding the stand on a rocky incline with my shoulder and other hand. Managed to get it pretty close, and it is wavering around up there, but the exposure stuck with me, and I came up with teenage girls and their sneakers. I always remember a Time cover story on Diane Keaton, shot by Douglas Kirkland I believe, many years ago, where Diane is on the rocks of Central Park with goofy shoes and a wide lens. Nice frame, as I recall. I’m always harking back to work, footnotes in the random stock files of my brain.

And….TA DA! The unit swivels 180 each way for a total of 360! Yep! It is the Linda Blair of strobe units. Swing that light head. It comes to a click stop of course, and then you go back the other direction. But it is a full 360 which means we just got away from the angling the unit to maximize sensor reception but at the same time potentially compromising the approach of the light to the subject. This feature alone is worth the price of admission, to me. I was showed this out at Nikon and I almost kissed Lindsay Silverman on the lips.

And…drum roll…final note of the morning. It’s got a computerized gel system. Huh? Yeah, that’s kind of what I said. But here’s the deal. You put the camera in Auto WB (gotta be there) and then slip one of the gels that comes with the units into a holder. The gel has computer chips embedded in it, and the holder makes contact with the unit and translates a color temp back to the camera. In other words, put a full CTO on the strobe, and the camera internally adjusts to an incandescent white balance.

The below is a little light flash on camera through a Lumiquest Big Bounce. Bit of CTO on the strobe, daylight balance for the scene. Color pattern about what you would expect.

But, put the full cto on that comes with the flash, and it signals the white balance shift. And you get this.

Bears exploration, to be sure. Pretty nifty technology. Feel very blessed to have experimented with this stuff. Mike Corrado at Nikon told me I was the first shooter to have my hands on it. Dunno on that, but if true, it means I am the first shooter to have broken one of them. Mike, sorry! One of them pitched off a stand and came up scott free, not a mark on it, except the dome diffuser cracked a bit. My bad. Not looking.

Tomorrow, pictures you get when you mix a ladder truck of FDNY, a D700, Times Square, Mike Corrado, and 3 onboard SB800 units. More tk.

And..just in. Jeff Snyder, the magician of Adorama–his email is jsnyder@adorama.com and he is taking orders per a note I got from him this am. I don’t know if you know Jeff, but he is a wiz at navigating the system in the early release of a product. Food for thought….also Nikon has a link on their press room site, obviously…

72 Responses to “Just When We Figured out the 800….”

David Zadig says:

on July 14, 2009 at 1:24 pm


Yes we all know these SB 900′s rock. But they tend to fall too as in out of / off of hotshoe adapters. My Justin clamps are useless with these flashes. What have you found that works. Can the Justin clamps be modified to fit the 900′s?

Thanks and cheers

Tom Judd says:

on November 5, 2009 at 1:52 pm

Just received, Oct 29th from B&H, a couple Justin clamps and they fit the 900′s. The part number is 175F-1.

Stewart Hopkins says:

on November 15, 2009 at 9:11 pm


I have three SB-800′s and needed another light to complete my kit. I’ve been using the 800′s to shoot interiors with my d-2x for awhile with great success. I bought the 900 in October along with your Hot Shoe Diaries book and thought I was set. My assignment was a high end retirement community in Seattle. I set up the 900 as the master through a soft box and the three 800′s as remotes, one into a soft box and the other two into umbrellas. The shoot progressed nicely. I was tethering the camera to my Macbook Pro and things were going swimmingly. On the third day of the shoot I needed to shoot some headshots of several executives in rapid succession. I shot tests of my assistants in position and adjusted the master to be the key light and two of the umbrella’d 800′s to be fill and hair/background lights. The ratio of the master to fill was about 2/1. When I started shooting the execs my assistants reported to me that the fill light and hair light (800′s) were
not exposing consistently and were overexposing based on my initial setting. I reworked the exposure and proceeded with the same result. As I finished the 10 exec about 60% of the images were off in exposure by as much as two stops over on the fill lights and not consistent frame to frame.

I went to my camera store in Seattle (Glazers) and discussed the problem. We set up a test and discovered that using the 900 as the master light with not only my camera D2x but also a brand new D700, the same problem existed. We switched out the 900 with a cheaper Nissin light that was compatible with the Nikon system and used the 900 as a remote light in the scenario. The set up worked correctly repeatedly. I’m stumped. i’ve Googled the problem and can’t get a definitive answer.

Have you had this problem or know of it and a possible solution? Is my only fix to this problem is to use the 900 as a remote light and the 800 as the master? Help. Thanks in advance.


Tom Judd says:

on November 17, 2009 at 8:05 am

Did you try another 900 as master?
Sounds like you may have a bad SB900.
I have not experienced the problem. But, if you have tried another 900 with the same results, I will set up my 900 and see what I get.

Tom Judd says:

on January 8, 2010 at 7:13 am

Previously, I said that the Justin clamps fit the 900’s. The part number is 175F-1.
I am retracting that statement. Sorry for taking so long.
I had to send my 900 back to Nikon because the shoe is loose.
I guess I will modify one of my Justin clamps to fit.

Eva Speakes says:

on March 11, 2010 at 11:12 am

Love your information Keep em coming please

Cheap Tools Deals says:

on March 13, 2010 at 2:05 am

i was searching on yahoo and found your site, you have great information and very nice site.

Marco Avellino says:

on August 19, 2010 at 12:27 am

I have an sb900 with a d300s, and i think i have a similar problem. Sometimes, especially when using the flash in succession it over / under expose. The nikon dealer in my area says it works! An have no alternative. Any help ? Thanks

The Photo Ninja says:

on January 11, 2011 at 9:45 am

I’ve thought about picking up a 900 to replace my 800, but I have read a lot of horror stories about the 900.

Has anything changed in the design?

- N

seattle photographer says:

on March 30, 2011 at 1:06 pm

After reading about the 900s here and other places decided I am staying away from the “upgrade” to the 900.

Bryan Millman says:

on November 12, 2011 at 2:36 pm

Awesome stuff! You made a really nice compilation. Just wanted to let you know you have a new subscriber- me!

kamla says:

on December 1, 2013 at 4:25 pm

Just want to say that Claire is just a beautiful girl now….In my memorie you are the litle girl and I was your au pair oh my god you grow up my litle Claire well you are in my mind until the rest of life take care…bye

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