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A New Flash….

Nov 30

In News at 5:07am

As the bhagwan said, “The only thing certain is change,” and that’s definitely the case with digital camera stuff. Nikon announced a new flash today, the SB-910. It’s actually not really a brand new flash, but rather a collection of tweaks to the existing 900 model.

Absolutely the most important adjust is in the area of heat management, which has definitely been an issue with the 900, of which I have fried at least two in the course of time. From what I know of the electronics of the 900, they’re designed for fast recycle, and thus build up a heat component. The engineers, being the sane and safe souls that they are, installed a thermal cutoff in the 900, which is designed to shut the unit down prior to meltdown. I have always argued with the folks at Nikon that the cutoff feature should be coupled to a klaxon horn on an interval timer, blaring every five seconds or so, with an ominous voice intoning in between warning honks that imminent evacuation is highly advisable. Think Sigourney Weaver rescuing Newt at the end of Aliens.

They didn’t go for it.

But, in this unit, they did take the whole heat thing seriously, and it appears to be much, much better in that regard. Borrowing from the SB-700, there is improved thermal cutoff technology. Much more consistent, continued performance when pushing the unit hard.

This is opinion only, not hard scientific fact. I got a last minute call from Melville, asking me if I could shoot (quickly) a package of pictures to accompany the release. It took me about .5 seconds to say yes. I did what I usually do–take ‘em into the field and try and knock the bejeesus out of them. I had ran them pretty hard for three days, trying to use them in different ways. For instance, the above pic is shot with three units together on a Tri-flash, spreading out the light, running at 1/4 power each. My light shaping tool? Uh, see below….

Thank goodness for battered, white trucks parked in fortuitous places. I didn’t have a big soft box, so this worked out as a light source as Jonathan went all sorts of Superman off the brick wall.  Which he is amazing at doing. The below was shot with one flash, roughly on axis with the sun, powered up full. It produces a double shadow of Jonathan, generally to be avoided, but here, I liked it. It actually extends the shadow of his legs in a fun way.

The good news on the timing was that I was able to drive those long suffering folks at Peachpit just a little more crazy than usual, and we held my book for a few days to insert a small chapter on this updated light maker.

Sketching Light is on the press right now, and will ship in about 10 days. I have many apologies to offer for delays in writing this puppy. It took a while. The good news there is that it delayed just long enough to be the first book to have a look at this new stuff. More on Sketching Light in  day or so, but, thankfully, it’s real, and done, and about to ship. It’s also, BTW, 420 pages. Yikes. As the sub-title suggests, it’s all about the possibilities of light. Lots of pictures, most of them driven by one source. Sketches, metadata, production pix. The whole skinny on each picture. Now that it’s done, I can honestly say it was fun to write.

Back to the flash. It’s got a couple new features, like click-on, hard plastic color conversion gels for tungsten and fluorescent, a dedicated menu button, and a locking feature on the battery compartment. And, the buttons are backlit, handy for night shoots, for sure.

I took them into a bar. (Where else at 10am?) And knocked out a multi-flash portrait of Jake, which was fun to do. Six flashes, all told, all TTL. Shot with fast glass, 35mm f1.4, at f1.4. Production snap below.

More on these TK, and in the book.

Summing up: Physically, a little bit sleeker and smoother. There’s a design continuance with the SB-700, so if you use that flash, this one will be a no brainer in terms of buttons and dials. Some other small stuff, mentioned above, that’s helpful. But the biggie is the heat management. They seem to wrestled with that particular SB-900 demon pretty successfully. In the three days in the field I had with them, they only complained a couple times, but kept performing, and kept exposures consistent. I used them in the studio and in the street.

Here, with Jasmine in the studio, I really pushed the overhead main. It is firing into a Flashpoint beauty dish, with a honeycomb grid over it, and running at full power. The background streams of light are from 1k Arri’s, constant, daylight balanced sources. The fill is another 910, skipping off the floor.

The main light kept up pretty well, and I was shooting fast, trying myself to keep up with the ever fluid Jasmine. I purposely shot it before it recycled, just to see, frankly, if I could fry it. There was some exposure variance, but it hung in there, and kept working. During a shoot like this with the 900, the 900 most likely would have given up, and I would have had to replace it with a fresh flash, or certainly fresh, cool batteries. So, there’s definitely improvement on a speed light that’s already pretty smart.

More tk, on the flash, and the book…..

89 Responses to “A New Flash….”

Joe McNally says:

on December 1, 2011 at 4:59 pm

you are preaching to the converted, Jason…good ideas.

Carlos Erban says:

on December 1, 2011 at 5:43 pm

thanks, Joe. One more question, I got PW Flex tt5 because I was frustrated with the infrared. Did they improve this in SB910? BTW, have you tried the Flex tt5s?

Joy says:

on December 2, 2011 at 12:07 am

Dear Joe McNally,

You are a lighting god and I wish to work with you for free…..because I am no good at lighting. I love all your tips and specifically you’re minimalist, common sense approach to lighting. Teach me Obi-Wan!!!!!!!! Photoshop World visits are just not enough!

Dana says:

on December 2, 2011 at 12:41 am

Hey Joe – how did you get the Frios on the Justin clamps? I wanted to do that with mine, but I’m guessing a trip to the hardware store is necessary.


Theis Poulsen says:

on December 2, 2011 at 4:31 am

Looking forward to the book placed the ordre in december last year so I have done my waiting :)

James Bruce says:

on December 2, 2011 at 12:54 pm

Thanks for the info Joe. Heat has been a huge deal for me with the 900s. Have to find a way to unload my stash to upgrade though.

RobyFabro says:

on December 2, 2011 at 6:58 pm

Thanks for the info Joe, you’re the best!!
I’ll keep in mind for my next purchase.

Brisbane Wedding Photography says:

on December 2, 2011 at 9:46 pm

you really have very good lighting when it comes to pictures. thank you very much for sharing.

Harold Watters says:

on December 3, 2011 at 6:20 pm

Great Stuff Joe. Thank you for another good look at what these Nikon Speedlights can do for us. I do have the SB 900 & it was good to see you using and talking about the new SB 910 Speedlight. I might get one mext time around.

Mark Pino says:

on December 3, 2011 at 7:51 pm

Joe, I wish nikon would go back to the knurl knob to secure the flash to the hot shoe. I’ve got wobble between my d200 and by sb-600 and there’s no way to snug it down. Because of the poor contact, I find that it will fire randomly. Maybe there’s a problem with corrision on the hot shoe but I think it is just the wobble with the connect. No problems when I put my sb24 on there. Snug as a rug. O well, the new ones go on and off much faster. Progress!

Martha Gorfein says:

on December 4, 2011 at 5:26 pm

Any possibility that Nikon will correct/repair the problems with the current SB900 and overheating management?
As an event photographer, it’s difficult to work with a piece of equipment that will suddenly cease working (cut off because of overheating limitations) in the middle of a shoot. Having had this happen several times, I need to have my SB800 handy, just in case.
Or ….have you found a solution to this problem?

Sean says:

on December 4, 2011 at 5:52 pm

It’s strange to me that the engineers didn’t deal directly with the heat buildup by innovating better radiators. The bodies are still made of insulating plastic… at least swap out the upper head for magnesium alloy (200x better thermal conductivity). What good are $550 flashes if you either have to stand around and wait for the heat to dissipate or gang up 3 of them to fire at 1/8 power??

Paul Reklaitis says:

on December 4, 2011 at 6:08 pm

I just saw this blog for first time. Great article. What is the blue thing holding the flash on the ball-head?

Big Fish Phil says:

on December 5, 2011 at 12:14 pm

Way to go Joe. You make us all better photographers. Can’t wait to get my copy.


Che Ibarra says:

on December 5, 2011 at 6:13 pm

I’m new to photography (4 months) and I was inspired Joe’s HotShoe Diaries so I went out and dropped $1000 on two SB900 ( shot his creepy guy scene http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=2284344996664&set=a.2284344716657.2106621.1490054572&type=3&theater ). Anyway, I’ve had my SB900 overheat and stop working when shooting fast at events. My question to you guys is “Am I the only one feeling robbed by Nikon!!???” This is a frustrating issue for me!

photography enthusiast says:

on December 6, 2011 at 2:28 pm

Wow.. amazing photos and use of light. Love the one reflecting off the large white truck!

john says:

on December 7, 2011 at 1:56 pm

Great following and attending your classes. I’m chirping in with Martha about Nikon fixing the 900s. I know they’re in it for the money, but I have 3 sb900 (> 1500$$$) I seldom use due to overheating. Quantum has its limitations but they are very dependable.
john p

Red Chilli Photography says:

on December 8, 2011 at 9:59 am

yes I liked the idea of using the white truck as a massive defusing reflector. :)

portrait photographer asheville says:

on December 15, 2011 at 11:53 am

Hey Joe! Great use and technique of light on location. You are getting all you need out of those SB’s. Great job!

Douglala says:

on December 17, 2011 at 12:48 am

Great photos. Love the examples pictures that show the lighting setup. Just what I need to really grasp the lightening. Thanks!

Rex Gigout says:

on December 25, 2011 at 12:40 am


Thanks so very much for writing your books! I just purchased a second copy of _Sketching Light_ to give to my wife for Christmas. (Some things we can share; other things are best when we have his and hers.) An SB-910 is on my short list of future gifts for her. We both wear badges at work, on night shift; her “clients” are deceased, whereas mine are usually alive. Either way, we often need to work fast, with handy-sized, portable lighting, and your instruction is valuable.

Be safe and well!


David Tavens says:

on April 18, 2012 at 9:26 am

Who is Nikon kidding??? “when taking pictures in rapid sequence the flash will slow the recycling time” thus defeating the ability to take pictures in rapid sequence.
A few properly positioned holes drilled in my 900 helped
relieve heat build up. When will any Nikon engineer ever use their product in real world situations??????????

Steve Weinberg says:

on April 28, 2012 at 8:39 am

I have an SB 800. The mount is bent a lttle, & the unit shudown after a rapid sequence of shots. I looked very briefly what was offerred & I chose the 910. Don’t know too much yet,but from my early tests, it seems QUITE ADEQUATE. More testing this weekend to go.

Dennis Petoff says:

on August 17, 2012 at 12:34 pm

I cant tell you how grateful it was to read this column..I am getting a 910 in replacement by Nikon repair after almost 2 years of complaining about this overheating,,,,What I find frustrating is all they did was have me buy a sd 9 battery pack or question what batteries I shoot with..
Have me send in my Nikon D90 batteries to check…the list goes on…all the time they were completely aware of this..up to recent…The sb900 went in and the said there was a tube replaced..
My next job this month it failed again..and they finally are upgrading to a new or certified 910
Why they made us wait so long is unprofessional…know some of us depend on a company like Nikon…I used to tell them how embarrassing it was to fail in the beg of and walkdowns or entrance..
I learned a good lesson….and will follow your future expertise columns

Devon Wedding Photographer says:

on October 14, 2012 at 11:50 am

Great post……. I have to admit I love your work, truly inspiring. Have two of your books. Def a big fan!

Vladmir Avellar says:

on September 17, 2013 at 10:06 pm

I have any doubts about strob effects in SB910 + SB800.
I don´t understand in or with relation to frequency x flash output level.
But I know which have a sequency of images into the same picture.
How can I work in this mode?

Jason Burt says:

on November 12, 2013 at 7:28 pm

I’d like to see the NEXT generation SB come out with built in Pocketwizard Flex TT5 receiver. Canon’s new speedlight has their own proprietary wireless radio… I often find myself in situations where the line of site “preflash” communications just doesn’t cut it. I love the Pocketwizard Flex TT5 units but to have it all built into the speedlight would rock my world!

Joe McNally says:

on November 12, 2013 at 8:45 pm

I hear ya….hoping for something along those lines as well….it would rock…joe

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