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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….”

Nate Benson says:

on November 30, 2011 at 5:23 am

And then we have the Canon 580exII which hasn’t been updated in what? 3-4 years? I sometimes cry myself to sleep while thinking about my canon flash strategy’s.

Adrian says:

on November 30, 2011 at 5:24 am

The photograph of Jonathan against the wall is great. And I love the use of the truck as a light source.

The book looks interesting. I have never photographed much with flash but it is an area I’d like to explore further.

cory Lum says:

on November 30, 2011 at 5:34 am

awesome !
can’t wait to test drive these bad boyz

kyle jerichow says:

on November 30, 2011 at 5:35 am

Glad the book is printing and will ship soon! We pre-ordered is last December! (Now a very late birthday present for me :P )

Can’t wait for it.

All the best,

Jimmy says:

on November 30, 2011 at 6:14 am

The lit-up buttons – I think it’s a great idea! :)

Andor says:

on November 30, 2011 at 6:33 am

‘They didn’t go for it.’ – I just imagine it and bursting out in laughter :-) ))
The shots are all great – especially the one in the bar, awesome as usual!

jeremy mayhew says:

on November 30, 2011 at 6:52 am

first a big YEAH for a new book, and second, do you think they will sell the clip on gels separately for those of us shmucks that bought a sb900? I got one in the markdown bin at nikonusa.com and the darn head doesn’t rotate either…blurg.

anyway, great news, can’t wait for the book….and (cough cough) another lighting tour with DH?

ron hiner says:

on November 30, 2011 at 7:32 am

Nice illustrations on the NikonUSA web site sample photos pages! I guess they didn’t want to use your bar napkin sketches? Interesting to throw the Arri’s in the mix! Nice stuff!

Ken Driese says:

on November 30, 2011 at 7:43 am

Wow–I guess this means that you’d like to sell me some of your SB900′s for very little money!

Kidding. Sort of.

Thanks for all of your work–I always enjoy reading what you have to say.

Greg Kolanowski says:

on November 30, 2011 at 7:53 am

I really like the shot of Jake in the bar. I’m curious where the other 3 flashes are. I see the main, the fill to camera left, and one through the interior restaurant windows. Is there one up in the racks to give the blue rim on his shoulders? You’re on tungsten white balance, so you gelled the main for tungsten. Did you gel the background light to get extra blue or was it that blue just from the color shift?

John says:

on November 30, 2011 at 8:10 am

I guess Nikon didn’t go for putting a remote sensor on BOTH sides of the flash yet??

Scott Coggins says:

on November 30, 2011 at 8:33 am

Who makes the blue cold shoe you have mounted on the Justin? My 900′s don’t fit will on the stock shoe. Can’t wait for the new book!!

Marshall says:

on November 30, 2011 at 8:35 am

It is interesting stuff, though I find it hard to talk about the new flash without considering its price. Isn’t it supposed to list at like $550? That’ll make you miss when the excellent, top of the line flash seemed a touch pricey at $330. Doesn’t mean I don’t wish I had one, but still.

Joan Pantesco says:

on November 30, 2011 at 8:56 am

Wouldn’t you know, I just purchased the 700 due to the heating issues with the 900! It is good to see Nikon’s responsiveness to identified/reported issues. Love the backlighting of the controls since I have some sight difficulties. Think the shots are stunning, especially that terrific shadow. Look forward to the book release. Thanks for all.

Scott says:

on November 30, 2011 at 9:36 am

Flash looks great…but I shoot Canon. Wish Canon would catch up in the flash department.

Also heads-up, Amazon has your book listed as shipping after Christmas which might cost you some holiday sales.

Can’t wait for the book!

DQ says:

on November 30, 2011 at 10:13 am

CAN ANYONE please tell me what the blue show is on top of Joe’s Justin Clamp? Def not the way they ship them. Thanks!!!!

Caleb Fleming says:

on November 30, 2011 at 10:26 am

Yes, I’ll 3rd wanting to know what the Blue Shoe is on top of the Justin Clamp, I keep tearing the plastic ones apart in the field!

John says:

on November 30, 2011 at 10:28 am

Looks like a Frio cold shoe (the blue thing).

knh771 says:

on November 30, 2011 at 10:29 am

Great news about the book! I was thinking it would never actually hit my mailbox. Merry Christmas to me!

mike says:

on November 30, 2011 at 10:41 am

DQ – http://www.friocoldshoe.com/

Joe (or anyone, really) – did Nikon fix the fact that the SB-900 “foot” was JUST thick enough that it was a PITA to slip into mounts?

Tony Bynum says:

on November 30, 2011 at 10:52 am

great addition, still feel burned by the 900 – no pun intended ouf course since the 900 could not burn anything but your patience! The heat issues caused me to use the 900 as a backup or worse leave it at home . . . joke . . . Thanks for the great coverage of the new flash!

Darren Elias says:

on November 30, 2011 at 10:54 am

DQ, that’s a Frio! You can find it at http://www.friocoldshoe.com.

Ranger 9 says:

on November 30, 2011 at 11:20 am

Nikon needs to put the guts of this flash into a rigid case, omit the reflector and zoom mechanism, leave the flashtube sticking out with a protective dome over it, and build on an S-mount for attaching to speed rings. They would instantly rule the entire “strobist” universe.

Maybe they’d listen if YOU told ‘em…

BH says:

on November 30, 2011 at 11:37 am

The blue cold shoe is a Frio. Interesting Joe used that instead of the Nikon supplied foot. For me, at $550 a piece and shooting 6 at once or $3300 (w/o sales tax or shipping), is just too much. Its also good to know my SB800′s will hold their value.

Jay Mann says:

on November 30, 2011 at 11:41 am

Hey Joe,

How does the new flash react when the batteries start to run down? I am still using 800′s because I have three. My beef with them has been the way they behave when the batteries get low, the first indication is usually random exposure, like 3-4 stops overexposed, just to get my attention. I have learned to have a fresh set of batteries in my bag, always, but it still drives me nuts when it happens.


brett maxwell says:

on November 30, 2011 at 11:42 am

DQ, it’s a Frio cold shoe: http://www.friocoldshoe.com/frio/

Mike De Simone says:

on November 30, 2011 at 11:54 am

Ahmed Sharif says:

on November 30, 2011 at 11:58 am

nice review, Joe… its nice to know the irritating heat management thingy is changed… but its a high price to pay for an updated flash, I think…

btw, the pics are superb, as usual…. inspiring to say the least!!… just shows what these small flashes can do when in the right hands…

Johan Sopiee says:

on November 30, 2011 at 12:10 pm

Sorry Nikon. SB-910 = no biggie. Wait.. the new speedlight sensor is still the size of a pea? Duh!

Sketching Light = Awesome! 420 pages = YEAH BABY! Drool drool! I can’t wait to get my hands on it. Bravo Joe!

Libby says:

on November 30, 2011 at 12:15 pm

Joe I have been chompn’ at the bit here for that book for several months now! And you delayed again LOL!

Thank you for the notes on the new flash – that is a gorgeous close portrait of Jake in the hat. You are the master ;-)

Joe says:

on November 30, 2011 at 12:15 pm

I never had any issues with the flash overheating — and kind of feel that if you are overheating the flash you might be using it for a situation in which it isn’t the best tool — but it’s really nice to see them address the situation.

I’d love a setting that would keep the flash from firing at all until it had enough ‘oomph’ to fire at the ‘right’ level. I hate doing a 1/4 power pop at a decent FPS and having the light ‘dim’ slowly through the frames. I’d rather half had no flash contribution and half had the right amount.

Michael Preston says:

on November 30, 2011 at 12:34 pm

Well, based on your recommendations a couple years ago for the SB900, I bought two of those overpriced, overheating hogs. I’ll not fall prey to this Nikon commercial…especially since your rudeness to me at the Photo Safari PSW 2010 has blown your credibility.

Go ahead, Mr. McNally….delete this post since it doesn’t deify you like most others.

Ivan Boden says:

on November 30, 2011 at 12:58 pm

DG – the blue cold shoe adapter on top of the the Justin clamp is a Frio.


I use them and they’re great.

Joe- the new flash sounds great. As a Canon guy, I have flash envy. :-)

Ryan says:

on November 30, 2011 at 3:04 pm

Good news on the book Joe. I’ve been looking forward to it since pre-ordering it in March. Can’t wait!

DQ says:

on November 30, 2011 at 5:38 pm

Thank you to MIKE above for pointing me to the FRIO coldshoe. And to Ivan! And to another Mike! And to BH!

DQ says:

on November 30, 2011 at 5:38 pm

And to Darren!

DQ says:

on November 30, 2011 at 8:58 pm

Thanks to all who pointed me to the Frio — just bought one to try.

TheInconvenientRuth says:

on December 1, 2011 at 2:55 am

Hey Joe,

I’ve read that when you clip on the hard filters, the flash automatically sets the WB on the camera. Can you override this? Otherwise it’ll be the end of your “camera to tungsten wb and cto on the flash” trick to get nice blue backgrounds.

Just wondering,


Joe McNally says:

on December 1, 2011 at 3:01 am

hey gang…yep the frios are good. David Hobby pointed me in their direction during Flashbus. the Justin Clamp now does come with an enlarged cold shoe to take the SB900/910 hot shoe, but that is just a recent development…

Joe McNally says:

on December 1, 2011 at 3:08 am

Michael I publish just about all comments, positive or otherwise, unless something is just over the top offensive, or someone just cares to repeatedly bash on the same issues, which tends to get tiresome, and a bit repetitive. Apologies if you felt I treated you rudely during our encounter, which, truth be told I don’t remember. I recall just generally enjoying myself on PSW Safaris, and others doing the same. And, yes, price point and heat transfer are issues with the 900. The heat and thus the pacing of use has to be managed. Price is not something any of us, including me, have any influence over.

John A. Fugel says:

on December 1, 2011 at 9:54 am

I already have a couple of SB-800s and a 600. Will the 910 “talk” to these now obsolete speed lights?

Michael Preston says:

on December 1, 2011 at 10:54 am

Mr. McNally,

Apology accepted, sorry it was public, my bad….I should have emailed you directly instead of stewing over it for 2 years, but since internet trolls are so prolific I didn’t think I’d get a response.

All is good, rock on.

Joe McNally says:

on December 1, 2011 at 11:07 am

Yep, John, no worries…same TTL type technology…

Harry Hilders says:

on December 1, 2011 at 11:29 am

Amazing photos! These are perfect for in a Nike campaign :)

glenn usdin says:

on December 1, 2011 at 2:12 pm

Michael, I spent a week with Joe at his St. Lucia workshop. 6 months later I saw him at NYC PhotoPlus and he didn’t recognize me. Guess how I felt? Answer-Fine. The man teaches thousands of people a year, he gives 110% at every class I’ve been to, and I still go to everything he gives in my area. You can’t expect him to be as popular as he is and still remember everyone and everything he meets. So many people want to have a piece of Joe and he can only do so much.

Dave Reyno says:

on December 1, 2011 at 2:52 pm

It’s nice to see a new product in use and this helps alot so thanks!. PS Apparently I have been living under a rock and just checked out your work..Very impressive!!

Jason says:

on December 1, 2011 at 3:12 pm

First off, I can’t wait to pick up the new book! Hopefully my dog won’t eat this one like he did to my copy of “The Hot Shoe Diaries”.

Secondly, It’s a little disappointing that Nikon didn’t just solve the issue with the SB-900 rather than replacing it with a “new” model for even more money. This devalues my SB-900 which I simply couldn’t sell for a fraction of the value now that it has been “replaced” with something without the same flaws. Perhaps Nikon should take them as trade-in’s towards SB-910′s?

Clearly their are ways to avoid overheating the units, such as using multiples of flashes, higher ISO or a ‘faster’ aperture. But it does surprise me that Nikon doesn’t just make something with a little more flash power and a compact external power supply like the Qflash or even something similar to the Elinchrom Ranger Quadra RX mini-pack system. And when will they get around to adding built-in radio CLS triggering? Even if they made it a “plug-in” module for the camera and flashes to keep initial costs lower (and to offer specific frequencies for specific countries), I suspect it would have plenty of people who would gladly adopt this system over the current CLS due to obvious limitations.

Carlos Erban says:

on December 1, 2011 at 4:43 pm

Joe: I have a lot overheating problems with fashion shoots. I have two SB900s and one SB800 as backup. I am thinking of selling my SB900s and buying the SB910s. I would probably lose $300. Do you think it is worth doing the upgrade?

Diego Muñoz says:

on December 1, 2011 at 4:48 pm

great review!!! incredible shots

Joe McNally says:

on December 1, 2011 at 4:58 pm

Sorry to say, Carlos, but yes. Hate to tell anybody to spend dough, and I do think the 910 is too much money. But if you are shooting fashion, heat is going to continue to be an issue with the 900. hang in, Joe

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