Hands on with the Nikon SB-900

Aug 19, 2008
By Theano Nikitas

When the Nikon D700 and SB-900 press releases hit my e-mail box, I have to confess that I merely skimmed the Speedlight announcement and went straight for the DSLR. It was only later, when my excitement about the D700 was replaced with the always-frustrating wait time that fills the space between a Nikon announcement and the availability of review units that I took the time to dig into the SB-900’s specs and features. The Speedlight’s attributes – including ease of use, extended zoom range, speedy recycling time – took on even more meaning once a production sample arrived on my doorstep.

Big Bertha

Unpack the box and it’s readily apparent that the SB-900 ($500) is big. We’re talking: "Do I need to get a new camera bag or jettison my SB-800 and other accessories?" big. It makes the SB-800 look, in a word, tiny. On paper, the dimensions of the two aren’t so far apart: the SB-900 measures 3.0 x 5.7 x 4.7 inches while the SB-800 measures 2.8 x 5.0 x 3.6 inches. But inches and fractions of inches count when you’re trying to economize on camera bag size and space.

The SB-900’s 14.6 ounce body versus the SB-800’s 12 ounces doesn’t make as much of a difference in weight as the type of batteries you use. Like its sibling, the new flash uses four AA batteries – Alkaline-manganese (1.5V), Lithium (1.5V) and Ni-MH (Nikon recommends 2600 mAh).

Not surprisingly, the flash doesn’t come with batteries; however, it is bundled with a number of accessories. In addition to a printed manual, you’ll find a case with an internal pocket, an external Velcro pocket and a bottom zippered compartment for storing easily lost items like the SB-900’s diffusion dome. You’ll also find a set of color filters (more on this later), a color filter holder, and a Speedlight stand.

Impressively Easy

Size (and, for some, price) aside, the SB-900 is pretty impressive. First, the flash’s user interface is designed for efficient, speedy and easy operation and it shows. With the addition of a Rotary Selector Dial and additional external controls (i.e., a switch to move between Off, On, Remote and Master), changing settings is almost effortless.

Sure, there are a couple of dual button commands (i.e., reset) and, if you’re a button pusher, you can still cycle through settings one at a time but the selector dial may be one of the best additions to the Speedlight line. Need to change the f/stop? You can go from f/1.4 to f/64 in under a couple of seconds. Other setting changes are just as fast (or faster), especially if you take the time to program the flash’s “My Menu” hotkeys. And, as an extra bonus, its larger LCD Panel won’t strain your eyes.

Fire at Will
Ease of use doesn’t mean anything, though, if the flash doesn’t perform well. No worries here though. The SB-900’s start-up time is negligible and it takes only a hair over 2 seconds to recycle using NiMH batteries. To test the worst-case scenario, I loaded the flash with partially exhausted Lithium batteries and shot a minimum of 15 high-speed shots without pause on a Nikon D3.

Fresh batteries (Lithium or NiMH) deliver even better results. Continuous flash shooting is so intense that Nikon even put in a thermal cut-out system so the flash doesn’t have a melt down (there’s a temperature gauge on the LCD, too).

Recycle time, while very, very good can, according to Nikon, be reduced to a mere 1 second with the optional SD-9 battery pack. The pack, which costs $230 (ouch!) and is only available for the SB-900 can accommodate 4 or 8 AA batteries. Between its price tag and the SB-900-only-compatibility, this won’t be on everybody’s shopping list but its benefits will certainly outweigh the cost for some. Now if Nikon would only add a battery indicator for those of us who probably won’t be scoring an SD-9.

Heavy Zoomer

Ease of use and power/performance are key components of any flash, of course, but the SB-900 goes above and beyond with its extended zoom range: 17-200mm (FX format) or 12-200mm (DX format). Flip down the wide-angle panel and you’ll get coverage from 12-17mm (FX format) or even 8-11mm (DX format).

Nikon also added versatility with three light patterns: center-weighted, standard and an “even” option that – no surprise here – delivers the most edge-to-edge even lighting. The bundled color filters and built-in color filter holder didn’t thrill me as much as the technology behind it since I rarely use them. But the filters are coded so that the camera automatically selects the correct white balance for each filter and that’s cool. No doubt, photographers who use gels and filters will be more enthusiastic than I am.

On the feature side, add i-TTL wireless (with four channels), downloadable firmware upgrades, a 360-degree turning access (180 degrees to the left/180 to the right), and it’s almost easy to shell out $500.

Almost. If you’re still shooting film, you’re pretty much out of luck (although the SB-900 is compatible with the F6). However, the flash is compatible with the D3, D700, D2 series, D300, D200, D80, D70 series, D60, D50 and D40 series. Given what I had on hand, my camera of choice for testing was the D3. I hooked the flash to a D40 just for the heck of it and felt it was too top heavy and, frankly, D40 users aren’t likely to spend almost as much on a flash as they did on their camera.

Perfect Fit for the D3
But the SB-900 was a perfect fit on the D3. The flash shoe fit snugly and while I found the lock switch a little stiff, it took little effort to attach – and remove – the flash. For shoots where I’m holding the camera for a long time, I’d opt for Lithium batteries to keep the weight down (it’s either that or going to the gym to increase my upper body strength).

But despite its size and weight, using the SB-900 was a pleasure. I was able to change settings with one hand and regardless of lighting conditions was able to clearly read the LCD. And the flash is virtually inaudible when recycling.

Shooting with a variety of lenses, indoors and out, the SB-900 proved its worth – especially for photographers who need power and speed. But don’t get rid of your SB-800’s since you’ll want to make use of them in conjunction with the SB-900’s wireless capabilities.

And while the numbering system implies that the SB-900 will be replacing the SB-800, I checked with Nikon and the latter will be around for “a while.” Maybe Nikon will come up with a model that’s compact in size but has the SB-900’s ease of use and at least some of its power. Well, we can always dream, can’t we?

The Bottom Line
Size and price may be the SB-900’s biggest stumbling blocks but if you need power, speed, and flexibility (and want an almost intuitive user interface), you’ll quickly find space in your camera bag for this impressive flash.

Pros: Easy and efficient user interface; powerful and fast; extended zoom range; versatile light control

Cons: Large; pricey; optional battery pack works only with SB-900

Price: $500

Further information: www.nikonusa.com

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