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Review: The Nikon SB-900 Flash

Nikon offers a wide range of flashes, ranging from the cute SB-400 to this powerhouse SB-900. Packed with every conceivable feature for consistent and creative strobe photography, the SB-900is Nikon’s best flash to date and an awesome photographic tool. Read on for the results from our long term test.

Editor’s Note: Before Matt starts off, know that my marketing brand of choice for wedding photography is Snapknot.com. Take a look at my page here.

Features

The Nikon SB-900 is a powerful flash with a head that tilts and swivels to direct light up, down, and even straight back (useful for bounce flash—reflecting light off a light-colored wall or ceiling). It integrates wirelessly with other Nikon strobes and can act as remote or master. When paired with a D7000or similar, for example, the flash can be disconnected from the camera and triggered with the camera’s on-board popup flash using Nikon’s Creative Lighting system.

A motorized element in the head automatically zooms in and out to match the flash output to the focal length of the lens. Turning the lens’s zoom ring will also change the light output. The zoom range can reach a very wide 17mm FX or 12mm DX. For even wider lenses, a built in wide adapter can be flipped down to extend to 12mm and 8mm respectably. Also built into the head is a handy white bounce card. When deployed, the card allows the strobe head to be pointed up to fill a room with light and a small amount of light to bounce onto a subject, which can add nice fill and eye catchlights.

The strobe recycles in a respectable 2.3 s (depending on the batteries used) and has a fast duration for stopping action. Nikon lists the flash duration as 1/880 s at full power to as impressively fast as 1/38,500 s at 1/128 power.

The flash comes packaged with a variety of useful tools, including a snazzy velcro pouch, color-matching gels for tungsten and florescent light, and Nikon’s best soft light diffuser box yet. Users will want to give thought to which rechargeable AA batteries to use. The SB-900 is efficient compared to previous models, but battery quality will affect recycle time and the number of pops per charge.

Updates

Battery life is not the only change from the previous SB-800. The SB-900is bigger, more powerful, and easier to control. Nikon has added a dedicated on/off switch, which is an ergonomic blessing compared to holding down the old button and waiting for a response. While shooting in settings that only called for strobe light on occasional shots, I used to just pull the SB-800 off my camera instead of fussing with the button. Also, I find the SB-900 to project a more even spread of light and to be more consistent with exposure than the SB-800(and the SB-800 was very good).

Controls

Besides the on/off switch, the flash has a handy wheel for rolling through settings: exposure compensation or power, depending on the mode. With most settings, a photographer presses a dedicated button and rolls the wheel to make adjustments. It’s intuitive and quick.

Two features I really enjoy about about the SB-900 include a screen that lights up bright and clear and that matches the color and brightness of the two light-up screens on my D3. In a dark setting, pull the camera’s on/off ring surrounding the shutter release button and both camera and flash light up, pull it again and the go out, very cool. Also, the flash projects a strong red crosshairs for autofocus in dim lighting, and significantly more brightly and with wider spread than the SB-800.

Nikon shows, with these two features that the flash is designed to be easily used in low lighting—which sounds stupid to say, but it’s true! On the flip side, in a dim room, the screens glow teal every time the camera is turned on, which can ruin a photographer’s attempts to be inconspicuous, not to mention the intense red beams projected on the faces of wedding guests and party-goers.

Performance

The SB-900 is Nikon’s best flash yet and an awesome match for modern Nikon DSLRs. It projects a bright, even light, and is so spot-on with it’s i-TTL exposure, photographers will worry less about exposure compensation, apertures, and flash settings than ever before. It can run all night on one good set of batteries, needing only 4, not 5 like its predecessor.

It will do all kinds of weird strobe trickery, like a repeat flash for the iconic snowboarder-over-the-void shot. Press the mode button, roll the wheel to “RPT” and the four buttons across the bottom of the screen become clearly labeled as “M” for power, “Times” for the number of pops, “Hz” for the pops per second, and a glowing red test button. Press a button and roll the wheel to adjust settings and fire. Awesome, easy, and creatively inspiring.

The SB-900 has an easy to use menu, hold down the “OK” button for a second to bring it up. From there, a photographer can customize a number of aspects and disable certain unwanted features (see below for one important setting that’s generated controversy). The flash can be set for a center-weighted, normal, or even light spread (even “normal” is more even than the old 800). When used on a modern Nikon DSLR, the flash will automatically read the camera’s exposure settings and ISO, and send the camera data on gel color for the sake of White Balance, again: very cool.

Prone to Overheating?

The SB-900 took some abuse, early on, for a tendency to overheat and shut down. Let me say, it isn’t a problem. I’ve used this strobe on more than 30 weddings since replacing my old SB-800, and never once had it stop popping during an event. If unwanted, the overheating warning can be disabled in the flash’s clear and easy to use menu system, end of problem. I’m a giant book-reading nerd, and quick to admit it, but I’d recommend fellow reviewers at least glance through a users manual before criticizing a complex professional tool like this.

Conclusion

The SB-900 is Nikon’s best flash ever: easy to use, powerful and efficient, with a usable and easy-to-understand set of creative tools. When compared to previous models, it is easier to use and understand, and delivers better results more consistently. It integrates perfectly with modern Nikon DSLRs and will allow photographers to explore, experiment, and create with ease. Highly recommended!

Example Images

(click to enlarge)

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