Nikon SB-900 Speedlight

      Photo Review 9

      In summary

      A powerful flash unit with advanced capabilities for professional photographers and serious enthusiasts who use multi-flash set-ups.The SB-900 flash is an evolution of the SB-800 model but still runs on four AA batteries (not supplied) and forms the heart of Nikon’s Creative Lighting System. Larger and radically different in design from the SB-800, the new model offers a GN of 48 (ISO 200/metres).  . . [more]

      Full review

      The SB-900 flash is an evolution of the SB-800 model but still runs on four AA batteries (not supplied) and forms the heart of Nikon’s Creative Lighting System. Larger and radically different in design from the SB-800, the new model offers a GN of 48 (ISO 200/metres).
      There are three main aspects in which the SB-900 differs from its predecessor:
      1. Physical. The SB-900 measures 78.0 x 146.0 x 118.5 mm and weighs 415 grams, compared with the SB-800, which measures 70.5 x 129.5 x 93.0mm and weighs 350 grams. (Both weights without batteries.)
      2. User Interface. The redesigned user interface on the SB-900 puts key controls within easy reach and the larger LCD data panel is easier to read.



      3. Operational.
      a) The SB-900’s multi-step zoom can cover a picture angle equivalent to 17-200mm, while the SB-800 is restricted to 24-105mm.
      b) The SB-900 has an adjustable head that bends through 90 degrees vertically and swivels through 180 degrees left and right, enabling users to mount it as a remote flash in multi-flash set-ups with the receiving window facing the master light source.
      c) The SB-900 automatically detects whether the camera is set to FX or DX format and sets a suitable light distribution pattern. Users can also control light distribution manually using one of three selectable illumination patterns: standard, centre-weighted and even.
      d) An improved booster circuit allows the SB-900 to claim a minimum recycle time of 2.3 seconds when rechargeable NiMH batteries are used (compared with 4.5 seconds for lithium and 4.0 seconds for Alkaline-manganese non-rechargeables).
      Other features include a Thermal Cut-out, which limits the number of flashes to ensure the quality and intensity of light remain constant during continuous flash usage. The new flash will automatically detect colour filters and allow the camera to control colour temperature on the basis of this information. Owners of Nikon’s D3 and D700 cameras will also be able to apply firmware updates to their SB-900 flashes via the camera. (This feature is claimed as a world’s first.)
      On the downside, the SB-900 is strictly i-TTL and won’t work on older camera bodies and there is no provision for the balanced fill-flash modes provided on film SLR cameras. The SB-900 comes packaged in a handsome fabric case, which has a pocket on its base that holds a clip-on diffuser and gel filter holder.
      Supplied accessories include a set of four colour filters and a Speedlight stand. The dome diffuser can be fitted over the filter holder, if required. No instruction manual was provided with the review unit but you can download it in PDF form from

      Although it fits snugly on the D700 body, the SB-900 is about as large as you would want a portable add-on flash to be. The foot clicks firmly into place in the D700’s hot shoe and you can lock it in place with a lever just above the mount. The control layout is straightforward, as shown in the diagram below (which we copied from the user manual).



      A rotating lever on the right side turns the flash on and off and is also used to set the flash to work as a master or slave unit. Left of it is a rotating dial with a central OK button. This control changes the flash mode, toggling through six mode settings when you press the Mode button. A ready light above the on/off lever indicates the flash is powered-up for use.
      The ready light doubles as a test firing button and modelling illuminator. Left of it are three Function buttons, which select different items to change – depending on the selected mode and flash status. Pressing buttons 1 and 3 simultaneously resets all functions (except custom settings) to their defaults. Pressing buttons 1 and 2 together locks all control buttons except the power on/off and wireless setting switch and test firing buttons.



      Above the control panel is a LCD panel with icons showing selected flash modes and settings. These vary, depending on how the flash is being used. To access the Custom settings you hold down the OK button for about a second (which takes you to the menu system) then rotate the dial to the function you wish to set. This calls up a sub-menu on the right side of the LCD panel. Rotating the dial selects the desired function and pressing OK locks it in. To exit the Custom menu, you simple press Function button 1.
      The LCD panel’s contrast can be adjusted through five levels in nine steps in the Custom function menu. You can also save a suite of frequently-used settings in the My Menu memory. This is accessed via the Set-up menu, with the rotating dial and OK button used to select and input settings.
      The SB-900 supports the following flash modes:
      iTTL, in which information obtained by monitor pre-flashes and exposure control information is integrated by the camera to automatically adjust flash output levels.
      Auto Aperture flash, where the SB-900’s built-in sensor measures the flash illumination reflected from the subject and controls the flash output in combination with data automatically transmitted from the camera and lens to the SB-900, including the ISO sensitivity value, the exposure compensation value, the aperture and focal length of the lens.
      Non-TTL auto flash, where the SB-900’s built-in sensor measures the flash illumination reflected from the subject and automatically adjusts light output to provide the correct exposure. This mode is ideal for situations where exposure compensation might be required as it will handle re-adjustment of aperture settings.
      Distance-priority manual flash, in which the photographer enters the shooting distance value and the SB-900 automatically controls the light output according to the aperture set.
      Manual flash, where the photographer sets the aperture and flash output level.
      Repeating flash, in which the the SB-900 fires repeatedly during a single exposure, creating stroboscopic multiple-exposure effects.
      Pressing the locking button on the side of the flash head lets you tilt or rotate the SB-900’s head to bounce the light off the ceiling or walls. Bounced flash requires control over the lens aperture, which should be two to three f-stops wider than normal. A built-in bounce card and wide-flash diffuser can be pulled out of their slot at the top of the flash head.
      The diffusion dome clips onto the flash head, covering the normal light panel. It can be used for both normal and bounced flash shots and is useful for portraits and close-ups. The colour filters supplied with the SB-900 have a turn-up flap carrying identification codes that are ‘read’ by the flash, so this information can be transmitted to the camera. The system, which only works with the D3 and D700 models, adjusts the camera’s white balance to the optimum setting for the selected filter.

      We were only able to test the SB-900’s capabilities as a single flash unit and in conjunction with the D700’s built-in flash. And, not having reviewed the SB-800, we were unable to compare the performance of the two flash units. Suffice it to say we found the test sample to be an excellent performer that delivered an evenly-exposed set of test shots with different camera-to-subject distances and focal length settings.
      In use, we found recycling to be almost silent and very fast with NiMH rechargeables matching the 2.3-second recycle times claimed in the SB-900’s specifications. Sample images covering a wide range of subject types are shown below.




      On-camera flash, iTTL mode, 24mm focal length at ISO 200; 1/60 second at f/5.



      On-camera flash, iTTL mode, 120mm focal length at ISO 200; 1/60 second at f/5.6. Taken from across the road from the position of shot 1.



      Close-up; on-camera flash, Distance priority mode, 120mm focal length at ISO 200; 1/60 second at f/6.3.



      Slaved to D700 flash with SB-900 at 45 degrees to rear of subject plane. Manual mode with subject in light tent. ISO 200, 1/8 second at f/10.



      Slaved to D700 flash with SB-900 at 60 degrees in front of subject plane. Manual mode with subject in light tent. ISO 200, 1/30 second at f/10.



      Slaved to D700 flash using bounce card. Auto aperture mode; ISO 200, 1/8 second at f/8.




      Electronic construction: Automatic Insulated Gate Bipolar Transistor (IGBT) and series circuitry
      Guide number: 34 (metres/ISO 100); 48 (metres/ISO 200)
      Flash coverage: 17-200 mm in 5mm zoom steps
      Shooting distance range: 0.6 m to 20 m (depending on camera’s image area setting, illumination pattern, ISO sensitivity, zoom position, and lens aperture in use)
      Illumination pattern: Standard, even and center-weighted; light distribution angle is automatically adjusted to the camera’s image area in both FX and DX formats
      Flash modes: TTL, Auto Aperture flash, Non-TTL auto flash, Distance-priority manual flash, Manual flash, Repeating flash. Support for Nikon Creative Lighting System includes: i-TTL mode, Advanced Wireless Lighting, FV Lock flash, Flash color information communication, Auto FP High-Speed sync and Wide-area AF-Assist Illuminator
      Multiple flash operation: Advanced Wireless Lighting, SU-4 type wireless multiple flash
      Camera synch modes: Slow-sync, Red-eye reduction in slow-sync, Front-curtain sync, Rear-curtain sync, Rear-curtain slow-sync
      Bounce capabilities: Flash head tilts down to -7 ° or up to 90 ° with click-stops at -7 °, 0 °, 45 °, 60 °, 75 °, 90 °; Flash head rotates horizontally 180 ° to the left and right with click-stops at 0 °, 30 °, 60 °, 90 °, 120 °, 150 °, 180 °
      Power source: Four AA batteries (Alkaline, Lithium, Oxyride, NiMH
      Flash duration: 1/880 sec. at M1/1 (full) output to 1/38,500 sec. at M1/128 output
      Flash output level compensation: -3.0 to +3.0 EV in increments of 1/3 steps in the i-TTL auto flash, Auto Aperture flash, Non-TTL auto flash and Distance-priority manual flash modes
      Custom settings: 22 items
      Other functions: ISO sensitivity setting, Recalling the underexposure value in the TTL auto flash mode, Resetting the settings, Key lock, Thermal Cut-out, firmware update via D3 and D700 cameras
      Dimensions (WxHxD): Approx. 78.0 x 146.0 x 118.5 mm
      Weight (without batteries): Approx. 415 g
      Supplied accessories: Speedlight Stand AS-21, Nikon Diffusion Dome SW-13H, Color Filter Set SJ-900, Color Filter Holder SZ-2, Soft Case SS-900



      RRP: $749

      Rating (out of 10):

      • Build: 9.0
      • Features: 9.5
      • Performance: 9.0
      • OVERALL: 9.0