Over the past ten years or so, Nikon have embarked on an evolutionary process for their flashgun development, with each successive unit being built on the features of the previous model. With the introduction of the Nikon SB-900 we have revolution as opposed to evolution. This flashgun is a ground up redesign where nothing resembles the previous model that has gone before it. Was this really necessary? Have the changes been worth while? Let’s find out.
"...instantly apparent is the size increase of just about everything. Nikon have taken the SB series flashgun and made an SUV version. "
First impressions: When you open the elaborate box of the Nikon Speedlight SB-900 Flashgun you are greeted with a whole array of attachments and accessories. What’s instantly apparent is the size increase of just about everything. Nikon have taken the SB series flashgun and made an SUV version. There is a 25% boost to every dimension over the original Nikon SB-800 and now the top flight Nikon and Canon flashguns are nearly equal in size. Big is not bad and it is fair to say that I find the new curvy contoured Nikon SB-900 easier and nicer to hold.
As an avid user of the Nikon SB-800 I am fully conversant with its very elaborate systems and functions including the CLS, Nikon’s market leading Creative Lighting System. How does the Nikon SB-900 measure up against its predecessor?
"a certain amount of user manual reading is required to fully understand their functions "
Let’s start at the bottom and work up. The foot plate of the Nikon Speedlight SB-900 Flash gun is a completely redesigned device. It is not thicker than the previous models as some forum posts have suggested; it is in fact an identical thickness to the SB-800 foot plate. The locking mechanism is new and has a more positive action. There are still AF illuminator contacts in front of the foot ensuring compatibility with the fantastic SC29 cord.
N ext I want to look at the user interface. Nikon had a bit of work to do here because to be honest the Nikon SB-800 was not well thought out and to simply switch from normal operation to wireless TTL operation involved no less than six button presses, whilst navigating complicated menus. Now however, there is a real switch. Hurrah for common sense! The many new switches and the new control wheel are not intuitive and a certain amount of user manual reading is required to fully understand their functions. However, after only 10 minutes of reading and head scratching I was conversant in the Nikon SB-900 control systems and now I love it. I am so glad Nikon took the bull by the horns and started from scratch because the SB-900 flash gun is a joy to use. There are still menus and sub menus, hence the need to have a 140 page manual, but this is a fully featured instrument and one that will not leave you wanting more.
The LCD on the back of the SB 900 flash gun is bigger too and the position of just about every parameter has changed, but this is not really an issue. It does the job and the backlight is plenty bright enough too.
The battery compartment deserves a special mention. It is excellent. The cover slides right out of the way making it easier to get the AA batteries in and out, plus there is more space for the cells themselves. Although all AA cells are supposed to conform to exact dimensions, I have found some makes of high capacity NiMh batteries are slightly fatter and get a bit stuck in my SB800s. Nikon have addressed this niggle in the Nikon SB-900.
"the flashgun goes right up to an industry leading 200 mm "
The AF assist illuminator is now bigger and brighter and this must surely be a good thing. The position of the infra red receiver for remote TTL operation is still on the side of the unit but this is no longer a hindrance because the Nikon SB-900 flashgun head can rotate a full 360 degrees as opposed to the 270 degrees of the Nikon SB-800. This means you can point the TTL lens back towards the camera and the flash head towards the subject in any situation you find yourself in.
The wide angle diffuser and white bounce card on the Nikon SB-900 have a similar function to the previous model. There is a micro switch inside the flash head that lets the circuitry know when these are being deployed so if you find the zoom function is not behaving it might just be the diffuser or white card is not fully home.
The devil is in the detail. If numbers excite you then the Nikon SB-900 won’t disappoint because the zoom function of the flashgun goes right up to an industry leading 200 mm. The first thing I noticed when operating the zoom of the Nikon SB-900 flashgun is that it is quite a bit noisier than the one on the Nikon SB-800 unit. I wanted to test the Nikon SB-900 against its predecessor, the SB-800, to see exactly what the 105mm to 200mm difference looks like. Perhaps more importantly I wanted to see the quality of beam pattern and how the transition from the lit bit to the unlit bit looks. While I was at it I wanted to check the absolute brightness achieved at full power too.
My findings are that the beam pattern produced by the Nikon SB-900 flashgun is indeed tighter at full zoom but the bit outside the frame is less attractive than that of its predecessor. Why should this matter I hear you ask? Well if you are going to use this flashgun off camera to create pools of light then I would suggest you invest in a Speedlite Snoot. The Canon version may well fit the Nikon SB-900 head as the Nikon SB-900 flash head is the same size as the Canon 580 EX11 flash head. Throughout testing I found the speed of flash recycle was fine as I had expected, as was the repeat flash output accuracy when in manual mode.
The Sto-Fen like diffusion dome included with the Nikon SB-900 is nearly twice the size of the SB-800 version. It is not obvious which way round it should be fitted although when you get it right it snaps home reassuringly.
The colour gel filter pack and holder is another bit of kit that may seem a bit gimmicky to some photographers but the warm up filters are welcome to wedding and portrait photographers who regularly shoot indoors under artificial light. The green filter will be useful for commercial photographers shooting under mercury vapour lighting, the sort commonly seen in petrol stations and factories. Most fluorescent light tubes are better balanced than they used to be and should provide no problems for digital photographers.
The table top stand is a normal addition to any Speedlight kit and this one does just the job it is supposed to do.
All in all this is the flash gun by which the rest of the industry will be judged. The Nikon SB-900 has certainly raised the bar in terms of usability and function.
- Easy to use
- Superb build quality
- Controls and buttons feel good to use
- Fully rotating head
- Backwards compatible with existing accessories
- Extended zoom range up to 200mm
- Good battery life.
- Comfortable to hold
- Much larger than it’s predecessor
- Shape of the beam pattern when zoomed in is not pretty.
If I had several Nikon SB-800 flash guns would I upgrade to the Nikon SB-900? No. The Nikon SB-800 is still a capable unit. If I had no Speedlight or just one Nikon SB-800 would I buy the Nikon SB-900? Yes; it is a perfect partner for the Nikon SB-800 and is the better unit overall.
9/10 build quality