I suppose everyone should have some New Years’ resolutions and one of mine is to write more about ‘on camera flash’. Over the last few years I just haven’t had the need to use one, but because I’m getting more and more questions and emails about them it’s high time I got to grips with them again.
I say again, because I once owned a very nice Metz system, quite powerful, but very bulky because of the over-the-shoulder battery pack. Technology moves on I’m pleased to say, especially on-camera flash technology, and flashguns today are smaller, more powerful and much easier to use than that old Metz of mine.
I’m going to start with a model from the Speedlight range, a name synonymous with quality, so I’ve chosen the Nikon SB-600 to review first. I managed to get hold of one just before Christmas and used it over the holidays to snap a few friends and family, just the sort of thing it was designed for.
How to choose
Before I tell you how it coped, let’s start at the beginning. There are a number of Speedlight models available for both Canon and Nikon and the most important thing is to choose a model that will be suitable for your camera body. As usual, all the information you need is on the Wex Photographic website. This is important because buying the right model of Speedlight will not only make it easier to use, but will also ensure you get the best features from the gun. In terms of Nikon Speedlights, this includes a wide range of features that the Nikon call the ‘Nikon Creative Lighting System’ or CLS for short.
As I have a Nikon D70 and D200 body, the SB-600 was a good choice for me as it’s totally compatible with both. I also chose the SB-600 because of the power – it has a guide number of 30 – and to get all the features of the CLS system, which I’ll explain as we go through the review.
When I first took the Nikon SB-600 out of its box I have to say I was surprised, it was much heavier than I expected, even without batteries. It’s chunky, obviously well built and looks good on the camera. The gun also comes with a soft case and a stand (AS-19) that has a tripod socket, ideal for remote or stand-alone operation. It takes four standard MN1500 batteries that fit neatly into the side of the gun. Sliding the gun onto the Nikon hot shoe is easy and it’s held firmly by a small lever that locks it securely into place. As you attach the gun to the cameras hot shoe, it picks up all its connections to the camera via the pins in its base.
Once on the camera you can see the LCD display screen, ready and flash lights and just below the screen are a group of four buttons, Zoom, Plus +, Minus -, and Mode, the On/Off button is just to the right of these. Using that group of four buttons, or combinations of them controls all the flashguns functions.
Facts and figures
The Nikon SB-600 has a range of 0.6m to 20m depending on the ISO and aperture used and a guide number of 30. The recycling time of around 2.5 seconds back to full power is not bad at all and I shot around 200 images on just one set of batteries. When they are getting low, a warning appears on the LCD screen giving you plenty of time to replace them.
The flash tube is in the swivel head and can be tilted from 0? to 90? and rotated horizontally 180? to the left and 90? to the right, enabling bounce flash. To make these adjustments, you need to push a large button that says PUSH in very big letters, it couldn’t be easier!
Hidden just above the flash tube is a pull-out wide-angle diffuser that drops down over the flash tube to increase the guns coverage to match a 14mm lens. The zoom range of the lens is set automatically, the Nikon SB-600 has a range of 24mm to 85mm plus that pull out diffuser that extends it to 14mm. You can set the zoom range manually by pressing the zoom button and the indicator on the display screen tells you where you are.
On the main body of the gun is a red panel under which is an auxiliary light, used as a wireless remote flash and a wide-angle area AF assist illuminator that automatically turns on for auto-focus operation in subdued lighting. So far so good.
Read before you can run
I have to say that I am a bit of nerd when it comes to instruction books. I still refer to my Nikon manuals from time to time, especially when I haven’t used a particular function for a while. My son definitely thinks that instruction books are for nerds and he always laughs at me for reading them. However I can honestly say that the instruction book for the Nikon SB-600 is a godsend.
The instruction booklet is divided into easy sections from basic to advanced operation and it takes you through the Speedlight operation in easy stages. The Nikon SB-600 is not difficult to use believe me, but it’s getting to grips with the usual range of options and functions in the menu and on the LCD screen that takes a little bit of time. Once you have those in your head it’s very simple to use, but to get the best out of your flashgun, I would urge you to sit down with a cuppa and go through them page by page – you will benefit from it believe me!
After reading a couple of sections, I used the gun in auto mode, very straightforward and you only need to give the Speedlight a few quick tweaks to get going. First press the On/Off button for a second and it comes on, the ready light glowing red and the LCD display panel backlit. Pressing the Mode button will select either TTL or Manual; by selecting TTL the gun does everything for you. Just set the camera body to auto or program and away you go. By pressing the mode button again, you can also bring up another feature, “BL”, which gives you TTL plus auto balanced fill-in flash. It’s well worth shooting some test shot with and without BL, it makes quite a difference to some interior shots.
However even on the auto TTL/BL setting you can still have some manual control, by pressing the Plus + button, which brings up a display in the top right hand corner of the display screen and allows you to adjust the flash from 0 to + or – 3.0 EV, giving you the option to make fine adjustments. The TTL mode is one of the key features of the CLS (Creative Lighting System) I mentioned before, it really is foolproof and I’m guessing that most of us will use the flashgun in this mode all the time. Shooting on TTL/BL mode on my Nikon D200 set to program, I couldn’t fault the results and though I did use the EV adjustments at times, the images without any adjustment were still superb.
Other features of the CLS are Advanced Wireless Lighting, an option for wireless multiple flash operation. Flash Value Lock, is another feature that lets you lock the flash exposure for the main subject and will remain fixed even if you change the aperture, composition or zoom range. Flash Color Information Communication automatically transmits color temperature info to the camera. This is to adjust the cameras white balance to give you the correct color temperature.
Auto FP High Speed Sync allows the Nikon SB-600 to sync at your cameras highest speed, allowing you to use a wider aperture to achieve depth of field. The Wide-Area Assist Illuminator feature emits an AF assist illumination over a wider that will enable you to perform auto-focus photography in dim light.
The instruction book also has a number of very helpful tables that help to determine the exposure in manual mode. In manual mode, the Nikon SB-600 can be set at apertures from 1/1 to 1/64, matching the lens aperture. I tried a few of the settings quoted in the tables on aperture priority and found them to be pretty accurate. I would strongly recommend that you shoot some test shots in manual mode as it really helps you to understand how the flashgun works.
In ‘Advanced operations’, the instructions also explain how the SB-600 can be used in wireless multiple flash mode. One gun can be set up as a master unit that will then trigger a maximum of three other groups of guns to light larger areas and subjects. Each of these remote groups is given a channel number, A, B or C, and they can all be controlled via the master gun on the camera. So by adding guns, the system becomes more versatile, enabling you to shoot larger and more varied subjects.
To sum up, the Nikon SB-600 flashgun is compact, well built, very simple to use and to understand, especially if you read those instructions! It has the ideal power to shoot individuals and small to medium sized groups and the results, particularly when using bounce flash are superb; much, much better than using the camera’s built in flash. I might add that using accessories that control the output, like the WexPro Mini Umbrella kit, or accessories in the Honl range will produce even better images.
The recycling times and the number of flashes / battery life are also better than I expected. Using the flashgun in auto TTL/BL is a doddle and I defy anyone to take a really bad image shooting in this mode. This gun should appeal to both the beginner and the more discerning enthusiast who may want those extra features that include multiple flash. It’s well worth the investment.
Ease of use: 8/10