Upon unboxing my new Nikon Speedlight SB-900 in Florida this week, I was prompted to adapt the old movie line – “Is that a flash in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?”
This thing is huge, big, large, enormous, grand – okay you get it – the SB-900 takes up a lot of space. It’s the largest flash head I’ve ever seen from a major camera manufacturer.
Once I got over the shock of the size, it dawned on me that this was a good thing. In most cases involving photography, the larger the light source, the better the light.
But let’s get back to the beginning.
The flash comes with a cool carrying case, a flash stand, a decent diffuser, and a gel holder with a few gels. All nice touches. The instruction manual is typical, i.e., not exactly as helpful as it could be.
If you’re already familiar with Nikon flash (and I am not) I assume that you may have an easier time than I did acquainting myself with the 900. It’s complicated, but thankfully has an intuitive interface.
The flash automatically gets ISO and focal length from the camera, and can zoom with the camera to a whopping 200mm. Even when I used it in conjunction with my monster Sigma 300-800 F/5.6 lens, the flash had amazing reach.
The flash can pan horizontally 180 degrees in either direction and can fire a full burst faster than any Canon flash I ever used.
One of the more interesting things about the SB-900 is its ability to offer three distinct lighting patterns: even, standard and center-weighted. These are self explanatory. The center-weighted mode is particularly important to me, since I’ll almost always use this flash with a telephoto lens. The center-weighted option allows the flash to concentrate in the center, giving it more reach when used with a telephoto – nice, nice, touch.
The build quality of the SB-900 is fantastic. The thing feels solid as a rock and I have high hopes that it will survive the eventual, “Scott gets busy, doesn’t pay attention and drops the flash on the ground” test.
When it comes to flash units, my big concerns are how much light and how fast. On the how much front – a big bunch is how much. I was using the flash at the Venice Rookery doing some experimental night shots of birds in flight and on perch and someone standing next to me said “Wow Scott shout a warning when you use that thing. I was merely standing beside you and got zapped!” As for recycle time, it’s just under four seconds in my tests to a full power flash, but you can set the unit to fire MUCH faster if you just want quick flash without full power.
A couple of other quick notes…
The unit is firmware updatable. That’s something I’ve never heard of in a flash unit. It also works automatically with DX and FX lenses. The SB-900 also has a larger AF-assist beam to cover the 51 focus points of the newer Nikons. The SB-900 has Commander mode which controls up to three Speedlight groups or unlimited individual Speedlights. The LCD is large and readable. The SB-900 uses four batteries where the SB-800 used five. There is a flash sync cord on the SB-900 which makes it adaptable to use with my studio lighting system – YES!
I have had limited experience with the SB-900, but what I see so far I really like. I’ve not had any trouble with the unit over-heating, but then again, in the type of photography I do, that’s not likely to happen. I like the power and the flexibility. My only complaints are that this flash has a steep learning curve and costs quite a pretty penny. For $500 (retail – Amazon has it at $425) you can get a couple of entry-level studio flash heads and stands.
Price aside, the Speedlight SB-900 is a great flash. It’s overkill for many, but just right for the serious amateur, aspiring pro or full-time working photographer who wants a heavy-duty flash unit with lots of power, fast re-cycle times and lots of creative control.
PS: I forgot to mention the guide numbers. In the old days these were more important because before TTL, we had to do actual math and figure out how much flash to use. But in the old days, we never had flash units with this power – Guide number: 34 meters/111.5 feet (ISO 100), 48 meters/157.5 feet (ISO 200) 157.5 feet – WOW!