Thursday, November 6, 2008

Nikon SB-900 Speedlight Review

The Nikon SB-900 was announced along with the D700 so it's release was a bit unnoticed while the D700 got all of the press and fanfare. I got this flash awhile back when it was first released and having used it quite a bit now I decided to give it a quick review.

First of all, the SB-900 isn't simply a re-hashed version of the SB-800. At first glance the most apparent feature is that it's big. Huge, actually. Mounted on the D90 it simply dwarfs the camera. Not only is the SB-900 bigger than the SB-800 they completely redesigned the user interface making it much more intuitive than the SB-800. The SB-900 is also more flexible than the SB-800, it can detect whether it's attached to a DX or FX camera which adjusts the zoom head so that you get the most out of the light output.

The redesigned user interface is the best feature in my eyes. Nikon replaced the push button "power on" with a switch. Very handy. It allows you to power up the SB-900 almost instantly. Probably my favorite feature of the whole Speedlight is that you can use the switch to set the flash to Master or Remote. No longer do you have to press and hold buttons for 2 seconds to set these features. The switch also features a simple lock so you don't accidentally change the setting. Pressing a small button in the center of the switch allows you to chose Master or Remote. Another interesting feature is the addition of a scroll wheel to change the settings. This is similar to Canon's Speedlites and it works great. It makes it so much quicker to scroll through the settings. Great addition Nikon! Entering the Custom Settings Menu is easy, just press and hold the OK button.

Another one of the top new features of the SB-900 is the filter system. With the SB-800 and SB-600 using a filter required you to slip a filter tab in between where the bounce card / diffuser reside. The filter rarely stayed flat and allowed plenty of un-filtered light through. Nikon has given the SB-900 a clear filter holder that snaps on right over the flash head. The new filter also have a code imprinted on them and a special sensor on the SB-900 reads the code so your camera knows which filter is being used and the White Balance can be adjusted accordingly. Very smart. The SB-900 comes with a couple of filters for balancing the flash with tungsten or fluorescent lighting. Nikon list a filter set (SJ-3), which includes additional color balancing filters as well as red, blue, yellow, and amber filters. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find this anywhere. C'mon Nikon, what's the hold up? Additionally, the SW-13H diffusion dome that's included in the box actually snaps on right over top of the filter holder. Genius design.

Some of the other new features I like:

  • Faster recycle times. The SB-900 recycles nuch faster than the SB-800, giving you a 2.3 second recycle time after a full power shot (using 2600 MaH Ni-Mh recyclable batteries) as opposed to the 3.5 seconds of the SB-800. This is without an extra battery pack like the SB-800 uses (the SB-800 recycles at 2.7 second with the battery pack). Additionally Nikon offers the SD-9 battery pack which allows even faster recycle times.
  • Better zoom range. The SB-900 allows coverage of 17-200 with a FX camera or 12-200 with a DX camera.
  • Lighting distribution patterns. The SB-900 allows you to change the shape of the "beam" of light emitted. There are three choices CW, STD, EVEN. This gives you a tightly focused beam (CW), a standard beam (STD), or a more widely distributed light pattern (EVEN). This option is buried in the CSM. I would have liked a quicker way to access this feature.
  • Improved swivel head. You can now swivel the flash head 180ยบ in both directions making it much more flexible for doing bounce flash in on the fly settings such as weddings or photojournalism.
All in all, the SB-900 is the best flash on the market. It's quite expensive at $500, but you get a lot more features and an easier to use flash in the bargain.

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