Nikon Speedlight SB-800 review and tips
As of early 2006 Nikon Speedlight SB-800 is the company's top-of-the-line flash which fully supports Nikon Creative Lighting System (CLS) when used with compatible camera bodies and lenses. Whereas the speedlight can be used with older Nikon cameras in the modes that those cameras support as well as offers easy-to-use manual modes, the most significant reason why one would want to use the SB-800 over its predecessors is employing the full range of features offered by the CLS.
The SB-800 is exactly as powerful as the SB-80DX (Guide Number: 38m/125ft at ISO100 and head zoomed to 35mm position); its profile is not too dissimilar to that of the predecessor, too. The speedlight also uses the same metal flash foot and new locking lever first seen on the SB80DX and SB50DX. This improved design feels more robust and is faster to operate when compared with locking dial and plastic flash foot on pre-SB80DX speedlights.
As its predecessor the SB–800 boasts modeling illuminator—you press a dedicated button at the back of the flash and the speedlight fires repeatedly at a reduced flash output level thus allowing one to preview illumination of the actual flash lighting as well as quality of shadows cast and reflections. Whereas this probably is an insignificant feature for digital camera shooters as it is always easier and more reliable to simply take a picture and see the result on the camera's LCD screen, the function will most certainly be appreciated by those using film cameras. Very usefully, it works in manual modes, too and can be utilized when using the speedlight with manual cameras.
The speedlight also comes with a dedicated diffusion dome. When attached to the flash it automatically sets zoom head to 14mm position and produces softer flash light. Alternatively, one can use built-in wide-flash adapter which allows adjusting zoom head to 14mm and 17mm settings. When shooting range allows I use the diffusion dome almost all the time as I like the fill-flash produced with it most. Also in the box you will find a speedlight stand, a soft case and two coloured gel filters (one for shooting in fluorescent light, the other for shooting in incandescent/tungsten light). The main reason for using the latter is obtaining a more uniform colour of light; however, they can be used for creative purposes as well.
Flash output compensation can be set directly on the speedlight in a +/-3EV range (it actually can be done separately and simultaneously for different flash modes); this can be further combined with flash output compensation set in camera if the latter has provision for this (as, for example, the D70s). Beware, though, that the speedlight might not actually have enough power to complete a requested flash output if you set a "+" compensation too high.
At the same time there are several aspects that are new and stand out. First, the SB-800's battery compartment cover can be replaced with a recycling battery pack which takes one AA element and allows decreasing recycling times (from four to three seconds for a full power dump). Whereas using an odd number of elements might be somewhat inconvenient for photographers who use rechargeable batteries, this feature should come in very handy when recycling times are of major importance.
The speedlight also boasts a new dot-matrix LCD screen which looks a bit old-fashioned and coarse. This choice of Nikon engineers, however, appears justified as the flash offers such a comprehensive set of features ranging from a variety of manual modes to advanced wireless multiple flash lighting that it would have probably been impossible to fit all necessary graphical symbols into the screen had other design options been adopted.
The SB-800 offers an overwhelming number of features and functions which at first might appear quite confusing - especially if this is your first Nikon top-of-the-line speedlight. To make things look a bit clearer, let us have a look at how the flash can be used as everything it has in store can be more easily reviewed on this basis.
Single flash photography
The most common and easy use of the speedlight is as a standalone unit, i.e. when you simply mount one flash onto your camera or use it off-camera with a SC-28 TTL cord. In this use the speedlight offers different degrees of flash control automation, which includes the following (click on the links below for details and tips on each particular mode):
fully-automated TTL modes (TTL stands for Through-The-Lens and takes the shape of i-TTL with CLS-compatible cameras, D-TTL with digital SLRs not compatible with the CLS and plain-vanilla TTL with film cameras which support this mode) - flash control is implemented primarily by the camera;
non-TTL auto flash modes (auto-aperture, AA; aperture, A) - flash output is controlled automatically but by the speedlight only; note that the SB-600 does not have this mode;
manual modes (distance priority manual flash, GN; manual flash; repeating flash) - you are behind the wheel of a manual transmission car here.
Multiple flash photography
This, by far, is the coolest feature of the CLS and the Speedlight SB-800 in particular - one can easily use several flash units wirelessly to create sophisticated flash lighting without hassle. In this application the SB-800 can be used as a commander flash, in which case it controls remote flash units, or as a remote flash, wherein it is controlled by the master/commander flash on the camera. Communication between flash units and flash control can be done fully automatically and wirelessly, which is called advanced wireless lighting; alternatively, it can be done wirelessly with the use of the older SU-4 type wireless multiple flash shooting or using cords.
Here I have to note that the SB-800 has one censor for wireless remote flash operation which is located on the speedlight's right side. Nikon advanced wireless lighting examples show flash units located at both sides of the camera facing the subject in front of the camera as well as behind the subject; however, the manuals advise to position remote flash units so that light from the master speedlight can reach wireless censor(s) on the remote unit(s). This is not a problem in, say, a room where pre-flashes can bounce around and ultimately reach the censor(s); however, this might be problematic when using multiple flashes wirelessly in an open space where pre-flashes from the master speedlight would need to directly reach wireless censors on remote flash units. (Tip: when positioning remote flash unit(s) first make sure that the wireless sensor faces the master speedlight and then rotate flash head so that it lights the subject as you desire).
Nikon CLS features
The SB-800 fully supports the Nikon CLS; note, though, that some of the system's features can only be activated from the camera (e.g., Auto FP High-Speed Synchronization) or are intangible altogether (e.g., flash colour information communication).
As if all of the above were not enough the speedlight also boasts custom settings (heck, they say that even camera strap of the Nikon D3 is going to have custom settings, too :) ). They are used to allow for additional modal operation of the speedlight as well as fine-tune such options as LCD panel brightness or the time before the flash goes into standby mode.
All of the above more often than not is interconnected; moreover, it all is highly integrated with the camera/lens controls and settings. Whereas Nikon engineers should be applauded for achieving such a high degree of integration and modality it does take quite some time to figure out how certain things are done and specific settings are interrelated. Unfortunately, SB-800 manual is not very straightforward and needs a manual, too; moreover, you will need to read both the speedlight's and your camera's manuals at the same time to figure out how it all works.
The SB-800, without a doubt, is the best Nikon speedlight ever. Fully compatible and producing excellent results with film and digital, it offers a wide range of modes and features which makes its use easy and flexible with both. Any drawbacks? Apart from a relatively steep learning curve I cannot think of any so far but will try being picky and come up with some as I continue using the speedlight.