First Look: Nikon's Portable Lighting System

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At a Glance
  • Nikon SB-800 Speedlight i-TTL Shoe Mount Flash

  • Nikon SB-600 Speedlight

Nikon Creative Lighting System and D2x digital SLR camera
Nikon Creative Lighting System and D2x digital SLR camera
Setting up multiple flash units and correctly lighting a subject to get stunning shots can mean a lot of trial and error--a problem when you're outside the studio and setup time is in short supply. Formal events like weddings are typical examples. Recently I got the chance to test Nikon's Creative Lighting System, an exceptionally flexible multiflash arrangement that is quick to use and truly in a class of its own. It's ideal for situations where studio lighting is too complicated and cumbersome.

The Creative Lighting System consists of two compact flash units--the $200 SB-600 and $320 SB-800 AF Speedlights--and the 12.4-megapixel, $5000 Nikon D2x (see our review) or 4.1-megapixel, $3500 D2Hs digital SLR camera body. You can add more flashes to the system, too, but they must be one of those two models. What makes the system so interesting is a wireless link that lets you control multiple flash units from one master flash unit that you mount on the camera. The output of all of the flashes in your setup is linked to the camera's through-the-lens (TTL) metering, which should result in more accurate exposures. According to Nikon, no other flash system extends TTL integration to multiple units.

You attach an SB-800 to the hot shoe of the camera, either directly or through a special cable. (In the wireless system, the SB-600 can be used only as a remote flash.) The attached SB-800 becomes the master unit, and each remote flash is assigned to one of three groups in the master menu. Each group in theory can have an unlimited number of individual flash units as members, but Nikon states that in practice you typically max out at three units per group. (More remote flashes may produce too much light and confuse the master unit.) Even so, that gives you three groups of three, plus a master unit, for a total of up to ten units--more than enough for most situations where you are using small, portable flashes.

Through the master flash, you can assign relative power settings to each group, enabling you to set, say, your main flash for a portrait at full power, your two background lights with 1/3-stop less power, and your hair light (used in portrait shots) with 2/3-stop less. If you shoot a test and the camera's LCD playback shows that the background is too bright, you can quickly lower the power for the background group at the master flash's control panel and shoot again. You don't have to tell your assistant to get off his lazy butt and go over to the backgrounds! Studio flash systems and some portable systems have more power and versatility, but they won't work with a camera on the fly like that. I found myself making lighting changes much faster than I could with my studio lighting.

The flash units are fully loaded with more advanced features that integrate nicely with the Nikon cameras. When used as a single flash, each will, for example, automatically adjust the light spread to match the current zoom setting of the camera lens. Each also emits light bursts to assist the camera's auto-focus function in low light. The SB-800 has a modeling light button, which sends a rapid series of low-level flashes that simulates a continuous light source; with it, you can get an idea of what a photo will look like before you take the shot. The unit also has a built-in bounce-flash card--useful where you have ceilings that are too high for normal bounce-flash use. Both models come with a nifty little base that the hot shoe foot slides into, allowing the unit to sit on a flat surface or, via a tripod screw, to attach to various light stands or booms.

Despite the system's multitude of options and features, I found it intuitive to use. The instruction manual is pretty dense, even more so than the one for the camera, but I got the system up and running right away, with only a couple of consultations of the manual.

One small complaint: The wireless communication system is light-based, and so each remote flash must be positioned in line of sight with the master unit. The sensor for this system is located on the side of the each flash's case. The ability of the flash heads to tilt and rotate means you can position the sensor toward the master unit and still aim the flash head where you want, but having to remember to adjust the units that way is a pain in the neck. More than a few times I took shots where the remote didn't fire the first time because I had forgotten to note the light sensor position. I'm used to slave sensors on studio lights that are omnidirectional and not dependent on alignment.

Though you can't expect too much from a hot shoe-mounted flash system, I was somewhat disappointed in the Creative Lighting System's options for modifying light output. I'm accustomed to working with a studio system that has interchangeable reflectors, spot attachments, soft boxes, and so on; other portable flash systems do offer some of these options. Though you can easily add separate diffusers and filters for the remote flashes, it would be nice to have something more than the little retractable white-bounce card and the small diffusion dome that come with the SB-800 when it's mounted on the camera.

Another item of note is that the Creative Lighting System doesn't work in conjunction with other flash equipment. My studio flash, for example, couldn't trigger the Nikon system's remotes. And though the camera-mounted SB-800 would trigger my slave lighting, they were not in sync with the camera, and the lighting couldn't be seen in the images.

All in all, though this system has limitations--especially when compared with studio lighting--I think it would be an awesome tool for many professionals working on location, where speed is a priority.

Nikon Creative Lighting System



Nikon's SB-600 and SB-800 Speedlights make a great combo for difficult flash photography outside of the studio.
List: $530 (two units)
Marc Simon has been a professional photographer in the San Francisco Bay Area for more than 20 years, using both traditional and digital technologies.

This story, "First Look: Nikon's Portable Lighting System" was originally published by PCWorld.

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At a Glance
  • Nikon SB-800 Speedlight i-TTL Shoe Mount Flash

  • Nikon SB-600 Speedlight

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