Nikon SB-800 electronic flash and accessories

The SB-800 is the current top flash model for Nikon DSLR cameras. It has a guide number of 38 (m) and works either as an iTTL wireless slave or an iTTL wireless controller. This flash has been reviewed several times on other web sites, so I will not go through its technical specifications. I can say that, in my experience, it works fine and is worth the much higher price compared with the SB-600, the next-down model. The difference between these models is not so much in guide number (30 for the the SB-600) as in the display, user interface (I find the SB-800 menus much easier to navigate), and overall broader capabilities. The display is a true pixel matrix in the SB-800, so it can display different pages of graphics for different functions (as opposed to a single page with fixed shapes in the SB-600). The SB-600 is a scaled-down model lacking, e.g., controller mode, compatibility with certain accessories, and has more restricted zoom and distance ranges, as well as fewer operating modes.

The SB-800 accepts 4 AA batteries. It is supplied with the SD-800 accessory for using a fifth AA battery that greatly shortens the recharge time and somewhat extends the number of flashes per battery charge. It substitutes the door of the battery compartment and protrudes on the right side of the flash. I always use it, and find it well worth the extra hassle of recharging a fifth battery. I use ordinary NiMH batteries and always carry a spare set in my backpack. I attached four Velcro pads to the head for light-modifying accessories.

In the picture above, you can see the red window covering the autofocus-assist light. There are two lights with different angles of illumination. The small round window nearby is for a sensor used for non-TTL automatic flash exposure. The larger round window near the battery compartment is the receiver for iTTL wireless signals. To make sure it works, it should point in the general direction of the controller (it usually works well indoors on light reflected from walls and ceiling). The small rectangular black door on the front covers a socket used for connection to external power sources. The two gold-plated contacts near the flash shoe are used for another accessory of this type. A standard flash sync socket and a 3-pin proprietary Nikon socket (for connecting to additional Nikon flashes) are placed on the left side, not visible in these pictures. A diffuser for wide-angle lenses (down to 17 mm) and a small white card reflector can slide out from above the flash window. Without the diffuser, light fall-off at the edges is visible with lenses of less than 24 mm.

Without extra diffusers, the head automatically zooms to cover the field of view of lenses between 24 and 105 mm (except when controlled remotely, in which case zoom is manual). Actually, the field of illumination abundantly covers that of these lenses if a DSLR is used. The coverage actually seems to be designed for a film camera. I have seen elsewhere a suggestion to manually zoom in the SB-800 by one step, if used with a DSLR, in order to gain about half to one stop of extra exposure (zooming concentrates the flash coverage onto a smaller area, and therefore increases the effective guide number). It is also possible that Nikon provided the extra flash coverage area in order to allow for a flash mounted on a rather long bracket, or a flash not properly pointed toward the subject.

The flash shoe is a metal plate, and very sturdy. It is designed to carry the weight of the flash (over half a kg with five batteries), and of accessories mounted on the flash head. A knob at the back of the mount locks the flash onto a Nikon camera or accessory by extending a metal pin into a proprietary hole of the socket. The knob also locks the flash on non-Nikon sockets by pressing two metal latches against the sides of the mount.

The AS-19 stand (distributed with the SB-800) can be used to place the flash on a flat surface or to mount it on a tripod head. It is a light and flat plastic thing, easy to stow away in a bag. It does not feel very strong, but it does the job. The above figure shows the placement of the hole for the locking pin mentioned above. You should use only the rightmost flash mount in the above figure with the SB-800. The other two mounts are for different flash models.

The SB-800 comes with a slightly padded SS-800 soft bag I never use, the AS-19 stand for table-top or tripod mounting, a SW-10H diffuser that mounts on the head, and two gelatin filters to convert the flash to the colour temperature of incandescent and fluorescent lighting. The original SW-10H diffuser (mounted on the flash above) is useful, and sits tightly on the head. It allows an even illumination with lenses down to 14 mm, and also softens the illumination by reflecting light off walls and ceilings. The second diffuser in the picture above is a non-Nikon accessory, is not shaped correctly to fit the flash head, and fits precariously in spite of being marketed specifically for the SB-800. This seems to be a common problem with this type of third-party accessory.

Diffusers like the ones above do make a big difference in indoors settings, if walls and ceiling are available to reflect light. However, the only thing that such a small diffuser can do is to spread the flash light to a wider angle than the flash alone. It does not increase significantly the surface of the flash head, and therefore is not a substitute for a soft box, which works by diffusing light through a large front window (and usually also by diffusing light inside the box before it leaves through its window).

A miniature soft box can be useful in macro and close-up photography. The one shown above (Lumiquest Mini Softbox) is a bit too small to be effective for ordinary photography, although it does make a difference in improvised portraits. It is sufficiently small and lightweight to fit unnoticed in a camera bag.

The above no-brand diffuser is collapsible and performs in much the same way as the preceding one. It fits less steadily, but takes even less space in a bag. It came as part of a cheap set of accessories I bought for different purposes, and although not remarkable in any respect it may be of use.

The above combination of reflector and soft box (Lumiquest Big Bounce) is at the borderline of what is practical to carry and use. It is unnecessarily heavy and feels like it is going to fall down at any moment.  It is made of heavy cardboard sandwiched between heavy plastic sheet. It is possible to build a much lighter reflector of the same size and similar performance with cheap semi-rigid white plastic sheeting. There are also small soft boxes (about 30 by 30 cm) of thin cloth held rigid by umbrella-style steel rods, which are far lighter and at least as effective (albeit they take up more space when mounted on the flash).

An accessory known as Better Beamer or flash extender increases the power of the flash by about two stops by concentrating the beam. It is practical for use with telephoto lenses of at least 300 mm. The above picture shows a no-brand version much cheaper than the Better Beamer (possibly a copy of the latter, or a non-branded spin-off from the same factory that produces the Better Beamer). It consists of a plastic Fresnel lens mounted with Velcro on two lateral plastic supports, and an elastic band to hold it on the flash head. It disassembles to an almost flat package. It can be used also on a flash head that has Velcro pads for other accessories, as long as the top and bottom pads are not too large. There are different models to fit several brands and models of flash. The one for the SB-800 fits quite well.

This accessory is useful when shooting wildlife, and in general for relatively small subjects that lie too far away to be inside the flash range. It is better for fill flash than as the only source of illumination, because it gives a very flat, rabbit-in-the-headlights illumination. Because of its narrow angle of illumination, it must point in the same direction as the lens, so it is difficult to mount it a distance from the lens axis to correct the above problem. You should set the flash to maximum zoom to ensure that light is concentrated onto the lens.

The plastic Fresnel lens held at a distance from the flash head is what concentrates the beam. There are comparable Fresnel lenses sold as generic magnifiers for reading (I have seen several sizes up to 25 by 30 cm, and even larger ones for solar furnaces) that can be used to build home-made accessories of the same type. The main trick to remember is that the lens is supposed to sit some distance from the flash. You can find out the optimal distance by testing against a wall a few metres away. There is a distance that gives the brightest, not-too-narrow spot on the wall. Lesser distances provide a broader illumination angle. Higher distances spill out flash light around the edges of the lens. Larger lenses seem to be more effective.

Do not carry the camera/flash with a flash extender mounted for an extended time in the sunlight, and do not leave the camera/flash unattended with the flash extender mounted in the sunlight. There are reports of sunlight being concentrated by the Fresnel lens of the flash extender and burning a hole in the flash, clothing or photographer's skin. There may also be a risk of starting a fire.

Flash brackets can be used to mount the flash some distance from the camera and provide a better illumination. The above are generic ones from my toolbox. The second one allows the height of the flash head with respect to the lens to be changed. These brackets require the use of a flash mount with a socket for a standard tripod screw at the bottom (see below).

Macro and close-up photography requires the flash to be placed and oriented with precision. There are plenty of commercial brackets for this purpose, but I prefer to use the above, which are assembled from cheap photographic accessories. The larger one above uses an extensible column mounted between two small Velbon tripod ball-heads. The Nikon SC-23 cable is mounted on top. This cable allows the flash to be used off-camera. The smaller bracket above has only one ball-head, and can be used when a lesser weight and versatility is needed.

The SC-23 cable allows the SB-800 to be used as if it sat onto the camera body (as far as the SB-800 is concerned, it does believe it is sitting on a camera when used with this cable). The cable may also be useful to reduce the number of pre-flashes. When attached to the camera body or this cable, the SB-800 pre-flashes once to measure exposure, then flashes during exposure. In wireless mode, the controller and the SB-800 pre-flash a few more times to exchange exposure values. However, often I find it more practical not to use a cable, and to control the SB-800 wirelessly with the built-in flash of my D70s and D200.

Some users have reported that the built-in flash used as a controller may contribute visibly to the exposure, especially in close-up and macro, but I don't have this problem. Normally I place the SB-800 as close to the subject as practical, so its light completely washes out the controller's. You may have the above problem if the controller is much closer to the subject than the slave flash. In some cameras, like the D200, you can choose whether the built-in flash acts as controller alone, or as both controller and flash (thus contributing to the exposure). You must choose the former setting if you want to lessen the risk of the built-in flash contributing visibly to the illumination of the subject.

To attach the SB-800 to a tripod head, you can use the stand supplied with the flash, the SC-23 cable, or a mount like the AS-10 shown above. If you use a non-Nikon mount, make sure that it does not short the contacts of the flash, or it will not work in wireless mode.

Third party mounts designed to hold flash umbrellas, like the ones shown above, can also be used to mount an SB-800 on a tripod or light stand, and as components to build special-purpose brackets (although I prefer the higher flexibility of small ball heads for this use). The mount at the left in the above picture suffers from the problem of shorting some of the electrical contacts of the flash. In this case, you must cover the offending metal surfaces with a bit of insulating tape, or remove the metal insert that causes the problem. A locking hole for Nikon flashes can also be drilled in third-party mounts if desired.

A sporadic problem has occurred to me while using the SB-800 under remote control by the D70s and D200. The camera and flash would occasionally stop flashing, and exposure would be only in ambient light. I discovered that, in all cases, the cause was the brim of my hat touching the camera flash. It is sufficient to touch the extended camera flash even lightly to stop it from working. The camera simply believes that the built-in flash is not extended, and exposes for ambient light instead.