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Nikon Speedlight Flash Guide
© 2006 KenRockwell.com

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Introduction

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I hope to document what I've discovered before I forget it. Things get crazier fast as soon as you start using two or more flashes at the same time.

I have never found any sources of information that explain the Nikon flash system as a complete system. The instruction manuals and those awful little aftermarket books just tell about either a camera or a flash all by itself, but not how they work together when you start setting both camera and flash into odd modes simultaneously.

Film

The beauty of the Nikon flash system is that you don't need to worry about it; it usually just works great for film cameras. This is one of the reasons I prefer Nikon to other brands like Leica and Canon.

Buy any Nikon flash (Speedlight) made in the last 15 years with a TTL setting and it will work perfectly with any modern or old Nikon film camera. The only real difference between flashes is how far away you can get and still have enough light. Honest, all the other features are meaningless for practical photography.

Digital

Digital is a new world because the camera can't read the flash's light off the film. The digital sensors are so shiny that it won't work. Therefore the digital cameras have to use preflashes and guess the actual exposure.

Nikon's first generation digital flash system, called, D-TTL, was crummy. It didn't expose consistently, meaning I had to tweak the exposure for every shot. The D100 and D1X used this. Flashes whose model ended in -DX used this system. These flashes, as well as all the older film flashes, are almost useless on the latest digital cameras.

Nikon's current digital camera flash system, i-TTL, is very good. It's in the D2X, D200, D70, and D50. There are only two gotchas:

1.) The preflashes can be visible and make some subjects blink for every shot. Whoops! Use the flash exposure lock feature if your camera has it to eliminate the preflashes.

2.) The only flashes compatible with i-TTL are the SB600 and SB800, and the R1 macro system. All other older flashes won't work in TTL mode with the newest cameras, which leaves you with the primitive manual mode.

What sort of flash do I need?

The good news is that Nikon completely reinvented and greatly improved flash performance with their latest digital SLRs like the D2X, D50 and D70. The bad news is that all the older flashes won't work properly on the latest cameras and that only the SB-600 and SB-800 work at all with the newest i-TTL system. If you have a recent digital SLR you're doing yourself a favor to throw out your old SB-80DX or whatever and get an SB-600 and SB-800.

More good news is that any flash works great with any of the film cameras. This is another beauty of the Nikon system: all the brains are in your camera, not the flash. Therefore any old TTL speedlight or flash works great with all the features of the new cameras. Go buy the cheapest used TTL speedlight you can if you are on a budget.

Fancier flashes usually only add pointless parlor tricks like repeating strobe lighting.

Ignore the temptation to buy a fancy flash based on whiz-bang features. All a flash does is pump out light as controlled by your camera. Far more significant to your photos is how you choose to diffuse that light and how you choose to balance it with ambient light. No one really uses the stroboscopic or other oddball modes.

Some Nikon flashes have built-in wireless slaves. This is a very cool feature if you use more than one flash. See here about how to use the wireless feature.

What about flash zoom heads?

Ignore these. They help give a little more flash range and save a little battery power for use with telephotos, but otherwise they just complicate the flash.

You always can use a lens longer than whatever the zoom range of a flash is rated.

How to use flash

Sync Modes

Oddly, you should turn the flash on any time you photograph people outdoors, and turn it off (or use SLOW sync mode) indoors.

Using flash outdoors in harsh light will help light up people's faces and dark portions of the image and allow them to look natural on film. Do this even with disposable and point-and-shoot cameras. The Nikon flash system almost always gives great results with no fooling around.

Indoors use the SLOW sync mode. It allows the background of the image to fill in with light and look natural. If you use flash indoors and don't select SLOW mode your backgrounds will be dark and nasty, and if you shoot prints they probably will get printed too light and wash out your subjects.

In A and P exposure modes and normal flash sync mode most cameras go no slower than 1/60 regardless of how dark things get. Selecting SLOW sync mode is the way to get the backgrounds to fill in with natural light you see with your eyes.

Try the rear sync mode, too. If the exposures get long in SLOW mode the normal action is for the flash to go off at the beginning of the exposure. When this happens your subjects think the picture is done, when in fact it is just starting. REAR mode saves the flash for the end of a long exposure, so people tend to stay still for the duration of your photo.

Yes, slow sync mode will cause some motion to blur. You see this all the time in National Geographic Magazine so get used to it.

You probably don't need the redeye reduction mode so long as you have an off-camera flash. The redeye reduction modes really annoy people when you are photographing them, and it also makes you miss the shot. Forget the redeye reduction mode.

Diffusers

Use a diffuser or a white card above the flash to soften the light for a natural look. Do this all the time, even for fill flash. Diffusing your fill flash will give a natural look much better than the harsh fill of the direct flash. This way you won't have to dial down the fill level as many people who shoot bare flash have to. By having to dial down the fill level to hide the fill they also reduce its effectiveness. Using a diffuser instead to soften the fill effect allows you to retain the correct fill level.

The Lumiquest pocket bouncer

This diffuser for about $20 (or make one yourself from a white index card and rubber band) will make a huge improvement in your flash photos. you can get it here.

Get a piece of white cardboard and tape it to the flash somehow with the flash pointed straight up. Angle the board at 45 degrees so the light bounces off of it. Easy. The bigger the better. 8-1/2 x 11" is about as big as you dare go for practicality.

The point of all this is to light up the white card so that the source of the light, from the subject's point of view, is bigger than just the little flash head. A bigger light source makes softer shadows. As an example think of the sharp shadows seen on a sunny day versus the soft shadows seen during overcast.

Why do flash photos come out too light indoors?

Expect this if you shoot print film.

Prints almost always come out too light with flash indoors.

Any $300 SLR camera has a more advanced meter than a $150,000 mini-lab, and people still blame the camera. The mini lab looks for an average exposure.

Since most people shoot flash in regular sync and not slow sync mode indoors, the backgrounds are usually completely black. The minilab sees all this black and makes the print lighter, so much lighter that the people you want exposed properly are sometimes washed-out.

It is unfortunate that the default modes of all cameras are the wrong (regular) sync for flash photos in dim light.

Don't ever make exposure judgments based on prints!

The two TTL exposure modes

Ignore anything about 3D exposure metering. That's 99% marketing BS. Use any sort of Matrix metering and you're all set; the 3D feature is unnecessary.

Here's what you need to know:

Nikon has two TTL modes, and they both work with any Nikon lens. The additional fluff added by a D lens is minimal. These even work sort of OK with manual focus lenses on AF cameras.

Here are the two modes:

1.) Standard TTL mode. This mode, originally introduced 20 years ago, makes a correct, full exposure for the flash alone. It ignores any ambient light, and in fact, if you have ambient light contributing to your exposure you may wind up with overexposure. Standard TTL mode is the only TTL mode on older cameras like the F3, FE-2, and FA. You select Standard TTL mode on newer cameras either by selecting MANUAL exposure mode on the camera, or hitting a mode button on the flash (if it has one) until you see only "TTL" displayed without the Matrix symbol.

In standard TTL mode there is no automatic compensation for fill-in. The only time to use this mode is for photos lit only by flash, for instance, macro shots lit by flash alone. In this mode you get nothing except a good exposure by the flash alone, and in my experience, a one stop underexposure on the F100.

2.) Matrix TTL mode (other almost identical variations include the 3D and other modes) This mode is intended to balance flash with ambient light, so long as there is enough ambient light. If you are in normal sync mode and the light gets too dim to make a good exposure at 1/60 sec, the flash level is supposed to increase to provide a flash-only exposure. In this case make sure to select SLOW sync mode to allow the background to be lit by the ambient light.

Matrix flash mode reduces the flash level one or two stops, depending on what sort of a mood it's in. You get Matrix TTL mode with a modern camera in A, P or S mode. The SB-28 will also display "TTL" and either a Matrix logo or, with non-CPU (AF or P) lenses, the sun and head logo.

If you want to twiddle with the ambient and flash exposures separately, use A or P or S mode and do any of the following:

a.) Adjust + and - buttons of the SB-28 to vary flash output, which is fill level.
b.) Adjust F100 exposure compensation to vary level of flash and ambient light together
c.) Adjust F100 exposure compensation and vary SB-28 in the OPPOSITE direction to vary level of ambient light with flash fill remaining the same. In other words, set F100 to -1 and SB-28 to +1 to darken background while keeping flash fill the same.

Do D lenses do anything?

No.

D lenses don't do anything for you unless you need to make flash photos straight into mirrors, in which case the D lenses will give more exposure. That's it, honest.

My SB-28 preflashes on my F100 with even non-D AF lenses in the TTL Matrix modes.

My old SB-23 with non-D lenses on my F100 gives great exposures under every nasty situation I can dream up deliberately to try to fool it.

Nikon may be trying to poison you against the non-D gear you already own by trying to imply that you only get great flash exposure with D lenses, just as they tried to poison people in the 1980s by trying to imply through targeted folklore that we couldn't get the S and P exposure modes on certain manual focus cameras unless we traded in our AI lenses for the new AI-s.

Look in the manuals and you'll see no mention of lack of preflashes with non-D lenses. You can see the preflash if you quickly wiggle a single finger in front of the camera while firing it. You'll see two fingers lit.

This is tough to explain with words. You also can use a fan instead of a wiggling finger. Do something so that a moving object will seem to be stopped by the light of the flash.

Now flashes at different times will seem to show the object in a different place. This way any preflashes will show a multiple image to your eyes of the moving object.

The camera fires more preflashes if it is having more trouble trying to guess the exposure, too.

TESTS

SB-400 new 16 November 2006

SB-600: Nikon's most practical in 2005

SB-800: Nikon's best in 2005

SU-800 Remote Commander

SB-R200 Remote Macro Flash

SB-28DX Digital version of SB-28 for D1, D1X, D100 and Fuji S1, S2, S3

SB-28: extreme power and speed in a small package

SB-23: fantastic for fill-in use

SB-22: old, cheap and good!

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