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Nigel and Me….

Apr 11

In Advice, Lighting, Thoughts at 7:19am

When Nigel gets hungry, he won’t let me work. He’ll just come up to my laptop and rumble and purr and generally get all sorts of adorable. If that doesn’t work he just starts walking back and forth in front of my computer screen, stepping on random keys. Last week he sent an email to 7 people at the National Geographic. Had to finish that one quick and follow up, lest the venerable editors there thought I had resorted to incomplete sentences with no sign off.


I am using the pop up on the D300 in commander mode.
Leaving the USA on Sunday.
I have (3) SB 800’s, D300 and I am lost….
What I know.
1. Can set them up to all fire wireless using the pop up flash on the D300
What I don’t know or what is the step by step (SB 800 for dummies) how to set up one to use as fill, add power to one less power to one,etc…
I see in the D300 to do this, ok. But to navigate thru the SB800 back and the manual. I just don’t get it……..I write this after 10 t o 12 hours and $20 in batteries. I read the strobist,etc,,,,,,,.
Do anyone know of a blog, book, web site that can give a picture and tell or plain simple (remember SB 800 for dummies) to help me??
A quick response is most welcomed.
Simple in Kentucky

Okay….here we go, as best help as I can be. First off, on the SB 800, if you ever get totally lost, simultaneously depress the mode, and the on/off button and keep ’em depressed for like 3 seconds. The unit factory defaults back to a straight up TTL setting. Can’t tell you how many times that has saved my butt.

The key to the SB800 programming is the SEL dial in the middle of the back of the unit. Depress that for 3 seconds and you’ll get a 4 box grid. (Don’t do this with gloves on. You’ll just mash away and the unit will do nothing. Get your digit square onto that puppy and push.) Toggle right to the upper right box with squiggle lines and flash symbols. Very artful.

Tap SEL again for a split second and the up/down cursor arrow goes live. You can go through options here, and the ones you are concerned with are MASTER and REMOTE, presumably the latter cause you have the pop up in the D300. Toggle down and highlight REMOTE. Depress SEL again for 3 seconds and the REMOTE info panel comes up in the lcd. It says REMOTE in capital letters. You know when you are there. Upper left is channels–double check this against your setting in the pop up. You gotta be on the same channel. Hit SEL again and you highlight the groups box in lower right. A-B-C. You got three flashes, so choice of group is up to you and where you position them. (Note!!!! Just got this straight from Pete Wilkinson below–no C group with the D300!)

Now check your pop up menu. Go to custom option for built in flash…comes up usually as active in the TTL mode. Toggle down to Commander mode. Toggle right. Commander mode comes up, and the pop up is active as a flash, which I will presume you don’t want. (Why would you go to all this trouble and still have the damn pop up active, which is the size of a dime and gives out just as cheap a quality of light? Dunno, except as maybe you put it to minus 3 EV and use is as a wink light fill type deal.)

I digress. Highlight the little box that says TTL. Then toggle downwards ( I believe it is downwards, I don’t own a D300.) You will run through the options, including auto mode, and manual, and then you get to a flat cursor. Ta Da! The pop up is now off as a flash. Will still act as a commander, and still flash. But the flash is a monitor pre-flash, an informational burst of light that occurs milliseconds before the real exposure. Don’t sweat it. It is not gonna register in your real exposure.

Then just zip through with the toggles to A , B or C groups, making sure they are reading TTL. The box to the right is the plus/minus EV area, with you can dial in to your desire. That will drive the power rating of the SB800 remote strobe you just programmed. YOU DON’T HAVE TO PROGRAM A VALUE INTO THE 800 UNIT ITSELF. IT GETS IT’S COMMANDS FROM THE POP UP PROGRAMMING YOU HAVE JUST SET UP! You don’t have to do anything else to the SB800 except make sure the receptor dish is unobstructed. that is the little recessed circular area about the size of an M&M right near the battery chamber. If you use the 5th battery add on chamber, be aware you are cutting the angle of reception this sensor has access to, and therefore may occasionally have trouble tripping it. If I am ever feeling like the remote is in a tough spot to receive the master signal from the pop up, I take the 5th battery chamber off so the sensor’s field of view is clearer.

Make sure when you program the pop up commander menu, you hit OK on the back of the camera. If you don’t, when you close out the menu option, all the settings you just programmed will disappear. Sucks. So remember to hit OK.

OK? Helpful on any level?

As far as arraying the units, and then dialing them in for power settings, I can’t say cause I ain’t there with you. I can say it is a game of ratios, or levels, and it all works depending on your eye. There is no right or wrong answer. Just a couple things to remember. Light has a logic. If the unit looks like it is too far to the side, your subject will be side lit. Try not to open up everything with light. Leave room for shadows. Try to reflect the units off of or through something. Remember, these are small flashes, and the game is to get them to behave like big flashes.


The Nikkor 200 f2 is maybe the sharpest telephoto I have ever used. That’s basically it. And, at f2, the DOF drop off is occasionally really pleasing for portraiture.

Kino Flow Lights….Drug a pair of them out to location the other day. Wanted to see what all the fuss was about, as they are very popular lights indeed right about now. Had a good time, but nothing magical happened. You can see the light, and the quality, to be sure, and that is handy. Kind of missed the pop of a strobe, and the little bird chirp of the recycle though. Small things keep me happy, I guess. Used one 4 tube kino flow on Rick here. Didn’t use both of them cause one didn’t work. Welcome to location shooting. My subject was Rick, who has just an amazing face, and an amazing history.

Pete Wilkinson says:

on April 11, 2008 at 9:11 am

Hi Joe,
The built in commander mode on the D200/D300 only allows 2 remote channels A & B no C unlike the SU800.

Joe McNally says:

on April 11, 2008 at 9:17 am

Thanks Pete….readers alert! check out above…no C group in the D300. Guess I should read manuals…I’ll edit a bit….

Bill McFarland says:

on April 11, 2008 at 11:29 am


The D80 can also drive the flashes and only has the A and B channels. But it works great.

Thanks for the book, the website, and the advice.


alim says:

on April 11, 2008 at 12:38 pm

Hi Joe,

Thanks for sharing these tidbits…

I think it would be very interesting to get your thoughts on remote triggering overall. Would it be possible for you to discuss this topic a bit?

Specifically, I would be interested to hear the advantages, disadvantages, & recommendations of using:

:Nikon SU-800s OR Canon ST-E2s vs.
:Pocketwizards vs.
:Synch Cables

:Also, do flashmeters pay an important role in your work?
:When using PW, how does one determine output settings. Is it a matter of trial and error?

Thanks again for the continued inspiration!


Martin Joergensen says:

on April 11, 2008 at 12:53 pm


Oddly enough I replied to the exact same question from the same photographer in Kentucky on The Nikonians web site. For whatever it’s worth I can repeat the link I posted here – to my own small article on the subject:

It shows the settings on the displays of a D200 and an SB800.

And like otyher commenters I can only agree with you: the people who designed the user interface of the SB800 should be hung upside down until they agreed to redo it in a logical way. The only good thing they did was include a reset function! 😉 More here:

Thanks for a great and very entertaining blog.


Rusty says:

on April 11, 2008 at 1:22 pm

It is slightly frustrating to read about someone having trouble with something pretty simple as firing a flash remotely, especially when they have the gull to mention $20 in batteries. Doesn’t the rest of their equipment cost close to $3k? And why would you have 3 flashes if you didn’t know how to fire them remotely?

As a hobbyist that has lofty aspirations of someday being able to afford a used last year’s model nikon, it was tough to have sympathy. In fact, I commend your detailed instructions for this guy. I would have probably said RTFM or google it…

Love the blog!

KL says:

on April 11, 2008 at 3:53 pm


Simple in Kentucky is very grateful……I mom will love you. She and her , as she calls me “her 732 month old boy” or affectionately ” Kennyboy”. Like I said she help me keep it simple. She is 90 years of age and on her nickel we are going to the panama Canal for 2 weeks. Why Panama? Ask my Mom.

Don’ you just love those Mom’s

And to Martin………..sorry Martin, I did not ask you the question at hand, bu simple a since I am a cultural bigot, (my wife’s words), you got to be from a foreign land and drink Kool aid.

Grateful in Kentucky,

PS kidding Marting

On the way to mosquito land and make my mom look good via Joe McNally and the SB 800

hodds says:

on April 11, 2008 at 7:16 pm

Hey Joe, great article.

I’d really like to start working more with flash/strobes which is why I read Strobist. What I find so unsettling when using flash is to ignore what the under/over exposure readout says. For this reason I think I’m terrible at flash photography.

When people talk about pop your flash on manual and set your exposure to X stops less than ambient – it’s usually at this point that I start crying! Not really but my brain starts farting!!

Have you any tips you could share about the camera metering/flash setting up type posts that use easy language? Remember, I’m a Brit that possesses a brain that toots on a regular basis.


Bill Bogle, Jr. says:

on April 11, 2008 at 8:52 pm


You make it direct and easy to understand. Watching you set up for a photograph is an amazing thing. I had an SB-800, which worked great on camera, but you opened my eyes to all of the possibilities off camera, and with more than one. I got my second, and they rock. My daughter is a 1st year PJ student at RIT, and she got the second SB-800 and the D200 recently, and wanted to know how to set it one manual. I kiddingly said why, as it it so intuitive and wonderful on iTTL, that I wouldn’t go that route, but they have to learn.

This posting was one of the absolute best summaries of the use of the SB-800. It is better than the Nikon four page handout on the SB-800, which went like collector’s items at PhotoExpo this past fall. I am the lucky owner of one of them, and they are great references.

Thanks for all of your helpful postings. You rock!!!

Does the cat do any photoshop editing as well?

Bill Bogle, Jr.

Charles says:

on April 11, 2008 at 9:37 pm

Joe: Thanks for the 200 f/2 feedback. I was curious why you might carry it instead of the 70-200 f/2.8, now I know.

All: another great source for Nikon CLS tips is Dave Black. Scroll down to his August 2004 piece, which reinforces Joe’s how-to:

Kelli Ahern says:

on April 11, 2008 at 10:50 pm

Hi Joe & Nigel,
Love the book, love your work, love the blog! My husband and I work mostly with the SB600’s & SB800’s and use them in sets all around our subjects for more creative work. What’s the best way to get more range from them? Sometimes we want to put an SB6 or 800 further out away from the master, but it won’t flash. So, we end up having to pull in everything tighter around the subject and try for a different shot.

Any Joe wisdom would be appreciated!


Scott Noot says:

on April 11, 2008 at 11:24 pm

If you use the pop up flash to trigger strobes often, you may want to spend $12 and get a SG-31 IR.

It does a brilliant job at getting rid of that annoying little catchlight the pop up flash makes…

Reg Pither says:

on April 12, 2008 at 8:39 am

Thanks for sharing your experiences.

Which Kino Flo’s did you use and how did you power them?

Thanks Again For All,


Iden Ford says:

on April 12, 2008 at 10:28 am

It’s unfortunate about the complexity input into the sb800’s
I own two sb 26’s and stick on manual mode, adjust the power and zoom, voila, they work like a charm when their optical eye’s pick up the flash.
Find as many sb26’s as you can and horde them. They are also about 1/3rd of the price for a good used one.

KL says:

on April 12, 2008 at 12:45 pm


Hi joe,

It’s simple again in Kentucky. I really do appreciate you taking the time to address my issues with the SB 800’s. I can only imagine your work load and scheduling issues. What a guy! A pro in every sense of the word. Grateful indeed.

So, I owe you one. Here is my offer. I live in Kentucky where the most prestigious, beautiful boutique race track is located, Keeneland Race track . Check with your sports shooters in the racing business and they will tell what it is like in the spring and fall meets. Nothing like it. A photographer’s dream, if one likes that sort of thing. It eclipse’s Churchhill Downs (KY derby) by a mile in appeal, style and looks.
Most people do not know this, Keeneland is a not for profit enterprise. All profits go towards “good works” in our community.

Anyway, if you can ever get here (your nickel) be my guest for a day at Keeneland on my nickel. Now Joe, they don’t let guys like in the “tie only” section, but being a great con artist, I am connected to the right people, I know you got to get a tie, to get us in. Front row seats on the finish line. We got to go in mid week, weekends are for the rich and famous. An open invitation. Fact is, you might want to think about a 1, 2 or 3 day workshop to shoot the horse, fans etc.

My last idea was not too good. I said to my AA sponsor last year, “Stan, I got this idea on how to harness the power of the sun and create lighting for studio’s and the like around the world, all for a modest cost.” He rubs his head, gives me bewildered look and says, “Ken, you know how us alcoholics are at times, grandiose in our plans and thinking. “Yes, I know”. “Well he said, how are going to do this?” “Well Stan, it’s like this, I got this thing with NASA, I am going to the sun and harness its power and bring it back to the earth”. “Hmm”, Stan said. “Can you not see, you will burn up if come close to the sun”. ” “No problem Stan”, I am going at night.

He vetoed my trip…..

Simple in Kentucky,

Ken Anderson says:

on April 12, 2008 at 4:54 pm


Quick stupid question. What do you have taped either side of your keyboard?!?


Ken says:

on April 14, 2008 at 1:24 pm

My trip is dedicated to Joe for his help.

I am going to a photcruise starting Tuesday.

All are invited to go via photos and my new blog.

My first post is “throw momma off the boat”.

I know what you all are thinking. What a dark story line….

Well my stepmom, from Long Island, got me hooked on the New Yorker magazine at age 10. Well if you know about the adams family cartoons in this mag…then you understand.

It is kind of potty training issue according to my shrink.

Mosquitoes and all


Jeff Thimell says:

on April 15, 2008 at 9:29 am

Joe –
This was one of your best “help us” articles – thank you! Will you be doing any articles on the D300? Mine seems to run slightly hot – over exposing almost every picture. Any ideas, like have I screwed up the set up some how?

Thanks again,

John says:

on April 16, 2008 at 11:27 am


One recommendation for Ken might be to see about a local Strobist gathering – there have been some numbers of us going to the Strobist meets who’re just running little demos on using the Nikon CLS/AWL controls for the SB-600 and SB-800 flashes.

There’s nothing like seeing the look in someone’s eyes when you’ve shown them how to not only get their flash off camera without a radio remote, but in pulling the EXIF data from the resulting images, so even in TTL mode you can figure out how the camera decided to light the image, reverse engineer it, and learn to light it that way yourself.

Fabiano says:

on April 25, 2008 at 1:13 pm


Mike Smith says:

on June 11, 2008 at 7:42 am

Joe –

Thanks for all your advice on using the SB800. I have a D200, an SU800 and a flock of SBs (3 800s, 1 600). I want to create an image of a martial arts fighter flying through the air from right to left. I want to capture three or four frozen images of him along the blurred path. The last image will be frozen. Among others, I have a 12-24 and 24-120 Nikon wide angle lenses. Any advice on how to set this up?

Thanks in advance

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