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Just When We Figured out the 800….

Jul 1

In Lighting, Tips & Tricks at 10:30am

Along comes the 900. I’ve had two for a few weeks now, and the unit is, well, smooth. What can I say? Ed Fasano, a General Manager at Nikon, asked me what I thought after handling it, and I told him, “Well, if the SB800 is a real nice Chevy, this baby’s a Cadillac.”

It’s bigger, stronger, sturdier. It has crucial additional features that will go a long ways to making CLS a more complete system. It has a guide number that is the equivalent to the power of a thousand suns! It will retail for $33.95 after mail in rebate! I’m lying!

Smooth light. The unit has three light distribution patterns, standard, center weighted and even. So, for the first time we can really address the quality of the light we are getting at the source, in addition to the zoom control. Have I done the old flash against the wall test to check for the distribution pattern? No. That would be waaayyyyyy too thorough for me. I kind of took it and thought I would see how it interacts with the human face in the way I often approach portraiture.

I prevailed upon my daughter Claire to take a break from the non-stop pool lounging she is currently engaged in since school let out and come out for some pictures with her best friend, Amanda. I suggested they do something to illustrate the closeness they feel as friends. Overhead is two SB900 units, bounced into umbrellas (Lastolite All in Ones) and then running through a Lastolite 3×6 Skylite Panel. The panel is diffusing light and blocking sun, as we shot this in my driveway, with some black paper hanging from the overhead door.

But I like the light. It wraps, and it is, again, smooth. It’s tough to articulate about light in a reasonable way. I use terms like smooth, rounded, harsh, angry, voluptuous, poppy, dreamy, soft, rich, evil…sounds at the end like I’ve described your average afternoon on All My Children.

But then I decided to not give the unit a break with lots of softness and went to a simple, reflected umbrella, which is not generally my light of choice. Just keep it basic and see what it can do. Amanda here is holding up the wall.

Same deal here. Umbrella camera left, up high, middling distance from Claire.

Simple is the way I might describe this. Easy, even. Running aperture priority at minus 2EV to keep the wall a bit dense and below middle gray. Claire is lit with the 900 in group A, the only light in the mix. Put a little extra power in the strobe to compensate for the muted nature of the frame.


You know the selector button in the back of the SB800. They key to the kingdom? The button that allows all? The one that was reluctant to respond when punching it in a frenzy? The one when crunch time is happening on the job and your lights are completely set but you gotta make a change and you are pushing and pushing on the button so hard you feel like you’re that kid in Gary Larsen’s cartoon about Midvale School for the Gifted? Cause nothing’s happening? Or, you happen to have a thumb the size of a ham hock, and you can mash that baby all day long and it’s giving you flat line, no response? That one?

Ugh! Mongo make flash work now.

Well, say goodbye to that puppy. See the wheel above, in the middle. Key in virtually any function with a tap on the appropriate button and spin that wheel. Plus/minus EV, groups, channels, the whole deal. Once you get yourself set, see the lock symbol? Yep, you can lock it so you don’t thunder thumb it to group 9 or something I am often prone to do. See the temp scale? Cool! Burst away! The unit will tell you when it’s heating up. It gets to the top of that thermometer, a klaxon horn sounds and a pre-recorded voice screams “Emergency Blow!” Kidding of course.

See the on/off/remote/master switch? Thank you, strobe wizards! Do you realize if you multiply how many times you use this unit over the course of your life by the number of seconds it would have taken you to punch through the SB800 4 box grid and get to the options menu and drop the 800 into either master, remote or SU-4 (let’s say, 15 seconds) that you will be given back probably enough time to watch all of the Rambo movies and seriously ponder the nuances of characterization and subtleties of the human condition that define those movies? And how much richer your life will be because of that? All due to the simple on/off/remote/master switch. No more punching through the menu. Go click, you’re there.

The unit zooms to 200. Which means it can throw light from a good distance.

The light here is TTL, zoomed to 200mm, blasting at Claire from maybe 40′ or so. Not artful, especially for Claire, but good indication of things to come, and things that might now be possible. I’m speculating I can maybe make a 900 a master, and zoom it and get more reach for the signal to my remotes. Just a hunch, and as I get cranking better with these guys, I’ll report back. Check out the shoes. I always joke with Claire that her first word was, “Chanel.” She is a fashion plate, along with her friends

Tried another simple umbrella approach on this, and thank goodness for TTL, cause I’m shooting one handed and holding the stand on a rocky incline with my shoulder and other hand. Managed to get it pretty close, and it is wavering around up there, but the exposure stuck with me, and I came up with teenage girls and their sneakers. I always remember a Time cover story on Diane Keaton, shot by Douglas Kirkland I believe, many years ago, where Diane is on the rocks of Central Park with goofy shoes and a wide lens. Nice frame, as I recall. I’m always harking back to work, footnotes in the random stock files of my brain.

And….TA DA! The unit swivels 180 each way for a total of 360! Yep! It is the Linda Blair of strobe units. Swing that light head. It comes to a click stop of course, and then you go back the other direction. But it is a full 360 which means we just got away from the angling the unit to maximize sensor reception but at the same time potentially compromising the approach of the light to the subject. This feature alone is worth the price of admission, to me. I was showed this out at Nikon and I almost kissed Lindsay Silverman on the lips.

And…drum roll…final note of the morning. It’s got a computerized gel system. Huh? Yeah, that’s kind of what I said. But here’s the deal. You put the camera in Auto WB (gotta be there) and then slip one of the gels that comes with the units into a holder. The gel has computer chips embedded in it, and the holder makes contact with the unit and translates a color temp back to the camera. In other words, put a full CTO on the strobe, and the camera internally adjusts to an incandescent white balance.

The below is a little light flash on camera through a Lumiquest Big Bounce. Bit of CTO on the strobe, daylight balance for the scene. Color pattern about what you would expect.

But, put the full cto on that comes with the flash, and it signals the white balance shift. And you get this.

Bears exploration, to be sure. Pretty nifty technology. Feel very blessed to have experimented with this stuff. Mike Corrado at Nikon told me I was the first shooter to have my hands on it. Dunno on that, but if true, it means I am the first shooter to have broken one of them. Mike, sorry! One of them pitched off a stand and came up scott free, not a mark on it, except the dome diffuser cracked a bit. My bad. Not looking.

Tomorrow, pictures you get when you mix a ladder truck of FDNY, a D700, Times Square, Mike Corrado, and 3 onboard SB800 units. More tk.

And..just in. Jeff Snyder, the magician of Adorama–his email is [email protected] and he is taking orders per a note I got from him this am. I don’t know if you know Jeff, but he is a wiz at navigating the system in the early release of a product. Food for thought….also Nikon has a link on their press room site, obviously…

Peter says:

on July 1, 2008 at 10:42 am

The wheel for making the adjustments instead of those little tricky buttons is awesome and throw in the on/off/remote/master switch man this is exactly what was missing. The number of times I have been holding the mode button to get the grid and switch between the modes…. ggg the SB800 is great but those buttons…

hey $39.95… man I am getting a suitcase full of those πŸ˜‰ (I wish)

Ally B. says:

on July 1, 2008 at 11:12 am

Wow. That’s pretty sweet. It’s going to be a while before I get one of those, haha. :)

Ryan Brenizer says:

on July 1, 2008 at 11:20 am

Ordering my first one today, with many more to come. Full swivel, it is to dream.

Terry Reinert says:

on July 1, 2008 at 11:20 am

When will Canon get their head in the game when it comes to lighting?? You’re killing me with these posts and videos about the SB-800 and SB-900’s. You know the guy sitting in an old beat up truck watching the guy in the Lamborghini drive by? I’m the guy in the truck holding a Canon Speedlight 580 and you’re the guy in the Lamborghini with the SB-900’s. ARGH!

Are you sure you’re not a secret Nikon sales rep?? πŸ˜€

Chris Cina says:

on July 1, 2008 at 11:30 am

My day is made reading another fascinating blog by Joe McNally…and knowing SOME day I can switch on to remote without going into a panic.

Celso says:

on July 1, 2008 at 11:32 am

Well I think I’ll wait for the SB-800 price drop… I just don’t have the guts to pay the money they’ll be asking for this here in Europe…

Plus… I really need to upgrade my gear… :/

John Milleker says:

on July 1, 2008 at 11:58 am

I’ll stick to the Vivitar 283’s until Canon does come out with something nice Terry. I fear the massive collection of Canon branded gear I do have would beat up on the Nikon flash units. Er, fell down the stairs, that’s it.

Charles says:

on July 1, 2008 at 12:15 pm

I assume it still has a PC connection for PocketWizards, correct? How about SU-4 mode? Is the optical slave built in, or does it require an adapter?

Greg says:

on July 1, 2008 at 12:26 pm

If they were $39.95, I could power my car with them cheaper than my current fuel costs! πŸ˜‰

I’m guessing the decimal is supposed to be closer to the 5.

john taca says:

on July 1, 2008 at 12:45 pm

improving the controls is definitely a big plus! now if i can find those rambo flicks..

Ken says:

on July 1, 2008 at 1:22 pm

Gee Joe,

I just bought 3 SB800’s 4 months ago on your suggestions…..I know I got to blame somebody

Do you know are they compatible with SB 800’s (master/slave thing).

Poor in KY


Mark K_NJ says:

on July 1, 2008 at 2:22 pm

Please…you don’t really think the SB-800 is better than the good ol’ on-camera flash do you?

I kid, I kid…

Great to see Claire, too. Love the sneakers….design them herself?

Rodolfo Arpia says:

on July 1, 2008 at 2:47 pm

Nice stuff Joe!

Thanks for sharing this info with your readers. Can’t wait to get one.

J Ruberto says:

on July 1, 2008 at 3:48 pm

I agree, I’ll buy0ne so I don’t have to hold down the mode button for 2 seconds…it adds up. nikon owes me like 18 minutes of my life back :)

Axel says:

on July 1, 2008 at 4:24 pm

The images look jagged in IE, the height/width tags in the page does not match the image size (600×400 vs. 500×333) and force the browser to rescale… Looks fine in FireFox, though, but what about the other 80% of web surfers? :-)

Brad Moore says:

on July 1, 2008 at 5:30 pm


The issue you’re experiencing is explained here in much better detail than I could ever muster. They also list ways to possibly fix the issue, including some JavaScript that I just embedded into the site. I don’t think it’s making any difference (at least on the one Dell we have here at the studio), but maybe it helps you. If not, you can try the solutions listed on the site if you like. Otherwise, I’m not sure there’s any way to fix it!

And for the record, 29% of the blog’s readers use IE, while over 41% use Firefox :) Safari is a close third place with 27%.

Tom Marriage says:

on July 1, 2008 at 5:46 pm

Called Roberts today to be put on the list to be informed when they are taking preorders. Just knew you would have some to test. Thanks for posting and looking forward to more tests.

Nice pics by the way. Also thank God your daughter must get her looks from Mom! Beautiful young lady.

John Leonard says:

on July 1, 2008 at 7:49 pm

Just a couple of observations:

1) It must suck being the daughter of Joe McNally. I mean always getting enlisted as free labor to test out the newest photo gear. However, how many kids get their dad to write their names on the top of the Empire State Building? Props to Joe for thinking of his family.

2)The SB900 rocks. So Joe i will be more then glad to help you test out some. Just give me a call.

Steve Hebert says:

on July 1, 2008 at 8:36 pm

Joe, How did you get one?

Steve Hebert says:

on July 1, 2008 at 8:36 pm

What I want to know is, how did YOU get one?

Mo says:

on July 1, 2008 at 9:56 pm

If the price of the 900 is gonna be $500 then I don’t think Nikon will drop the price of the 800. They will do a Microsoft Windows like pricing if you know what I mean. I will stick with my 800s but I will be looking forward for more 900 demos from Joe.

John says:

on July 2, 2008 at 12:21 am

The SB-900 has a lot of nifty features, but Terry should not feel bad about her Canon 580; Nikon adopted lots of the 580’s features, as well as the Master/Slave on-off switch from the Canon 550 EX. These include:

Rotary control, streamlined menus

Automatic FX/DX format switching and optimization

Drip-proof mounting foot (optional accessory on Nikon, sorry)

The SB-900 is not quite as powerful as the Canon 580 EX II: the Nikon has a GN of 111.5 (ASA100, feet) vs 190 for the Canon at the same metrics.

Oh – and the price. 580 EX II goes for about $400 vs $500 for the SB-900.

There are a few things I wish Canon would copy from the SB-900, such as the expanded auto zoom coverage to 200mm, and the ability to change light distribution pattern.

With Nikon and Canon chasing each other, equipment just keeps getting better and better!

Richard Cave says:

on July 2, 2008 at 4:57 am

so if you have two sb 900s now can i have two of your old sb 800s. I will pay for posting. As I am young gifted and broke.


I hope they are cheaper in the States than in the UK. Now looking forward to your post on the D700.



Wedding Photographer Nice says:

on July 2, 2008 at 6:53 am


Excellent post! The pictures you took are splendid. I even find the one you took at 200mm on camera remarkably good with none of the usual flash problems.

well done!

Now I wonder how much these will cost in France…

ed linn says:

on July 2, 2008 at 8:16 am

Always enjoyable to hear your stories to go along with the great photos and info on the new flashes.
So nice of you to share all your experience and knowledge with us.
I am really looking forward to taking the pre-con workshop in vegas, and love your book and blog!
who else would harken back to the Midvale School for the Gifted cartoon? – hilarious!

Taeke says:

on July 2, 2008 at 1:16 pm

mr McNally.
accoring to the exiff info your above picture from claire alone is not at 200 mm but its looks like its been taken on 125mm
sorry when i get it wrong.

Futher i take my chance to say.
Thanks for sharing your knwoledge, in your books and published articles.

Greetings from The Netherlands.

Richard Clinton says:

on July 2, 2008 at 1:55 pm

How much more power than the 800? I tried to compare guide No’s to no avail.
R.B. Clinton

Wade says:

on July 2, 2008 at 2:46 pm

580EX did away with the physical master/slave switch, for some silly reason. Good to see Nikon use it. Love that a gel system has been incorporated. Can you over-ride it?

Joe McNally says:

on July 2, 2008 at 2:47 pm

Hi Taeke…I’m referring to the 200mm zoom on the strobe unit which I set manually. SB 900 has the capacity now to go to 200 as opposed to the max on the SB800 which is 105. The lens I was using there was my 70-200 I believe, and that zoom you quote feels about right…Joe

Mike Zaharee says:

on July 3, 2008 at 10:09 am

Joe, thanks for the fine write up on the SB-900. Over the past weekend, I decided the slow to use selector button on the SB-800 was sufficient reason to own a dozen or so with a number set in each frequently used mode. I’m sure my wife will find wanting to own only half a dozen $500 SB-900s just as funny.

– M

Ben says:

on July 3, 2008 at 12:49 pm

Probably won’t cause a flood of low-priced, used SB-800s to hit the market, but a guy can dream right? :)

Michael Miller says:

on July 3, 2008 at 1:05 pm

Very interesting article. I will read more on it and the D700 (what does it replace?).

But, in this article, I don’t remember reading anything about recycle time.
I have not tried Nikon’s or anyone elses battery packs that plug into the aux plug of the flash. I don’t know what their recyle is on full power.

Instead I bought a custom battery which uses the Quantum dummy four pack battery simulator that goes into the actual battery holder of my 800. This is supposed to prevent the 800 from burning out. My recycle time now, on full power is about 3 secs. I really need more for sports.

What is the recycle time for the 900? I will also research it.

Sam says:

on July 3, 2008 at 1:23 pm


This is one question that noone seems to be able to get to the bottom of. Is SB-900 more powerful than SB-800? Some suggest it’s slightly more powerful. Other say, not so.

Paul B. says:

on July 5, 2008 at 1:14 am

Thanks for the info, and extra thanks for the pictures to backup the info! I’ll be ordering one of these first thing after work tomorrow…just noticed they’re only $556 at the place I like to shop (including protection plan). That’s what I paid for the SB800 not too long ago! :)

Silva Manoa Studios says:

on July 10, 2008 at 5:23 pm

I currently own 5 800s and a couple of 600s. And I know of many more photogs who have more than me. It’ll be interesting to see how lit up things will get from here on out.

Drew76 says:

on July 15, 2008 at 2:21 am

Joe, thanks for the practical insights and review of the SB-900.
What I would love to know is whether the flash head is of the same size as the SB600/800? I guess a different size head would mean the need to replace certain flash accessories that that are fitted to the previous speedlight size (e.g. lightsphere, better beamer etc)

Lynn Ava says:

on July 15, 2008 at 2:44 pm

Was inches from buying my first flash attachment for the D300 bought in December 07…. so glad I waited now. Whoo hoo!!!

William says:

on July 21, 2008 at 9:21 pm

…..It is the Linda Blair of strobe units. Swing that light head…..? LOL! I CanΒ΄t stop laughing! Thanks for the post and the good humor too!

san francisco photographer says:

on July 24, 2008 at 12:13 am

this article needs more shots of blank walls! πŸ˜€

Westpix photography says:

on July 25, 2008 at 10:22 am

Fantastic read, I had ordered one as soon as I heard they were coming out.
A little blind faith but The Nikon lighting has never failed me. Thank you Joe for all the shared reports.

Angela Salgado says:

on July 26, 2008 at 4:35 pm

Hi Joe:

It’s me, Angela caitlan’s long time babysitter, (when she was 3,4,5 and 6)…remember?

I was helping my daugther with pictures in the internet and l saw your name; How nice to see you after so many years. Claire is so big, my god !!!she’s beautiful!!!
How is my dear Caitlan? she most be 21 0r 22 years old rigth?
If you have a chance send me pictures of Caitland please, l want to see her.
Talk to you soon,

Don Howard says:

on August 11, 2008 at 8:30 pm

Hi Joe,
I saw you at Photoshop World in Orlando. It was great.
What Battery pack do you use with the sb900

Jose Tan says:

on September 6, 2008 at 3:37 pm

It’s very tempting! But the price difference between this and the 800 is giving a second thought.

Chris says:

on October 1, 2008 at 8:07 am

Doesn’t look like it took you too long to get the hang of the new equipment! Love the perspective in that eighth shot – makes me think I should get on picking something up to release me from the confines of my Rebel XT on-camera flash…

Maxine Abbott says:

on November 13, 2008 at 12:11 am


ian says:

on January 11, 2009 at 6:34 pm

Thanks Joe,

I am definitely getting one.

cameron griffin says:

on January 20, 2009 at 6:21 pm

Big whoop about the 900.I may only be a 13 year old ameture photographer but believe me or don’t when I say I know what I am talking about. I have nothing against nikon when I say I would rather have the 800. All you have to do is press mode and it goes to whatever you want it to , you have to do the same thing with the 900 , I think the dial makes it harder to use (Just my opinion).Ithink your paying extra money for a little more speed and like 3 or4 extra feet of light.Also if you already have a 900, don’t use rechargable batteries on high shooting mode like on the D3 or anything fast or it will overheat .

cameron griffin says:

on January 20, 2009 at 6:23 pm

nice monkey suit

cameron griffin says:

on January 20, 2009 at 6:29 pm

one more thing. who ever is reading this i suggest you by The Moment it click. It was probally one of the best photography books i ever read .

lol money says:

on May 20, 2009 at 1:50 am

Very informative! Great post!

David Zadig says:

on July 14, 2009 at 1:24 pm


Yes we all know these SB 900’s rock. But they tend to fall too as in out of / off of hotshoe adapters. My Justin clamps are useless with these flashes. What have you found that works. Can the Justin clamps be modified to fit the 900’s?

Thanks and cheers

Tom Judd says:

on November 5, 2009 at 1:52 pm

Just received, Oct 29th from B&H, a couple Justin clamps and they fit the 900’s. The part number is 175F-1.

Stewart Hopkins says:

on November 15, 2009 at 9:11 pm


I have three SB-800’s and needed another light to complete my kit. I’ve been using the 800’s to shoot interiors with my d-2x for awhile with great success. I bought the 900 in October along with your Hot Shoe Diaries book and thought I was set. My assignment was a high end retirement community in Seattle. I set up the 900 as the master through a soft box and the three 800’s as remotes, one into a soft box and the other two into umbrellas. The shoot progressed nicely. I was tethering the camera to my Macbook Pro and things were going swimmingly. On the third day of the shoot I needed to shoot some headshots of several executives in rapid succession. I shot tests of my assistants in position and adjusted the master to be the key light and two of the umbrella’d 800’s to be fill and hair/background lights. The ratio of the master to fill was about 2/1. When I started shooting the execs my assistants reported to me that the fill light and hair light (800’s) were
not exposing consistently and were overexposing based on my initial setting. I reworked the exposure and proceeded with the same result. As I finished the 10 exec about 60% of the images were off in exposure by as much as two stops over on the fill lights and not consistent frame to frame.

I went to my camera store in Seattle (Glazers) and discussed the problem. We set up a test and discovered that using the 900 as the master light with not only my camera D2x but also a brand new D700, the same problem existed. We switched out the 900 with a cheaper Nissin light that was compatible with the Nikon system and used the 900 as a remote light in the scenario. The set up worked correctly repeatedly. I’m stumped. i’ve Googled the problem and can’t get a definitive answer.

Have you had this problem or know of it and a possible solution? Is my only fix to this problem is to use the 900 as a remote light and the 800 as the master? Help. Thanks in advance.


Tom Judd says:

on November 17, 2009 at 8:05 am

Did you try another 900 as master?
Sounds like you may have a bad SB900.
I have not experienced the problem. But, if you have tried another 900 with the same results, I will set up my 900 and see what I get.

Tom Judd says:

on January 8, 2010 at 7:13 am

Previously, I said that the Justin clamps fit the 900’s. The part number is 175F-1.
I am retracting that statement. Sorry for taking so long.
I had to send my 900 back to Nikon because the shoe is loose.
I guess I will modify one of my Justin clamps to fit.

Eva Speakes says:

on March 11, 2010 at 11:12 am

Love your information Keep em coming please

Cheap Tools Deals says:

on March 13, 2010 at 2:05 am

i was searching on yahoo and found your site, you have great information and very nice site.

Marco Avellino says:

on August 19, 2010 at 12:27 am

I have an sb900 with a d300s, and i think i have a similar problem. Sometimes, especially when using the flash in succession it over / under expose. The nikon dealer in my area says it works! An have no alternative. Any help ? Thanks

The Photo Ninja says:

on January 11, 2011 at 9:45 am

I’ve thought about picking up a 900 to replace my 800, but I have read a lot of horror stories about the 900.

Has anything changed in the design?

– N

seattle photographer says:

on March 30, 2011 at 1:06 pm

After reading about the 900s here and other places decided I am staying away from the “upgrade” to the 900.

Bryan Millman says:

on November 12, 2011 at 2:36 pm

Awesome stuff! You made a really nice compilation. Just wanted to let you know you have a new subscriber- me!

kamla says:

on December 1, 2013 at 4:25 pm

Just want to say that Claire is just a beautiful girl now….In my memorie you are the litle girl and I was your au pair oh my god you grow up my litle Claire well you are in my mind until the rest of life take care…bye

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