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Review: the Nikon Speedlight SB-700 (updated)  
Wednesday, December 22, 2010 | by Rob Galbraith
Over the last few days we've gotten to know the Speedlight SB-700, Nikon's newest i-TTL/Creative Lighting System shoe mount flash, and it's a gem. Here's what we like, and what little we don't.

Overview of the Speedlight SB-700

Meant as a replacement for the Speedlight SB-600, the SB-700 offers:
  • A revised control layout that provides quick access to both TTL/manual mode changes and illumination patterns
  • 24-120mm zoom range (plus a pop-down wide panel for 14mm coverage)
  • Three user-selectable light distribution patterns: Centre-Weighted, Standard and Even
  • The ability to act as a Master flash for up to two groups of wireless remote Speedlights; it can serve as a remote flash as well
  • Compatibility with the PocketWizard MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 wireless radio remotes for Nikon (an upcoming PocketWizard firmware update is required for proper operation)
  • Master flash modes include Manual (all groups); TTL (all groups) with per-group flash exposure compensation; and A:B ratio-based Quick Wireless
  • Automatic recognition of the included clip-on SZ-3TN Incandescent and SZ-3FL Fluorescent colour balancing filters as well as the included SW-14H Diffusion Dome
  • A guide number of 92/28 (ISO 100, ft/m, 35mm zoom head position, Standard illumination pattern)
  • AF Assist illuminator
  • Flash exposure compensation in 1/3 step increments
  • A manual power range of 1/1 to 1/128, in 1/3 step increments
  • A thermal protection feature that slows recycling when the flash body gets hot
  • A full complement of Custom Settings
  • Firmware upgradeable
  • Powered by four AA batteries
  • No external power port or PC sync port
  • The SB-700 comes with SS-700 Soft Case that can house the flash, incandescent and fluorescent colour balancing filters, diffusion dome and AS-22 Speedlight Stand (also included)
  • Available accessories include a series of water guards to keep moisture from the shoe of the camera and attached flash plus the SJ-4 Color Filter Set, a kit of warming, red, yellow and blue gels that attach to the SB-700 with the help of the SZ-3 Color Filter Holder

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The Shoe Fits: The Speedlight SB-700 in the hot shoe of a D3S. Click to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media) Incandescent: The SB-700 with filter SZ-3TN attached. Click to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)
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Upright: The SB-700 mounted on the included AS-22 Speedlight Stand. Click to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media) Radio City: The SB-700 on a PocketWizard FlexTT5 for Nikon. Click to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)
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Dept of Corrections: The SZ-3TN and SZ-3FL clip-on filters, included with the SB-700. Click to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media) At Rest: The SB-700 comes with the SS-700 Soft Case. Click to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

The SB-700: a smaller, lighter, cooler SB-900?

Based on the specifications alone, the SB-700 is equal or superior to the SB-600 in practically every way, and in fact gives the venerable Speedlight SB-800, Nikon's former Speedlight flagship and still a popular flash with Nikon shooters, a run for its money too. But the comparison we wanted to make is with the SB-900. It's the only Speedlight model both site co-editor Mike Sturk and I have owned for some time, and while it's arguably the most full featured and versatile shoe mount flash on the market right now, it has two characteristics that we could do without at times: The SB-900 is pretty big for a flash of its type, plus its thermal protection has kicked in at inopportune moments, both when shooting in warm indoor venues and outside on hot summer days.

Neither of these things is a factor when the SB-900 has been deployed as a remote. Once mounted on a light stand the flash's size is moot, while we don't tend to push flashes that hard when lighting portraits, podium pics or similar moderately-paced shoots where multiple remote SB-900s would be in use. We have no quibbles with the SB-900 as a remote flash.

For run-and-gun photography, with the flash in the camera's hot shoe, the situation can be very different. The heft and bulk of the SB-900 is definitely noticeable, on smaller and bigger Nikon digital SLRs alike. And it doesn't take too many three or four frame bursts in quick succession before the thermometer on its LCD begins to rise, especially if the flash is pumping out fairly bright light and the temperature is on the warm side.

So, we set out to evaluate the SB-700 as a lighter and potentially cooler-running alternative to the SB-900. Here's what we found, along with a few other observations about Nikon's latest midrange Speedlight.

Size and weight As the pictures below show, the SB-700 is quite a bit smaller than the SB-900. While not a small flash per se - it's close in size to the SB-600 and SB-800 - the SB-700 is a pipsqueak when set next to the SB-900.

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Big and Little: Views of the SB-700 and taller SB-900. Click to enlarge (Photos by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

We also put each flash onto a D3S and then a D7000, with an AF-S 16-35mm f/4G VR attached in both cases. Not surprisingly, the biggest difference was felt on the diminutive D7000, though the top-heavy feel invoked by the SB-900 was apparent even with the D3S. At 12.7oz/360g without batteries, the curb weight of the SB-700 isn't actually that much less than the 14.6oz/415g of the SB-900. Coupled with its lower stance, though, the SB-700 doesn't unbalance the camera it's sitting on quite as much as its larger sibling.

In this comparison, the SB-700 is the clear winner.

Brightness Guide numbers for the SB-700 and SB-900 suggest the latter flash should put out over a half stop more light than the former, all other things being equal. As we learned from testing Canon's Speedlites, however, guide numbers don't always tell the whole story about one flash's brightness when compared to another. In a softbox, for example, the 430EX II trails the 580EX II by only 2/10ths of a stop in maximum brightness, despite guide numbers that suggest a much wider difference between the two.

With that in mind, we hoped to see something similar occur with the SB-700 and SB-900. The D3S rear LCD screenshots below show what we found when shooting pictures of a blank wall. Things to note:
  • The ones marked 50mm were shot with the flash on camera at the 50mm zoom head position. The remainder, marked Umbrella, were taken with the flash on a lightstand, at the 24mm zoom head position, aimed through a Westcott 43" collapsible umbrella and triggered by an SU-800 Wireless Speedlight Commander on the camera.

  • There are two sets for all but the Auto FP Sync comparison, one at 1/125 and one at 1/250. Why two shutter speeds? At full power, the flash pulse of both the SB-700 and SB-900 (and all other flashes of this type) trails off slowly, which means when the camera is set to 1/250 a not-insignificant portion of the flash's light output occurs after the camera's shutter has closed. At 1/125 the shutter remains open longer, captures a greater portion of the flash's full brightness and the result is a brighter flash picture. You'll see the effect of this below when comparing 1/125 and 1/250 results from the same flash.

  • Because of this effect, and the fact the SB-700 offers slightly quicker full power flash duration than the SB-900, we wanted to see if this translated into reduced brightness loss at 1/250 when compared to the SB-900.

  • Three of the comparisons are at the same aperture, which means you can guesstimate the brightness difference by how much the histogram spike shifts. The remaining two comparisons show the aperture required to get the histogram spike as close as possible to the same position on the horizontal axis (to achieve the same brightness, in other words).

  • The flashes are operating in Auto FP Sync mode for the 1/1000 pairing. By design, the SB-900 (and earlier i-TTL-capable flashes) are limited to emitting far less than the full charge of their capacitor, even when set to full power. This means what you think it means: full power isn't full power at shutter speeds above x-sync. It's a quirk of Nikon's implementation of high shutter speed flash photography, and one that we hoped would not work its way into the SB-700, so we tested this out too.
Have a look at the comparisons for yourself. To do that, roll your mouse over the buttons beneath to view the screenshot associated with the stated settings. Or just skip right to our interpretation that follows.

SB700
SB-900 | 1/125 @ f/20 | 50mm
SB-700 | 1/125 @ f/20 | 50mm
SB-900 | 1/250 @ f/20 | 50mm
SB-700 | 1/250 @ f/20 | 50mm
SB-900 | 1/125 @ f/14 | Umbrella
SB-700 |1/125 @ f/11 | Umbrella
SB-900 | 1/250 @ f/14 | Umbrella
SB-700 | 1/250 @ f/11 | Umbrella
SB-900 | 1/1000 @ f/3.2 | Umbrella
SB-700 | 1/1000 @ f/3.2 | Umbrella
The results are easy to summarize. The brightness difference between the two Speedlights ranges from about 6/10ths of a stop at 1/125 to about 4/10ths of a stop in Auto FP Sync mode, with the 1/250 comparison landing in between the two.

This means you can think of the overall brightness difference as being about half a stop, which is roughly in line with what the official guide numbers would suggest. It also means the SB-700 is prevented from using the full charge of its capacitor in Auto FP Sync mode, just like the SB-900, SB-800 and SB-600, so this particular oddity of Nikon Speedlights continues.

Note that the SB-900 can zoom to 200mm, while the SB-700 tops out at 120mm. From a brightness perspective, the more focused the light beam the brighter the light, and this is true of flash zoom heads as they shift from wide to telephoto. This is true to a point, anyway. The SB-900's output get brighter from 17mm to 135mm, but the brightness difference between 135mm and 200mm is negligible, even though the light at 200mm is noticeably more focused. It's a function of the SB-900 head's fresnel lens, and it means the SB-900 isn't dramatically brighter than the SB-700 when the former is at 200mm and the latter is at 120mm. It's still in the territory of about half a stop in our testing.

Recycle speed and thermal protection Nikon's recycle time specifications for different battery types point to the possibility that the SB-700 was somehow designed to limit recycle speed to no faster than 2.5 seconds. Fortunately, that's not the case: like the SB-900, the SB-700 can recycle fast with certain batteries. The table below shows how long it takes for the flash to recycle after a full power pop with the battery types listed. Results are in seconds.

sb700_recycle_speed.jpg

The SB-900 is the more powerful flash, so it makes sense that its recycle times would be a bit longer than the SB-700, and ultimately both recycle nice and fast for shoe mount flashes.

What you can't tell from the table:
  • When powered by Imedion NiMH (or Sanyo eneloop, which are the same NiMH formulation), the SB-900's recycle speed drags in ongoing short burst shooting, more than the number above suggests. When flash is being used constantly, and occasionally to light up a handful of frames in rapid succession, the SB-900 struggles to keep up when this battery is its internal power source. By comparison, the SB-700 retains its sprightly, ready-to-fire feel with this kind of NiMH. I'd personally chosen to not use Imedion/eneloop batteries in the SB-900 for this reason, but they seem like a reasonable choice for the SB-700.

  • The SB-700 is a quiet flash. With anything but NiZN's inside, you will hear a brief sparrow chirp sound after the flash fires at full power. With slow recycling batteries, the brief chirp is a little less brief, but still a far cry from the recycle whine of yesteryear's flashes. With fresh NiZn batteries loaded there's no chirp at all, even at full power.

  • Any of the battery types that can recycle the SB-900 quickly can contribute to it heating up quickly too. Particularly, as noted earlier, if the ambient temperature is on the warm side as well. With either the Powerex NiMH or NiZn AAs loaded into the SB-900, you don't have to fire the flash too many times at half to full power before the thermometer displayed on the back of the flash begins to rise. A few more pops after that and the SB-900's thermal protection feature turns the flash off to cool.

    We tried testing the thermal protection of the SB-900 and SB-700 side by side, first by firing full power pop after full power pop while watching the thermometer on each. We then repeated the test, this time with the SB-700 at full power and a fresh SB-900 at -0.7 down from full power. Ambient temperature was about 75F/24C.

    In both rounds the thermometer began to rise sooner and more rapidly on the SB-900 than the SB-700, and it was possible to invoke the shut down state of the SB-900 after not that many pops, even when -0.7 was dialed in. By comparison, the SB-700's thermometer didn't move beyond the midpoint when firing it at the same interval and the same number of times as the SB-900.

    When the SB-700 does get hot its recycle speed is slowed deliberately to prevent additional rapid firings from damaging the flash. But we didn't get the SB-700 to heat up enough for this protection to kick in.

    It's possible the entire explanation for the difference is the thermal protection in the SB-700 is set to a higher threshold than the SB-900. Assuming they're both set to a similar sensible level, though, then the SB-700 is a lot less prone to heating up than the SB-900, even when both are firing at a comparable brightness level. Of the two, though, it's the SB-700 that gives the impression it's ready to be pushed harder.
Also note that the SB-900 has an external power port, which enables it to be driven by a separate high voltage battery pack. The SB-700 lacks this capability. We don't use external packs at all anymore so this isn't a limitation of the SB-700 for us.

Interface and controls The SB-700's control layout is intuitive and enables quick settings changes. We actually prefer the controls to those of the SB-900. The SB-700's buttons are more clearly marked, the zoom button has been given more prominence and it's not necessary to dive into the menus to change the illumination pattern.

The SB-700 trails the SB-900 in a couple of areas too.
  • First, its Master mode is restricted to two remote groups plus itself. The SB-900 can juggle three remote groups plus itself. This feature difference is clearly stated in Nikon's product information on the SB-700, and is one of the ways they're trying to differentiate the more expensive Speedlight from its new midrange competitor, so that's fine. Plus, a whole lot of fancy flash work can be done with two remote groups and a Master group, so this isn't a deal-stopping difference.

  • Second, the SB-700 lacks the repeating flash and automatic flash (ie on an-flash sensor determines flash exposure) modes of the SB-900. We don't need either mode in day to day use, and in fact haven't used the automatic (A or AA) mode on a Nikon Speedlite since the Nikon D1X era.

  • Third, and this wasn't obvious until actually powering up the SB-700 for the first time, both the Master and remote groups must be either all TTL or all Manual, you can't mix and match like you can with the SB-900. We almost always use either all Manual or a mix of TTL and Manual, so the SB-700 Master mode's inability to mix TTL and Manual groups is not good. At the beginning of the article we hinted there was something about the SB-700 that we didn't like. This is it. It's an unfortunate byproduct of the new mode switch on the left side of the flash's display.


Remote: The SB-700 set to act as a Remote Master: Master mode and Manual output

The SB-700 also offers a ratio-based Master mode called Quick Wireless. Suffice it to say that it's not a mode we'd use, given the SB-700's regular TTL Master mode has an interface we much prefer.

Zoom head The SB-700 and SB-900 have the same full range of head rotation (180 left and 180 right) as well as the same -7 to 90 tilt. The SB-900's head, however, can zoom to 200mm, while the SB-700 stops at 120mm.

Included colour filters The SB-700's hard plastic clip-on colour balancing filters are less finicky, and more likely to actually be used, than the thin gels bundled with the SB-900. Same goes for the SB-700's included square case, which makes the accessories more accessible than the tower style case Nikon has supplied with its flashes for years.

PC sync port The SB-900 has a PC sync port, while the SB-700 doesn't. It has been a long time since we triggered a small flash by its PC sync port, and we don't expect to need to trigger a Nikon Speedlight this way anytime soon, thanks to other better options that exist today. These include Nikon's Creative Lighting System, PocketWizard ControlTL, Radiopoppers and more. So, a PC sync port is a solid backup triggering method to have on a flash like this, but gone are the days of it being a must-have feature.

i-TTL modes When set to TTL, the SB-700 lacks a way to manually switch between standard i-TTL and i-TTL BL (balanced flash) modes; in effect, the SB-700 is in i-TTL BL all the time. Well, except when the camera's metering mode is set to spot, at which point the flash automatically switches to standard i-TTL. Spot metering is the only camera setting we've encountered that causes the BL symbol on the SB-700's rear LCD to disappear. (Strictly speaking, switching the flash to Master mode clears the BL symbol too. But we're not talking about multiple remote flash lighting here, only basic single-flash-in-the-hot-shoe photography.)

As of this moment, we don't have an opinion as to whether i-TTL BL and nothing but i-TTL BL for all but spot metering presents a problem. That's mainly because we've kept the SB-900 set to i-TTL BL most of the time anyway, and secondarily because it will take a number of outings with the SB-700 to determine if its i-TTL BL mode behaves the same as that of the SB-900.

Update, January 3, 2011: We have an opinion now. The SB-700's TTL BL exposures are consistently brighter than those of the SB-900 when set to TTL BL also. The brightness difference is about 1/3 to 1/2 stop, so it's not extreme, but it is noticeable in the comparisons we've now done. This has been with a D3S, both wide and telephoto lenses and a variety of scenes, ambient lighting conditions and subjects. In all cases the flash was on top of the camera. In all cases the flash exposure produced by the SB-700 has also been closer to the mark, or at least closer to what we prefer. In brighter ambient light, the SB-900's TTL (non-BL) mode has been even brighter still, so the explanation for this isn't as simple as Nikon adopting TTL (non-BL) in the SB-700 but calling it TTL BL.

The brightness difference evaporates when the SB-700 and SB-900 are deployed as remotes in Nikon's CLS remote system, suggesting that the SB-700's on-camera brightness bump when set to TTL BL was a deliberate design change by Nikon.

PocketWizard ControlTL compatibility Speaking of PocketWizard, LPA Design's Jim Clark indicates he expects the SB-700 to be fully compatible with both the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 for Nikon, through the installation of an upcoming PocketWizard firmware update. Like the SB-900, the SB-700 emits low levels of RF noise at a frequency that's within the 340-354MHz band used by U.S./Canada PocketWizard models (CE model 433-434MHz units are not impacted at all, he says). Only one PocketWizard channel is affected, and it's identical to the SB-900: ControlTL Channel 4 (346MHz).

While the range reduction is likely to be slight on this channel, for those who want to avoid any potential drop in range, the workaround is simple: switch the operating channel or channels programmed into your Nikon MiniTT1s and FlexTT5s to something other than ControlTL Channel 4. It's safe to assume that if you're well away (ie 1MHz or more) from 346MHz that you'll be in the clear. A complete list of U.S./Canada PocketWizard channels and frequencies is on page 23 towards the end of this PDF.

Conclusion

The SB-700 is a great new addition to Nikon's Speedlight line, one that has many of the fine attributes of the SB-900, but without its bulk or tendency to heat up. We'd prefer if the SB-700 were just a little bit more powerful, and that its Master mode didn't force all groups to be either all TTL or all Manual. But its smaller footprint and apparent cooler operation even when being fired aggressively, not to mention its lower price, offset these things. I've already voted with my wallet, purchasing an SB-700 to use as my primary on-camera flash after testing one out for this article.

Revision History
January 3, 2011: Added results of SB-700/SB-900 TTL BL brightness comparison.

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