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Nikon unveils Speedlight SB-800  
Tuesday, July 22, 2003 | by Rob Galbraith

The Speedlight SB-800 (Nikon has dropped the DX moniker from its latest digital SLR-compatible flash) is such a big a leap forward in Speedlight functionality that it's hard to know where to begin. Wireless TTL multi-flash for the D2H is likely to be the main draw of the company's new top-of-the-line strobe. But the changes from the SB-80DX run deeper than that. Though the flash offers the same level of functionality as an SB-80DX when connected to any current Nikon SLR camera, a raft of advanced features kick in when the SB-800 is mated to the upcoming D2H, and presumably other Nikon SLR cameras that that will inevitably follow.

sb-800_front1.jpg
Nikon Speedlight SB-800

Speedlight SB-800 features include:

i-TTL flash control system

A lot of the SB-800's zoomier capabilities fall under the new i-TTL name, including wireless multiple flash. The primary technical change underpinning all that i-TTL offers is the use of the D2H's 1005 pixel metering CCD to measure both ambient and flash output. Nikon's D1, D1X and D1H, for example, rely exclusively on a 5-segment metering cell for TTL flash measurement; the same 1005 pixel CCD in those cameras measures ambient light only. Measuring flash output and ambient light with the same metering component will sound familiar to Canon users, as Canon's E-TTL system does much the same thing. And, some of what's new in the SB-800 is already found in certain Canon strobes, including the 550EX. But, as will become clear, the SB-800 is aiming to be a whole lot more than a Nikon 550EX, and i-TTL is behind it all.

Wireless TTL on steroids

In bringing wireless TTL flash capabilities to a Nikon digital SLR camera for the first time, Nikon has taken an idea pioneered by Canon back in late 1998 and taken it a big step forward:

  • Search for the words infrared or radio in the wireless lighting specs for the SB-800 and you won't find them. All communication between an SB-800 set to Master Controller and up to three individual or groups of Remote SB-800's is through the Monitor Pre-Flash, a series of carefully-timed pulses of visible light that are emitted by each flash before the photo is taken. The Master Controller uses the Monitor Pre-Flash to signal the mode each Remote group should be set to and the amount of flash exposure compensation desired for each group (if applicable). The D2H will measure the Monitor Pre-Flash output of each Remote group separately in making its multiple flash exposure calculation. The Monitor Pre-Flash from the Master Controller is also used to signal the Remote groups to fire during the actual exposure. A technique called pulse modulation makes all this possible, whereby the frequency and/or duration of the Monitor Pre-Flash communication bursts change to indicate a different command. We're not sure as yet what the actual working range of an SB-800 wireless setup will be.

  • A Remote group can be a single SB-800 or a bag full of them; the limit per group is promised to be what's practical more than what's possible.

  • The Master Controller SB-800 can be set to not fire during the actual exposure. Configured this way, the Master Controller still performs all its Remote control functions, but its output is not part of the lighting for the scene.

  •  All the Monitor Pre-Flash communication will impose some sort of delay on the actual exposure, sort of akin to a longer shutter lag. The delay will be dependent on the number of Remote groups and the mode each is set to. If we're properly understanding the technical information Nikon has shared with us, then the delay should be short to unnoticeable.

  • Each group - Master, A, B and C - can be set to a different flash mode. For instance, if the mood struck you, it would be possible to set one group to TTL, another to AA (Auto Aperture, where the flash output is measured by a sensor on the flash) and another still to M (manual output control). It's also possible to turn a group off completely. The flash mode for each group, and the enabling and disabling of a group, can be set from the Master Controller's LCD display.

  • Nikon has eschewed the lighting ratio approach of Canon's wireless multiple flash system in favour of one based on flash exposure compensation. Systems from both manufacturers allow you to adjust the balance between strobes in the scene, so that, for example, you can make the main light be brighter than the fill light. Nikon's method, whereby you simply chose the amount of flash exposure compensation you want for each group, is a more intuitive and flexible way of implementing lighting ratios without actually having to grapple with the 2:1, 4:1 and 8:1 fun of lighting ratios themselves. From the Master Controller SB-800's LCD display, it's possible to not only set the flash mode for each group individually, but also the amount of compensation for each group. As in our previous example, one group could be set to TTL -1.0, another to TTL -2.0 and another to TTL with no compensation.

  • It will be possible to work side-by-side with up to 3 other photographers and their SB-800 multiple flash setups. The SB-800 offers four different wireless "channels;" if you and 1, 2 or 3 colleagues all agree to set your SB-800's to different channels, then the Monitor Pre-Flash from your Master Controller will trigger only your Remote groups, while the Monitor Pre-Flash output from only your SB-800's will be measured in calculating the flash exposure. 4 channels is a far cry from the 32 channels offered in the PocketWizard wireless radio remote system, but should be more than sufficient for press conferences and other situations where a small number of shooters are likely to be using SB-800's simultaneously.

  • Pressing the open flash button on the Master Controller will test fire each group in sequence - Master, A, B and C. Pressing the modeling light button on the Master Controller should simultaneously light up all strobe groups. It should also be possible to trigger the modeling light function of each group separately too, from the Master Controller.

  • Thanks to the new Auto FP High-Speed Sync mode (described later in this article), wireless SB-800 multi-flash is not limited to the D2H's 1/250 top sync speed. It's possible, in TTL, AA or M flash modes, to set the shutter speed above 1/250 while retaining the full capabilities of whatever flash mode is chosen, even when the SB-800's are being driven wirelessly. The main or only limitation will be that of any high-speed sync mode: flash range is reduced as the shutter speed climbs above 1/250. Wireless + Auto FP High-Speed Sync will provide another method for reducing the comtamination of ambient light in a scene you intend to be exclusively strobe-lit, especially when the goal is to shoot at larger apertures for shallower depth of field.

  • The new (though retro-looking) dot-matrix LCD of the SB-800 allows for more control over what gets displayed on the screen in any given mode. We've been shown only non-working samples of the SB-800 to date, so we can only relate Nikon's claim that the use of a dot-matrix display enabled them to use a greater variety of graphics in the wireless setup modes, thereby making it easier for users of the SB-800 to work their way through the task of configuring the flash. New graphics have also been developed to represent other modes too. For example, the new preflash symbol, TTL symbol and BL (balanced light) symbol, when displayed simultaneously, indicate the flash is in what used to be called 3D Multi-Sensor Balanced Fill-Flash mode, but is now simply called i-TTL.

sb-800_rear1.jpg
Speedlight SB-800 - rear view

Most importantly, Nikon claims the SB-800 wireless system is easy to use and works as advertised, "producing an accurate, well exposed photograph with balanced lighting" says a Nikon USA press release.

Such claims don't amount to much until the system is in the hands of working photographers for evaluation. If this holds true, however, then perhaps the biggest differentiator between the Nikon system and Canon's offering is its real world usability. Canon's wireless system delivers good flash exposures and reliable triggering only under a fairly limited set of circumstances. Attempts to make the light interesting by placing 550EX's to the side or behind a subject, or moving some distance back (though within the specified working range), too quickly results in inconsistent flash exposures or no flash at all.

Though we've had some success with Canon wireless, we've also experienced enough frustration that we ultimately sold off most of the Canon wireless kit we'd assembled. In our view, Nikon's SB-800 wireless system will be superior simply if it works reliably.

Auto FP High-Speed Sync

The D2H's standard top flash sync is limited to 1/250, but with this mode enabled on the SB-800 the camera will automatically switch to Auto FP High-Speed Sync when necessary to allow for synchronization at shutter speeds above 1/250. It provides illumination across the frame above 1/250 by emitting a series of lower-power flash bursts during the exposure, timed to carefully coincide with the shutter's opening and closing. Auto FP High-Speed Sync works right up to the D2H's top shutter speed of 1/8000, though the flash range drops as the shutter speed moves above 1/250 (as it does with the focal plane sync modes of competing camera systems).

Focal plane (FP) flash isn't entirely new to Nikon Speedlights; previous models, including the SB-28DX and SB-80DX, also offer high-speed flash synching capability with current Nikon digital SLR cameras. The key difference is that the SB-800's FP mode is full TTL, or i-TTL to be precise, which is a big step up from the clunky, nearly-manual operation of the FP mode of Nikon Speedlights prior to the SB-800.

In other words, shooting with the SB-800 set to i-TTL at shutter speeds above 1/250 should be seamless and fully automatic with the D2H. This will almost certainly be an indispensable feature for photographers who make pictures outdoors, both to enable action-stopping shutter speeds with flash fill and to allow for the use of larger apertures for more pleasing bright ambient light portraits.

Flash Value Lock (FV-Lock)

It's autoexposure lock for flash. Locking in the flash exposure over a sequence of photos is done by holding in the FUNC button on the front of the camera (when it's configured to act as the FV-Lock button, which is done through a setting on the D2H's rear LCD monitor).

Wide-Area AF Assist Illuminator

The SB-800 projects a pattern of red light that covers all 11 of the D2H's AF areas, not just the centre one, enabling autofocus in dim light regardless of the D2H AF area selected.

Distance Priority Mode

Preset the subject distance and aperture and the SB-800 will calculate the output required for a proper flash exposure. This is really an easier manual mode, where the ISO and flash's guide number (at the current zoom head position) are tossed in with the focus distance and chosen aperture to come up with the correct flash duration, independent of any sort of TTL-like scene analysis.

Colour variation data

This solves a problem we didn't know we had, and is indicative of the considerable effort Nikon engineers have expended to make the D2H's Auto White Balance (AWB) sing. Based on the (correct) notion that the colour of light being emitted from any strobe shifts slightly as the flash duration changes, the SB-800 communicates to the camera's AWB system the degree of shift based on the flash's output for that frame. The AWB system then makes a fine correction to the white balance applied as the photo is winding its way through the image processing path.

With both the SB-28DX and SB-80DX, we have observed that longer flash durations tend to be warmer than shorter ones, but the difference is relatively slight, so we're not sure how much of a difference rolling a flash duration correction into AWB will actually make. It will be interesting to see if there is a noticeable improvement in AWB colour consistency across the flash's power range as a result of this SB-800/D2H feature.

Better flash exposures

A revamped 5-segment TTL Multi Sensor in the D2H, and the incorporation of the 1005 pixel metering sensor as a central part of the TTL flash exposure calculation, says Nikon, will improve the accuracy of consistency of TTL flash output with the SB-800/D2H combo, and perhaps with other compatible Nikon Speedlights too.

While our results with the D1H or D1X, the SB-80DX and moderately wide angle to telephoto lenses has been uniformly excellent, TTL flash at the wide end of the AF-S Zoom-Nikkor 17-35mm f/2.8D ED-IF, or with the AF 14mm f/2.8D ED, has been an ongoing TTL problem that we have not been able to solve. Our fingers are crossed that the D2H/SB-800 combo will shore up Nikon flash in this one specific area.

Accessories

Nikon will ship the SB-800 with three accessories not included with the SB-80DX:

  • The SD-800 Quick Recycling Battery Pack. To trim recycling time without resorting to an external battery, Nikon has developed the SD-800 Quick Recycling Battery Pack, a replacement for the standard battery door on the SB-800 that holds an additional AA battery. With the SD-800 in place, the quoted 4.0 second full power recycling time for 4 NiMH or Ni-Cd batteries drops to 2.9 seconds when a fifth AA NiMH is added. For Lithium, there is no improvement in recycling time; for Alkaline and Nickel (we're not sure what a Nickel battery is) there is a 1 second improvement in recycling time when the SD-800 is attached. The sole purpose of the SD-800 is to shorten recycle time, not to increase the number of frames shot before changing batteries. It appears simple enough to remove the standard door and replace it with the SD-800.

  • AS-19 Speedlight Stand. A simple plastic desktop flash stand that, despite its small size, incorporates three cold shoes. Each shoe allows a different orientation of the flash relative to the stand's base for optimum placement in tight spots. It doesn't appear possible to slide three SB-800's into one stand at the same time.

  • SJ-800 Color Filter System. The SB-800 will include two different colour correction filters for the SB-800, one for tungsten and another for fluorescent light. The filters are shaped so that they just cover the head of the Speedlight and include a tab that inserts into the head of the flash to hold one or more filters in place. A kit of 20 filters, called the SJ-1, will be available as an extra-cost accessory. It will be comprised of two each of the same two filters as the SJ-800, plus two each of another fluorescent and another tungsten filter with different correction characteristics than those included in the SJ-800 set. Rounding out the SJ-1 kit will be four filters not tuned for colour correction but for lighting a background or other creative effects (turning every photographer into the next Chip Simons). The four filters are blue (4 of them), red (4 of them), yellow (2 of them) and flesh pink (2 of them).

The SB-800 will also include an SW-10H Diffusion Dome and SS-800 soft case.

All of the real SB-800 magic happens when it's linked to a D2H. With current Nikon film or digital SLRs, expect the same level of functionality as the SB-80DX offers now. The SB-800 also shares the SB-80DX's same maximum power output, same control layout (except for the new dot-matrix display), same locking metal foot, same high-voltage connector (plus official support for Nikon's SD-8A external battery pack, unofficial support for the Digital Camera Battery and other compatible external power sources) and near-identical case design.

sb-800_display.jpg
SB-800 dot-matrix display

The Speedlight SB-800 is slated to ship in the fourth quarter of 2003. Pricing has not been set.

Also coming this fall from Nikon are two new off-camera cables:

  • SC-29. The upcoming SC-29 off-camera cable includes the same Wide-Area AF Assist Illuminator in its hot shoe connector as the SB-800 has built-in. When using the SB-800 off-camera the AF assist light in the SC-29 illuminates, instead of the one in the flash. This ensures that the AF assist pattern covers all 11 of the D2H's AF areas, regardless of where the flash itself is pointed.

  • SC-28. Also in the wings is the SC-28, which will replace the SC-17. The SC-28 includes locking connectors at both the camera and Speedlight ends of the cable; the SC-17, by comparison, has a single locking connector that holds it firmly in the camera's hot shoe. The metal feet of Nikon's newer Speedlights, including the SB-80DX and SB-800, do not lock snugly in the SC-17, which makes it possible for the flash to slip and slide just enough for the contact points to be misaligned, preventing correct camera-flash communication.

Thanks to Lindsay Silverman and Nobu Sasagaki of Nikon USA for their assistance in the preparation of this article.

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