Recumbent Review: The Amazing Nikon SB-900 Speedlight

Introduction to the Series

Welcome to the very first Recumbent Review!

This series of articles will examine photographic equipment and accessories from the ordinary user’s point of view. Hopefully you’ll enjoy yourself while learning all about stuff that will help you take better pictures.

Why the name “Recumbent Review”?

There are several reasons…

  1. I’ll be reviewing camera stuff, thus the word “review”.
  2. The word “recumbent” is meant to reflect my approach to photography and, unfortunately for my wife, doing housework and my general approach to life. I’m very laid-back and it’s a bear to motivate myself to do even things I enjoy, except basic bodily functions that are beyond the scope of the Recumbent Reviews.
  3. I’m getting progressively more “recumbent” as the years tick by. I used to be much more of a go-getter in terms of photography, but now that I’m over 50 and my camera bag weighs over 20 pounds, I stick a lot closer to home than I used to. Most of the photos you’ll see in this series of Recumbent Reviews will be taken from my dining room and out the back door. Because I am a stickler for quality, I will be opening the patio door before I take the shots, unless the door adds an artistic je ne sais quoi to the photo, in which case I’ll leave it closed. When I’m especially tired (or drunk), I’ll bring the photo shoot even further indoors and snap a few pictures in the living room during commercials.
  4. I have a bet going with a friend of mine centered on how many times I can get away with using the word “recumbent” without, a.) making you, the reader, abandon this article and see what’s “Freshly Pressed”, and b.) violating WordPress’ Terms of Use in regard to its strict gigantic-yet-pointless-post regulations. The secret number my friend has put up five whole dollars in real paper money thinking I can’t beat is stored under the special corrective insole of his left workie boot.
What are the Objectives of the Recumbent Reviews?
  1. To share my vast knowledge of photography with those dumber than myself.
  2. To get Nikon, or another major camera or optical company, to send me free pro-rated photo gear on the theory that they would rather have a doofus like me review the expensive stuff in their product line than the mediocre stuff this reviewer can personally afford, on the off-chance that a couple of units might be sold as a result.
  3. To foster dialogue and a sense of kinship among photographers regardless of creed, culture, colour, religion, nationality, sex, sexual orientation, political affiliation, or hairdo.
  4. To give the average amateur photographer an alternative to the reviews written by snooty and intimidating technically-proficient seasoned professional photographers who have terrific portfolios and even better résumés that include ground-breaking accomplishments like “the first to photograph Kate Smith in her underwear” or “the first to photograph a wild snuffleupagus in its natural Amazonian habitat”. Yours truly’s greatest photographic first was to photograph a tame snuffleupagus in Kate Smith’s underwear, so you know that I’m just a regular guy. You won’t find those boring colour, contrast, and resolution chart tests in any Recumbent Review, just my honest findings of how the equipment performs in real-world situations (my wife has glued all kinds of copper baking pans all over the dining room wall so there isn’t any place to stick the charts even if I had some).
  5. To convince myself that I’m doing something photographic even though typing up these reviews means my ass doesn’t move out of my cushy computer chair, which is nowhere near my back door or the living room.
  6. To expand my personal herd of blog groupies by attracting rotund young ladies with a flair for the unusual and a thing for pudgy, bald, middle-aged guys who carry stinky five-dollar bills in their wallets and cameras around their necks. Hey, the more groupies I have, the more help I’ll have carrying my camera stuff if I ever leave the house, right?

Let’s get started!

The Review

This photo proves that the only situation in which the SB-900 cannot help you take a better photo in low-light conditions is when you are trying to get a good shot of the SB-900 itself!

The SB-900, at the time of this article’s writing, is Nikon’s flagship Speedlight. It’s also the newest thing in my photographic arsenal so I’m presently most excited about, and confused by, this incredible device. It’s also the only true professional quality photographic item that I own (but I have a 50mm lens that comes close). That’s why the inaugural Recumbent Review is about an accessory and not about a meat-and-potatoes camera or lens.

Even though it’s got all the bells and whistles the Nikon engineers could shoehorn into a camera-mountable package, the only sound it makes is a generic “beep” if it thinks that it didn’t throw enough light on the subject [What literary device is that… a reverse metaphor or something?]. It also makes the tell-tale electronic flash “phoomp” sound when the flash goes off. But there are so many other reasons to mug seniors on pension day in order to be able to afford buying one.

  • The SB-900 gets lens info (aperture and focal length) from the camera and automatically zooms its own light output to match the coverage of your lens, allowing for higher guide numbers with longer lenses, which is just ducky. If you have a CPU-endowed zoom lens, the flash zooms itself as you zoom the lens, which produces the coolest sound the SB-900 makes, in this reviewer’s humble opinion. The flash also takes into account your ISO setting and whether it is on an FX or a DX format camera.
    Insider Information: Nikon’s FX designation stands for “the owner Freely eXpends a lot of money on camera stuff” while the DX designation stands for “the owner Doesn’t eXpend a lot of money on camera stuff”.
  • It’s got plenty of power… enough to vaporize big black ants at thirty paces. I’ll let you know how it does against red ants once I’ve done some further testing.
  • The flash head spins around and tilts up so you can bounce the light off walls and ceilings for some really nice effects. It also tilts down a bit for close-ups. Rumour has it this feature was inspired by Linda Blair’s character in The Exorcist.
  • It features an i-TTL exposure gizmo that tells it just how much to blind your subject so that you’ll have perfectly exposed photos that your model will never be able to see.
  • When enabled on your camera, it has a red-eye prevention function that produces a couple of quick low-power flashes before it blasts your subject with a veritable tsunami of photons. Funny, I never thought red-eye would be a big problem over there in Japan — I guess I just never imagined those Nikon designers taking a major hit off a ganja boomer. Anyway, the way this works is that the comparatively dim series of preliminary flashes trick your subject’s eyes into thinking that everything’s OK, causing them to relax. Then the main blast of light enters your subject’s eyes, cauterizing the blood vessels in his/her retinas.
    HoaiPhai’s Secret Tip: You can extend the life of your batteries by limiting the number of photos you take of a given model using the red-eye prevention feature to just one. After their retinas have been cauterized once, they won’t reflect ever again.
  • It has a honking great autofocus assist light, one that’s even better than the one on my camera body, the mighty D300. When you half-press the shutter release button, the SB-900 shines a pattern of laser light on your subject, sort of like the thingamabob cashiers use to scan your items with, only much stronger. I’ll prattle on further about this feature later.
  • It’s a member in good standing of Nikon’s Creative Lighting System whereby you can take a bunch of flash units and have your camera adjust the speedlights’ output via the i-TTL real-time metering. If you are interested in finely controlled studio lighting, the SB-900 has the brains and the brawn to work in such an environment. My D300 can control one SB-900 on the camera and 3 additional groups of an unlimited number of flash units. Even if each group contained only one SB-900, to fully outfit my photo shoot from all angles it would cost me about a year’s worth of property taxes, batteries not included, but it would be well worth it!
  • There’s a great LCD display on the back that displays all kinds of info about various camera, lens, and flash settings including the distance range that your subject has to be in for the picture to turn out right. There’s even a little thermometer that tells you how hot the circuitry is getting so you don’t freak out if it goes into thermal shut-down mode. Thermal shut-down mode is there to make sure your $500+ investment doesn’t meet its maker in a puff of purple smoke. The boys at Nikon have succeeded in producing a piece of electronics with its very own survival instinct!
  • It comes with a bunch of accessories — a built-in light spreader for when you use a wide-angle lens, a diffuser to make shadows a little softer, four filters and a holder so you can match the colour of the flash’s light to that of various types of artificial lighting, a nifty stand so you can take the flash off the camera for artsy shots, and a case with a couple of compartments so you can carry the flash and accessories all together.

Enough already with the specs — let’s see how this sucker really performs!

The Field Test

So now on to what you’re really interested in, the amazing stuff that the SB-900 can do to bring your photos to life!

Figure I

As we can see in Figure I above, using your SB-900 off-camera can really do wonders for a shot. Here the orchids, chosen because not only do I know their name but I can also spell it, are lit from above and behind using my D300’s built-in flash in “commander mode” only, i.e. no light from the camera’s flash contributed to this photo. The little blob of light in the upper-right corner is a reflection off the TV screen in my studio.

Figure II

Now in Figure II, we can see some yummy chocolate bunnies moments before they took a swim in my gastric juices. I carefully set up this shot in my studio during a commercial break with the bunnies artistically placed in a roasting pan with only the SB-900 as a light source. I used the diffuser dome that came with the unit to soften shadows. The polished steel pan also reflects light around to make the bunnies’ last minutes on Earth very evenly illuminated.

Figure III

Here we put the autofocus assist light through its paces for the very first time. My good friend Ned the Raccoon, who is starring in Figure III while climbing trees and peaking in bathroom windows in the dark of night, makes for a challenging test of not only my D300’s autofocus abilities, but of the SB-900’s autofocus illuminator function as well. My first-generation Nikkor 18-200mm lens was used in this shot, just so you know.

Figure IV

It was no easy task for me to teeter out of the back door and concentrate on the shot while my wife kept screaming, “Close the damned door! You’re letting the mosquitos in!”. Ned was about 30 feet away from my back door… that’s a pretty good distance for an autofocus illuminator to work  considering all the branches in the foreground that might confuse a lesser system. I placed the focussing spot squarely on Ned’s face and with the help of the SB-9oo’s laser beams, the focus is balls-on accurate! In my 40 years of photography, I’ve found that there are few things harder to focus on than a voyeuristic raccoon in a yew tree on a moonless night. I’m super-duper impressed!

Figure IV shows the basic layout of my backyard with my two guard skunks patrolling, making sure no slug tries to pull a fast one. Now these are feral skunks loaded with live ammunition, they’re not store-bought pet skunks shooting blanks. Oh, the risks I take for my art!

The photo’s metadata says that I took the image with my 18-200mm Nikkor zoom set at 34mm (about 50mm 35mm-equivalent) at 200 ISO. The more distant skunk, geographically speaking, is about 40 feet away from my backdoor. That’s pretty good range right there but you can squeeze even more distance from the SB-900 by using a higher ISO setting and/or by using a longer lens so the SB-900 concentrates the light into the lens’ narrower field of view.

Figure V

You can see in the cropped Figure V how well my friend Chanel is illuminated by the SB-900. She was about 30 feet away when I captured this lovely portrait of her.

If you intend to get in on the ground floor of this nascent photographic genre of skunkography, I highly recommend the SB-900. It will give you the output you’ll need to keep your distance while developing a trusting relationship with your subjects. It operates in concert with your camera to get you well-exposed shots “first time, every time”.

  • Haven’t you been reading up until now? I’m absolutely goobers over the SB-900. It can do no wrong.
  • The flash’s output is so high that there is a perceptible recoil effect. I hope Nikon plans on installing some sort of optical muzzle brake on future models.
  • The “phoomp” sound it not as loud as I feel it should be on a device with this kind of output.
  • I’d really love to see “potato-masher” flash guns make a comeback… any chance you guys at Nikon could come up with an even brighter CLS Speedlight in a potato-masher configuration?

The SB-900 is well worth the price for the serious photographer (or the not-so-serious poser who just wants some first-rate bling for their camera). It’s the choice of the pros who take photos on the red carpet at the Oscar Awards so it can certainly handle your shots of the whole family at your Aunt Lefty’s birthday party. It’s a must-have for the skunkography masters of tomorrow. I highly recommend you run out and buy one today!

Tell ’em HoaiPhai sent you.


If you liked this post, you might enjoy reading my other Recumbent Reviews:

About HoaiPhai

I'm up late digging up the dirt. View all posts by HoaiPhai

11 responses to “Recumbent Review: The Amazing Nikon SB-900 Speedlight

  • Redneckprincess

    Well I am a Canon girl, but my best friend AND my boyfriend are both Nikon lovers 🙂 I specifically like objective #3 and the fact that you aren’t gonna hold my hairdo against me…hahahahahaha, you crack me up 🙂

    • HoaiPhai

      Yeah, Canons are great, too. You get more pixels for the dollar with Canon but, as a guy, I’m always the first to claim that size doesn’t matter. Seriously (for only a little while), They also have some great features, like the auto depth-of-field function where you choose your near and far points and the camera sets the focus distance and aperture that’ll make it work.

      The two main things that sold me on Nikon was I had a CP5700 and there was a recall on some individual cameras of that model. I had had two or three wonky images so I called them up and they said “Send it in”. The warrantee had lapsed years before and not only did they pay for shipping both ways but I got the camera back in only a couple of weeks and with other stuff fixed and it had been cleaned. I was really impressed. The other thing that sold me on Nikon was that the digitals are backwardly compatible when it comes to lenses. I have a 500mm mirrror lens built in 1982 that works great on the camera, including auto exposure (in aperture-priority mode). Same thing with a 50mm I have that is the same design as when it was first made in the 60s (except that mine was made two years ago with some improved materials and lens coatings).

      Whatever you shoot with, it doesn’t matter. As long as you’re having fun and are able to take some nice shots!

  • Martina

    I’m not much of a photographer ( as you surely can say from my blog) but I just wanted to stop by and say thank you for reading me and leaving comments, too!
    I’m absolutely envious of all you people who capture life and world’s beauty through a lens 🙂
    Thanks for sharing,

    • HoaiPhai

      Hey, wait a minute! I’ve read your blog and your posts are warm and genuine, as are your photos. I’m no world-class photographer but enjoy the process of taking the picture and trying to get it nice enough to print. If anything, I try too hard… a lot of my photos look contrived. One of my problems is that photography sometimes gets in the way of me taking nice pictures.

      You don’t seem to worry about the photography, so your photos are pure windows on your life. Did you see my post “Photographic Advice to the Young“? Your photos are EXACTLY what I was talking about… capturing slices of your life! Your toes-in-the-sand picture is a masterpiece in that it really communicates the “little girl inside the woman at the beach” feeling that you felt. Maybe I’m wrong about what you were feeling at the time but that’s what your picture said to me. Even the picture of the rice cakes was very “personal”.

      Art is a funny thing. I read in a book about photography (by a guy who makes his living not only writing about it but mostly by selling his incredible images) that art is subjective and all that’s needed for a photo to qualify as art is for it to touch the heart of even one person, and that single person can even be the photographer who took it. Do your photos mean something to you? If so, then they’re art. If not, they’ve touched me so, again, they’re art. The main thing is to please yourself and to have fun doing it!

  • The Hook

    Incredible review. Technically-sound, engaging and just plain cool!

  • HoaiPhai

    Why, thank you kindly! I’m here to serve the public by providing hard facts in a silly maraschino cherry outer shell that makes my BS easier to swallow.

    If you are into photography, I’ll be doing more Nikon-oriented Recumbent Reviews in the near future so check back from time to time. If you are into BS, just about any of my posts will do so check back more often.

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