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Thread: SB-900 - learning curve

  1. #1
    DeepWater's Avatar
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    SB-900 - learning curve

    For years I have been a natural light shooter, but lately have gotten into shooting more people (and yes, you really can shoot people legally! but you have to use a camera ) so I took the plunge and got a flash. I shoot a d-300, so, after reading a bunch of reviews I decided to go with the SB-900 flash. I'm not sorry but I am lost! The flash is more complex than my camera was ! and at least so far I have not been able to find a good book on this flash. Any suggestions for bridging the learning curve?? I have been working on Photoshop (CS4 through CS-6) for 2 years now and am just starting to feel at home in the program - I don't really want to take that long to learn how to use my new flash! Any thoughts would be appreciated as I truly find myself, once again, in DeepWater !

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    Moderator GrumpyDiver's Avatar
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    Manfred Mueller

    Re: SB-900 - learning curve

    I would suggest that you start by reading the manual. It does cover things off fairly well. I assume that you are shooting on-camera rather than off-camera?

    If you are confused, I would suggest you start off simply and shoot i-TTL (integrated through-the-lens) mode. Your camera, lens and flash all communicate with each other in this mode. There is a second (and actually also a third) TTL mode. In TTL mode there are several flashes that occur so quickly that you'll actually never notice them. There is a pre-flash that allows the camera to read the scene and then direct the light output of the flash and control it through the camera's computer. This means that your camera display shows "TTL| only. It makes an assumption as to what your main subject is and lights accordingly. If you spin around the selector dial, you will also see a "TTL BL"; this tends to pump a bit more light into the background, I find and this is the mode I use most often. If you have set your camera to High-Speed Synch there will also be a "FP" showing on your flash display. I won't get into this feature right now.

    The only other mode I tend to use a lot is "M" or manual, where you have to set everything yourself. It is a good thing to play with once you are more comfortable with the flash.

    Your flash comes with a few accessories; built in are the wide angle screen (used when shooting with a very wide angle lens) and a white card, which is used to direct some of the light towards your subject when using bounce flash (this is something I use a lot). There are a few external accessories; a mounting shoe, that is used to shoot off camera, a diffuser (which I use a lot - I rarely use direct flash without having the diffuser on, it softens the light nicely). You also have a gel holder and some gels. These are used to change the colour output of your flash when you shoot in mixed light situations. There are two greens for use when you are shooting under fluorescent lights and two oranges, for shooting under tungsten lights.

    I don't bother with "A" automatic, as I find TTL works a lot better and I've never used "GN" mode, I find it easier to shoot manual. I've never use "RPT" either.

    The flash head swivels in 2-independent directions for bounce flash (off a ceiling or wall) and this is probably how I use my flash the most.

    A lot of the other settings allow you to tweak the light output or are associated with off-camera use (master and slave). I use my units (I have a SB600 as well) off camera on light stands with umbrellas (reflectors or shoot through), using the built in Commander mode in the camera body.

    I suggest you start simply, with "TTL""BL" and as you become more comfortable with it, try some of the other settings.

  3. #3
    DeepWater's Avatar
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    Re: SB-900 - learning curve

    Thanks for the input - I have read up on ttl and ittl, the Nikon CLS, etc. and I get that. What little shooting I have done has been on camera, but I intend to go off camera as soon as I can get proficient with the flash and have a better understand. I guess what gets me is the complexity of the flash unit itself. I have read the manual and while all the information is there, it is not put together in a user friendlily way. Reading in section c they reference something in section f and so on - you are back and forth like a one eyed man watching a tennis match! What I was hoping to find was a book that is not dedicated to every flash Nikon put out, because for some reason Nikon has decided to make everyone different in substantial ways. Such as the SB-900 and the SB-910 - instead of having the function buttons (3 on left) operate the same as the 900, now the 910 has the center button doing what the left button used to do - (way to go Nikon) Don't get me wrong, I love my Nikon and will probably be a loyal Nikonian till I bite the big one, but on some things they really could do better. Anyhow, enough rambling - I appreciate you taking the time to reply and your advice. If you want to find me in the future I will be found with my head buried in some Nikon SB-900 book! (sure hope I can get out and shoot sometime soon )

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    Moderator GrumpyDiver's Avatar
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    Manfred Mueller

    Re: SB-900 - learning curve

    I would suggest you get your head out of the manual and books and start shooting. That is the best way to learn what your equipment can and cannot do.

    If you think that the SB900 user interface is bad, try the SB600 sometime. Truly awful... Engineers should never be allowed to design user interfaces, and I rather suspect that is what has happened here.

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    John Morton's Avatar
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    Re: SB-900 - learning curve

    I'm with you, James! The last time I used a flash with any degree of regularity was back in the 1970's, when there as an ASA setting and a distance setting which gave an aperture for the invariant 1/60th of a second shutter speed. Not quite true; I did use a ring flash for macro work with my last film camera.

    I picked up an SB-900 when I bought my D700 in 2008; and I have used it fairly often, mostly off the camera (which is really cool) but - wow, are there ever a lot of buttons and settings..!

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    Mark von Kanel's Avatar
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    Re: SB-900 - learning curve

    Hi James, i use flash quite a lot and rarely use anything other than manual mode because it allows me to put the amount of light that i want into the image rather than that which the camera thinks is correct.

    you need to get that flash off camera as quickly as you can and with cls it works in exactly the same way any way. The nikonian press do a book thats fairly well laid out but it covers all nikon flashes an so it can be a bit of a waste of money if you PM me ill let you have a copy of some instructions that are better laid out.

    another good site for flash info is srtobist .com i found it very informative and quite inspirational its good to read through the strobist 101 & 102 courses.

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    Clactonian's Avatar
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    Re: SB-900 - learning curve

    I bought an SB800 when they first came out and use it fairly regularly, albeit not in a studio type situation. The iTTL setting works brilliantly for my purposes when used either as the primary light source or for fill in. The only suggestion I would make for your initial usage would be to avoid direct flash onto the subject. You have both tilt and swivel available which will enable you to bounce the light onto your subject, which will make for a more interesting shot.
    Manfred has it right. Put the flash on your camera and experiment away, you can't do any harm. Once you understand what it can do in iTTL delve deeper by all means but for general use I bet you come back to iTTL.

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    John Morton's Avatar
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    Re: SB-900 - learning curve

    Quote Originally Posted by Mark von Kanel View Post
    The nikonian press do a book thats fairly well laid out but it covers all nikon flashes an so it can be a bit of a waste of money if you PM me ill let you have a copy of some instructions that are better laid out.
    "The Nikon Creative Lighting System" by Mike Hagen; rockynook/NikoniansPress.

    I'm counting 44 pages on the SB-900 out of 262 pages in total (including index etc.) and, yes, it is a good book (probably better, the more Nikon flashes one owns).

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    Re: SB-900 - learning curve

    I would say, to start with you don't really need to know the ins and out of the SB. Starting with on-camera - just figure out how to control mode, zoom and power. Those'll get you a long way - and zoom is even pushing it!

    Most common modes I use are either ttl (not the BL mode - that tries to be too clever for me) or manual. And then just tweak flash exposure compensation, or manual power. Those buttons are all easily found on the flash.

  10. #10
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    Re: SB-900 - learning curve

    Quote Originally Posted by Reds View Post
    I would say, to start with you don't really need to know the ins and out of the SB. Starting with on-camera - just figure out how to control mode, zoom and power. Those'll get you a long way - and zoom is even pushing it!

    Most common modes I use are either ttl (not the BL mode - that tries to be too clever for me) or manual. And then just tweak flash exposure compensation, or manual power. Those buttons are all easily found on the flash.
    I use "TTL BL" (balanced flash mode") for "fill flash" people shots outside - I make sure camera is in matrix metering mode (note: BL switches off when the camera is in spot metering mode). In "TTL BL" mode the flash illumination of main subject is set at a level consistent with the background's ambient illumination, assuming the camera is on auto exposure. Indoors for on camera use of SB900 I usually set flash to "TTL" so that flash illumination reflected back from the main subject, together with info from the lens on focus distance, are used by the camera to set the flash output for the shot. As mentioned in an earlier reply, I agree its very worthwhile spending time (several hours) experimenting with the different auto settings that might be relevant to your photography. Once mastered, the auto settings (which we've spent a lot of money on in buying the sophisticated SB900 flash) are very consistent and much quicker to set up than using the flash in manual mode or "trial and error" mode.
    Good luck!

  11. #11

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    Re: SB-900 - learning curve

    The problem with auto modes when you're starting out is there's so many variables involved. And you're giving control of these to the camera. So when something goes wrong - probably the most common thing is horribly over exposed subjects, a beginner might not know where to look to resolve it. Some people will figure it out and stick with it, but I bet a lot of others leave it well alone and become those people that say 'I hate flash', I only shoot ambient It ruins the atmosphere etc.

    That's why I think it's not a bad thing to experiment with manual mode first and figure out for yourself what's going on with mixing flash and ambient. TTL and Aperture priority modes together are easily fooled in changing light situations and won't give you consistent results necessarily.

    When you think of how many variables there are...... aperture, ISO, shutter speed (of course), sync speed, high speed sync, exposure compensation, flash exposure compensation (and they interact differently on different Nikon bodies), TTL FP, TTL BL, metering modes, curtain settings... have I missed any? Never mind the original question about all the options on the SB itself! There's certainly a lot going on !!

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