Nikon Speedlight SB-600 Review (Dedicated i-TTL Flash)

Nikon SB-600 on Cam for reviewFor the amateur photographer, the SB-600 has been the standard Nikon flash since the introduction of i-TTL.

The SB600 was released in 2004, one year after the professional SB-800. The SB-600 features the same essential flash modes as the SB-800 but leaves out some gimmicks like the Multi (stroboscopic) mode.

At almost half the cost you don’t give up a lot that would be needed for everyday photography. It’s lacking some professional features such as a PC sync port, a socket for external power supply, and its guide number is somewhat reduced (but still more than sufficient for all but the most demanding situations).

The SB-600 was replaced in late 2010 by the new SB-700, which features a long list of improvements, and comes with an almost 50% bigger price tag. But due to the fact that the SB-600 is still capable of delivering the same high exposure quality there’s no urgent need to upgrade.

 

SB-600 Highlights

  • the cheapest “real” speedlight from Nikon (SB-400 is more of a pop-up flash replacement and limited in too many ways)
  • featuring the latest i-TTL and i-TTL BL flash exposure protocol
  • wireless slave mode (AWL) works great even outdoors
  • easy to use (except settings for wireless mode)

 

Compatible Nikon Camera Bodies

The SB-600 can be used with all Nikon cameras that feature any form of a TTL flash exposure mode: these can be film-based cameras such as the F4, first generation digitals like the D1 or a D100, and certainly also the latest, and future DSLR models with i-TTL.

Review Contents

Intro: Flash Modes and Wireless Flash

The SB-600 is the last speedlight from Nikon supporting film-based TTL mode as well as the first-gen digital D-TTL. When you shoot analog and digital together, do not upgrade to a newer Nikon flash – neither SB-900 nor SB-700 have the old TTL built in.

For digital Nikon bodies from D50 / D70 / D200 / D2 series on and newer, there are only 2 (other) TTL exposure modes to worry about, and both are supported by the SB-600 as well: i-TTL and i-TTL-BL.

i-TTL Mode

This is the current flash protocol used by Nikon, where exposure metering is based on tiny pre-flashes sent out before the actual exposure. i-TTL is the core of Nikon’s “creative lighting system” CLS.

i-TTL is a very good system in general even if it’s not always as good as you’d like it to be, so don’t trust it blindly and get familiar with the flash exposure compensation and ideally also the manual mode. That said, the digital TTL performance of the SB-600 is on the level of the other Nikon flashes – the more expensive models show no better performance here.

Some people say that analog TTL was way more reliable than the new digital flash metering, but we’re living in today’s digital world and not in the past anymore so what does it help to complain.

i-TTL BL

This is an extension of normal i-TTL, where BL stands for ‘balanced fill’. The mode was developed for back lit situations where it provides a more natural looking combination of flash light and ambient, at least in theory.

There is quite some disagreement out there how useful it really is. I finally started some systematic testing with different flash brands and models and found the results more convincing than you would expect from reading some of the critics.

In fact you can say that i-TTL BL is the second i-TTL generation: use this as the standard flash mode rather than the “simple” i-TTL, and switch back to iTTL only if needed. That’s exactly the approach Nikon took on the current SB-700 flash, the SB-600 successor (see the SB-700 in-depth review).

You can find much more details in the TTL performance section and following review parts.

Manual Flash

Manual flash is an important feature to have, as this is the only mode where you can keep a constant illumination on your subject no matter what happens around you. Luckily it is easy to set on the SB-600, just push on the dedicated Mode button to switch.

On the display you see the current output level that can be set using third stops, giving you fine control. Note that there a full stop between the 1/1 and 1/2 power settings, a quirk that is present in all Nikon brand flashguns. The reason can be found in the instruction manual of the SB-700 (which allows all third steps with a custom feature): “With some cameras, and when using faster shutter speeds with a flash output level higher than M1/2, actual flash output may decrease to M1/2 level”. This is still rather cryptic, so please leave me a comment if you know more about the reasons for that.

In manual mode, there’s no distance calculator / scale like the SB-900 or 48 AF-1 from Metz have. There is also no “distance-priority manual flash” mode (“GN” mode) where you dial in the subject distance on the speedlight which in turn adjusts the exposure. Both features are not mission-critical (and useless in wireless mode).

No Multi Flash, no Auto Mode

Multi flash aka stroboscopic flash is a feature that is pretty much useless. It looks nice on the sample photos in the instruction manual, but where would you actually use it in real life? Anyways, if you need multi flash then do not buy the SB-600, go for a used SB-800 or the current SB-900 instead.

The SB-600 has no “auto” mode either (this is a special flash mode which would be better called “self controlled flash mode”). Like for “multi flash”, this is a feature typically found in the flagship models and not the middle class (anymore). You don’t need “auto” anyways, simply use i-TTL BL for full automatic flash photography.

SB-600 for Wireless Flash

With its wireless sensor on the right side of the flash body, the SB-600 is ready to use right out of the box with many camera models from Nikon. All bodies with a built in flash from D70, D80, D90, D7000 or higher can be used as a commander.

The one other option working with the SB-600 is to attach a (radio) trigger on the flash foot, since there is no optical slave mode, nor a PC socket. When using radio triggers it’s recommended to deactivate the standby mode. To learn more about wireless flash, go to the SB-600 remote flash section.

 

Basic information
Brand Nikon
Model SB-600
Class mid-range
Cost (USD) 200
First introduction 2004
Successor SB-700
Nikon compatibility
Supported Nikon flash modes i-TTL-BL, i-TTL, D-TTL, analog TTL, M
Nikon wireless TTL slave / master yes / no
Manual mode
Manual power settings (on the flash) 1/1 – 1/2 – 1/4 – 1/8 – 1/16 – 1/32 – 1/64

 

Supplied Accessories

SB 600 AS-19 SS-600The Nikon SB-600 comes with the following accessories included:

  • soft bag SS-600
  • flash stand AS-19
  • instruction manual
  • brochure “A collection of example photos”
  • warranty card

The Nikon SB-600 lacks the color filters and diffuser dome that come as standard accessories with the bigger brother SB-900 and the replacement SB-700, but what you find included is of good quality.

The soft bag SS-600 is well made with nice clean seams and some padding to protect your flash. It’s also big enough to let your SB-600 fit in easily no matter how you pack it. On the other side it’s still small enough to fit on top of my D90 in my small camera bag. The SS-900 bag that comes with the SB-900 in contrast is so huge that it’s much harder to stow.

The AS-19 flash stand slides into a small pocket inside the SS-600 soft bag. Again, this is a very high quality product, much better than the SS-21 (SB-900) and upcoming SS-22 (SB-700). It has a metal thread, a hole for securing the safety pin of the flash, and 2 additional cold shoes in 90 degree angle position so that you have a total of 3 slots for your stuff (they were initially intended for SB-15 / SB-27 flashes but work for any other flash as well).

The AS-19 is the best flash stand I’ve seen to date and while this is only a small accessory, it speaks for Nikon’s attention to detail and their quality commitment. Btw, you can get an extra or replacement AS-19 from amazon. But why did they downgrade on the new flashes?

Build Quality

The casing is pretty compact in size which is an advantage, it’s much smaller than the huge SB-900, but certainly also bigger than the tiny SB-400 flash (don’t buy an SB-400 btw, you can get the much more potent Yongnuo YN-465 for less money). The new SB-700 flash

SB-600 SB-400 SB-900

Casing

The SB-600 casing feels well engineered and is made from high quality plastic. My own SB-600 does not have the same ‘premium feel’ as my newer SB-900 and SB-700 speedlights, but I’ve used it a lot longer so the comparison is not really fair. The velcro you see on the photos is not standard but my own mod to attach my gel holder and soft box.

Metal Flash Foot

The flash foot is a nice metal construction with the 4 pins used in the Nikon system. The center x-sync pin is for receiving the firing signal while the other 3 are for the TTL specific information exchange with the camera body. As can be seen on the photo, the foot is not a flat plate but it’s bending up at the back, which means you can’t mount it reversed in an accessory shoe.

SB-600 metal foot from side

The flash doesn’t feature a conventional locking wheel but comes with a ‘quick release lever’ which is a bit faster to operate than a wheel (and it also looks fancier but that is not a factor really). The lever actuates the additional locking pin in the flash foot, but there’s no additional locking or squeezing against the accessory shoe; that’s why flashes with a wheel mount tend to sit a bit tighter in the camera hot shoe.

SB-600 Safety pin

External interfaces

The Nikon speedlight SB 600 has neither a PC jack nor a connector for an external battery pack. The only external interface are 2 gold color contacts at the bottom of the flash, at the front of the foot. These are used for the AF assist beam control when used with a TTL cable like the SC-29.

SB-600 foot w AF assist contacts

Flash Head (24-85mm)

By today’s standard the SB-600 has a small head – I personally prefer the compact size very much. The flash head moves 180 degrees to the left, 90 degrees to the right and tilts 90 degrees upwards, but there no option for negative tilt.

There is a release button on the right side that needs to be pressed before you can move it out of the default position. The movement itself feels solid but is a little rough at times.

SB-600 Release knob for flash head adjustment

Auto Zoom

When the Nikon SB-600 is attached to a compatible camera body it zooms automatically with the lens. There is a range between 24 and 85mm available. This is not record breaking but keep in mind that more tele zoom in a flash does not yield a ton of additional power but a rather modest increase, so the 120mm setting on the SB-700 still does not give you more light than the SB-600 puts out at 85mm (meaning the stronger flash tube used on the SB-600 makes it still more powerful together with a 120mm lens despite the shorter zoom range).

There is no sensor size detection on this flash implemented, so it won’t adjust its zoom to DX. 50mm at DX means 50mm on the SB-600, not 70mm as on the SB-700 for example (for a comparison see the SB-700 guide number details page).

Manual Zoom

Manual zoom is very quick and easy to set. Just keep pushing on the “Zoom” button and the flash goes through the following positions: 24mm – 28mm – 35mm – 50mm – 70mm – 85mm – “auto zoom” and back.

SB-600 Manual zoom setting

The flash has a built-in memory for the last settings, so if powered off and back on it stays in the zoom setting you had last used.

Wide angle coverage

Built into the head you find a wide panel screen that extends coverage down to 14mm (full frame). If activated, the flash stops zooming with the lens and locks the reflector in the 24mm wide angle position (which gives you the 14mm coverage with the wide-panel in front).

SB-600 Wide-flash flip-down panel

Test: Wide Angle Coverage

When flashed against a white surface you see a rather pronounced square shape from that panel at 12mm DX (corresponds to 18mm for full frame). I’ve never noticed this to be a real life problem (who takes photos of white walls?), but I’ve seen from other flashguns that a more even coverage is usually being achieved.

Nikon SB-600 light falloff 12mm DX

Operation

The SB600 is operated with the help of 6 buttons:

  • On/Off switch on the bottom right
  • Flash - test flash button underneath the ‘Ready’ light
  • Mode button for switching between TTL and manual mode
  • Zoom button for adjusting reflector position
  • Plus and Minus button for various selections

The ease of use is excellent (with one big exception we’ll be talking about below): each button is illuminated, the buttons have a good size so don’t need to be pressed with the finger nail. They are neither too stiff nor rubbery (as on many Yongnuo flashes for example). The flash is very responsive, there is zero delay between pressing a button and the setting to take effect.

All SB-600 buttons are clearly labeled, not like on the SB-900 which has 4 unlabeled buttons (next to 4 labeled controls), or the Metz 48/50/58 series, or the Di-622 from Nissin.

But here is the one real nuisance, and that is switching between on-camera use and wireless (off-camera) TTL mode. To do this, you have to press the “Minus” and “Zoom” buttons together for about 3 seconds. This exercise is especially interesting when you have only 1 hand free e.g. when holding your camera in the other hand; or to say it more clearly: it’s pretty much impossible.

SB-600 Setting AWL

You not only have to switch the 600 series speedlight over to wireless TTL when using it off-camera, but you also need to change back to normal TTL every time you attach the speedlight to the camera again. If you don’t it, stays in the wireless mode and won’t fire with the shutter – it does not even get recognized by the camera.

The Metz 48 AF-1 is more intelligent in that respect: you don’t need to change back to on-camera TTL. Just leave the flash in wireless TTL, it will still work with your camera in the hot shoe. The new Nikon SB-700 and the flagship model SB-900 have a dedicated switch for on-camera and remote TTL operation, which is the best solution for selecting i-TTL mode.

LCD Display

By today’s standard the ‘segment type’ LCD panel is small but the information is well organized and it uses large fonts. I actually prefer it over the 2.5x bigger display of the SB-900 which shows all kinds of irrelevant stuff but at the same time has a much lower contrast.

SB600 LCD vs SB900

In the top row you see the flash mode and high speed sync. The top right is reserved for exposure compensation. The center digits are for indicating flash output setting, the bottom left shows the current zoom step. In addition, there are symbols for AF assist setting, wireless TTL, channel and group, current standby mode – pretty much everything you’d like to know (maybe apart from a missing range computer/indicator in manual mode which might be useful sometimes).

SB600 Display TTL M

The green display illumination can be switched off or on and display illumination is coupled with the button light. Thanks to 4 LEDs located on the 2 sides the resulting illumination is very even.

Power Supply

Nikon’s SB 600 is operated by 4 AA cells as the only power source option. Both alkaline or NiMH batteries can be used. Each cell sits in its own clearly labeled chamber, unfortunately the order of batteries is a bit weird as it doesn’t follow the expected plus-minus-plus-minus pattern you know from other devices.

SB-600 Battery Loading

Battery loading is easy, but there is a small issue with the battery exchange: one or 2 of my batteries remain stuck at times in their chambers and won’t come out unless I turn the flash upside down and shake it in my hand – this is a bit annoying.

There is one problem with the battery cover design: if I press on the battery door hinge with my finger, it gives a bit way which is not only a weird feeling but also causes the batteries to lose contact sometimes so that the flash powers off for a second. This is not an entirely academic problem as your thumb rests on that battery door hinge when hand holding for wireless use.

AWL sensor on Nikon SB-600

Might be these are issues with my exemplar only and not inherent design flaws, but I read other reports about similar issues from time to time. It’s good to see that Nikon was switching over to a different battery door design for the new SB-700, but their new construction is not 100% convincing, either.

Test: Flash Recycling Times (3.2 / 2.2 sec)

Modern flashes have full-power recycle times between 2 and 6 seconds, depending on their maximum power and battery type. Speedlights.net recycle times are tested according to ISO 2827; see details.

The SB-600 is a fast recycling flash with alkaline batteries and even faster with NiMH. It takes only 3.2 / 2.2 seconds on average before the ready light comes back on after a full power flash which means it’s even a bit faster in real life than the published values with 3.5 sec for alkaline and 2.5 sec for NiMH type cells suggest.

SB-600 recycle times

The times displayed above are the maximum times. At lower output settings than ‘full’ the time between flashes is certainly shorter. Watch the video for the alkaline test results:
 


 

Overheating Protection

The Nikon SB-600 does not have any thermal cut-off or overheating protection feature, in contrast to the new SB-700 (which luckily follows a smarter approach than the SB-900 where the unit simply locks down when high temperatures are detected).

That means, however, that you have to manage the heat situation yourself. Don’t worry, there is a really minimum risk of serious issues at normal use but you can overcook (and damage) the SB-600 when firing at full power over an extended period of time.

Test: Flash Output and Guide Number

The guide number (GN) of an electronic flash is a measure of the maximum light output – visit the test details page to learn more.

Official specification: GN 30

Other manufacturers today advertise with their flashes’ maximum power at the tele end, or even at ISO 200 so that their flashes appear more powerful to the consumer. Nikon, at least to date, still sticks to the 35mm and ISO 100 rule. At these settings, the SB-600 is specified as GN 30, which is 1 point lower than the Canon equivalent 430EX II, but 2 points higher than the successor model SB-700 (GN 28).

Flash Meter Results

All flashes are tested using the same standardized method using a Sekonic flash meter in a controlled environment. Speedlites are never tested alone, but always together with re-tests of other models to guarantee consistent results between sessions.

The image below shows the SB-600 from Nikon together with a Yongnuo 467, the Metz 48 AF-1 and a Sunpak PZ42X, some of the benchmarking flashes.

Metz 48 AF-1 vs Competition

For the SB600 the light meter reading at 35mm reflector position comes out at f16 plus 9/10 (nine tenths of a stop). In comparison I got f22 +1/10 for the Metz, f11 plus 7/10 for the YN467, and a strong f22 plus 3/10 for the PZ42X from Sunpak. The successor SB-700 misses the SB-600 result by 2 tenths of a stop.

Model Light meter reading
580EX II f22 +6/10
SB-900 f22 +3/10
PZ42X f22 +3/10
48 AF-1 f22 +1/10
SB-600 f16 +9/10
Nikon SB-700 f16 +7/10
YN-465 f16 +5/10
SB-400 f16 +0/10
YN-467 f11 +7/10

 

As can be seen, the SB-600 is positioned between the bigger SB-900 and the tiny SB-400. It’s actually much closer to the SB-900 which has been downgraded from its precursor SB-800 that did also belongs to the 1st generation of i-TTL speedlights.

With the weaker successor SB-700, a more “appropriate” distance between the 900 series and the middle class has been introduced again (“more appropriate” for Nikon’s marketing strategists certainly, not for the end user).

Guide Number Table

The calculated guide number is obtained by adding exactly 1 f-stop to the flash meter test results. Learn more about this method on the test details page.

In the tests, the Nikon SB-600 comes very close to the manufacturer specs and with GN 30.9 it is just a little bit stronger than the official guide number of 30. At 14mm wide angle the calculated GN is 15.5 (Nikon spec: 14), and at the tele end (85mm) the power of illumination equals GN 42 (official spec: 40).

SB-600 Guide Number Tests

With an ISO-200 cam like the Nikon D90 the SB600 guide numbers can be multiplied with 1.4, so at 85mm you even get GN 58.8 (42 * 1.4) – this is a good output. The multiplier certainly holds true for any flash, they all get stronger when used at higher ISO settings.

Speedlights Power Index

The light blue bar in the Speedlights.net Power Index shows the official 35mm-GN, and the dark blue bar indicates the test results. Go to the test details page for more information on the Speedlights.net Power Index.

Speedlights.net digital TTL flash power index

Nikon’s SB-600 is a typical representative of the flash “middle class”. It’s good to see that Nikon is not cheating on guide numbers, so you get what you pay for – and even a tad more.

Test: Effective Output Range

On paper the SB-600 offers a good 6 stop output range between full power and the 1/64 setting. According to the tests this range is almost as wide as stated by Nikon, only 5% lower than the official data suggest.

Nikon SB-600 output range spec Output range from tests
6 stops 5.7 stops

 

The biggest deviation is between the full and 1/2 setting where power is not reduced by 1 stop but only 0.8 (8/10) stops. From then on, you get pretty much always exact full stop decrements.

Continuous Shooting Output

All flashes lose some power when fired with maximum frequency; read the test info page to learn more about the effect and the test procedure.

For the test unit there is a 6/10 stop loss in rapid fire at full power which is a bit above average: instead of GN 30.9 you end up with 25.1 only.

Model Calc. guide number at 60 sec wait Calc. guide number at continuous fire Difference in f-stops
SB-900 35.5 29.9 -5/10
48 AF-1 33.1 29.9 -3/10
SB-600 30.9 25.1 -6/10
Nikon SB-700 28.8 26.9 -2/10
YN-465 26.9 24.3 -3/10
YN-467 20.4 19.7 -1/10

 

As you can see there’s a better result with the SB-700 flash. This is a sign that Nikon kept the new model’s output on the conservative side. Seems almost that they artificially dialed it down.

Test: Flash Duration

Flash duration is the time between the beginning of the flash and the end of the light emission. Go to the speedlite test methodology page for information on t0.5 versus t0.1 flash durations and the method used here on the site.

SB-600 Flash Duration Compared

In the table you find t0.1 test results for the SB-600 and other comparable speedlights. As can be seen there is no big difference between the models below (they all use the same IGBT technology). With 1/265 seconds the SB-600 is in the typical range.

Model t0.1 flash duration metering at 1/1
Nissin Di866 1/200
Nissin Di622 Mark II 1/375
Nikon SB-900 1/230
Metz 48 AF-1 1/230
Nikon SB-600 1/265
Nikon SB-700 1/305
Yongnuo YN-465 1/375
Nikon SB-400 1/325
Yongnuo YN-467 1/405

 

t0.1 Flash Duration Times Table

The next table shows specs vs test results for all partial output levels of the Nikon 600 flash. In contrast to other speedlites tested before there are quite significant differences between the test results and Nikon’s own data.

Output level Manufacturer spec t0.1 metering
1/1 1/900 1/265
1/2 1/1600 1/875
1/4 1/3400 1/2150
1/8 1/6600 1/3500
1/16 1/11100 1/5250
1/32 1/20000 1/7000
1/64 1/25000 <1/8000

 

Tech Specs

Following is a table with specifications and test results for the SB-600.

Model Information
Brand Nikon
Model SB-600
First introduction 2004
Successor SB-700
Output Specs
Guide number spec
(35mm, ISO 100, in meters)
30
Guide number test result 31
Manual power settings 1/1 – 1/2 – 1/4 – 1/8 – 1/16 – 1/32 – 1/64
Flash duration (full power) 1/900
Recycle time spec
(at full power)
3.5 sec alkaline, 2.5 sec NiMH
Recycle time test result 3.2 sec alkaline, 2.2 sec NiMH
Triggering
Flash foot material, type metal, standard ISO (Nikon)
PC Sync Port no
Optical Slave no
Other Trigger wireless TTL slave mode
Trigger Voltage 3.63 V (measured)
Standby Mode adjustable
Flash Head Features
Swivel -180 to +90 degrees
Tilt 0 to +90 degrees
Manual Zoom Head (14) 24 – 85
Auto Zoom (14) 24 – 85
Bounce card / 2nd reflector no / no
LCD Display yes (segment type)
Power Supply
Batteries Used 4 x AA
External Power Source no
Nikon TTL
D-TTL yes
i-TTL yes
CLS Wireless Slave yes
CLS Wireless Master no
Canon TTL
E-TTL(II) na
E-TTL(II) wireless slave na
E-TTL(II) wireless master na
Other Flash Modes
Stroboscopic Mode no
Auto Mode no
TTL Features
AF Assist Light yes (dual beam)
Exposure Compensation in TTL Mode on the Flash unit -3 to +3 EV
Rear Curtain Synchronization yes
High Speed Synchronization yes
Sensor Size Detection (DX, FX, etc) no
Modeling Light yes

 

Wireless Flash

For off-camera flash the SB-600 comes with 2 standard options: you can either use the flash foot to attach radio triggers (or slave sensors or PC cable adapters) or you can use the built-in wireless TTL mode, also known as Nikon AWL, i.e. advanced wireless lighting.

Nikon Remote TTL Slave Mode AWL (Advanced Wireless Lighting)

As a basic rule you should never use your flash in the camera hot shoe if it can be avoided – the light in your photos will dramatically improve. Check out the “lighting 101″ section on David Hobby’s strobist website, it’s the place to learn about good light.

Setting Up Dedicated Wireless Slave Mode

To set the “slave” mode on the SB-600, however, you need to press the “Zoom” and “minus” button together for about 3 seconds – a pain! – and then change modes on the screen where the curved arrow appears: switch here from “OFF” to “On”.

Activating AWL on SB-600

Wireless in TTL or Manual Mode

The Nikon AWL works in TTL mode but also in manual mode, so you have full output control if you want. The wireless setup with the SB 600 even supports advanced features such as modeling light and high speed sync – a feature not available with many third party flashes when used in wireless flash mode.

Another great detail is the option to have a feedback on the shot through acoustic signals and 2 flashing LED’s on the front that indicate ‘flash ready’ for the next pop. Again, few third party flashes allow this as an option.

Light Sensor Position

Despite the fact that the Nikon wireless system works (only) with infrared light and not radio waves it is still pretty reliable overall. If you use the SB-600 hand held (i.e. at short distance), you will hardly find a situation where it would not trigger with the built-in mini flash. It even works for me in mid-day sun on the beach for more than 90% of the shots fired.

AWL sensor on Nikon SB-600

If it fails, the most common reason will be that a finger covers the round light sensor window when holding the flash. In general the sensor needs to see the master light, so if the SB-600 is far behind the pop-up flash, something is covering the sensor window, the window is not facing the master flash’s direction, or at greater distances than a few meters the setup starts missing some shots.

Popup Flash As Master – Compatibility List

For owners of a D70/80/90/200/300(s)/700/7000 there is absolutely nothing you’d need in addition to your camera body and the SB-600 to start with off-camera flash. The camera’s pop-up flash, used in master-mode, can automatically trigger the SB-600.

SB700 Wireless Remote Range: 33m

For the wireless slave range test a Nikon D90 was used as the master, with its pop-up flash set to “–”. “P” was used as camera mode, the remote SB-600 was used in mode “TTL”. The maximum range for reliable triggering of the SB 600 was 33 meters, which is a lot more than the official 10 meters.

Under the same conditions (EV 13.1, early afternoon), the SB-700 reached 38 meters, while the SB-900 had an even higher working range of up to 46 meters.

Other Wireless Masters

You can also use external flashes with a master feature to control a remote SB-600: Nikon offers this on the SB-900, SB-800 and SB-700 flashes, and they offer also a dedicated speedlight controlled named SU-800. Third party solutions include models from Metz, Nissin, and Sigma – go to the TTL flash for Nikon page for the list.

No Master Mode on the SB-700

In contrast to the successor SB-700, and the SB-800 and SB-900 speedlights there is no master mode available on the SB-600 flash. But don’t worry about the commander feature when buying your first flash – there’s no other light source you could control with it, so the master mode is of no use. When you extend your kit and a master is needed, add one of the other flashes mentioned above and simply keep using the SB-600 in slave mode.

Radio Triggering For Wireless Flash

The most reliable way of remote flash triggering is to use radio transmitters and receivers like the older Cactus V4 or the Yongnuo RF-602 / RF-603, or more expensive systems.

Using the SB-600 With X Sync Radio Triggers

SB-600 Yongnuo RF602 D80Some flashes don’t work with these radio triggers, e.g. the small Nikon SB-400, the Nissin Di622 mk1 or the Sigma EF-530 DG ST.

The SB600 from Nikon is unproblematic, it happily works with (afaik) any radio trigger out there. I’ve tested with the 2 triggers mentioned above, but you can use other triggers also.

With this simple setup you are limited to manual flash (no TTL), but unlimited to where and how far from the camera you place your flash – ranges of 100 or more meters are possible (it does not make any sense certainly to place your flash that far from the subject, but the number does sound impressive for sure).

It would be cool if the flashing LED’s and acoustic signals from the dedicated AWL mode could be used with radio triggers also, so that the speedlight tells you when it has fully recycled and is ready for the next shot. Unfortunately, that does not work: when set to “remote” the flash foot is locked.

Deactivate Standby Mode when Using RF-602!

The RF-602 is not able to wake up the SB-600 in mode “M” from standby, no matter how often you press the transmitter button. So for use with RF-602 you need to deactivate the standby mode in the menu system, otherwise it will become idle within less than 2 minutes.
SB-600 Setting Standby Mode

Interestingly, it does work with the older and simpler Cactus V4 to wake up the Nikon: the first signal wakes up the SB-600, and at the 2nd press it happily fires.

No Other Triggering Options

The flash foot is the only external connector on the SB-600, so you need to rely on it for triggering your flash. There is no PC sync socket on this flash.

What’s also not available is a simple optical slave sensor on top of the wireless i-TTL mode. Such a simple optical sensor can be used to trigger a speedlight with any other flash that gets fired, be it a Nikon i-TTL flash or any other make or model.

While the new SB-700 still lacks the PC jack but features a simple optical slave mode now (called “SU-4″ by Nikon).

Using Manual Flash Mode for Wireless Flash

In manual mode, the flash always displays the current output level in the center of the screen in large letters. To change the current output level, use the “plus” and “minus” buttons. Push one time for one step up or down, keep pressed and the flash goes through all steps automatically.

Once you arrive at the 1/1 setting and keep pressing “Plus”, your next destination is 1/64, and vice versa. It’s these little details that make me love the SB-600, the user interface is simply efficient – as long as you don’t enter the menu system.

There’s a total of 7 power settings to choose from, which translates into a good 6 step range (5.7 steps in testing). Like on other Nikon flashes the series begins with a full stop between 1/1 and 1/2. From that setting on, the increments change to third stops, which leads to this sequence:

1/1 — 1/2 — 1/2 -0.3 — 1/2 -0.7 — 1/4 — 1/4 -0.3 — 1/4 -0.7 — … — 1/64 — 1/1

Setting the manual zoom is also very easy: Just press the dedicated “Zoom” button, and the SB-600 speedlight goes through the available zoom steps until 85mm, and then starts over again:

24mm – 28mm – 35mm – 50mm – 70mm – 85mm – 24mm – etc

Off-Camera Flash Must-Haves

With the Nikon SB-600 you get a great TTL flash to use with your digital camera. At the same time, it is a capable, reliable and easy to use speedlight for your strobist style off-camera flash shooting (unless you’re a professional with the very highest requirements). Therefore it deserves the AA+ label – the only real improvements would be a PC port and optical slave mode.

  • manual mode
    • has manual mode: yes
    • minimum manual power: 1/64
    • all full stops from 1/1 to 1/64: yes
  • X contact firing: yes
  • flash standby mode: adjustable

 

SB-600 Off Camera Flash Video Review

The video demonstrates mode setting, manual zoom, power adjustment and usage of the SB-600 with RF-602 and Cactus V4 radio triggers.

The flashes arranged on the table at the beginning are Nikon SB-900, Yongnuo YN-467, Nikon SB-600, Metz 48 AF-1 and Nissin Di866.

Nikon SB-600 i–TTL Review

Thanks to the metal flash foot the SB-600 slips easily into the camera accessory shoe. It’s a question of one second to lock it securely with the lever on the base of the flash.

SB-600 Safety pin

However, since the lever does not squeeze the flash foot into the side rails, there is just a little bit of play inside the accessory shoe. It’s not a lot (and it’s the same with the SB-900), but you notice a difference in direct comparison to speedlights with a locking wheel.

The SB-600 has a nice and small size. It’s more compact than most other flashes in its class today which leads to a nicely balanced package as can be seen here together with a D80.

Nikon Speedlights SB-600 on D80

Power Management

Nikon cameras are not smart enough to recognize a switched-off speedlight in their accessory shoes which leads to situations where the camera tries to pop up its mini flash just to let it bang against the SB-600. It doesn’t damage anything but is still stupid.

Once powered on, the data exchange with the D90 is established, at least as long as the SB-600 is not in AWL = wireless TTL mode, as this does not work either when the flash is attached. So go back into the menu system, set AWL to “OFF” and try again.

If everything is right the flash is active but goes into standby mode quickly, and wakes up as soon as you half press the shutter release; this also brings back the viewfinder info panel with the flash-ready indicator on the right side. The SB-600 LCD illumination is synced with the status LCD display on the camera top, next to the shutter release: as soon as that display lights up, the LCD illumination on the flash goes on as well.

AF Assist Beam

Despite the age of the construction – the SB-600 was introduced in 2004 – it’s still among the most advanced flashguns with regards to its AF assist beam. Under the red cover on the front side you find 2 bright red LED lights which project a pattern on the subject. The left assist beam projects a vertical pattern while the right one sends out a horizontal one.

Dual Beam AF Assist SB-600 Nikon

With this pattern it covers a wider field than simpler constructions like the 48 AF-1 from Metz for example or the YN465 from Yongnuo, and the performance is better as a result. In AF-S it works with 7 out of the 11 AF fields on the D90, the 4 fields that sit diagonal from the center field are not supported – the cross shaped light pattern does not cover these fields (AF field supports differs by camera).

Focusing with the AF assist is fast and reliable, even in situations with low or no contrast. Among the flashes tested to date, only the SB-900 is even further advanced with its 3 LED technology and AF assist lights that get used depending on where the currently active AF field sits in the frame.

The AF assist can be used in auto focus modes AF-S, AF-A, but not in AF-C; this is the same is with the bigger brother SB-900. If you don’t like the AF assist on the flash you can deactivate it in the SB-600 custom setting menu. However there is no setting available where you could let it use the AF assist but not fire the flash itself (so it just assists with the AF; use a custom feature for the “Fn” button to achieve that).

Zoom Modes

There are 2 options available for controlling the angle of illumination of the SB-600: you can let it automatically adjust to the lens, or you can set the reflector position by hand:

  • Auto zoom
    In auto zoom there is a range between 24 – 85mm available. The zoom motor is not too loud and pretty fast. With the wide panel flipped down, the zooming stops and the internal reflector stays in the 24mm wide angle position. The SB-600 zooms in all flash head positions, even when its tilted upwards (like against the ceiling) or turned to the side. This is often not desired, and Metz has a smarter approach where they lock their flash heads at 70mm. But it’s really not the end of the world, either.
  • Manual zoom
    In manual zoom mode the reflector stays in its current position even if you’re zooming the lens. Manual zoom can be useful for on-camera flash too, e.g. if you want a more even coverage with less light falloff on the frame borders or when you, in contrast, want to have a narrow beam to highlight the center of the frame. To override the auto zoom you just have to press the “Zoom” button; luckily there is no expedition into the flash’s menu system needed. Manual zoom steps are 24mm, 28, 35, 50, 70, and 85.

The Nikon SB-600 does not interpret sensor size information, so it’s not able to distinguish between FX and DX (APS-C). It always assumes an FX camera (even though there was nothing like FX available from Nikon when it was first introduced in 2004).

So, when the lens is at 35mm with a D90 or D7000, the flash head zoom to 35 as well. Technically, however, it could stay at 50mm zoom reflector position – remember 50 in FX “equals” 33.3mm in DX, so there is enough coverage. What you lose is a bit of power there: GN at 35mm is 30, but at 50mm reflector position it’s 36 (according to the specs, the test showed 31 vs 34).

The chart shows the gain through sensor size zoom for the new SB-700. As can be seen the positive effect on output power is significant at wide angle settings while it decreases towards the long end.

SB-700 GN DX zoom FX zoom

(You may have noticed that in FX mode, you can keep shooting without wide panel at lens settings down to 16mm; in that case the blue curve looks a bit differently, i.e. you have a higher GN compared to using the wide panel between 23mm and 16mm.)

E-TTL / i-TTL Performance

i-TTL Operation

The SB-600 is a very solid performer in i-TTL mode, that’s why it’s used as the benchmark here on the site.

Auto White balance

White balance is quite reliable and good, with few exceptions where the auto white balance mode turns out too cold. If flash is your only light source or the dominant one at least, it is still better to manually change the setting from AWB to the “flash” setting in manual white balance mode.

According to Nikon the SB-600 transmits the color temperature for the current shot to the camera for white balance control, however it does not seem to have much of an impact (I believe they’re just using a fixed look-up table). The presence of that feature is not a reason to decide for or against a Nikon brand flash versus the 3rd party competition.

The SB-600 is not able to automatically recognize color gel filters used for balancing flash with the ambient light. While the quality and ease of use of the corresponding solutions on SB-900 (coded gels) and SB-700 (coded hard plastic color filters) still need actual testing here on the site, there is one basic problem with color gels.

Unless you, the photographer, know what these filters are for and when to apply which one, you are on an almost impossible mission. Using color gels can be really confusing!

Balancing light = Fill Flash

There are two options for fill flash: TTL and TTL-BL. The picture illustrates how the 2 modes tend to compare (actual outcome varies with the exact conditions of each shot). Both photos were taken in camera mode “P” with the flash in the accessory shoe of a D90. The photo on the left shows a better balance between flash and ambient light while in the photo on the right, taken in regular i-TTL mode, the flash is clearly too hot.

SB-600 TTL vs TTL-BL

Bounced flash

Bouncing flash off a white ceiling or wall is a simple yet powerful technique for softening flash light. The SB-600 is doing a good job in that discipline. More often than not though it tends to underexpose a bit in these situations. This seems pretty consistent so it’s something you can learn to control.

Often, when bouncing off the ceiling you end up with somewhat dark faces that lack a bit of contrast. That’s why there are some flashes with secondary reflectors built-in, e.g. flashes from Metz (58 AF-1/2) or Nissin Di866.

But there’s another method you can use – don’t tilt the flash head straight upwards, but more up- and backwards so that it bounces off ceiling and wall behind you. The picture below shows (a) direct flash (b) bounced from ceiling and (c) bounced from behind – the only variation was the setting of the flash head, no other settings were touched.

Neither of the 3 shots is perfect. The first version has the best looking highlight in the eyes, the version in the middle shows the most detail in the hair and the flower, but the 3rd shot is the best overall compromise with the most natural skin tones.

Flash Sync Modes

Understanding sync mode is important and clearly helps you take better photos. In addition to normal first curtain sync you have 3 more sync modes available when using the SB-600 with a compatible camera.

Rear Curtain Sync

In rear curtain sync mode the flash doesn’t fire at the beginning of the exposure but at the end, right before the shutter closes again. At slower shutter speeds, e.g. 1/4 seconds, it helps with more natural looking light trails behind cars and any other moving object (picture taken with a Yongnuo YN-465).

Yongnuo YN-465 Rear Curtain Synch Nikon D90

Within the Nikon system, 2nd curtain sync is a camera feature, not a flash feature; it’s also set on the camera and not on the speedlight. So it certainly is compatible with the SB-600.

Slow Sync

In normal sync mode your camera uses shutter speeds between ~1/250 seconds and down to around 1/60 seconds to prevent motion from moving subjects. While this is the right choice at times, more often than not a photo looks better with more natural light in the frame, even if a bit of blur is present.

In slow sync mode slower shutter speeds are used by the camera, e.g. 1/15 or 1/8 seconds or even longer. This leads to more ambient light hitting the sensor and therefore a more balanced exposure together with flash. Obviously, you need to manage the effect of motion blur now, but it’s often less of a concern since the flash freezes the action with its short duration.

Like rear sync, slow sync is also a camera feature not a speedlight feature (at least in the Nikon world) so yes you can use it together with the SB 600.

High Speed Sync / FP Sync

High speed sync (HSS) or FP sync is the opposite of slow sync. It does not lead to slow shutter speeds, but to faster speeds that go beyond the normal limit of the camera shutter. HSS allows the use of all shutter speeds the camera body offers, down to 1/8000 or whatever the shortest time is.

HSS is an advanced flash feature and only offered by a handful of manufacturers, e.g. Canon, Nikon, Metz, and Nissin (Di866). As you’d expect from an advanced Nikon flash, HSS is present in the SB-600. HSS mode is selected from the camera menu system and not set on the flash, but the Nikon SB-600 shows an “FP” icon next to the TTL icon in the top row of the rear display. HSS works in TTL mode, TTL-BL and also mode “M”.

Hish speed sync is useful for fill flash when the ambient is very bright and requires the use of small aperture values. With FP sync you can overcome the problem, and go to faster shutter speeds thus opening the aperture again with the depth of field effect you want.

The picture above is an example of fill flash in HSS mode at 1/640 seconds, a shutter speed unavailable in normal sync mode (the D90 allows max 1/200 seconds).

Other Flash Features

Red-Eye Reduction

Red eye flash works with a series of pre-flashes before the actual main flash. These small flashes lead to a contraction of the pupil and therefore less reflexion from the retina. In general, the red eye problem is less pronounced with an external flash due to the greater distance from the lens and optical axis.

The anti red eye flash feature is set on the camera, but not every speedlight is supporting the mode due to the rapid sequence of pre-flashes used and communication required. The SB-600 is certainly compatible, it fires exactly 3 pre-flashes before the actual exposure. Downside of red-eye flash is the noticeable time lag introduced with the pre-flashes, so don’t use if it can be avoided.

Modeling Light

Modeling light is another advanced flash feature; once again, a series of (high frequency) mini flashes is used to simulate continuous light for a couple of seconds, which helps you to “see” the lighting and evaluate the shadows before taking a photo.

Modeling light is enabled with custom setting “e3″ on the D90. To activate it on the SB-600, use the depth-of-field button near the lens mount (this is how it works on the Nikon D90) which changes function in that case and fires off the modeling light.

Flash Exposure Compensation

Flash exposure compensation is important as digital TTL exposure control is not fool-proof. Rather sooner than later you will encounter situations where you want to override the exposure the camera-flash combination would choose. To do this, there are 2 options.

Fastest way is to set a flash exposure compensation on the SB-600 – simply press the “Plus” or “Minus” button on the flashgun itself. Flash exposure compensation can be set in 1/3 stops and between -3 and +3 EV, which is all you’ll ever need.

The second option is to set flash exposure compensation on the camera – this works too, and has the same effect. Both adjustments add up, so in case “+1″ is selected on the flash and “-2″ on the camera, the effective flash exposure compensation is “-1″. Whether set on the flash or set on the camera, there is a viewfinder icon displayed to remind you of the setting.

Flash Exposure Lock (FV Lock)

Flash exposure lock works as supposed with the SB600: press “AE-L’ to start a pre-flash and lock the resulting flash exposure value for the following photos. Press again, and the value gets deleted and normal i-TTL metering is restored. Like for flash exposure compensation there is also a viewfinder icon for FV lock.

Flash Bracketing (FEB)

Custom setting e4 “auto bracketing set” on the D90 controls different types of bracketing when the auto bracketing mode of the camera is used, and setting e6 lets you select the bracketing order. With FEB you can take 3 photos with different flash exposure automatically, but it’s faster and leads to the same effect to set a quick manual flash exposure compensation.

Flash Off

Why use a speedlight and then switch to “flash off”? There is one use case actually, that is when you need the AF-assist beam for focusing but you don’t want the flash to fire and ruin your available light setting. Flash-off can’t be set on the SB-600, only the professional speedlights from Nikon allow that as a custom feature on the flash.

On the D90 mode dial there is a “no-flash” setting. In that camera mode, the flash won’t fire but the AF assist is still used so this might be a workaround. However, the “no-flash” setting is a point-and-shoot mode so you can’t set f-stop or shutter speed yourself and lose the creative control.

The real solution for compatible camera bodies is to use a custom setting for the function button “Fn”, which lets you fire AF assist by hand.

SB 600 Review: Conclusion

The SB-600 from Nikon is a very capable flashgun and despite the age of its design (it was first introduced in 2004) still an excellent choice for use with today’s digital SLRs. It gives you state of the art flash exposure in i-TTL mode, has a good (although not excellent) build quality and comes with the feature set you need as an amateur photographer.

Dual Beam AF Assist SB-600 Nikon

 

SB-700 Positives

  • good i-TTL exposure
  • built-in wireless slave mode
  • easy to use (apart from wireless TTL)
  • powerful enough for most situations (GN 31)
  • very effective AF assist beam with wide coverage
  • high quality accessories (bag, stand, diffuser)
  • very usable for “strobist” lighting in manual mode
  • support for analog TTL (film shooting) and D-TTL (e.g. D1, D100)
  • light and sound signals in wireless slave mode
  • fast recycle times
  • good build quality

Negatives

  • not the greatest zoom range (24 – 85mm)
  • light falloff with wide-panel should be smaller and more uniform
  • no wireless TTL master mode
  • battery handling a bit quirky
  • not exactly cheap
  • no PC sync socket
  • no optical slave mode

 

Recommendation

With the Nikon SB-600 you also get Nikon’s excellent wireless i-TTL slave mode, even if setting the feature is a pain on the SB-600. What you don’t get, however, is an i-TTL master mode. Get the new SB-700 or the big SB-900 in case you need that. But consider: when buying your first flash the master mode is of no use yet; it only becomes usable as soon as you have two.

SB600 LCD vs SB900

For professional photographers the SB-600 will not be the first choice: it lacks some pro features like PC jack or external battery connector, and it’s also not robust enough. But for the amateur photographer the only real downside is probably the price; some third party flashes are just a lot cheaper – e.g. Nissin Di622 Mark II or Yongnuo.

Metz 48 AF-1 vs Competition

Where to Buy the SB-600

The Nikon SB-600 was replaced by its more expensive successor SB-700 and is discontinued now as of March 2011, therefore it’s not widely available anymore.

eBay should be the place for finding the last remnant inventory of new units or to buy a used SB-600 in good condition.

There are also some offers on amazon, you can search for new or also sometimes find used flashes there.

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