Nikon’s SB-800 is not the current top-flash anymore – it was replaced by the SB-900 a couple of years ago. But for many professional photographers this flash is still the best hot shoe strobe out there today.
Why is that? The successor sports a wider zoom range, a much improved user interface e.g. with direct keys for wireless mode and DX/FX format detection, and a number of other improvements.
However, it’s also a behemoth compared to the compact-size SB-800, and the SB-800 has more power under the hood: at 35mm you get a guide number of 38 (meters) from the SB-800 while the successor’s GN is only at 34.
Combined with a robust construction, a PC sync port for trigger cables and external power pack socket, support of the latest Nikon flash protocol (i-TTL / i-TTL BL) plus manual mode and “auto” mode the SB-800 is a truly professional tool.
Which in turn also means that this flash is not cheap even though the oldest units are past their 8th birthdays already. It’s practically impossible to find a good Nikon SB-800 for under $300 – I paid $340 for mine at eBay including accessories such as the soft bag SS-800, color filters, 5th battery holder, and flash stand, but without the diffuser cap.
In 2003, the SB-800 was the first Nikon flash supporting their 2nd gen digital camera bodies with i-TTL flash exposure control. The 800 series smaller brother SB-600 was added in 2004 – check out the in-depth review for the SB-600 here on Speedlights.net. Then, in 2008, the SB-800 was replaced by the new “top dog” SB-900 but, as said before, it did not convince everyone in every respect. Main points for critique are the thermal cutoff mode which proved to be too sensitive, the lower guide number, the loss of the old analog and 1st gen D-TTL support.
The SB-600 in turn was replaced in late 2010 by the new mid-range SB-700. The 5th compatible flash with today’s Nikon cameras such as D90 or D7000 is the tiny SB-400 – an entry-level unit which replaces the camera’s built-in flash but is too limited in any other way to be a recommendation.
First reason is that the i-TTL BL (“balanced light”) flash exposure protocol within Nikon’s “Creative Lighting System” CLS is still the latest format for data exchange between camera and external flash, and this protocol is used by the SB-800 just as it’s used by the current generation models.
OK, there are one or two features such as the DX/FX detection that’s not working with the SB-800, as well as the automatic color filter detection, but these features don’t make your photos look better.
Second reason is that flash exposure is controlled by the camera body and not by the accessory flash: it’s the camera which does the metering, the balancing of flash with ambient light, and the determination of appropriate flash output.
When it comes to the wireless mode the SB-800 is also a winner: it can control 3 groups of slave flashes (where the SB-700 has 2 only), there’s even a built-in optical slave sensor (called SU-4 at Nikon), but it’s also perfectly usable with radio triggers and manual mode if you’re venturing into the “strobist” land.
The only weakness is the user interface – there are fewer direct keys on this flash than on the latest gen Nikon speedlights, and the menu system is slower to navigate.
Nikon SB-800 Highlights
- very powerful (max GN 38, even GN 41 in Speedlights.net tests)
- support for the latest Nikon i-TTL / BL flash exposure mode
- full-blown wireless master and slave modes
- designed for professionals (external power connector & sync port)
- backward compatible with Nikon’s film-based camera bodies
Compatible Nikon Camera Bodies
SB-800 (and SB-600 for that respect) are the last flashes from Nikon which 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 Nikon F4, or first generation digitals such as the D1 or a D100, and it’s certainly also compatible with the latest DSLR models such as D7000, D700 or the D3.
On top of that you can use this flash even on non-TTL camera bodies with the “auto” mode: in that mode it’s the speedlight which is metering flash exposure without the camera being involved. This is usually not quite as precise as TTL but still a good option to have.
Speedlights.net In-Depth Review of the SB-800
Nikon SB-800 Tech Specs Table
The tech specs table shows the performance data for the SB-800.
|Guide number spec
(35mm, ISO 100, in meters)
|Guide number test result||41|
|Manual power settings||1/1 – 1/2 – 1/4 – 1/8 – 1/16 – 1/32 – 1/64 – 1/128|
|Flash duration (full power)||1/1050|
|Recycle time spec
(at full power)
|6 sec w/ 4 alkaline, 5 sec w 5 alkaline, 4 sec w 4 NiMH, 2.9 sec w 5 x NiMH|
|Recycle time test result||?|
|Flash foot material, type||metal, standard ISO (Nikon)|
|PC Sync Port||yes|
|Optical Slave||yes (Nikon SU-4)|
|Other Trigger||wireless TTL slave mode|
|Trigger Voltage||4 V|
|Flash Head Features|
|Swivel||-180 to +90 degrees|
|Tilt||-7 to +90 degrees|
|Manual Zoom Head||(14) 24 – 105|
|Auto Zoom||(14) 24 – 105|
|Bounce card / 2nd reflector||yes / no|
|LCD Display||yes (segment type)|
|Batteries Used||4 or 5 x AA|
|External Power Source||SD-7, SD-8/a, SK-6/a|
|CLS Wireless Slave||yes|
|CLS Wireless Master||yes|
|E-TTL(II) wireless slave||na|
|E-TTL(II) wireless master||na|
|Other Flash Modes|
|AF Assist Light||yes (dual beam)|
|Exposure Compensation in TTL Mode on the Flash unit||-3 to +3 EV (1/3 steps)|
|Rear Curtain Synchronization||yes|
|High Speed Synchronization||yes|
|Sensor Size Detection (DX, FX, etc)||no|