The speedlight SB-900 flash is the current flagship model from Nikon and designed for professional users. It’s expensive, feature laden and built like a tank, and looks best on one of the bigger bodies such as a D300S, D700 or the D3. But you can use the SB-900 with a small DSLR camera like the D3100 as well – that’s not a problem at all.
It just looks a bit funny when the flash is (seemingly) bigger than the camera body. Users of pro bodies not only have a more balanced combination, but they will also potentially make more use of the professional features (at least if they know what they’re doing with their gear).
Speaking of features: there is the widest zoom range of any shoe mount flash today, reaching a full 200mm in tele position. The flash head allows a full 360 degrees rotation. The SB900 comes with “auto” and manual mode on top of the digital i-TTL. It also has DX/FX format detection, high speed sync on the camera as well as in wireless mode and certainly a modeling light – just to check some of the boxes on the long feature list.
Introduced in 2008 this flash replaced the SB-800 from 2003. The biggest improvement is the user interface of the flash sporting a higher number of direct buttons and keys than its menu-driven precursor could offer.
The SB-900 gives up the idea of using a 5th battery as was an option with the SB-800 but has faster recycling after a full power shot nevertheless.
You also find an even more refined AF assist on this flash than any previous models from Nikon, now using even 3 LED’s (depending on the AF sensor area used) – Canon’s 580EX II is the only other flash with such a sophisticated layout today.
The SB-900 is the most advanced and capable wireless flash for Nikon: with 3 independent slave groups it offers the same range as the precursor SB-800 while being much easier to set up with dedicated buttons rather than requiring a trip through the menu system.
The smaller SB-700 can control only 2 groups as a master, and they must all be set to the same flash mode on top. Maybe even more important is the superior wireless sensor range of the SB-900 – reaching up to 46 meters outdoors (read more in the SB-700 review).
However, there’s also been a good amount of critique, mainly around 3 points.
First there is the guide number of 34 (meters): While being clearly higher than the 28 (meters) of the SB-700 mid-range flash it’s also clearly lower than previous pro flashes from Nikon with guide number of 38 since 2002 (introduced with the SB-80DX and then for SB-800). You could say that with adjustable ISO’s it doesn’t matter that much in today’s digital world where you can dial up the ISO, but that trick doesn’t work for daylight fill flash at least.
Second is the thermal cutoff which tends to be too fast at shutting down the SB-900 for heat protection (see e.g. here in this Speedlights.net video where it’s fired next to the SB-700 flash).
And third is the fact that the first series of SB-900s had a thicker base plate on the flash foot than usual (“fat foot”). This was probably intended to help with a tighter hot shoe fit, but it for sure caused issues with other mountings, triggers etc. My own SB-900 from 2010 has a normal flash foot, exactly the same as the SB-700, so this has been changed in the meantime by Nikon.
The biggest drawback is maybe the the price – you pay about $460 for an SB-900 as of October 2011. For around $330 you can get the precursor SB-800 which is still highly desired today, or the new mid-range SB-700 from Nikon.
When it comes to third party flashes with master mode, there’s the Metz 58 AF-2 which is probably the closest contender in terms of feature set and depth of system integration and comes with almost $100 smaller price tag. Another very strong competitor is Nissin’s Di866, especially in the slightly improved “Mark II” version. The Sigma EF-610 DG Super completes the list but receives the least positive reviews from its users – but it’s really, really cheap!
(the photo above also shows the Canon 580EX II which is certainly not compatible with Nikon camera bodies)
Nikon SB-900 Highlights
- rugged construction with pro features
- very wide zoom range with tele up to 200mm
- easy to use with direct access keys
- most advanced wireless flash mode
- optional weather sealing
Nikon SB-900 – the “Not-so-great”
- guide number of 34 (meters, at 35mm) a bit below average for a pro flash
- tends to suffer from thermal cut-off issues
- “fat” flash foot on earlier models
Compatible Nikon Camera Bodies
The SB-900 is compatible with all Nikon DSLR cameras since 2004 (D70, D2 series, D200 or newer), but not with the old and obsolete D100 or the D1 using the first gen D-TTL. What’s more of an issue for users of analog Nikons is the lack of film-based TTL mode.
Analog Nikon photographers, except the F6, won’t be happy with the SB-900 (nor with the SB-700 in that respect), unless you use the speedlight in manual mode. Another option is the “auto” mode of the flash where the flash is metering exposure without the camera being involved, and this often works very well despite the simpler technology used.
Speedlights.net In-Depth Review of the SB-900
Nikon SB-900 Tech Specs Table
The tech specs table shows the performance data for the SB-900.
|Guide number spec
(35mm, ISO 100, in meters)
|Guide number test result||35.5|
|Manual power settings||1/1 – 1/2 – 1/4 – 1/8 – 1/16 – 1/32 – 1/64 – 1/128|
|Flash duration (full power)||1/880|
|Recycle time spec
(at full power)
|4 sec alkaline, 2.3 sec 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||safe (not measured yet)|
|Flash Head Features|
|Swivel||-180 to +180 degrees|
|Tilt||-7 to +90 degrees|
|Manual Zoom Head||(12) 17 – 200|
|Auto Zoom||(12) 17 – 200|
|Bounce card / 2nd reflector||yes / no|
|LCD Display||yes (dot matrix)|
|Batteries Used||4 x AA|
|External Power Source||SD-7, SD-8/a, SK-6/a, SD-9|
|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 (triple 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)||yes|
Where to buy the SB-900
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