Where Is Nikon Flash These Days?

I keep getting questions about Nikon Speedlights lately, along with the usual "will you write a new Nikon Flash Guide book?"

Let's deal with the latter first: no. The reason why I won't write a new book on flash has to do with the former (all the questions I get): basically, Nikon has made a complete mess of flash. Any book on Nikon flash would consist of voluminous footnotes noting differences between individual camera bodies and individual flash units and end up an unreadable mess. It's a combinatorial problem fully out of control.

So let's start with where Nikon wants to be.

You can see that with the SB-300, SB-500, SB-5000 plus the D5 and D500. If you look at the various different charts Nikon has published, you'll see something called "Unified Flash Control," for which those units are the only ones that support it. Good on you if you're using those flash units with those cameras. 

What does that mean? It means that the Flash Control option on the Photo Shooting menu actually reflects what the external flash can do and let's you set that flash from the camera body.  Which is what we want, right?

Only problem is that earlier flashes (e.g. SB-700, SB-800, SB-9xx) don't play in that game, nor do any other camera bodies (e.g. D4 series, D750, D8xx, or D7xxx, four very popular bodies/series that probably have a few flash aficionados among the user base). Nikon hasn't seen fit to bring the older flashes into the new integrated Flash Control menu, forcing you to set those flashes from the flash unit itself, and, of course, how you do that varies with each flash unit, as Nikon has varied the controls quite a bit over time ;~).

But there are other footnotes and table entries in Nikon's own notes that come into play, too. For instance, the D3200, D3300, D5200, D5300, D5500, and D5600 require lenses with a CPU, which Nikon defines as E, G, D, AI-P, and any other Nikkor autofocus lens (other than the ones for the F3AF). Note that the D3400 isn't in that list. It requires either E or G glass only for flash compatibility. An exception to the exceptions.

The footnotes keep coming. If you want to use the SB-R200 Speedlights that are part of Nikon's macro flash kit, then you need an SU-800, SB -500, SB-700, or SB-5000 as an optical commander on the D5, D500, D750, D810, and D7200 (and I assume D7500). The D750, D810, and D7200 can use the built-in flash as an optical commander, as well. See where this is going? We have subsets of subsets within subsets of subsets.

Of course, Nikon made the Nikon 1 flash system incompatible with the CLS system used by the DSLRs, so we can just summarily dismiss the J1-J5 and V1-V3, as well as the S and AW models. The Coolpix A and Coolpix P7800 are restricted special cases, but at least live in the CLS system (with their own caveats).

Some features—for instance modeling lights—only work with external Speedlights with some DSLRs, but do work with internal Speedlights with other DSLRs. The D5500 is a special case that can work with the SB-500's LED light (as can the D5, D500, D750, D810 and D3400, but not the other D3xxx or D5xxx, or D7xxx models). 

Yeah, you're confused, aren't you? 

So am I.

But let's try to break this into two basic groups: (1) you've decided to be part of the future radio-controlled Nikon CLS; or (2) you want to stick with the old optical-controlled Nikon CLS.

  1. The first group is simple: buy only SB-5000 units and post-D5 prosumer and professional bodies. That means you're going to only use SB-5000s and you're only going to use them with D5, D500, D850, and D7500 bodies. The benefit of living in this "new world" is that you get a decent radio control system (requires the WR-R10) that can have up to six groups of remote flash, all controlled from the camera's menus. 

    There are no caveats in this world. Everything is fully functional. Indeed, I like this world for one reason: using something like four SB-5000's in the Lastolite Quad bracket to create a world of light that's fired via radio control without additional accessories (note that there are double and triple brackets available, as well). I can use my multiple SB-5000's individually and put them in groups to control separately across the set, or I can blast them all together into an umbrella or box for enough output to overpower the sun (assuming I'm close enough to the subject). All my control is in one menu item. Saves me from having to bring an Eilenchrom or other big strobe, while keeping my kit small, portable, and Nikon. TTL is reasonably functional.

  2. The second group is also simple: stick with what you've got in terms of flashes, and either control them with something like a PocketWizard system, or directly on each flash (annoying when they're scattered around the set). Generally it doesn't matter if you mix and match going this way: any old CLS flash will do, and most any camera. The downside is that you might lose TTL or some other ability along the way, that you'll be limited to optical remote firing (unless you use a PW type radio device), and/or that you're mixing non-Nikon gear in with Nikon gear. Setting things will be more complicated and slower, and you have to watch out for camera/Speedlight caveats. TTL, in my experience, isn't quite as reliable, and there seem to be differences in the ways each Nikon DSLR interprets the flash output.

    Frankly, this is the way most of us Nikon pros were using flash in recent years. As much as Nikon touts TTL CLS abilities in the Speedlights, virtually every pro I know spends most of their time dialing in light manually once they go to multiple CLS setups. Sure, it's great if you can do some of that dialing/adjustment from the camera, but you'd be surprised how often that moving the light stand is the actual adjustment made. 

You just know there's another footnote coming, right? 

Yep, with the D5 and D500 you can combine optical and radio-controlled flash simultaneously. That's sort of #1 and #2 above done at the same time. The caveat is this: the optical master must reside on the camera hot shoe and be an SB-500, SB-700, or SU-800 (old CLS). The SB-5000s must all be external and controlled by the WR-R10 (new CLS). The benefit of this approach is that you get six groups of external flash (three optical, three radio-controlled). 

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