Much Maligned by many, does this simple flash have a place in your bag?
This review originally appeared on bythom in 2001; has been re-edited in 2013. Note that if you have a post D2 DSLR that uses i-TTL, the SB-50DX is not the flash you want. Thus, this flash is mostly useful for D1 series and D100 users.
It seems no one likes the SB-50DX. Everyone has a reason: it's not powerful enough; it doesn't zoom enough; it's missing Automatic flash mode; manual flash lfires at full power. The list seems to grow every time I see a brief review of the flash. But is it really all that bad? Let's take a closer look and find out.
What is It?
The Speedlight SB-50DX was announced at PMA along with the Nikon D1x, D1h, and the FM3a, all of which stole the limelight. The press release for the new Speedlight wasn't particularly revealing, though many found one or another sentence in it that made them dismiss the unit.
A light, compact Speedlight, the SB-50DX has a set of basic features that is somewhat eclectic and a bit Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde-like:
- Modest Guide Numbers. The maximum GN is 85 (feet; 26m) at ISO 100 and with the head zoomed to 50mm. This is about half what the SB-28DX can produce (albeit at 85mm), though generally sufficient for close work. On a 35mm body with a 24mm f/2.8 lens, you'd have a working distance out beyond 20 feet. On a D1 body with that same lens, you'd have a working distance of 26 feet or more.
- Jekyl and Hyde Zoom Ability. The SB-50DX can be zoomed to 14mm, 24mm, 28mm, 35mm, and 50mm. That's an odd assortment, with 14mm being something no other Nikon flash can achieve; but 18-20mm and 70mm are conspicuously missing.
- Jekyl and Hyde Tilt Ability. The SB-50DX can be tilted down -18 degrees, which with it's lean-forward stance and reasonably head height means that it can be used in an emergency as a macro flash! Fully straightened, the flash head is at the perfect angle for bouncing. On the flip side, there's no swivel, and head zooming is restricted in any but the normal position.
- Jekyl and Hyde Modes. The SB-50DX fully supports all Nikon TTL modes, including D-TTL on the D1 models. Balanced Fill Flash and Standard TTL work just as you'd expect, with the same decent results you'd expect from a Nikon flash. But there's no Automatic flash mode, and Manual flash mode is restricted to full power only (despite the fact that the flash firing level can be set in TTL!).
- Obvious Features. As you'd expect on any Nikon flash, there's ON/OFF and standby power modes, an autofocus assist illuminator (red), a ready light on the flash (that also appears in the camera viewfinder), an insufficient light warning after flash, and a soft case for carrying the unit.
- Surprising Features. The SB-50DX has the equivalent of an SU-4 wireless accessory built in; the flash can fire automatically (TTL) at up to 23 feet (7m) from the controlling TTL-based master flash, and in full power manual mode at up to 131 feet (40m) away from the flash trigger. The SB-50DX was designed to be used in conjunction with the N65 and N80 pop-up flashes, effectively raising the available GN; a built-in diffuser card is designed to facilitate this feature. The labels on the back of the SB-50DX are done in "light-condensing" paint, and are easy to see at night in most situations. A supplied filter allows you to use the SB-50DX merely as an infrared trigger for remote flashes (!).
- The Jekyl and Hyde Battery. The SB-50DX uses two CR123A lithium batteries. Expensive and sometimes difficult to find while at remote locations, these batteries keep the flash light and recycle the unit in less than 4 seconds. Moreover, the flash works well in cold weather. But you'll quickly wish there was a rechargeable alternative for CR123As.
The strange mix of features does seem unusual. The 14mm coverage, wireless ability, and excellent tilt characteristics suggest a flash that would appeal to advanced users. The modest GN, lack of automatic flash mode, restrictive manual flash mode, and lack of swivel head suggest a target of a less sophisticated user. The battery choice is simply bizarre.
How's it Handle?
Let me say this right up front: the SB-50DX has the best hot shoe foot of any flash Nikon has made [note this was written in 2001; most flashes since then have the same foot]. If I had more experience with third-party flashes, I'd be tempted to say "of any flash." The foot slides into the camera-side shoe easily, then you flip a little lever and the flash is locked to the shoe. To get the flash off the camera, flip the lever the other way and pull the flash out. No more hassling with the knurled lock-down knob of older Speedlights, which had the frustrating practice of jamming in the locked position. If you can't get the SB-50DX on and off your camera instantaneously, you're missing some fingers.
The flash has a "lean forward" stance once mounted on the camera, which helps it clear lenses with big front diameters (or lens hoods). Better still, the SB-50DX clears the pop-up flash on the the N65 and N80 bodies. The actual angle at which the head must be rotated versus the body (battery chamber and controls) takes a bit of getting used to, as it isn't 90 degrees, but you soon learn that new angle. One nice touch: the head can be tilted down for close-up work (yes, I know the older flashes can be tilted down, but their 7 degree limit is restrictive and not very useful--the SB-50DX actually tilts down enough, 18 degrees, that it can be used for close-up work between one and two feet out). [After I posted this, someone asked if the flash can be zoomed when tilted down. No, it can't. It resets to 24mm (you can also pull out the diffuser to get 14mm). This actually isn't as bad as it sounds. If you're using the flash for close work, you'll want it zoomed out.]
On the bad side of the ledger is the fact that the unit must be at its "normal" angle to allow zooming of the flash head, and the head doesn't swivel in the horizontal axis. This means that, when used on the camera, the SB-50DX is most suited for "head on" work. If you use an SC-17 or other cable to take the flash off-camera, then you must make sure that the head is at the normal angle if you want to zoom the head; I'd prefer to use the SB-50DX with the head and body straight when handholding.
Having no shooting distance scale to provide feedback on range is a bit distressing at first, but I've learned to live without it (and carry one of my laminated field reference cards for when I do want to know ranges). The LCD is a little difficult to see in the dark, even when illuminated, but you also don't refer to it as much as you did the information-rich LCDs on the SB-24 through SB-28DX.
The buttons are clearly labeled and the LCD provides all the feedback you need to see what you've set. The icons and values are somewhat larger on this flash than on others, as well, so if there's enough light to see the LCD, you should be able to decipher what it's telling you. Fortunately, there's not much to set, so you won't be fiddling with the buttons and LCD much, anyway.
I'm not overly fond of the 1/6th stop flash exposure compensation ability, as it means you end up pressing the button more to get the value you were looking for. I can't see any advantage in having this much exposure flexibility.
Finally, the sound feedback feature is annoying in some situations, but generally useful if you're using the flash outdoors by yourself. In wireless mode, the flash beeps once to indicate it is ready to fire, twice to indicate it fired properly, and for three seconds to indicate it fired at maximum output. When I was on the Wall Street trail in Bryce Canyon trying to use SB-50DX's to fill "the tree" and the walls behind it (if you've been there, you'll know what I mean), my flash units were beeping so much I'm pretty sure those above me on the trail thought a truck was backing up down at the bottom. You can turn sound off, but it took me awhile to figure out how to do it without the manual (the "help" is stenciled on the front of the flash underneath the diffuser, where at first I didn't see it).
How's it Perform?
As a TTL flash, the SB-50DX pretty much works as described. At modest working distances (20 feet or less) and all-automatic operation, you won't find much difference between the 50DX and the 28DX (well, okay, the SB-50DX recycles a bit quicker at full power than the SB-28DX does at half power). Nikon's stated GN's are a bit overstated, as usual, but on TTL modes the flash does a respectable job.
One area I found a bit problematic was the SU-4 trigger. Unlike the trigger-happy SB-26, the SB-50DX needs the triggering flash aimed pretty much directly at the wireless sensor, especially if you want to use the automatic wireless flash mode (where the SB-50DX turns on when it sees a remote flash and turns off when it sees the other flash turn off). The range isn't as good as Nikon states, either. I found it very difficult to use the automatic wireless ability at anything over 15 feet, and I couldn't get close to the 131 foot specification for manual wireless flash. Still, if you keep the trigger distance short, with practice you'll find the built-in SU-4 ability quite useful--just don't expect to trigger the SB-50DX unless its sensor can directly see the controlling flash.
- Battery Type. CR123A lithiums are expensive and hard to find in some shooting locations. On the plus side, they recycle fast and with a constant speed until exhausted, and they have good cold weather performance. I would have preferred that Nikon use the rechargeable lithiums they seem to have standardized on with the Coolpix line, however, even if that increased the price of the unit.
- Restricted Modes. Personally, I don't miss automatic flash mode, but the inability to set power levels in manual flash mode is disappointing.
- Flexibility. No swivel head. No zooming unless the head is in one preset position. A selective wireless sensor that needs to be aligned directly at the other flash, and doesn't have much range in Automatic wireless mode.
- Best Foot Ever. A joy to put on the camera and take off. If Nikon makes another flash without this foot, that new design better slice bread and purify water.
- 14mm Coverage! Wow, a flash that can provide flash when using the rectilinear 14mm lenses. Sure, the GN drops to 39 (feet; 12m), but until the SB-50DX appeared, flash was a no-no with the 14mm due to falloff.
- Wireless Ability. A built-in SU-4 is surprising in an inexpensive flash. While somewhat limited due to the sensor position, nonetheless it makes this flash very useful as a second unit.
- Light, Compact, Well Built. When you're looking to keep the weight (and size) of your camera kit down, every little bit helps. The SB-50DX isn't dramatically lighter or smaller, but enough so that it's part of my hiking, biking, and running kit.
- Nice Supplement to the N65 and N80. Use it in conjunction with the built-in flash to increase your GN. Use it off camera as a wireless fill unit. Use it to cover wider lenses. Use it as a poor person's macro flash.
mw writes: In your review you write: "The SB-50DX has the equivalent of an SU-4 wireless accessory built in; the flash can fire in an automatic mode at up to 23 feet (7m) from the controlling flash, and in full power manual mode at up to 131 feet (40m) away from the flash trigger." However, this is not the fact, since SU-4 has a wireless-TTL function, which could stop the flash when the flash light is enough, however, this is not the case for SB-50DX. It only have a wireless flash function, which mean it don't have the TTL function and won't stop the flash automatically.If you want the wireless flash function, you could get a $10 wireless slave trigger instead of a $75 SU-4.
Thom's response: Actually, my review is correct (and I've gone back and adjusted the worded slightly). The SB-50DX does indeed perform wireless TTL, and it does it the same way the SU-4 does: it watches for the flash cut-off from the TTL'd master flash (this also works if the master flash is in Automatic flash mode). The assumption is that if the master flash went off, the camera must have told it there was enough light, so the wireless flash should shut down, too. That said, the SU-4 does a better job of wireless than the SB-50DX, mainly because it's easier to orient its sensor towards the master flash; the SB-50DX doesn't have a twist ability on the flash head, so getting the sensor aligned to the master flash is sometimes difficult, if not impossible. As you point out, a wireless slave trigger is a possibility if you want only to trigger the SB-50DX as a manual flash, but even then, I've found the SB-50DX's sensor to have more range than the cheap triggers I have available to me.
me writes: I use my new SB-50DX together with my much loved Coolpix 995. However, I'm not really fond of the Speedlight. The feel is simply not the same as when you attach a SB-28 to any Nikon SLR, be it a F100 or an old EL. Why? Hard to tell, but of couple of things are really irritating.
- It turns off 40 seconds after being fired. And it doesn't come to life when you touch the release button of the Coolpix. So you are really busy keeping these two devices alive, as the Coolpix will typically enter sleep mode after 30 seconds!
- The two-dimensional pivot is much missed, though you can turn the flash on the SK bracket E-900 bracket.
- On the SK-E900 bracket the flash is much to close on the lens. This bracket is only useful with a Coolpix camera, with a SLR camera I would never use it.
- When used in wireless mode the flash DOES give a lot of light. But admitted, I haven't spent an evening finding out how to get the best exposures with this feature.
- The lighting qualities of the flash as such are OK. For instance you get nice interior shots with direct flash and slow synch.
For the rest, your test is very precise and to the point. The flash is OK, it is just not up to SB-28 standard.
Thom's response: You're quite right about your comments. And I forgot to put a Coolpix section in the review. I just posted something on one of the Coolpix groups indicating I didn't think the SB-50DX is a good match to a Coolpix, for much the same reasons as you note. It appears that the SB-50DX was intended for the N65 and N80 and at the last minute given the DX change to work with D1 models.
The Coolpix doesn't provide the extra communication to the flash that is necessary to keep it from going into standby (or coming out automatically). However, you can put the SB-50DX in wireless mode and have the internal Coolpix flash trigger it-the SB-50DX won't go into standby for ONE HOUR when in automatic wireless mode. If the SB-50DX is in automatic wireless mode and the Coolpix in TTL, the SB-50DX should turn on and off with the internal flash (e.g., the internal flash and TTL sensor controls the output of both flashes). If the SB-50DX is in manual wireless mode, the SB-50DX always fires at full power when it sees the internal flash.
Still, your comments are worth noting if you intend to use this flash with a Coolpix.