Nikon SB-900 Speedlight

Nikon DSLR cameras are the cameras of choice for many professional photographers. But some photographers may see one bottleneck that serves as a hindrance in getting that perfect shot – the built-in flash.

For more demanding professional photography or even for the serious amateur, a separate flash unit is needed and Nikon has it all covered with its lineup of Speedlight-branded units that drastically improve the capability of the camera to handle difficult lighting conditions. The Nikon SB-900 turns out to be one of the highest-end flash units out there and has a price tag nearly equivalent to an entry-level Nikon DSLR camera. This is a flash that is mandatory for both photography professionals and serious hobbyists.


Nikon SB-900 Speedlight

Design & Construction

The SB-900 boosts a superior look when you put it right next to the mid-range SB-600. In terms of size, the SB-900 is the largest flash Nikon has produced. The head is a totally new design and size. This means that your current light modifiers may or may not fit the SB-900, depending on their size and/or mounting flexibility. The LCD is noticeably bigger than the rest although the graphics don’t seem to be as bold. It resembles more of a gadget than a flash unit with tons of different modes to choose from that will definitely keep any expert photographer busy. Nikon has put some real attention into helping you control your flash quicker and easier. The interface may not be friendly for the beginner, but gadget lovers would love to give this a spin.

Nikon has endorsed Nimh battery use with this flash (2.3 second recycling time), and it’s highly recommended that you use this battery type. Improvement has been made to the SB-900′s battery compartment door. It is a little sturdier and less cumbersome to use compared to the SB-800. The firmware of the flash can be updated. An optional water guard can be used as well to protect it from moisture.

One drawback is that the flash is getting a bit too bulky. In every dimension the new flash is a bit bigger. For those with small camera bags, fitting this flash in can be a problem.

Actual user review:
“I’ve had the SB-900 for a few months now, and it’s a real workhorse. I’m not a professional, just a serious amateur. I do not shoot events, strictly portraiture. The thermal shutdown has not been an issue for me. I did a little test to see what it can take. I put in fresh batteries, set it to full power on Manual mode, and just repeatedly pressed the flash button as soon as it recycled, which was about 2-2.5 seconds. The gauge did not move. Where I did get some high temperature was in constant shooting in Repeating mode at high power. Quite honestly, I think that this is a great feature. I’d rather be out of comission for a few minutes than incinerate a $450 Speedlight. Speaking of features, it’s a great upgrade from the SB-800. I love the extended zoom to 200mm, which allows me to really concentrate the light. I love the supplied diffusion dome and filter holder, though the little chips on the gels only communicate with the camera as long as it’s hot shoed and in Auto WB. All in all, it’s a big, sturdy workhorse of a flash, and there’s a plethora of accessories available that will work. As soon as I get some extra coin, there’ll be at least two more in my bag.” – B.Murphy (DE,USA)

Features & Performance

Turning on the unit is already a feature in itself because it uses a dedicated rotary power switch which allows the unit to simply turn on without any long pressing. It is considered the flash unit of choice when it comes to wireless operation and is actually more preferable for the unit to be used as a standalone device because of its big screen, big flash, and high brightness levels. There are four different wireless channel options which are enough to control three other Speedlight groups.

The SB-900 supports a wide zoom coverage ranging from 17mm all the way to 200mm when used with FX-format DSLR cameras. The 200mm zoom is certainly what makes this flash superior. It will concentrate the beam of light into a smaller area when used off-camera. Therefore, it effectively gives you a more powerful flash when large swaths of light are not needed.

The general purpose of the flash unit can be quickly changed by altering the light distribution pattern. There are patterns for portrait shots, interiors, and general settings.

Compared to the older SB-800 Nikon has introduced lots of nice small touches. The flash head now rotates the same amount in both directions and the carrying case holds the accessories. High-powered flashes have a common disadvantage when it comes to heat problems and melting battery issues. A thermal cutout feature keeps it from overheating with an thermometer that shows you how close it is to overheating. It has an additional safety feature known as the Flash Tube Overheat Protection which comes into effect when high-speed burst shots are made.

Fast flash recycle times are often the difference between getting the shot and not getting the shot. You’ll be glad to know that for the SB-900 flash recycling time is greatly improved. It is rated as 50-90% faster than before. If you need to recycle even faster, try the optional SD-9, which will get you right down to the one second cycle range.


Do note that there were some things left out. The SB-900 is not very backwards compatible:

  • D-TTL – Users of older Nikon DSLRs will find that the SB-900 is only an i-TTL flash and won’t correctly work on their bodies.
  • Film TTL – Most of the old film TTL subtleties are missing, as well. There is no provision for the various balanced fill-flash modes that were the herald of film TTL.

It is highly recommended to use this with the Nikon F6 if film photography is preferred. In other cases, it is best to use it in later models to ensure full operation of the TTL mode.

Bottom Line

This flash unit is strictly for professional photographers that want to get the most out of their lighting. Size and price may be the SB-900′s biggest stumbling blocks but if you need power, speed, and flexibility, make space in your camera bag for this impressive flash. However for beginners, the SB-600 or SB-400 offers better value.

Average User Rating:

If you have a Nikon digital SLR greater then an D80, and want to use Nikon’s “CLS” you owe it to yourself and your photography to check out the SB-900. It’s not cheap, in fact, it’s a piece of professional hardware in every way. Including cost. However, coupled with a pair of SB-800′s or SB-600′s this strobe can do absolutely amazing things. The only drawback is that it has grown in size in a serious way since the SB-28 series design of which the SB-800 was the last. If you can fit it in your camera bag, and can afford it, and use flash a fair bit – you will not be disappointed. A great strobe!” – J.Kiely (MA,USA)

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I am a professional photojournalist, and I work my lighting equipment really hard, and in pretty freezing conditions much of the time. I have been using it both as a master and remote to photograph things like snowboarding competitions at night, etc., and I have used it at the highest possible sync speed (1/250) over and over, and for me it has never overheated. It works beautifully on camera, as a master, and as a remote, I like using it with a pocket wizard and it is amazing. I especially like the controls, so smart, didn’t have to learn anything new for it. Nice green indigo type backlight, and it’s also cool that it comes with a small book of gels, a diffusing dome, a gel dome/holder, and a case that holds all of it. This flash is a beast, it’s larger than any Speedlight I’ve ever used, but its worth it for the kind of light this can produce, big step up from the SB800. It is expensive though for sure. I have also been experimenting with it for studio type lighting and it definitely can hold its own in that usage too!” – A.Alchemy (VT,USA)

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