Nikon SB-910 Speedlight
Today we're playing with some real power, Nikon's SB-910 Speedlight!
It's a powerhouse of a light, and a bit of a hit on the wallet. With so many third-party options flooding the market, as well as cameras having more advanced built-in flashes, and so many professionals opting to go for fully portable studio lighting kits does the Speedlight still hold it's own? Let's dive in with a review!
Single Sentence Summary
Totally worth buying it -- if you're into having nicely lit photos.
Why I Bought It
I shoot a lot of weddings and indoor events where the light situation is... lacking. I needed not only something capable of lighting up a large room or hall, but also capable of functioning in tandem with other lights. Though I use the a Profoto studio kit too, this has the benefit of not requiring me to carry around a rolling case of studio flashes, stands, and power cables, etc. This option offered easier portability while still giving the same full control options to other flash units so I can adjust power outputs without having to move. Thanks to websites like Strobist, speedlights are easier to learn to control and manipulate effectively, and there are more creative suggestions and advice that are speedlight-centric than for anything else I'm aware of. Finally, I needed something portable that could easily be thrown in a small backpack/pocket which obviously ruled many studio lighting kits out.
What I Like
How about a 2 second recycle time at full-power? Sure, I use my Eneloop Pro blacks to get it, but I've run these bad boys to the limit sometimes, and they honestly do stand up. That's just the full-power bursts, when I'm throttling them back to 1/16th or less it's honestly incredible how quick it can be. And the zoom is fantastic! 200mm works nicely to isolate and hit with a pinpoint of strong light, which can be very useful for creative purposes.
I love the amount of power you can get out of an object that fits into a pocket. I do use the Profoto B1 500 Air TTL location kit, but it's too much kit to carry when I'm traveling with camera bags and pelican cases already, so I mostly reserve the Profoto kit for on location portraits/headshots, etc. Further to that, I love how I can easily fit them into my camera bags around my lenses or under them. I have had shots where I've used 5 speedlights under command from a master on camera, and I fit all five of those speedlights easily into my bags.
The silence is fantastic! I remember when I bought my first speedlight, it was when I shot Canon, and it was a 550EX. That thing had such an old school high pitched whine when it was cycling, but the SB-910 is practically silent! Shooting a wedding with a flash is distracting enough for the guests, I don't need to add any extra noise elements to the mix.
I like the design of the hot shoe element. Knowing that they're designed to break rather than risk damaging your camera body is reassuring. When I put anything into the hot shoe I'm always concerned with what I may smash into it and how it may wreck one of my camera bodies, but I've seen these babies crack, and the body is absolutely fine.
This one may seem odd, but I'm one of those people who actually on occasion uses the modelling light, and it actually is a really nice feature. I use it for things like product photography (ring shots, etc.) and sometimes in painting with light. The modelling light gives me a nice heads-up as to where a shadow will fall. It's one of the things I like most about using the Rotolight NEO lights, seeing exactly where the light will be in the final shots, knowing if I'm perfectly nailing a Rembrandt or not.
One thing I love about it is the simple ability to receive commands from my D810. I personally hated the idea of using a camera with a built-in flash, they always seem to pop up and annoy me more than anything else, but the interface is actually pretty decent. It doesn't always nail the signal in bright lighting situations, but it does a darn good job in most situations. I will admit that I rarely use it as I much prefer my Pocketwizards, but when I don't need the absolute certainty of radio triggering I don't mind saving my batteries and using it.
What I Don't
The menu is probably my biggest complaint with these things. I mean I get it, the flash has a TON of features and options that really make it a universal answer to most situations, but I feel like they could really have tried harder to make it a simpler and more intuitive interface. If you've ever used a Canon ST-E2 you can understand how simple and straightforward flash controls can be. It just (to me) seems like they really let the engineers get carried away with things, and never put it in the hands of an average shooter.
That whole overheating fix sucks. A bit of history, if you didn't know, is that the SB-900 had a bit of an issue with overheating. It was addressed by having them completely shut off when they approached a certain temperatures. The unit would remain completely inert until it cooled down. Yeah, that was a pain, but at least I could get onto it immediately and have my assistant turn the second SB-900 on and keep going with barely a hiccup. Now the SB-910 is designed to avoid overheating, so when it is coming close to the heat threshold it backs the power down a bit. NOT COOL. I'd rather a flash not fire at all than fire weaker than I need. I can't be constantly looking at the back of my camera to confirm exposure, I need to trust in my equipment, and in some instances like a low light bouquet toss, dance floor, etc. I just need to be able to fire in higher frequencies at strong power outputs. If I see a flash fire I assume it's at the level I set it at, and I wish I could just set it to die like the old SB-900's did, because this new system has me on a couple of occasions needing to pull out a full studio light to be positive (which defeats the whole point).
I'm also tired of managing lightstand mounts. Here's one area where the Profoto kits rock, when I need to shoot any number of flashes off camera it's simple and straight forward: they are designed for stands. Simple. But I must admit that it's not really Nikon's fault or anything, they weren't aiming to fill that void with this product. I just wish there were something easier than fumbling through a half-dozen umbrella mount adapters. The aforementioned shot involving 6 speedlights? Yeah, it required 6 stands, each one with a bracket. However, admittedly it's a rare occasion that wouldn't be any easier with any other kit as far as I can see.
It is a bit large and heavy. It doesn't really bother me much, truth be told, but I feel like it should be mentioned in this to give you a fair heads-up. I prefer it actually, as I've toyed with off-brand flashes like some of the earlier Yongnuo ones, and their flimsy thin plastics and builds hardly inspired confidence in me. I take these flashes into military exercises, I can't afford something that will snap or crack, or that can't handle extreme cold.
I need at least four of these in my life to do what I need to do when it comes to certain types of shooting (on location portraits, shooting with a couple of softboxes, etc.) I know I listed a number of drawbacks that make them seem like other alternatives would serve me better, but realistically these things function in a very necessary niche position in regards to my need for lighting versatility.
I believe that they are of a better build quality and offer more comprehensive features than a lot of the third party flashes do, but that's from my limited exposure to the first generation Yongnuo flashes (though developing at incredible rates with fantastic interfaces that beat the pants off of Nikon's menu systems...) These flashes aren't replaceable as far as I'm concerned. The studio kits simply can't offer the portability of a simple hotshoe flash, the built-in flashes can't match the power or the ability to direct the light, and the third party flashes still don't have me fully convinced.
I'm admittedly a fan of Nikon, but I'm not sponsored by them or anyone else. I'm not trying to sell anyone on anything here, just offering a voice on the matter, take it for what you will. This reflects only my own opinions based on my own experiences with SB-910's in both my wedding and my military photography contexts.