I love speedlights. I know I am not alone in my passion, but speedlights and I have a deep relationship, given the idiosyncrasies of my career, especially that:
- I shoot a lot of jobs — I recently went back and counted just the wedding-related shoots from 2010 (weddings, engagement shoots, and a few workshops), and came up with 131. Whew.
- If the light isn’t what I want it to be in a location, I will very happily make my own, and
- I live in central Manhattan, so I don’t own a car. The rental agents know me by name, but if I can, I always want to use just the gear that I can carry around with me.
So these incredibly versatile little guys without external battery packs, separate heads or tiny, exposed, easily breakable parts are often my best friend, and I try not to break out my studio lights unless I have a really good reason.
I currently use SB-900s across the board, and I’m crazy about them except that they’re a bit too large for the power they put out (the SB-800s are smaller and a bit more powerful), so when I heard that Nikon was releasing a new flash that offered most of the SB-900 benefits and a smaller size, I had to get my hands on one.
The SB-700 is the new entry in Nikon’s mid-range, replacing the SB-600. But it’s far better to simply think of this as a baby SB-900, since it has much more in common with Nikon’s flagship flash than with the one it replaces. The SB-600 was meant to be a basic flash, introduced before Nikon had added the truly basic SB-400 to the line, just to get the remarkable accuracy of the i-TTL automatic exposure system into people’s hands as cheaply as possible. It provided great exposures, and worked well as a slave in the Nikon CLS off-camera-flash system, but did little else. It couldn’t function as a master, so if you only had SB-600s they would have no way of talking to each other; it had a rudimentary interface, and was a bit fragile.
In contrast, the SB-700 brings almost all of the advantages of the 900, such as:
- Knowing the difference between DX and full-frame cameras, and shaping the light beam accordingly
- A head that swivels in both directions (A big advantage over even the SB-800)
- Much better ergonomics, both in the menu system, and in the feel of the flash overall (although with my brand-new model, the battery door and head were a bit stiff)
And the 700 even has a few big advantages over it’s big brother, especially its smaller size and an even better system for switching between flash modes, with a dedicated switch on the side of the monitor:
There are two big drawbacks, though. The first is that this flash has no PC sync, so if you’re a lover of PocketWizards, this is probably not the flash for you. There seems to be little reason for this omission other than market differentiation. With all of the benefits in inherits from the SB-900 in a smaller size, I’m picturing Nikon execs sitting around and wondering why new photographers would buy the bigger, more expensive SB-900 at all. “I’ve got it! Take out the PC Sync! That will keep the Strobists paying more!”
Happily, though, the SB-700 DOES have optical slaving, so you can use it in an array of off-camera flash situations without even if you don’t like Nikon CLS. (I love it).
Finally, the SB-700 is not super-powerful, with even slightly less maximum output than the SB-600. In the photo below, Claudia is being lit by two flashes — an SB-700 is lighting her face, and an SB-900 is lighting her body, both at 1/2 power. You can see that the light on her body is a bit brighter — well within the camera’s latitude, but I’ve kept the hot-spot in for display purposes. Still, the SB-700 is powerful enough to expose her properly at 1/2 power, even though this was shot at f/22, ISO 200.
I figured Claudia was a bit more interesting than a brick wall.
The SB-700 also ships with the same sort of “smart gels” that were introduced with the SB-900 — essentially, if you put a tungsten gel on your flash, your camera’s auto white balance will adjust accordingly. I still like to have control, though, and in the photo at top I set the WB dial down to 2500K to turn the mid-day sky an interesting shade of blue, while still putting a flattering warm light on Claudia.
If you were going to buy an SB-600, save up and get this instead. It’s much more versatile as a flash, insanely more versatile as part of a system of multiple flashes, and the ergonomics will save you some headaches.
If you are a PocketWizard-loving manual-flash-only guy, you would probably be better served by either the 900 or even cheap, syncable flashes like this one.
Will I buy it? Probably not. My kit isn’t portable anyway, and I’m already optimized around the SB-900. But I think that for your average user who wants to get better light without much hassle and wants a flash that gives them the option of building a system later, this will be a fantastic tool.