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This Just In: Joe McNally Discusses the New Nikon SB-910 Speedlight

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Joe McNally talks about how the new Nikon SB-910 speedlight totally changes the game and levels the playing field.
From the book

As this book was closing, I got a call from the yellow and black shop in Melville, Long Island. “Uh, Joe, do you have any time available in the next few days?”

As a freelance shooter, you always pick up the phone, and your answer to that question is almost always yes, even if you don’t really have any time in the next few days. You’ll make some, find some, or manufacture some, somehow. Sleep is overrated, and as grandma used to say, you’re dead a long time.

Seems they just got shipped a new flash and, as can happen with ultra-new gear just off the line, there were no pictures that had been shot with it. So, they were kind of like, “Cool! You got some time! Awesome! We need four pictures by Monday!”

As I recall, it was Sunday night. Or something like that.

So, this new flash. Astonishing. Groundbreaking. It’s a monster. It sits in your camera bag, creaking and rumbling like the tank coming up the street at the end of Saving Private Ryan. When you deploy it—and trust me, you deploy it—you don’t just use it; it totally changes the game and levels the playing field. The pre-flash is now not only a communication and information-gathering device, it has stun-gun technology incorporated into it. You make one test frame of your subject, and they lapse into a tractable stupor. Your promised three minutes with the bank president thus becomes two hours, should you wish.

It’s metallic cherry red, and it has the ability to disengage from the hot shoe and hover. It operates on 30 AA batteries, but can also be hooked up to a series of 2000-kilowatt generators that follow you around on a flatbed rail car, which admittedly limits its portability but gives it the light power of an anti-aircraft searchlight.

It’s also a walkie-talkie. And a phone. And, if you get the designer edition, with the camo canvas tote bag and the rhinestone toggle buttons, it has a Starbucks finder app.

It does none of the above.

In fact, it does the same thing its predecessor, the SB-900, does. It’s the same old reliable (smile) TTL technology. It looks the same, too.

But it does have a few tweaks that are pretty cool. Tweaks, of course, are not a redesign, or an overhaul, or a revolution. They’re tweaks. That’s why this unit is not called the Nikon Avenger F12 Flash of the Future. It’s called—drumroll, please—the SB-910!

Oh, those wild and wacky engineers.

Okay, so what’s cool? Well, you may have heard the SB-900 can have a tendency to overheat. True enough. From the limited amount I know of the electronics of these things, the 900 is designed to recycle quickly, which can lead to heat buildup. Those engineers, being their blessedly clinical selves, incorporated safety features and gauges into the 900 that were meant to save the unit from turning into a hot shoe version of a frying pan.

With the way I push my flashes, I was always triggering the thermal cutoff, so I shut that down in all of my 900s. Which meant I did, in fact, burn up a couple over time. I’ve melted gels on the flash head, and I actually deep-fried one unit so badly the lens element went all solid and milky, as opposed to clear and crystalline.

So, the SB-910 is a substantial improvement in the area of overheating. It has no thermal cutoff. They just apparently manage the heat better, by borrowing technology developed in the SB-700. (Please understand this: I’m not a Nikon engineer, and have no inside information on the electronics or the specifics of these units. At this writing, I’ve used them in the field for three days.)

During my recent, brief stint with a few of the 910 units, I pushed them pretty hard, at full power. They managed really well. This is not an endorsement or a guarantee. But I was very, very pleased. I pushed them into a zone where the SB-900 would have complained—loudly.

Couple other cool things. They are slightly sleeker, with some minor body alterations. The battery chamber has a push-down locking mechanism. They have clip-on gel holders that are actually themselves a color conversion gel. So, in the realm of fluorescent and tungsten color correction, no more “taping on the gel, coach!” These just snap onto the head. Very cool. The buttons are backlit, and easily readable. A few functions, such as the zoom, are managed by a button in a different location, which is a design thing that is consistent with the 700. Where the zoom button was on the 900, there is now a dedicated menu button. Okay. Is that better? Dunno. Just a new configuration to get used to, but it does seem a touch easier.

The On/Off/Remote/Master switch is slightly broader and bigger, but the lock button in the middle—at least in these initial samples—has to really be pushed in to change modes. Means I’m going to have to work on my one-thumb push-and-turn maneuver.

That’s it. Tweaks, the most significant of which, for folks who use the flashes heavily, is obviously in the area of heat management.

I took these four flashes into a studio, a bar, a boiler room, and the streets of Brooklyn. Here, let’s take a look at the studio scenario.

The Studio

I tried two things—one simple, and one with a touch of complexity. In the feathery fashion shot, I put three SB-910s on a TriFlash and pumped them collectively into one of the new Lastolite 8-in-1 umbrellas, which has a Velcro port in the middle of the opaque backing. This creates something like a 2x2' softbox, basically. It’s a strong, directional shoot-through light, but it’s also contained by the substantial swatch of material around the edges of the 40" brolly. It collects the light in a concentrated but lustrous way right where you want it.

In this case, it was a good solution because I wanted the light to stay around her head and plumed shoulders, and not spread overmuch to the background. I let the camera ride on auto white balance, because the white studio wall in the distance took on a lovely warm tone, which complemented the fashion up front in the frame. The finals here read back as 1/250th at f/2 with a 200mm lens, and the three flashes set to manual at 1/32nd power. The three of them gave me wonderful coverage of that center window in the umbrella, and enabled me to run them at low power. Low power equals fast recycle, and when you have a model like Jasmine—who seemingly every second is rotating into ever more beautiful poses and looks—you are desperate to keep up.

Simple enough. On the next set, which does in fact look more complex, I actually used fewer flashes. There’s an overhead main SB-910, zoomed to 200mm, and pushing through a Flashpoint beauty dish that’s fitted with a tight grid spot. This Group A light is what is sparking her face—popping it, really—and lighting her very dark, au courant eye treatment. It’s maxed—manual 1/1, full power. The skip off the floor is, well, the skip off the floor. It’s in Group B, running on manual, 1/16th power.

That’s it. That’s all the flash. The rest of the drama comes from two steady light sources in the background, a smoke machine, and a wind machine. At 1/60th at f/5.6, the ends of her hair take off in the wind, just a touch, and the hot spotlights from the background not only provide rim light for her, but they also take on a bit of shape in the smokiness. Anytime you want light to show shape, it basically has to hit some sort of particulate matter in the air.

Jasmine’s out there in the wind and the smoke, with dramatic backlights. But the only things going on for the foreground light are two simple Speedlights. Main and a bounce fill.

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