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Vivid Light Photography, digital and film photography online
Nikon Infrared TTL 
Flash System 

by Chuck McKern

When I first heard about Nikon Infrared flash system, I was a little concerned about how it would perform. I've been a Nikon user for many years and have been amazed at the evolution of their TTL system and how accurate it has become. I've been equally impressed their wired multiflash TTL system. But there was just something about wireless that had me concerned about performance.

The wireless system is composed of several off the shelf components. The first is the SB-30 flash, Nikon's new pocket flash. I hadn't had the chance to use this flash until now and I have to say I was impressed with it. This little TTL flash is small enough to throw in a pocket, yet it still provides some serious performance. It covers 28mm, 17mm with the included wide flash adapter, and has a guide number of 52 at 28mm at ISO 100. Pretty impressive from a flash that's smaller than a pack of cigarettes! I found the SB-30 does a good job of providing fill in natural light (see sidebar).

This little unit is a key piece in Nikon's infrared system. The SB-30 is mounted on the camera and used as your infrared trigger while the SB-30 itself is disabled. You do this by pulling up a small panel over the front of the flash to prevent light from reaching your subject. The outboard SB-80DX(s) will provide your fill lighting and can be located up to 23 feet away from the camera for wireless TTL operation and up to 131 feet away for auto or manual flash triggering (non-TTL) - that's over 40 yards! (NOTE: the SB-50DX can be used in the same way as a trigger for SB-80DX(s)).

The SB-80DX is powerful with a 125 Guide Number at 35mm (GN184 @ 105mm). It's a full-featured flash with slow and rear curtain syncs and will provide coverage to 14mm with the included 14mm wide flash adapter. The SB-80DX also comes with a diffusion dome that slips on the front of the flash to soften the light and shadow lines.

One of the nicest features on this flash is the new modeling light. It can be activated for approximately 30 seconds so you can determine how the light will reach your subject and where any shadows will fall. But my biggest gripe with this system is that same modeling light.

When you are using multiple SB-80DX's there is no way to trigger the modeling lights on all flashes at the same time to see the combined effects of your lighting set-up. I kept thinking there had to be a way to do this and I drove myself crazy trying to figure it out until I finally found a reference in the manual that explicitly states you can't. Another issue with the modeling light is that it doesn't work in wireless mode. You have to take the SB-80DX out of wireless mode in order to use the modeling light. While the modeling light is a great addition, and I'm glad Nikon has added it, fixing these two problems would dramatically increase it's usefulness. A nice feature in the SB-80DX is an audible beep that indicates when your slave units are ready to fire. That means you don't have to check the backs of individual flash units, which can be difficult to do from the camera position.

For this test I used two SB-80DX units triggered by an on-camera SB-30. Overall using this setup proved to be a good experience. It was easy to position the slave unit (SB-80DX) because of the modeling light. Using the SB-30 on camera as the trigger and as a fill flash provided a very nice balance of light. Subject details were well defined and not washed out. One unit was used at approximately 45 degrees to the left of the camera position while the other was just to the right of the camera. The SB-30 was used with the light-blocking panel so it would only trigger the other flash units without adding any additional light to the subject.

The wireless TTL system is a convenient way to take a multiple flash system on location without having the headache of trying to balance studio lights with available light. This would also be a good set-up for someone who wants to start shooting in a controlled studio situation without having to invest in an expensive studio strobe system.

In general I was very pleased with the set-up. The units were easy to operate individually and were easy to set-up for wireless TTL operation. Exposure is typical of the Nikon flash system and can be easily tailored to your individual tastes. I think I see myself replacing my older Nikon speedlights and cables with this set-up in the near future.

Sample Images
SB-80DX as a main light & SB-30 as fill. 
SB-80DX from left of camera & SB-30 mounted on camera.
One SB-80DX as main & one SB-80DX as fill the SB-30 as a trigger. 
Main light was left of camera & fill was just to the right of camera position.
SB-80DX as  main & SB-30 as fill. 
Main light was right of camera position & fill  mounted on camera.

Test Set-up: Nikon F4s set on aperture priority and 
Nikkor 80-200mm f2.8 @ f5.6 on Fujicolor100

The SB-30 & SB-80DX Flash Units

We had a chance to use the SB-30 back to back with one of the SB-80DX units for fill flash duty. For close subjects the SB-30 works wonderfully. It's a great little flash for street photography where your subjects are always close and its smaller size is less intimidating. That small size is a virtue in other ways as well. The SB-30 drops easily into a shirt or jacket pocket and when camera mounted it folds forward flat so it's less likely to get snagged on something while you're walking around. That also makes it less likely that you'll break the flash shoe. Let's be honest big flash units mounted on your camera can be a hassle. The SB-30 makes fill flash a much more pleasant experience.

The same hinge that lets it fold forward allows you to position the SB-30 for close-up photography of small subjects, though it's not specifically designed for macro photography. Controls are easy. A switch on the back allows you to place it in ON or standby modes. In standby the flash will power down after 40 seconds of idle time.

But everything comes with a downside. The SB-30 isn't as powerful as it's larger brethren and it's power falls off quickly if you're trying to use it for anything other than fill duty. One other issue is recycle time. With only one CR123A for power the minimum recycle time is 4 seconds. We didn't time every flash but there were times when the recycle felt like an eternity and we missed some shots because of it.

The SB-30 doesn't carry a DX designation but Nikon says it is compatible with all their digital SLRs and select Coolpix models.

The SB-80DX ups the ante on its predecessor the SB-28DX from GN 164 to GN 184 and adds an infrared trigger - making it the workhorse of Nikon's new infrared flash system. It's slightly smaller and rounder than the SB-28DX and it includes a small plastic flash diffuser that slips over the head. The diffuser does a nice job of softening the flash and is more convenient and portable than a bounce diffuser - though the latter provides a little more natural look for portraits in our opinion. A new wide flash adapter allows the SB-80DX to be used with lenses up to 14mm!

Also new in the SB-80DX is a built in modeling light that allows you to preview shadow lines. This can be an invaluable aid in positioning your flash for portraits and for product photography.

A new function aimed toward studio users is the ability to control the standby function on the flash from 40 to 300 seconds. And a new control dial on the back of the flash makes it easy to set just about any function.

Other features inherited from its SB-28DX predecessor include 3D multi sensor balanced fill flash, slow and rear curtain sync, and strobe flash functions.

Power comes from 4 AA batteries or from one of Nikon's external power packs (SD-7 or SD-8A).

The SB-80DX is fully compatible with all Nikon film and digital SLRs and with select Coolpix digital cameras.

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