Sunday, August 7, 2011

I See 'Um, I Gotta Buy 'Em

There are some things in this world that you can't have too many of. Take electronic flashes, or Speedlights, as Nikon calls them. I will admit that Joe McNally is my hero in this regard. He often creates incredible photographs using a dozen or more Nikon speedlights, placed singly or in groups, to achieve spectacular lighting effects. Remember that phrase, "in groups", as this was my reason for accumulating the dozens of speedlights I now own.


David Hobby first advocated buying older Nikon speedlights when nobody else wanted them. If you followed his blog, you would know that he's a fan of the older, non-iTTL units since he would use them in the manual mode exclusively. In addition, these older units could be triggered using either their external PC ports or their hot shoes, so that wireless and optical triggers would have two contact points. Another advantage is their ability to use the  locking Nikon PC cables that positively stay attached. Hobby's top choice of the Nikon non-iTTL units is the SB-26 because it has a built in optical slave to simplify multiple flash setups. When set to manual, you can reduce the output to 1/64 power in 1/3 stop increments. Add to this a 270 degree rotating (180 degrees counterclockwise, 90 degrees clockwise) and tilting head with a manual zoom from 24mm to 85mm (the built-in wide-angle diffuser increases the spread to accommodate an 18mm lens) and you have the deal of the century. While they are still available on E-Bay, the price has gone up considerably, often going for about $150.00 or more. However, they also turn up in camera stores from time to time, so keep your eyes open. I found one at Keeble and Shuchat in Palo Alto, California, for $70.00. It was in pretty good shape, complete with gaffer tape and Velcro firmly attached. A little Goo Gone and I now have a high build-quality flash for a very good price. A point to remember: the flash came without a box or instructions, so you may need to acquire a manual somewhere. One place to check for instructions for obsolete Nikon speedlights is Nikon USA. Click here if you want to download a PDF of the SB-26 user manual. If worse comes to worst you could probably find a copy of the original manual on EBay. Hey, read and memorize the darn thing and sell it back on E-Bay! If you find an SB-26 or any other piece of discontinued equipment, remember to ask about the return policy if your purchase doesn't work. If you're really on the hunt, keep a set of batteries with you, just in case you need to try something out. For some additional information on the SB-26, click here.

If you're wondering about the two silver pins just below the red face plate, they are two of the three contacts that connect the flash to the Nikon SD-8 or SD-8A supplementary battery pack. The contacts are normally covered by a plastic cover plate. I assume that the former owner used one of these power sources because the plate was missing when I bought it. No great loss.

Another Nikon Speedlight to consider is the SB-80. When in manual mode, the output can be reduced to 1/128th of full power. It too has a built in slave and an external PC port. It is smaller than the SB-26, and appears to have the same body dimensions as the now discontinued SB-800. This will make it easier to fit the Lumiquest CTO filters that you'll eventually want to get. It too is overpriced, just like the SB-26.


Next on my list of things to watch for is the SD-8 power supply for  Nikon speedlights. Now before you remind me about the Chinese knock-offs, listen to this. The SD-8 power cable will not fit the current SB-800 or SB-900 flashes, but for about $20.00 plus shipping, Nikon will replace the cable with one that will. If you can score a clean SD-8 for $20.00 ($30.00 in 2015) and send it to Nikon for a new cord, you can have a power supply comparable to the $150.00 SD-8A for a fraction of the cost. So a used SD-8 is definitely worth looking for whenever you find used photo equipment for sale. I've bought them for as little as $20.00 plus shipping a year ago. One last bit of trivia: If you're wondering about the little screw/s in the middle of the body, they are there to cover a 1/4 hole in the battery pack. There apparently was an OEM screw that passed through the hole, allowing you to attach the battery pack to the tripod socket in the base of the camera. I almost owned one such screw, but it was apparently lost in the mail, never to be seen. The Chinese knock-offs include the screw, strange as it may seem. This one is shown without its nylon cover.

Addendum - September 24, 2015: Nikon no longer offers the cable replacement. I just had two SD-8's returned, unmodified. I have plenty of older Nikon Speedlights that can use the battery boost. I just have to find a way to keep them from getting mixed in the the SD-8a compatible upgrades. Maybe this is why there were so cheap.

Last but not least, the SC-17 flash extension cable. This is the gray colored cable with the screw-type lock at the hotshoe/camera end, and a 1/4 x 20 thread at the speedlight end. There is some misinformation on the web about the compatibility of this cable with current production (SB-700, SB-900) flashes. For the record, the gray SC-17 flash will function properly in the TTL mode with these two flashes, but will NOT function when you attempt to use any of the iTTL features. This means that an SB-900 connected with an SC-17 will not function in the commander mode. But if you are using only one flash, the extra 3 feet can give you a solid, hard-wired connection if you choose to put your speedlight on the end of a stick. It also works in High Speed FP sync mode. I've seen SC-17s for as little as $10.00 at camera swaps, but not very often.

If you're lucky enough to own a D40, D50, D70/D70s, or a D1/D1X/D1H camera body, you can synchronize you flash at just about any speed. A simple modification to the SC-17 will allow you to use the cable to access those higher sync speeds. Click here for read David Hobby's original article.

Disclaimer: A quick note that bears repeating: Buying used equipment always carries the risk that the item may not work. For simple (and relatively inexpensive) items like cables, you pay your money and take a chance. When the items get more expensive, you may do better check on the vendor's return policy. Many "brick and mortar" stores will give a 14-day trial period so you can test your purchase. Some on-line vendors will offer similar, albeit shorter, return periods should the item not function.