Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Nikon SB-80DX Hidden Features

I mentioned in an earlier post that I now carry two Nikon SB-80 DX speedlights in my Fuji XT1 kit. This may be considered overkill, since a Fuji EF-42 is always nearby should I need true TTL exposure. But the SB-80DX has proven a useful companion for a number of reasons:
  • Built-In Optical Sensor: Like the SU-4 mode in the SB-800, you can trigger optically using another flash.
  • Non-TTL Exposure Automation: I could use the built-in aperture based non-TTL exposure automation for run-and-gun (fast moving) situations. It's not as sensitive as true TTL, but it will work at short distances.
  • SB-800 Form Factor: The body and head dimensions are nearly identical to the SB-800, which I find compact and easy to use.
  • Lever Locking: The SB-80 has the same single lever locking mechanism as the post-SB-800 speedlights.
  • Higher Profile Selector Buttons: Selector Buttons are easier to find, and feel, in low light conditions.Their raised contours make them easier to adjust.
  • Supplementary Power: Accepts SD-8a supplementary battery packs, and SD-8 packs upgraded to the SD-8a cable, a service that Nikon no longer provides.
  • Accessories: Flash head accepts SB-800 diffusion domes, both Stofen and OEM.
  • Gels: Head accepts SB-800 OEM color correction gels.
  • Modeling Light: The SB-80 and SB-800 have a Modeling Light, which is in reality the ability to fire a burst of flash "pop" to give the illusion of a continuous light source. Think of it as a emergency flashlight.
Cool Stuff: Here are some features that aren't so obvious:
  • On Camera / Off Camera Sensing: I noticed that when I set my SB-80s to the optical slave mode, they would automatically revert to on-camera mode when slipped into a camera's hot shoe. Now I leave the speedlight in the remote/slave mode, knowing it will re-set itself as soon as it's attached to a hotshoe of some sort. This worked with both the Fuji and the Nikon cameras. Not so with the SB-800, however.
  • Distance Indicator: This is the big one. As you decrease the (manual) flash output, the SB-80 displays the flash-to-subject distance for optimal exposure for your pre-selected aperture (see arrow). While this is based on an exposure made in a standard sized room with a white ceiling, it's close enough to serve as fill, and will get you in the ballpark when using the speedlight off-camera on a light stand. The emphasis here is on ballpark, because you'll either want or need to fine-tune the exposure by adjusting the flash-to-subject distance anyway, which is much easier than lowering the speedlight to eye level and pushing some buttons.
Some Cautionary Notes: Here's as good a place as any to issue some reminders about using non-TTL flash exposure.
  • The Sensor Is Pointed Forward. Period: The sensor is sometimes hard to find, and merely points in the same general direction as the flash head. Best advise is to use your non-TTL flash at shorter distances with relatively large subjects. 
  • The Sensor Is Not That Sensitive: Play with the non-TTL adjustments and you'll find that you'll need to use relatively small shooting apertures. For example, if the ISO setting on the flash is 200, the largest aperture you can use is 2.8. When set to ISO 400, the aperture is 4.0, ISO 800, 5.6. 
  • The Sensor Can Be Fooled: When the Stofen domes are properly used (head facing forward, and 45 degrees from horizontal), the sensor MAY respond to light spill from the flash instead of light reflecting from your subject. The Vivitar 283 may have been more susceptible than most because Stofen actually made a special blinder to protect the sensor's eye. 
  • Weak Batteries, Weak Response: I have found that when the batteries start to lose their mojo, the performance of the speedlight gets erratic. When the output and ISO settings start to wander, change your batteries. This usually does the trick.
The SB-28 shares many of the same features, but has some drawbacks.
  • There's no built-in optical slave. You can always add a Wein Peanut, but built in is just so handy.
  • Different Size and Shape: Ix-Nay on the advantages of a form factor shared with the SB-800. It's close in overall size, but not identical. 
  • Recessed Control Buttons: The most annoying issue with the SB-28 is the recessed rubber control buttons. You almost need  a pencil to make the necessary adjustments, and certainly will if you want to make a test flash.

I know of my penchant for acquiring older Nikon speedlights. I don't even know how many I actually have. But I still get a thrill of seeing a multiple-speedlight solution create an abstract reality that washes over my subject, whether it's done with gels, definitive shadows, or deep, richly detailed shadows. It is so different from when a single on-camera Vivitar 180 flash was all I had to work with, so many years ago.