UPDATE: Link to SB-80 User Guide added!
Here’s a question I get asked a lot: what’s the best speedlight for shooting interiors?
Simple answer: Nikon SB-80dx.
Why? Let’s look at what’s important for interiors work.
Interiors is all about finesse. When I’m pulling 6, 7, and 8 speedlights out of the bag for a shot, it’s not because I need the watts – it’s because I have 6 or 8 subtle lighting tasks. A lot of lights at low power are much more useful than 1 or 2 at full power. So the first thing to consider is not the gn, or Guide Number. You’re more interested in how low you can set the thing.
Flash output is controlled in stops, just like the camera operates. Full power on the flash is called 1/1, and represents the biggest output the flash can handle. The next step down is 1/2, which obviously means Half Power. Then comes 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, etc.
The best flashes allow you to control the output in 1/3 stop increments (just like your exposure controls on your camera). And, the best flashes will go all the way down to 1/128 power. That’s just the tiniest ‘kiss’ of light – so slight you might think it’s worthless! But it’s not, and I can tell you that my flashes are set at 1/16th and below more often than they are at 1/4th and up. Less is more.
The second consideration is how you plan to trigger your flash remotely. I’m not going to go into the myriad ways of accomplishing that here: suffice it to say that the options are many, but fundamentally you’re going to need either a PC port (to plug in a radio slave) or an optical slave. The camera-specific systems that carry the trigger signal (as well as exposure and output information) are simply not reliable enough without line-of-sight to work well for interiors. And line-of-sight is rarely an option in my kind of work.
Here’s where the Nikon SB-80 shines: it has a built-in optical sensor that absolutely ROCKS. I can place a flash around a corner, down a hall, upstairs, behind the couch, pretty much anyplace I want, and it will fire reliably every time it senses another flash going off. It doesn’t matter what the source is; my client’s point-and-shoot will trigger my flashes.
NOTE: this optical system is wonderful indoors, but it’s not nearly as useful outdoors. For outdoor work, you’ll need line-of-sight for the optical system to work; you’re probably better off with Pocket Wizards.
And that’s why I also use a set of Pocket Wizards. The transmitter sits on the hotshoe of my camera, and my first flash has the receiver. All the rest of my flashes are set on optical mode, and thus with almost not setup time I can fire as many flashes as I want with only 2 PW’s. It doesn’t matter that I shoot Canon – the flashes are not “talking” to my camera in any way. Even a bolt of lightning outside will set them off.
Why not an SB-800? Or the sexy new SB-900?
They’ll work just fine (set them to SU-4, which is the optical mode). But unless you also plan to use the CLS system, you’re paying for a lot of electronics you don’t need, and I mean PAYING – current list for an SB-900 is upwards of $350. Meanwhile the humble SB-80 is going for less than $200 on eBay.
(Did I mention that they don’t make SB-80’s anymore? The fools.)
I haven’t talked about Canon flashes at all. Here I will discuss the upside of Canon flashes:
Well, that didn’t take long, did it? Seriously: until the latest (and outrageously expensive) iteration of the 580EX, Canon refused to consider the existence of things like Pocket Wizards, and did not have a single model in it’s lineup that included a PC port. Even the newest model still generates enough RF noise to create havoc with the newest Pocket Wizards. To my knowledge, there is no Canon flash with an optical sensor, either. So why even bother with them?
So here’s the punchlist in favor of the SB-80:
• Built-in Optical trigger that rocks
• PC port in case you need it
• Same GN as the SB-800, so you’ll have the juice when you need it
• Goes down to 1/128 in third-stop increments
• Built like a tank, I’ve abused mine for years
• Did I mention “cheap”?