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Just Right Light: Nikon SB-700 AF Speedlight

Top-of-the-line technology and a bit less brawn makes the Nikon SB-700 an excellent flash in its class.

By Ellis Vener

The Nikon SB-700 AF Speedlight is the newest addition to Nikon’s family of iTTL battery powered electronic flashes. It’s smaller and less powerful than the slightly older SB-900 AF, yet it’s more capable than the SB-600 AF Speedlight it replaces. It has the same electronic “brains” as the SB-900, with a better GUI and communication with Nikon DSLR cameras and other accessories, and some of the same mechanics. The SB-700 has a set of hard plastic color filters rather than the gelatin type, and the refined Thermal Cut-Out Protection System to slow recycling when the flash tube needs protection from high heat.

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The SB-700 retails for about $325, the SB-900 for about $495. Is this product worth the $170 savings? Depends on how you use small flash. If you constantly use an SB-900 at maximum output or if you need the ultra-short recycle time and increased capacity of an external high-voltage battery like a Quantum Turbo, the SB-700 is not for you. But if you’re in the market for a second flash to use on or off camera, or if you dislike the bulk and weight of the SB-900, rarely use an SB-900 or 800 at full output—in other words, you rarely see the recycle light blink —then by all means, look at the SB-700.

With small lights, I follow a more-is-more philosophy; it’s easier to get a flash to produce much less light than its full capacity than it is to get a low-energy flash to exceed its capability. Even with the ever-improving ratio of noise to high ISO of digital cameras, real-world measurement of maximum energy is a useful baseline for measuring performance.

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To compare an SB-700 to a 900, I set up a simple test in a dark-walled studio. I measured output at the various zoom settings with a Sekonic L-758DR meter that was mounted on a stand 10 feet from the stand-mounted Speedlights. I shot five frames at each of the flashes’ zoom settings to evaluate consistency. Both flashes were powered by freshly charged Sanyo Eneloop batteries. To calculate the guide numbers, I used the formula, GN=distance X ƒ-number at ISO 100.

The results were a little surprising, in a good way: The SB-700 is more powerful than Nikon’s published numbers, but not evenly across the settings. When both flashes were set up for wide-angle coverage of 14-35mm, the SB-900 was only 4/10-steps brighter than the SB-700; at the 50-70mm zoom settings, the difference widened to 6/10-steps; and at 85-120mm the gap again widened slightly to 7/10-steps.

There are other differences, of course. Unlike the SB-900, the SB-700 does not have a port to connect a high-voltage, fast-recycling external battery, and the control layouts are different—the top level and menu-driven options are more obvious on the SB-700—and the SB-700 is smaller and lighter than the SB-900. The SB-700 can control two remote SB groups in Commander mode, while the SB-900 can control three groups of off-camera wireless Speedlights.

Like all modern Speedlights, the light output is IGBT controlled, and the flash duration gets short at lower power levels. However, the color temperature was consistently neutral at all power settings, and when the flash was used in auto flash power (FP) mode.

I used the SB-700 in a variety of indoor and outdoor projects, sometimes in conjunction with an SB-900. With the flashes off camera, I wirelessly synced with the PocketWizard ControlTL system. The subjects included a bullfrog, a hotel room interior and a fly fishing guide at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia.

For these shoots I worked up a lightweight studio-in-a-backpack comprising: a Nikon D7000 camera; a couple of Nikkor zoom lenses; two lightweight Manfrotto 5001B Nano stands; PocketWizard ControlTL gear (two FlexTT5s, a MiniTT1, and an AC3 Zone Controller); a 30-inch Lightware Direct FourSquare soft box; the SB-700 and 900; and extra batteries. This gear went into a Think Tank Photo ShapeShifter backpack. Strapped on back of the pack was a carbon fiber Induro CT114 tripod and an Arca-Swiss p0 head.

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For the bullfrog photo, I used a two-light setup with the SB-700 as the key light, camera left, and the SB-900 as a backlight; each had its own channel on the AC3. It was sunny day, and the mid-afternoon sun high over my right shoulder served as weak fill light. The camera was set to ISO 640, the lens to 105mm at f/5.6. A shutter speed of 1/5,000 second not only established the sun-to-flash ratio, but also darkened the reflection of the sky in the water. With the SB-700 placed much closer to the frog, I used it as a key light, and adjusted the SB- 900 and ambient exposure accordingly, with the SB-900 set about 3 stops below the key.

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For the hotel room shot, I let the ambient light of the cloudy day set the mood, but used the SB-900 to simulate light coming from an imagined larger window just outside the left edge of the frame. Finally, I set up the SB-700 next to the camera, pointed mostly at the ceiling and slightly feathering down toward the bed. With the AF-S DX Nikkor 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR lens set to 18mm, I set the exposure at f/16 for 4 seconds, ISO 125.

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The portrait of Greenbrier guide Clare Lyons was shot with an AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II lens at 86mm, f/2.8 for 1/2,000 second, ISO 320. I set the SB-700 and 900 nearly side-by-side, about 15 to 20 feet from Clare, who was standing in the creek. The camera was in aperture priority mode and, as with the other two photos, the flash exposure was wirelessly controlled through the camera’s iTTL metering via the ControlTL system, with an eye toward producing non-obvious fill light.