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Review: Nikon Speedlight SB-910  
Thursday, December 15, 2011 | by Rob Galbraith
The Speedlight SB-910, Nikon's update to the venerable SB-900, is landing in stores worldwide now. We run down the changes that Nikon has made to its flagship shoe mount flash, including the new model's redesigned thermal protection feature.

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Flagship: Views of the Nikon Speedlight SB-910, including with SZ-2TN filter attached. Click photos to enlarge (Photos by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

Overview of the Speedlight SB-910

Replacing the Speedlight SB-900 at the top of Nikon's flash lineup, the SB-910 offers a similar set of features to its predecessor plus some carefully-considered tweaks. The SB-910 summarizes this way:
  • 17-200mm power zoom head range, plus a pop-down wide panel for 14mm coverage (all focal lengths assume FX Format)
  • Three user-selectable light distribution patterns: Center-Weighted, Standard and Even
  • A guide number of 111.5/34 (ISO 100, ft/m, 35mm zoom head position, Standard illumination pattern)
  • A full complement of operating modes including i-TTL, i-TTL with Balanced Fill-Flash, Auto Aperture, Non-TTL Auto, Manual, Distance-Priority Manual and Repeating
  • A full complement of syncing options including Auto FP High Speed Sync, Slow Sync and Rear-Curtain Sync
  • Support for Flash Value (FV) Lock
  • The ability to act as a Master flash for up to three groups of remote Speedlights in a Nikon Creative Lighting System (CLS) setup; the SB-910 can serve as a CLS or SU-4 remote flash as well
  • Master flash modes include Manual (any or all groups) and TTL (any or all groups) with per-group flash exposure compensation
  • Automatic recognition of the included clip-on Incandescent Filter SZ-2TN and Fluorescent Filter SZ-2FL colour balancing filters as well as the included Diffusion Dome SW-13H
  • Tilting/rotating flash head
  • AF Assist illuminator with multi-point coverage
  • Flash exposure compensation in 1/3 step increments (3.0 EV to +3.0 EV)
  • A manual power range of 1/1 to 1/128, in 1/3 step increments
  • Full power recycle times as brief as 1.2 seconds (varies with battery type)
  • IGBT cutoff circuitry ends flash burst at all power levels below full
  • A thermal protection feature that slows recycling temporarily when the flash body gets hot, and shuts the flash off altogether if it gets really hot
  • A full complement of configuration settings
  • Lockable, backlit control buttons and a bright dot-matrix rear LCD
  • Test fire button (also serves as the ready indicator)
  • Firmware upgradeable
  • Powered by four AA batteries
  • Incorporates both an external high-voltage power input port and PC sync port
  • 3.1in x 5.7in x 4.4in (78.5mm x 145mm x 113mm) in size; 14.8oz/420g in weight
The SB-910 comes with Soft Case SS-910 that can house the flash, Incandescent Filter SZ-2TN, Fluorescent Filter SZ-2FL, Diffusion Dome SW-14 and Speedlight Stand AS-21. Available accessories include a series of water guards to keep moisture from the shoe of the camera and attached flash plus Color Filter Set SJ-3, a kit of gels that attach to the SB-910 with the help of Color Filter Holder SZ-2.
Notable changes in the SB-910

As its name suggests, the SB-910 is intended to be an incremental update of the SB-900, one that has been heavily influenced by Nikon's midrange gem, the Speedlight SB-700. Differentiating the new flash from the old is the following:

Revised body and control layout A Menu button replaces the Zoom button, for faster and definitely more intuitive access to the flash's configuration menu, while the buttons themselves have been restyled to be both a bit larger and to include useful backlighting. Simply put, the buttons are better, while access to internal setting is smarter. Both the head and body of the SB-910 have been reshaped slightly, there is now a release button on the battery compartment and the power zoom function zips from one focal length to another more rapidly.

The illuminated dot-matrix rear display is noticeably brighter and more contrasty than its predecessor. This makes it more readable in the dark, especially while looking at it off-angle. You'll see the difference in pictures ahead: the SB-900's screen lighting is somewhat dim and flat compared to the new pleasing glow of the SB-910.

Clip-on hard plastic filters The pair of thin gel incandescent and fluorescent colour balancing filters included with the SB-900 have given way to molded plastic versions with the SB-910, which allow for faster attachment and removal than the gel + filter holder routine of the SB-900. The new filters are inherently more durable too.

The inclusion of a similar hard plastic filter set with the SB-700 - my primary on-camera flash for the last year - has meant that I actually use them, because they're more convenient than the SB-900's gel filter system and quicker to deploy than my home-grown gel filter setup also. Expect the SB-910's clip-on filters to give a similar convenience boost.

If you have gel filters for the SB-900, either Nikon's or ones of the identical size you've made yourself, those filters can be fitted to the SB-910 too, inside the same Color Filter Holder SZ-2 (which, unlike the SB-900, is not included with the SB-910 but is available as an accessory).

Because the heads of both the SB-900 and SB-910 have the identical clip-on attachment points, you can use the new Incandescent Filter SZ-2TN and Fluorescent Filter SZ-2FL with either flash. They're bundled with the SB-910, as mentioned, and can be purchased separately for the SB-900.

Like the SB-900, the SB-910 comes with Diffusion Dome SW-13H.

The left picture below shows the SB-900 and SB-910 fitted with Fluorescent Filter SZ-2FL and Incandescent Filter SZ-2TN, respectively. The difference in rear screen brightness is evident in the picture at right, below.

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Upgraded: The SB-900, on the left in each photo, and the SB-910, on the right in each photo. Click photos to enlarge (Photos by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

(The clip-on filters and other head accessories for the SB-700 are not compatible with the SB-910 or SB-900.)

Quicker access to functions that were previously tucked away To change the illumination pattern in the SB-900 means diving into the configuration menu which, for us, and probably many other SB-900 shooters, meant not switching from Standard to Center-Weighted or Even very often, or at all. The SB-910 rescues this setting from an internal submenu and incorporates it with the zoom function, front and centre on the rear screen. To change the illumination pattern on the SB-910, you press the leftmost Function button (beneath the LCD) to enable the zoom-change mode, then press the rightmost Function button to move between the three patterns. A flash head icon changes to reflect which pattern is active.

This interface change is likely to bring about an uptick in the use of the flash's Center-Weighted and Even patterns. In the SB-910, there is similar quick access to the enabling and disabling of flash sounds as well. Turning sound off and on in the SB-900 is done in the configuration menu exclusively.

Nikon has made only minor revisions to the SB-910's rear LCD graphics overall, relative to the SB-900. The Master mode screen is nearly identical, for example, as are the various standard operating mode screens such as those for TTL and manual. The screens that have seen a makeover include when the flash is set to Remote and, in the configuration menu, the submenu for switching from CLS to SU-4 wireless operation has also been redone. The Function buttons also work a bit differently while navigating the configuration menu.

The changes all seem good and logical. The pictures below show some of what's different, and nearly the same, in in the SB-900 and SB-910 interface. The backlighting picture illustrates how much more visible in the dark the SB-910's buttons are.

SB900_SB910
Remote
SU-4
Manual
Firmware
Light
Backlighting
Overall, Nikon has taken a flash with a good interface and made it really good. The only other change we might have wanted, but didn't get, is a larger font for the flash exposure compensation value, so that it would be easier to read from medium distances.

Shorter recycle times We compared the brightness of two SB-900s and one SB-910, using an oscilloscope and photodetector (which provide a level of precision and accuracy that exceeds a typical handheld light meter). The output from both models of flash was effectively identical, suggesting that Nikon is using the SB-900's capacitor, flash tube and other core components in the SB-910 as well. For the geeks among you, the oscilloscope traces below tells all.

sb900_full_scope_trace.jpg
sb910_full_scope_trace.jpg
Twins: Oscilloscope traces from the SB-900, left, and SB-910, right, at full power

The component similarities between the two flashes didn't stop Nikon from upping the recycle speed in the SB-910. The table below lists the full power recycle times, in seconds, for the SB-900 and SB-910 with four different AA battery types. Each flash was fired 10 times consecutively, 10 seconds apart, and the times averaged into the result shown. The Alkalines displayed their usual tendency to drag the recycle speed ever slower, even with a 10-second break between pops, while the other battery sets produced quite consistent recycle times throughout the short test.

sb900_sb910_recycle_comparison_table.jpg

We weren't anticipating that the SB-910 was going to deliver an across-the-board recycle speed improvement: with Powerex NiMH loaded the speedup was about 25%, for example. To make sure the results weren't in error, we ran all four battery types through two different SB-900s, and two of the four types in a second SB-910. Plus, we spot-checked some of the times with two separate sets of the same battery chemistries as well.

The outcome was the same: the SB-910 recycled faster. The upshot is Nikon has trimmed recycle times noticeably in the new flash, and while the differences diminish somewhat at power levels below full, there's no question that the SB-910 is quicker to ready itself after firing one high power pop or several medium power ones. This remains true until the flash body is warm or hot; what happens at that point is discussed next.

Better thermal protection The SB-900 is designed to turn the flash off temporarily when it gets too hot for its own good. As longtime SB-900 users know, this can happen at inopportune moments, both when shooting in warm indoor venues and outside on sweaty summer days. It's the main reason I personally switched to the SB-700 for most on-camera flash photography. It runs consistently cooler than the SB-900 even when pumping out the same amount of light, and is also designed to slow the recycling rate to manage flash body heat long before it has gotten so warm that it's at risk of turning off for awhile.

The SB-910 is like the SB-700 in that it will slow the rate of recycling first, to increase the chance that the flash will keep on going, albeit at a temporarily slower pace, rather than shut down. We put the SB-900 and SB-910 through several side-by-side tests, with both NiZN and eneloop-type NiMH batteries and both cooler and warmer ambient temperatures. When pushed hard, the SB-900 would do what it does: recycle quickly right up until its thermal cutout was invoked. Combine a faster-recycling battery type and warmer ambient temperatures and it doesn't take many bright flash pops before the SB-900 has teetered over the edge of its thermal shutdown threshold.

By comparison, the SB-910 slows the recycle speed, sometimes dramatically, when its body temperature rises. This is especially so when the air around the SB-910 is also warm. But the new flash keeps on firing long after the SB-900 has turned itself off, and in fact it's necessary to trigger the SB-910 rapidly and constantly to force it to shut down as well. (Which is a good thing, since unlike the SB-900 there's no way to disable the SB-910's thermal cutout feature.)

The video below is of the SB-900 and SB-910, both with NiZN AAs loaded, being fired at full power. In this instance the ambient temperature was only 66F/19C, which translates to the SB-900 soldiering on for quite a bit longer than it does when the environment is sticky hot and it's being stressed like this. Watch closely and you'll see the SB-910 recycling faster at first, then slowing slightly as it warms, at which point the SB-900 takes the recycling lead. Then the SB-900 shuts down while the SB-910 keeps on going, though it's recycling quite a bit slower than at the start.

Note: about 20 seconds in the middle of the video, leading up to the SB-900's shutdown, have been edited out to make the longish clip tolerably shorter.

Hot Flashes:The SB-900, left, and SB-910, right (Video by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

If the video above had been recorded in a warmer room, you would see the SB-900 shut down much sooner and the SB-910's recycle speed slow that much more. But the fact would remain that the SB-910 would still be ready for flash duty while the SB-900 was taking a power nap.

The next video demonstrates that, if pushed hard enough, the SB-910 will shut down to protect itself. But this is far less likely to occur with the SB-910 than the SB-900. Every comparison we've done so far makes that abundantly clear.

Work Stoppage: The SB-900, left, and SB-910, right (Video by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

What we haven't been able to get a bead on is whether the SB-910 has also been reworked to run cooler, independent of its new recycle speed limiter. It doesn't seem like it. Based on how frequently its rear LCD thermometer rises, and how often recycling speed slows when the flash is being taxed, the SB-910 appears to be a fairly hot-running flash, just like the SB-900, though by varying the rate of recycling Nikon has been able to manage its body heat more effectively than in the SB-900.

This approach may well be sufficient and acceptable to most photographers and in most shooting situations, but our hunch is that the SB-700, which has performed like a champ for me in even intense outdoor heat, runs less hot, even when putting out similar quantities of light. And it does so without resorting to slowing its recycling rate quite as often.

Conclusion

If you like the SB-900 then you'll like the SB-910 even more. Its strategic interface improvements, new clip-on filters, faster recycle speed and, most-importantly, a revamped approach to internal heat management that keeps the SB-910 firing, these and other tweaks add up to a flash that is similar to but plainly better than the SB-900 it replaces. If you need Nikon's most powerful and full-featured Speedlight, and you need it to not shut down during hot, fast-paced shooting, then the SB-910 is the clear choice over its predecessor. Based on what we've seen so far, the SB-910 is shaping up to be a great new flash for Nikon shooters.

The Nikon Speedlight SB-910 is shipping now at an expected street price of US$549.95 in the U.S. In Canada, the manufacturer's suggested retail price is CDN$579.95 (and the street price will generally be a few dollars less than that).
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