As a longtime Nikonian, it still seems a bit odd that Nikon is known as the “great high ISO camera company.” Back in my day, we had noisy ISO 800, and walked uphill both ways to the photo shoot! But that was OK, because we were flashers. Our Nikons had fantastic flash control, TTL metering that worked extremely well, and we made due.
And then everything changed. Along came the Nikon D3, and our SB-800s changed into SB-900s. Not everyone was a fan of this — the SB-900 was significantly larger but didn’t have more power — but I liked them enough to buy three. Fully rotational flash heads is a big deal to my bounce-loving self, and I never quite got used to the fact that you had to physically break the SB-800 to make it work properly.
So I had the SB-900, and everything was good. The output was great, the TTL worked well in those rare cases I wasn’t being a manual-using control freak, and I especially adored the ability to zoom the flash head to a narrow beam of 200mm. Because it’s a narrow beam, I can bounce strong pulses into the ceiling and not use much power, giving me more charge and better recycling time.
There were only a few quirks, some of which bothered me and some of which didn’t. The one that everyone talked about is that out of the box, the SB-900 has an overzealous Thermal Cut-Off protection program that, after a few strong flash pulses, essentially says “No! It’s too hot in here! No flashes for you!” This, I agree, is terrible — so I turned it off and never thought about it again. As someone who’s fired hundreds of thousands of pulses through SB-900s, my experience is that unless you’re using some super-jacked batteries or third-party battery packs, you’re not going to melt anything down. If you find yourself firing your flash at 1/1 all the time, you might want to take a hard look at your gear or compositional choices.
Other things that no one talked about much bothered me a bit more. The new gel system, which used coding to automatically change white balance, was pretty cool but a bit tricky to find and slide on in the field. There was that darned menu access, which was better than the SB-800s but still took time and some slight-of-hand to get to the settings. And the one that really got me is that the infrared AF-assist beam seemed to be mis-aligned in some ways, so that if you were shooting a shallow-depth-of-field lens like the 85mm f/1.4 on a dark dance floor, and using the AF assist on any focus point other than the center point, you were almost guaranteed to have your shot be out-of-focus.
So here’s all you really need to know: The SB-910 fixes all of these quirks. They use the same sort of snap-on gels as the SB-700, which are harder to pack but work great. The Thermal Cut-off gradually slows the flash down as it gets hot instead of getting all Soup Nazi with you. (You can see an oh-so-exciting video of me firing the SB-910 at full power here.) They even fixed the AF assist, which is attention to detail surprising even for Nikon. Awesome.
It also adds some things like illuminated buttons (which will nicely match the Nikon D4 buttons) and a revamped menu system to be more like the SB-700. Illuminated buttons don’t matter much to me — after two days shooting with a piece of kit the buttons are mapped in my brain, no looking required. The dedicated menu button is fantastic for working quickly, but it has a downside: If you have a bunch of SB-900s, you will probably want to sell them if you’re tempted by the 910. These two flashes are so similar in basic form that you will never remember by simple touch which is which — and they have buttons in the same places that do entirely different things. Give your brain a break and try not to limit your time mixing these two in your system.
In the photos above, I wanted to use the tungsten gel given that it’s now easy enough to put on that I won’t say “Oh, forget it.” In both, I fired through a Lumiquest LTP softbox. At left, I got the double-diffusion softness and made use of a tight spot by skipping the light off a white door to the left. At right, the light from the right, combined with a tweak of the automatically cool white balance the camera knew to give me thanks to the coded gel, gives a more complicated and moody mix of warm flash and cool ambient. Is there any real difference in the light between this and the SB-900, or even the SB-700? No. But I probably would have never fished the delicate SB-900 gels out of my bag on a freezing cold day — so the real answer is whatever works for you. And the SB-910 works really well.