The best flashguns can come in useful in almost any shooting scenario, from illuminating dark indoor areas to filling in the shadows created by harsh, direct sunlight. As you’d expect from a camera manufacturer as prestigious as Nikon, the company makes a wide range of accompanying ‘Speedlights’, to suit a variety of requirements and budgets. We'll help you choose the best Nikon flashgun for your needs, and guide you to the best price.
If you’re after something small and simple, you’ll barely need to stretch to a three-figure price tag. However, Nikon’s most entry-level SB-300 is a no-frills affair that might leave you wanting more. For example it has no zoom facility, nor the ability to twist the flash tube sideways, so you can’t bounce the flash off the ceiling in portrait orientation shooting, when the Speedlight is mounted in the camera’s hotshoe.
Spend a little extra and you get much more for your money. The SB-500 adds wireless infrared commander and slave modes, ideal for multi-flash setups or for controlling the flashgun off-camera from bodies that feature a pop-up flash module with a commander mode. This gives you much more creative freedom in placement of the flash, so you can create interesting shadows and gain a more three-dimensional effect.
Take another step up to the SB-700 and you’ll get a motorized zoom head that automatically tracks your lens’s focal length or zoom setting. The main advantage of this is that the beam is focused more tightly for telephoto shooting, boosting the maximum available power. The range-topping SB-5000 is a fully pro-grade flashgun with power and build quality to match, plus the addition of a programmable ‘repeat’ mode, so you can fire multiple flashes during a long exposure to create a sequential shot of objects in motion. On top of that, there’s a twin head Speedlight R1C1 kit that’s tailor-made for close-up and macro photography. Let’s take a closer look at which model is most ideal for your needs.
• Read more: How to use flash for your photography
Best Nikon flashguns in 2020
Amazingly small and lightweight, the Nikon SB-300 is an almost pocketable Speedlight powered by just two AAA batteries rather than the more usual four AA cells. The Gn 18 (Guide number) is pretty respectable, considering it doesn’t have a zoom head and the equivalent focal length is locked to a wide-angle 27mm in full-frame terms. The bounce facility is generous, stretching all the way to 120 degrees, but there’s no swivel facility.
Likewise, it’s Nikon’s only current Speedlight that lacks a wireless slave mode, so it can’t be triggered remotely by a camera’s pop-up flash in commander mode. It’s also the only one to lack an Auto FP mode, so you can’t shoot at fast shutter speeds, which can be preferable when using fill-in flash under bright sunlight.
Another bit of bad news is that there are no onboard controls nor an LCD screen, so all adjustments need to be applied from in-camera menus, which can be more laborious. Even so, if you’re after something basic that’s easy to use and won’t weigh you down, the SB-300 might just fit the bill.
Like the smaller SB-300, the more up-market SB-500 has no zoom facility and has a fixed equivalent focal length, this time of 24mm (full-frame). It also runs on two batteries rather than the more usual four, although they’re upsized to AA cells. Even so, the recycling time after a full-power flash is fairly long, at around 5-7 seconds when using NiMH or alkaline batteries respectively. The maximum output itself is greater, at Gn 24, and the SB-500 has full sideways swivel of 180 degrees in both directions, as well a 90-degree bounce facility.
Further enhancements include wireless infrared commander/slave functions and Auto FP for using flash at shutter speeds up to the maximum available in the host camera body. Another neat trick is that it boasts a constant LED lamp, which can be useful for close-range video as well as stills.
Compared with many similarly priced flashguns from independent manufacturers, the SB-700 has a fairly modest power rating, but it should still prove generally sufficient. It comes complete with a carrying case, stand, diffusion dome and color filters for balancing the flash with tungsten or fluorescent lighting, so there’s plenty to play with.
The motorized 24-105mm zoom mechanism combines with a generous bounce and swivel facility enabling -7 to 90 degrees and full 180-degree swivel to both the left and right. The head also includes a pull-out wide-angle diffuser and reflector card, both of which are absent in the SB-300 and SB-500. Running from four AA cells, recycle speed after a full-power flash is fast at 2.7 seconds with NiMH batteries, but a more sluggish 5.4 seconds with alkaline cells. One niggle is that if you want to switch from i-TTL BL (Balanced Light) to regular i-TTL flash exposure mode to give less priority to ambient lighting levels, you need to swap to spot metering in the host camera.
If you’re after Nikon’s top-flight Speedlight, look no further. The SB-5000 has a comparatively mighty Gn 55 power rating that give you more than enough illumination, even when using a diffusion dome or bouncing the flash off a high ceiling. The zoom facility has extra reach as well, catering to full-frame focal lengths of 24-200mm. Subtle flash output is equally available, thanks to a power range that goes all the way down to 1/256th of the maximum output.
As well as wireless infrared commander and slave modes, there’s a built-in RF (Radio Frequency) receiver, so the flashgun can slave from an RF trigger over greater distances, and without needing direct ‘line of sight’. However, the fitment of an RF transceiver would have been preferable, as this would have enabled the SB-5000 to operate in RF commander mode as well. On plus point is that this is currently the only Nikon Speedlight that features a programmable repeat mode, for firing multiple flashes during a long exposure.
A regular flashgun is far from ideal for extreme close-up and macro photography, as the off-axis flash tends to create dark shadows. To get around the problem, this specialist kit includes a hotshoe-mounting infrared wireless SU-800 commander, and two small SB-R200 Remote Speedlight units.
The Speedlights themselves attach to an adaptor ring which screws onto the front of a lens, and the kit comes complete with a range of rings to suit popular thread diameters ranging from 52mm to 77mm. By positioning and angling the twin heads appropriately, it’s relatively easy to capture shadowless close-up and macro images. And if you want to add a little shadow to give a more three-dimensional look, you can adjust the relative power between the two heads.
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