Nikon D3X Flash
The D3X's flash capabilities are identical to those of the D3. Like most professional SLRs, the Nikon D3X doesn't have a built-in flash, but rather is designed to work with external strobe systems, or Nikon Speedlights. The camera features an external flash hot-shoe mounted on top of its pentaprism housing, as well as a secondary PC Sync socket on the front-right of the camera, under a protective cover. The Flash mode button on top left of the camera, together with the main (rear) command dial is used to access the five sync modes, which include Front Curtain Sync, Slow Sync, Rear Curtain Sync / Slow Rear Curtain Sync (in Aperture Priority and Program modes), Red-Eye Reduction, and Red-Eye Reduction with Slow Sync. Just as these modes sound, the Nikon D3X times the flash exposure to coincide with either the opening or closing of the shutter. Red-Eye Reduction simply means that a small pre-flash fires before the full-strength flash to eliminate the effects of Red-Eye in portraits. The Slow Sync setting times the flash with a slower shutter speed (as slow as 30s), which in turn allows more ambient light into the frame. The Nikon D3X's maximum X-sync speed is 1/250s, though shutter speeds as fast as 1/8,000s are possible in FP High-Speed sync mode with flash units that support that mode.
The SB-900 Speedlight
By far the most advanced flash unit announced by Nikon (or anyone else that we know of, for that matter) to date, the SB-900 offers a number of new features and enhancements compared to its predecessor, the SB-800. These include an expanded zoom coverage, auto-switching between FX and DX formats, user-uploadable firmware and improved user interface. See the complete list below.
The Nikon SB-900 offers a range of advanced features, including an advanced wireless control system by which multiple SB-900, SB-800 and SB-600 Speedlights can be controlled from a single master unit, with full wireless control over relative exposure levels between units, and full "i-TTL" through-the-lens metering. (Read our Nikon Creative Lighting System review, based on the original SB-800, for a description of how -- and how well -- it works. The article includes a video demonstrating an SB-800 and pair of SB-600s in action.) Other features include Auto FP high-speed sync, flash color information communication for improved color accuracy, a flash value ("FV") exposure lock, and modelling flash.
As with the SB-800, one of the most technologically impressive aspects of the SB-900 is its use of Nikon's Advanced Data Communication system, which uses rapid pulses of the flash units during the pre-flash metering period to pass setup and exposure information between multiple units. With this system, you can control four independent sets of compatible Speedlights wirelessly from the camera itself. The four groups consist of the Speedlight attached to the camera (the master), and three separate sets of remote units, each of which can consist of any number of SB-900, SB-800 and SB-600 units for the ultimate in lighting flexibility. Settings for each group of Speedlights are made via the control panel and large LCD panel on the Master unit attached to the camera. It deserves repeating that all Speedlights in all groups can operate in i-TTL mode for completely automatic flash exposures, including relative exposure differences dialed-in for each group from the Master controller. (You can also run different groups in different flash modes if you'd like, setting two groups to i-TTL, and another to Manual mode, for instance.)
When you press the shutter button, the Master fires each group of Speedlights in turn, collecting exposure information via the camera's TTL metering system. This exposure information is then integrated by the Nikon D3X, power levels are set for all groups, and the shutter and Speedlights are fired for the exposure itself. If it sounds like there's a lot going on, it's because there is, but the whole process takes only as much time as does the normal pre-exposure metering flash from a conventional "smart" strobe unit.
It's hard to overstate how effortless the SB-900 makes multi-flash setups. If you've ever had to climb up and down a ladder or crawl behind a set a few dozen times to get flash levels set properly, you'll immediately understand the benefit of being able to set the exposure levels for up to 3 groups of remote strobes, without leaving the camera.
Wireless TTL multi-flash functionality is only part of the story though, as the SB-900 offers a range of new features as well. Here's a list, compiled from Nikon's marketing materials:
- Streamlined Controls and Menus: The Rotary Select Dial sets key flash functions quickly -- a prominent Master and Remote control switch simplifies wireless operation. A larger LCD screen is easy to read, even in direct sunlight, and photographers can assign "My Menu" hotkeys for quicker access to commonly used functions.
- FX/DX Format Identification: Automatic FX/DX switching optimizes the light distribution angle, to increase range when shooting with DX camera bodies.
- Expanded Auto Power Zoom Coverage: The Nikon SB-900 provides zoom coverage from 17-200mm in the FX-format and 12-200mm coverage in the DX-format.
- Choose from 3 Light Distribution Patterns: Improve light quality by selecting Standard for general illumination, Center-weighted for portraits, or Even for groups or interiors.
- User-friendly Firmware Updating: Allows uploading of performance enhancement developments to the SB-900 with select Nikon digital SLR cameras.
- Color Gel Filter Identification: The SB-900 automatically identifies mounted color gel filters and adjusts the camera's auto white-balance setting with select Nikon digital SLR cameras.
- Faster Recycle Times: The Nikon SB-900 offers a quick recycle time of 4.0 seconds (at full power) with four Alkaline AA batteries, which drops to a mere 2.3 seconds (at full power) while using four rechargeable NiMH batteries -- about 25 percent faster than the SB-800 with its fifth battery attachment. The optional SD9 Battery Pack boosts flash recycle time to a mere one second (at full power). For faster recycling or all-day shooting, the SD9 accepts up to eight AA batteries.
- Improved AF Assist Beam: The Nikon SB-900 aids auto focus with a broader AF assist beam that covers a wide 20-105mm FX focal length range, that is matched to all of the Nikon D3X, D3, D700 and D300's 51 focus points.
- Enhanced Bounce and Swivel Range: The bounce and swivel capability of the Nikon SB-900 has been expanded to include: tilt up to 90 degrees, down minus 11 degrees, and a full 180-degree swivel left or right, allowing more creativity for on or off camera use, or as a remote Speedlight.
- Flash Tube Overheat Protection: An added measure of safety is provided for sustained high-speed bursts.
- Drip-proof Mounting Foot Cover (Water Guard): for enhanced moisture protection (optional).
It's no stretch to say that the Nikon SB-900 is by far the most impressive flash system we've seen to date. It makes wireless, TTL-metered, multi-flash photography easy, which is quite an accomplishment.
A full treatment of the Nikon wireless flash system's capabilities is beyond the scope of this review (which after all, is meant to be about the Nikon D3X), but you can read more about it in our Nikon Creative Lighting System review, which also contains a video describing how we used Nikon SB-800 and SB-600 flashes in combination with a pair of portable light boxes for on-the-scene product photography at PMA 2005.