DigitalCameraReview.com
Nikon SB-700 AF Speedlight Review
by Jim Keenan -  4/13/2011

Nikon's latest addition to its Creative Lighting System (CLS) is the SB700 speedlight, announced in September 2010 and available in mid-November of that same year.

Nikon SB700


The CLS began with the introduction of the SB800 speedlight as its foundation in 2003, but also encompasses technology in electronics, data communications and processing algorithms. However, hardware is the most visible system component and flash units are the most visible hardware. While the SB700 is ostensibly the replacement for the SB600, that model remains on Nikon USA's website at present, along with the SB900.

 Nikon SB700

The SB700 can utilize 4 alkaline, lithium or nickel-metal hydride AA batteries, but carbon-zinc AAs are not recommended. The SB700 is fully functional with CLS-compatible cameras - all Nikon DSLRs (except the D1 series and D100) and the F6 film body. Functionality with Coolpix models E8400, E8800, P5000, P5100, P6000 and P7000 is possible to a limited extent. The flash will mount to non-compatible cameras but many functions will be unavailable. MSRP for the flash is $330 and Nikon includes a soft case, speedlight stand, diffusion dome, incandescent and fluorescent filters and a user's manual with each flash.

As is Nikon custom, the flash head itself features a built-in bounce card and wide panel, both of which may be deployed separately or in concert. Here's a look at that diffusion dome, the filters and the flash with both bounce card and wide panel deployed.

Nikon SB700 Nikon SB700
Nikon SB700 Nikon SB700

An SB700 has found its way to my door, so let's take a closer look at Nikon's newest flash.

BUILD AND DESIGN
As flashes go, the SB700 doesn't break any new ground in overall build or design. The rectangular body of the unit carries a tilt-and-swivel flash head, with controls and an LCD panel located at the rear of the body and various sensors at the front. In general appearance it mimics the Vivitar 283 flash I used back in the mid 1970s, albeit a bit more compact. Materials are similar as well, with plastic or composites making up the bulk of construction material in both eras, and while the 283 head doesn't swivel the general layout is pretty much unchanged in units produced over 35 years apart.

Nikon SB700

The general similarities between the old and new flashes part ways when we look more closely at the controls, however. The old 283 is simplicity itself, with the back of the unit consisting of an on-off switch and a couple of status lights. The SB700, by comparison, sports no fewer than 9 separate controls along with an LCD screen. Here's another look at the old and new.

Nikon SB700

The new flash also picks up a few changes over its second-generation big brother, the SB900 - notably a flash mode selector in place of a mode button and an illumination pattern switch that replaces having to bring up that function via internal menu.

What constitutes a current Nikon flash can't be determined by reference to its model number. The current catalog lists SB600, 700 and 900 models. Of these, the SB600 is the oldest, the 700 newest with the 900 about two years older than the 700. Add the SB800 to the mix (even though it's out of production) and it becomes the oldest. The changes to the SB700 controls (and to a bit lesser degree the SB900) are fairly significant when compared to the SB600-800 generation models, and more importantly are all for the better, in my opinion. Here's a look at the SB700 and SB800 (control layout on the SB600 is similar to the 800).

Nikon SB700

There are two things to note between the SB700 and 800 controls: first, on the SB700, the power switch also features "remote" and "master" settings while the SB800 is a simple "on/off." Second, the SB700 has a mode selector control with specific settings while the 800 has a mode button. What may seem like fairly insignificant additions turn out to make life a whole lot easier for folks shooting an SB700 versus an 800, as we'll discuss next.

Handling
In addition to the built-in white bounce card, wide panel and Nikon-provided diffusion dome, the SB700 can accept a variety of aftermarket accessories. For a rundown, take a peek at Chris Gampat's DCR Workshop article on Essential Creative Flash Accessories For Your Flash. We've used the Gary Fong collapsible lightsphere for about 6 months and shot it on the SB700 along with the Nikon bits just for a quick comparison. Here's a look at the SB700 with the Fong onboard:

Nikon SB700

The SB700 was set to the standard light pattern, and the shots were either direct or bounced as indicated.

Nikon SB700
Direct
Nikon SB700
Nikon Dome Direct
Nikon SB700
Fong Direct
Nikon SB700
Fong Bounce

One nice feature of Nikon's CLS is the ability for multiple wireless flash operation from your DSLR. You can set up 2 additional sets of flashes and fire them with your camera and SB700 (3 sets with the SB900). In the older-generation SB800, you had to hold the "sel" button for 2 seconds to go to a menu screen, scroll to the wireless menu, push sel again to highlight menu options, scroll to "remote" or "master" and push sel again to select the option. This procedure had to be repeated with every flash you planned to use. With the SB700/900 you set the switch to remote or master on each individual flash and you're done. Here's a shot of our front room with the SB800 and 900 fired remotely by the SB700 on a D3s.

Nikon SB700

Setting the switch to remote or master involves pushing down on the locking button at the center of the switch while turning, and the small size makes this a clumsy affair. I had the best luck pushing the button with the tip of my thumb, which was large enough to reach the lever portion of the switch as well.

The mode selector on the SB700 is also a bit more convenient than the mode button on the SB800, which has to be pushed repeatedly to scroll to your desired choice. The swivel head on the SB700 rotates 180 degrees to the right or left; the SB800 rotates 180 degrees to the left, but only 90 degrees to the right.

I found menus and operations more intuitive in the SB700 than the 800, and the user interface is easier to fathom.
Like the SB900, the SB700 has a thermal cut-out detection feature that tracks heat build-up due to rapid flash firing and slows the flash recycle time (or in extreme cases disables the flash) to prevent heat damage. The LCD display on the SB700 has a thermometer icon that shows heat buildup and can serve as a warning that temperatures are reaching critical levels, but in practice the first indication the user has of high temps may come when the flash shuts down.

Nikon SB700

My wife's SB900 did just that to her at a wedding, but I was also shooting (an SB800, which has no such feature) so nothing was missed. The SB900 came back up in about 5 minutes and didn't temp out after that, but if you're planning rapid use for an SB700 be aware that the unit is programmed to shut off before it damages itself. This feature has caused some gripes from SB900 shooters, primarily at weddings, but personally I'd rather have the flash take a break than burn up and cause me to have to buy a new one. It's also important to note our flash went down during the reception when guests were milling about and we were shooting lots of "nice to have but not got to have" stuff - there was no problem during the critical parts of the ceremony when shooting was a bit more paced.

When using the incandescent or fluorescent filters (CLS-compatible cameras), the flash senses the presence of the filter and communicates information to the camera which then adjusts white balance accordingly.

The SB700 supports a range of flash functions such as slow sync, rear curtain sync, slow rear curtain sync, red eye reduction and red eye reduction slow synch, but these functions are set on the camera, not the flash. Here's a D3 top control panel showing settings for slow sync and slow rear curtain synch.

Nikon SB700
Slow Sync
Nikon SB700
Slow Rear Curtain Sync

In the red eye reduction modes the SB700 fires a number of pre-flashes to help constrict pupils, however Bandit would turn away the minute the process began so I went ahead and just fired the flash, and dealt with the red eyes in post processing.

Nikon SB700
Original
Nikon SB700
Post Processed

If your subject is a bit more cooperative (Bandit tends to be a "my way or the highway" kind of guy) the SB700 pre-flashes did a pretty good job of minimizing the red eye effect.

The SB700 also allows quick setting of standard, center-weighted or even light distribution from the flash by way of the illuminator pattern selector switch on the flash right rear, and can also function as an AF-assist illuminator with CLS-compatible DSLRs. The flash can have its firmware updated via D3 or D300 cameras, but a wide range of Nikon DSLRs are not compatible for firmware updates: D1 and D2 series, D40 series, D50, D60, D70 series, D80, D100 and D200.

PERFORMANCE
The SB700 has a guide number of 92 feet at ISO 100, down a bit from the 98 feet of the SB600. "Slightly less powerful" is a recurring theme with the second generation CLS speedlights - the SB800 out lights the SB900 with a 125 guide number versus 111.5.

Full discharge recycle times are about 2.5 seconds for NiMH and alkaline batteries, 3.5 seconds for lithium. When recycle times reach 10 seconds batteries need to be replaced or recharged. Using Sanyo Eneloop AAs with about 75 shots on them, the SB700 on my D3s shot 9 images at 9 fps with flash for each, no flash on the 10th, and then flash was back on the 11th. Every flash shot had good exposure, and 9 flashes before about a 1/4 second recycle time for another flash isn't too bad.

Battery life is estimated at 160 shots with alkalines, 260 with 2600 mAh NiMH, and 330 with lithium.

Nikon SB700 Nikon SB700
Nikon SB700 Nikon SB700
Nikon SB700 Nikon SB700
Nikon SB700 Nikon SB700

CONCLUSIONS
The SB700 is the newest speedlight addition to Nikon's Creative Lighting System and a decided improvement over the last-generation SB600 it replaces. The new user interface is simpler and more intuitive, offering quicker settings on shooting parameters likely to be employed by most users. Recycle times are quick with full discharges - 2.5 seconds maximum with most power sources, and partial discharges produced 9 flashes at 9 fps before the SB700 needed a fraction of a second to recharge for another flash.


Full compatibility with most Nikon DSLRs and a couple of Coolpix cameras, but if you're shooting a film Nikon it needs to be an F6 to take full advantage of the flash's features. The guide number is down a little from the SB600 and the price is up a lot, but after shooting a first-generation CLS flash (the SB800) for years, the user interface alone on the SB700 (and 900, for that matter) is enough to make the extra cost attractive. Anyone shooting a lot of wireless flash with the first generation speedlights (SB600 and 800) will find the SB700 refreshingly quick to set up for remote or master flash duty.

Pros:

Cons: