Peculiar Light

B-9 Robot from Lost in Space
B-9 - © Copyright 2011 by William Beem

Playing with Light

This weekend, I setup some white seamless paper on a table-top and practiced a bit using my Nikon flashes; one SB-800 on the subject through a softbox and one SB-600 on the white seamless background. The concept was clear to me. Set the background light about a stop and a half brighter to keep the white background….well, white. The foreground light on the subject I would adjust as necessary to get a decent exposure. I've done this before with my Elinchroms lights, but I didn't feel like dragging them out and the Speedlights were so handy.

That turned out to be a mistake. You see, I know how to control my Elinchrom lights. What I'm not good at is navigating the user interface on the back of speedlights. I didn't want to use TTL. Instead, I wanted wireless, manual control. You're supposed to be able to do that with Nikon's Creative Lighting System (CLS). In a way, it works.  I had no problem setting up the SB-800 in manual mode as a wireless flash. The SB-600, however, was its own form of hell.

It's not as though I don't have the manuals. The instructions just never really addressed the issue in a way that my mind could comprehend. It covered wireless operation. It covered manual operation. What it didn't cover was wireless & manual operation combined. I could never get the flash to operate in both modes at the same time, as I did with the SB-800.


Then it occurred to me that I was going about it the wrong way. All I needed to do was setup the SB-600 as a wireless flash and control the power manually from my Nikon D700. It would've been brilliant had it actually worked. I switched the D700's Commander menu from Manual to TTL to AA. Yes, I know that AA only works with the SB-800 or SB-900, but the other modes weren't working, so I figured it couldn't hurt to fail in yet another manner.


The flash fired, but it never changed intensity.  I was essentially working with only the SB-800 as a main light and my background was going dark gray. I also had a large white foam board for bounce on the opposite side for fill, but I wasn't satisfied.  While all of this seemed to make sense in my mind, execution was quite different because I didn't have control of my light. Why? Because the menu on those Nikon flashes were created by sadists, or so I imagine.

Still, I prodded on by shooting a plethora of useless toys, gnomes and rubber ducks. My objective was to change light modifiers, get into using some color gels, grids, etc. I never made it that far, since I didn't have a good grasp on controlling the flash.  Then, about 70 photos into the process and without any changes on my part, the SB-600 suddenly started firing at full power.  1/1, baby. It was blinding light. At first, I thought perhaps it had never fired at all, but that wasn't the case.  I clearly heard the recycle beep from both flashes during the previous shots. The SB-600 just changed its damn mind.  My dark grey background immediately gleamed with the light of a thousand suns – or so it appeared on my now washed-out photos. As the SB-600 was not following any of my commands, my only resolution was to change the aperture and power-up the SB-800 – not the plan I had in mind.

It's My Fault

The fault is mine. There are people out there who are successfully using the Nikon SB-600 flash.  I'm too dense to understand the menu or the manual, so I accept that it's my fault. It has to be my fault. It couldn't be the fault of the engineer who created the menu that uses arcane combinations of buttons that have nothing to do with the subject you're trying to perform. It couldn't be the fault of the writer or editor who published the SB-600 manual with such obtuse instructions. Clearly, it must be the fault of the paying customer.  That menu and those instructions were so beautiful that they included them on the next revisions – SB-700 & SB-900.

What's that?  They didn't use the same menu? Now they actually have a user interface with a switch and rotary dial that makes sense? You mean, perhaps, it's not my fault?  Maybe it really is a bad product design that's keeping me from embracing flash photography on an irregular basis?

My New Plan

I give up.  Seriously, it's no fun to work with something that mocks my ability to control it. I admit failure. Instead of fighting to remember the arcane user interface on infrequent occasions of flash use, I'm going to splurge on a new SB-900 or two.  I've read the specs, looked at the user interface, and I think this is a product I'll enjoy. Hurry up, tax refund!  Until that time…

For Sale

One Nikon SB-600 flash with bag and stand.  It's the only Nikon product I have that doesn't still include the original box, but I'll toss in a Stoffen diffuser I bought for it. The flash is in good condition and works as designed, but please don't hold that against me.

Price – $160 + shipping.

If interested, drop a note using the Contact menu on the blog. I'll accept payment using Paypal and will ship however you can afford to cover it.

5 thoughts on “Peculiar Light”

  1. Hey William, nice post! You site is great… I tried to subscribe via RSS but it seems to be offline…

    Hope you fix that so I can keep in touch…



    1. Pedro,

      Thanks for stopping and I’m glad you told me about that problem. It looked like part of the RSS URL was cut short in my settings, but I believe it’s corrected now.

  2. Pingback: Start a Project to Find What You're Missing

  3. Interesting comments about the Sb600. I am going through the same frustrations with this piece of equipment. I have just gotten back into photography after being away from it since the early 90’s when I worked with Mamiya RB67 and Sunpak 611 flashes in the field and Photogenic Studio Masters in the studio. The Sunpak 611 was a dream to work with and plenty powerful where the SB600 with all of it’s automation is almost impossible. Some times I think I am ready to go back to total manual. The Nikon handbooks are really lacking and the weak part of the whole system.

Leave a Comment

You have to agree to the comment policy.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.