Friday, May 27, 2011

Old School

Old School
From left to right: the SB-80DX, the SB-800, and the SB-26
Is there any reason to buy an old flash in this age of wireless TTL?  If you are looking for a multiple flash setup, some of these old dinosaurs may actually offer better value than even the YongNuo YN-560.

In this post, I'd like to discuss older Nikon flashes*, and which ones may be of particular interest to us amateur photogs (especially strobists).  This information is useful not just to Nikonians but to Canonistas and in fact to users of other cameras as well.
*By "old" flash, I mean those that preceded the SB-800 and SB-600.

Usage on DSLRs
Let's get something straight: unless your camera is a Nikon D100, or from the Nikon D1 family or D2 family, these flashes will probably not be very useful on-camera.  Although they have TTL capability, they were designed with an older kind of TTL technology that doesn't work with most Nikon DSLRs beginning with the D70.  Some of them do feature an Auto mode, which will adjust flash exposure automatically based on the amount of flash reflected but you have to manually input the ISO and aperture you're using.  It's also possible to use manual flash exposure mode, but that would require even more frequent adjustments.  Because of these limitations, I wouldn't recommend them as your sole flash, or even your second flash (I would instead recommend a wireless-capable flash).

Strobist use
These older flashes are much more useful for off-camera flash work.  Some of them (generally the ones that aren't so old) have most of the features that are useful for strobists such as ample power, a decent range of manual power adjustment, manual zoom adjustment, bounce and swivel capability and sync ports.  The best feature?  Price :D

When used as off-camera flash, many of the Nikon-specific features become irrelevant.  When viewed this way, these flashes become useful even to users of non-Nikon cameras.

To help you shop for these flashes, here is a list that groups them according to power.  I also noted significant strengths and weaknesses in bold.
Note: all Guide Numbers are stated in feet, for 35mm at ISO 100.

SB-23: GN: 66 ft. No zoom, no bounce, no swivel. No manual power adjustment (always at full power).
SB-30. GN: 52 ft.  No zoom, no swivel.  Manual power adjustment only at 1/1, 1/8, 1/32.
SB-50 (has optical slave). GN: 70 ft.  Zooms from 14-50mm. No swivel.  No manual power adjustment (always at full power).

Medium-powered (about as powerful as an SB-600):
SB-22: GN of 82 feet. 28mm only - no zoom. No swivel.  No manual power adjustment (always at full power).
SB-22s: GN of 92 feet. 28mm only - no zoom. No swivel.  No manual power adjustment (always at full power).
SB-27: GN of 98 feet.  Zooms from 20-70mm.  No bounce, no swivel.  Manual power down to 1/16 only.
SB-600: GN of 98 feet. Zooms from 14-85mm.  Fully compatible with modern Nikon DSLRs.

High-powered (about as powerful as an SB-800):
SB-24: GN of 118 feet.  Zooms from 24-85mm.  Manual power down to 1/16 only.
SB-25: GN of 118 feet.  Zooms from 20-105mm.  Manual power down to 1/64.
SB-28: GN of 118 feet.  Zooms from 20-105mm.  Manual power down to 1/64. More compact than SB-24, SB-25, SB-26; similar in size to the SB-800.

High-powered with optical slaves:
SB-26: GN of 118 feet.  Has Auto mode.  Zooms from 20-85mm.  Manual power down to 1/64. Separate buttons for changing bounce angle and swivel angle -- this is mildly annoying.
SB-80: GN of 125 feet. Zooms from 14-105mm.  Manual power down to 1/128.  Has Auto and Auto Aperture mode.  More compact than SB-26; similar in size to the SB-800.
SB-800:  GN of 125 feet. Zooms from 14-105mm.  Manual power down to 1/128.  Has Auto and Auto Aperture mode. Fully compatible with modern Nikon DSLRs.

The SB-26 and SB-80 are of particular interest not only because they have optical slaves but because those optical slave modes can work with Nikon CLS Advanced Wireless Lighting.  No you can't adjust these flashes remotely, but you can trigger them all the way to your camera's natural sync speed and even a little bit beyond that.  (One of these days I'll try to test them with Canon's commander flash as well.)

The shot at the top of this post demonstrates their wireless compatibility.  I used a Nikon D300's popup flash as a CLS AWL commander to trigger and remotely adjust the SB-800 in the middle.  The SB-80DX at camera left was in its optical slave mode (SU-4 mode).  The SB-26 at camera right was in its "standard" optical slave mode.  The shot was taken at a shutter speed of 1/320, a third of a stop higher than the natural 1/250 sync speed of the D300.

[BTW, caveat: I tested only at 1/64 power.  At full power, the flashes may not be able to recycle fast enough to sync.  I will pin this down in the future.]

Another caveat: the Nikon D70 (and I'm supposing the D70S) has a slower AWL signal.  Because the commander signal pulses seem to take longer, the SB-80DX can't seem to sync with the D70's commander flash at any speed.  The SB-26 on the other hand, has a second optical slave mode (the "D" mode -- presumably delay mode for syncing with TTL).  In the D mode, the SB-26 can sync with the D70 commander even at 1/500.  But there's a catch: when the SB-26 is firing, the CLS slave (the SB-800 in this example) gets confused and sometimes doesn't sync.

Previously, I thought that the YN-560 provided the best value as a strobist flash.  The price is very competitive especially for its power and features (such as optical slave and zoom).  However, I was somewhat ambivalent about using the YN-560 in connection with a CLS AWL setup.  Yes, it is possible to trigger the YN-560 in sync with CLS flashes, but there are numerous restrictions.

If you search patiently on eBay, you will find SB-26s and SB-80s for around $125 (at the time of this writing).  It's a $50-60 premium over the YN-560, but you get quite a bit for the extra cash:
  • More power.  According to, the real guide number of the YN-560 is 34 meters, while the SB-26 is 39 meters.  The SB-80DX isn't listed in the power index but it has the same power as that of an SB-800, with a guide number of 41 meters in that index.
  • Better CLS AWL compatibility.  While the YN-560 has many restrictions to allow it to sync with CLS AWL, the SB-26 and SB80DX can sync with few issues.
  • Better user interface.  The YN-560 has been criticized for having a power meter that is difficult to read.  The SB-26 and SB-80DX both have LCD screens and a reasonably user-friendly interface.
  • TTL quench pin.  You may not care about TTL if you are a hardcore strobist.  However, the TTL quench pin enables the SB-26 and SB-80DX to be adjusted remotely via a Radiopopper JrX Studio.  Actually, the same is true for many other old Nikon TTL flashes. 
  • TTL sync port.  The YN-560 has a PC sync port, as do the SB-26 and SB-80DX.  However, the SB-26 and SB-80DX also have the Nikon 3-pin TTL sync port.  That allows them to be used in some wired TTL setups, and incidentally allows the use of a Radiopopper JrX Studio without an RP Cube (if you have a miniplug to 3-pin cable like this).
  • Auto mode.  If you need TTL-like capabilities, the SB-26 and SB-80DX both have an Auto mode.  The YN-560 does not.
  • Nikon quality versus Yongnuo quality.  No contest.
That's why if you can get an SB-26 or SB-80DX at around $125, they are better values than even a YN-560.

To help you look around eBay, here are a couple of tips:
1. Boolean searches.
Instead of searching for SB-26 then SB26 then "SB 26" you can instead search for (SB-26,SB26,"SB 26") --> note that there are no spaces.  That will search for any of those terms within the parentheses.

2. Saved searches.
You can save your searches so that you don't have to keep typing them each time you want to check.

3. Profiteering.
If you buy a flash with the intent to resell it, think twice.  Both eBay and Amazon charge hefty fees to sellers.  You need to add about twenty percent (!) to your buying price just to break even.


  1. Wow, you really did a thorough research, this one should be bookmarked.

    I still can't get my mind around the whole online buying/selling thing, eBay is like a dark cave to me.

  2. Thanks buddy. Thom Hogan's site was instrumental in helping me put together this list.

    As for ebay it's a very useful resource for finding items from China or for unusual products. I'll email you.

    Best regards,

  3. The MD (Motor drive 10fps-ish) mode of the SB-22 is actually 1/16th power.


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