Nikon multiple (2+) wireless flash: what's the best pro rig?
February 6, 2008 10:15 AM   Subscribe

Shooting with a Nikon D80 camera and SB-800 flash, I will add three additional flashes in the next year. What should they be?

I will buy at least one additional SB-800 for use with the Nikon CLS wireless triggering system but am wondering what would be better: a set of 4 SB-800s or a combination of cheaper flashes (ie SB-28s) with the pricier but oft-lauded Pocket Wizard wireless triggers.

I shoot mostly portraits and events now but am interested in multiple flashes for real estate interiors and also studio portraits and tabletop work.

Economy is always great, but I'm most interested in a professional solution that will work over time, all the time.

I am also considering studio strobes - now or down the road - but am attracted to the flexibility and portability of smaller flashes.

I've seen a lot on Strobist and read many of Ken Rockwell's articles on these subjects but would love to hear your experiences and thoughts!
posted by asuprenant to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Well, if you want something that's going to work more often than not, then I'd go with the Pocket Wizards if you can. They're pricey for a reason. On the other hand, if you're not going to be working closely with other photographers using wireless triggers, there's always the Cactus V2's ("Poverty Wizards") to be had on eBay, as well as the not-yet-released RadioPoppers. The latter actually look quite interesting, especially the "Junior" model, which is just a simple transmitter and receiver for just $50 for the pair, and $25 for each additional receiver.
posted by Venadium at 10:37 AM on February 6, 2008

Oh, and as for additional strobes.. well I can't be of much help there, since I've only got one SB-800 myself (so far, anyway), but I've seen a lot of people using the Vivitar 285HV lately. For $90 new I've been thinking about picking up one or two myself instead of looking around for an older Nikon SB.
posted by Venadium at 10:42 AM on February 6, 2008

I just got the Cactus V2's-- eager to try them out soon. Already they seem much better than the P.O.S. transmitter by Canon.

I've also been looking at the Vivitar 285HV which has been getting a lot of attention at Strobist. They're also cheap!

For studio strobe, I have an Alien Bee B800 which is awesome. Totally easy to use and very portable. For portraits and interior work that involves any kind of setup I use these as a main light.
posted by lou at 10:49 AM on February 6, 2008

whoops I took too long writing my post, but yes, seconding the hype on Vivitar's flash :)
posted by lou at 10:50 AM on February 6, 2008

I have the exact same setup and I'd recommend getting some SB-600s. They can all trigger each other, and the D80 can be used in commander mode to control them as well.

Throw the SB-800 on the camera and use it to control SB-600s on tripods (or sitting on tables, floors, etc). You'll be able to do some amazing, complicated lighting.

I also have AlienBees and radio triggers (Pocket Wizards are way overpriced, IMHO) and do studio lighting with that, which works well.
posted by mamessner at 11:16 AM on February 6, 2008

I'd check out the strobist forums on flickr. A gazzillion people talking about this very thing.

SB-800s as wireless flashes=excellent for events because you don't have to adjust your camera to the flash value. The flash sets it's own value. In my experience that's pretty handy. No light meters, no effing around. You'll hear different on strobist though.

SB-800s are super versatile. But any other choices are going to be much much cheaper and rough and ready.
posted by sully75 at 11:19 AM on February 6, 2008

Best answer: Do yourself a favor and just buy Pocket Wizards to begin with. I've owned other radio/wireless trigger systems in an attempt to avoid paying the high prices for PW's and none were even close to the reliability and ease that the real thing gives you. Besides, inevitably somewhere in your photo career you will buy, rent, or borrow something else that integrates with it - ie. a meter, a pack, etc - and that alone makes them totally worth it to just be able to plug everything in and go. Go look on Ebay, you can get a pretty good discount if you're buying a couple at a time (I got 4 Plus II transceivers for $650 not too long ago which was much cheaper than any other vendor like B&H).

It's worth the price of PW's just to not have to deal with the interference that most radio triggers have. After shooting (mostly on-location portraits) with various cheaper radio triggers for ~2 years the first shoot I did with my PW's was about half as stressful and twice as productive simply because I didn't have to worry about what heads were/weren't firing or if someone turning on a microwave a block away was going to cause seizure-inducing random pops. They're worth it - the first time you put a head a block away away or behind a concrete wall and it fires every single time you will thank god you went with them, there's a reason they are the de facto standard.

I can't comment on the smaller flashes as I prefer (and have always used) "real" strobes, but if you go that route I know many budget minded people are very happy with their Alien Bees. Personally, I do not like their plastic construction (they feel very cheap compared to every other strobe I've used) and the modeling lights are so weak they're unusable outside a dark studio. Still, many pros use them and they are good lights especially considering the price tag. If you have more money to spend I would recommend White Lightning, which are made by the same company as the Alien Bees but a little higher end. I have 4 X1600's and they are amazing lights - very powerful, great modeling lights, ridiculous range, very portable, EXTREMELY sturdy and well built, relatively inexpensive, and amazing support (Paul C. Buff, Inc. is legendary in that regard and I can personally attest to it - great company to deal with).

Good luck! Lighting equipment is expensive but usually you get what you pay for.
posted by bradbane at 12:13 PM on February 6, 2008

Steve's Digicam Forum ( is a great resource for info and expert opinions regarding photography.

Here are a couple of specific links that may prove helpful.
posted by coachjerry at 12:38 PM on February 6, 2008

I use Vivitar 285hv's with the Cactus triggers right now and they work fine for Strobist type stuff. Some time in the future I'll be getting one camera-specific flash so I can use all the fancy TTL metering crap for shooting events.

If you've got the money and like how the SB-800's work, get more of them. It's always easier to work with four of the same kind of flash than multiple different brands. If money is an issue, I'd look at the Vivitars. They're cheap but they do the job.
posted by sjl7678 at 12:57 PM on February 6, 2008

Response by poster: From the OP: Thanks for the responses. A follow-up:

If I went with the Pocket Wizards, would there be a functional difference (interface aside) from the SB-800s, SB-28s, and the Vivtars?
posted by asuprenant at 1:34 PM on February 6, 2008

Best answer: bradbane knows of what he speaks.

I own and use a bunch of large AC powered strobes, a couple of Vivitar 285's, a Lumedyne multi-head system, three SB-800's and a Quantum Q-Flash. My Pocket Wizards are probably the best designed, best built and most reliable pieces of photographic equipment I own. They work with every flash head I have. Batteries (AA's) seemingly last forever. There's a reason that everybody who owns them loves them.

I'd go with PW's and cheap 285's. If you can find used 285's they're probably fine; you may just need to make sure to clean off any corrosion around the battery terminals (glass fiber pen - the only way to fly for this purpose). Even if you can find some cosmetically rough looking ones, they're probably fine.

I do use my SB-800's in the CLS mode on an increasing basis, but I still think you're better off with the PW's and cheap flash units, especially if you plan on shooting some real estate later on.
posted by imjustsaying at 2:13 PM on February 6, 2008

Best answer: Responding to your follow-up here.

I'm hoping my memory serves me well since it's been a while since Ive had an SB-28.

One advantage of the Nikon units over the 285 is that you can dial down the power significantly more. If you find yourself wanting some subtlety in your lighting, this is somewhat significant. The Nikon units will also zoom out wider than the Vivitar, and they're physically a little smaller.

The SB-800 has a built-in optical slave, unlike the SB-28 and the Vivitar. It's line of sight, but can be valuable if you have, for example, one less PW than you have flash units in some situations.

I've always thought of the SB-28 as the bastard child of recent Nikon speedlights, since both the prior model SB-26 and the next model SB-80 had built-in optical slaves.

There are probably other issues, but nothing comes to mind right now.
posted by imjustsaying at 2:23 PM on February 6, 2008

you can control all nikon flashes remotely with a d80 - perhaps you would want to get an sb200 to control them overall - you dont need pocket wizards with the nikon lighting system.
posted by sgt.serenity at 5:32 PM on February 9, 2008

Pocketwizards are awesome for strobes. They're awesome for old vivitars, etc. They are the best radio transmitters out there.

But Nikon's "Creative Lighting System" was built to be just that -- a system that gives you massive amounts of control without needing any other accessories.

If you have several SB-800s or SB-600s you'll be able to control them wirelessly from your camera, with full TTL metering. You can split them into groups, dial them up or down, tell some not to fire, switch them from manual to TTL, etc. all from your Nikon D80.

It is amazing what you can do.

You have probably read Ken Rockwell's professions of love for the SB-600, and while I do not share his enthusiasm for the flash since you already have an SB-800, I would keep using it as the key light and buy some SB-600s to back it up. For the price of two SB-800s you could get three SB-600s.

And that would let you take some pretty great pictures. Joe McNally, as you probably already know as a strobist reader, has used Nikon's set up to make the great images in his portfolio.
posted by ztdavis at 12:51 PM on February 25, 2008

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