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Nikon Creative Lighting

A Girlequin is photographed using the Nikon creative lighting system
 and  2 Lastolite Ezybox Hotshoe's   with Nikon SB800 in each.

The Nikon Creative Lighting System will work with most Nikon DSLR cameras, some have commanders built in but can also use an add-on commander, while others use an add-on commander. Except entry level cameras, (D40/D60) all later cameras have a commander built in, if they have a built in flash and not if they do not. 

Built-in commander D80, D90, D200, D300, D700, D5000
No built-in commander D2X, D2H, D3, D3X
D40, D50, D60, D100, (limited D70)


The commander that is built-in is able to control the flash on the camera plus two other groups of flash units. It can control the type of control TTL, manual, etc and the relative power of each compared to the others. The in camera flash can be turned off, although it still has to be up as it is used for signalling. The built-in flash can be replaced with a add on flash either on top of the camera or on a lead, and you can control this separately and two further groups of flashes, (Main, A, B).

Add on commanders are built into the SB800 and SB900 flash units, and there is also a separate controller only, the SU800, when a SB800 or SB900 is used you have the main light plus three groups, so one more group than with the built-in commander, otherwise it basically does the same job (Main, A, B, C). The SU800 has no main light but can control 3 groups (A, B, C).

The SB800 and SB900 can be switched into commander mode, while the SU800 has two modes switchable from a small switch illogically positioned inside the battery compartment. Its other mode having only two groups and used for macro/ringflash. All the commanders, except the limited one in the D70, can switch between 4 channels, so you can have 4 flash setups or four photographers can operate in the same space without interfering with each other. All the items you are using, camera, flashes need to be on the same channel, and if its not working this is usually what is wrong.

The SU800 can be purchased on its own, but is also included in the R1C1 kit, that also has two SB200's and some other parts, mostly aimed at macro photography. The R1 kit is the same package but does not have the SU800 unit.


Model Hannah  , is photographed using the Nikon Creative Lighting system, with 2 Nikon SB800 flashes as slaves and a SU800 commander. Click on either images to see a larger version.


The SB200, SB600, SB800, and SB900 can all be switched into slave mode. The SB400 can not so will not work as a part of the creative lighting system. We have another article that looks at Nikon Flash Units and a table in Nikon Flash Price Comparisons that looks at some of the suppliers and prices.

Slave flash units are turned into slave mode and set to be on the right channel, and assigned to a group.


The commander, in camera or add-on is used to control the system as a whole, you can select groups, adjusting the power of each group, and if you wish having different types of flash control. 

So lets take an example, a portrait in a studio with two flash lights and against a Lastolite HiLite used as a background. Using as a commander a SU800 or SB800 with main built-in flash turned off, sitting on top of the camera. Group A I can assign to the main flash light on a stand to my left, group B to the second flash I have on a stand to my right, being used as a fill light, and group C to control two SB200 flashes one each side pointing into and illuminating the Lastolite HiLite  so that it lights up.

Group A and group B, I set to TTL, (Through The Lens) while the background on group C, I set to manual and select about a quarter power. Group A, I can set to be +1 stop and group B to -1 stop, so I have a 2 stop difference between my main light and fill light.

To see the positioning of the lighting I can see the effects through the viewfinder by pressing the depth of field button, that causes all flash units to strobe for a short period, rapid low power flashes, its nearly like normal light and can give you a good idea of shadow direction etc. If this does not work then check its turned on in your camera menu options.

When you take a photo, the commander sends a command to the slaves and each group set to TTL gives a small pulse in turn that the camera analyses, it can then send a command telling the slaves how bright to flash group has to be and finely the command to all flash together. This all happens in less than the blink of an eye.

You are in control

As you can turn the relative power up and down of different groups and change the overriding effects or flash type and the balance of flash against exposure, you have an enormous amount of control and all from your camera/commander. You can use it indoors or out, and mix it with other constant light sources.

If you put a flash on a Nikon lead, something like the SC-29, then you have full control of the flash on the lead exactly as if it was sitting on the camera, so you can see with the example above I could use the internal commander in a camera to achieve the same with the main now on the lead acting as the main light, the fill-in on A and background on B.

There is an enormous amount of flexibility and if you need more than the number of groups that you have, you can use additional flash units and control the power by reducing or increasing the distance. So in my example above, where I had the main built-in flash off, main light source on A, fill on B and background on C, I can add a hair light (to get a little shine and more detail on dark hair) as simply another flash in group C, and increase or reduce its brightness affect by moving it closer or further away from my model. From experience I know with another SB200 this will be enough.

Macro photography, product, food and other special applications

The application may require different lighting arrangements, but all can be accomplished using the same basic idea, of dividing up your lights into groups and using the commander to get the exposure right. You can control the relative brightness between groups and then moving lights backwards or forwards to differentiate between different lights in the same group, if you need to.


See Also

Introduction to Studio and Flash Lighting

Nikon Flash Units

Nikon Flash Price Comparisons

There are many articles on flash, lighting and reflectors in the Lighting and Reflectors Section.


By: Keith Park Section: Lighting and Reflectors Key:
Page Ref: nikon_creative_lighting Topic: Flash, Studio and Reflectors Last Updated: 04/2009

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