First Steps with Nikon CLS

I recently upgraded my camera kit.  The D40 was great, but often felt like it was holding me up.  The combination of the kit 18-55 lens and the 55-200 VR lens worked well for almost everything I wanted to do, but I lost shots because I had the wrong lens on at the time – either the moment passed, or it just didn’t seem worth stopping and changing lenses for.  I went for a Nikon D90 with the 18-200 VR lens – same range, but no more changing lenses.

As part of my new kit, I also bought a Nikon SB-600 flash.  Coupled with the D90 camera, it’s everything you need for fully automatic off-camera lighting.  There are more powerful flashes, but it’s something I’ve never done before, so I’ve no idea if it will really prove useful to me very often, or will just be used occasionally.

It took a bit of fiddling to get it up and running – a few things may not be immediately obvious:

  • The on-camera flash needs to be up to control the external flash.

  • The SB-600 isn’t set to be a wireless slave by default.  You need to turn that option on.  ‘Zoom’ and ‘-‘ together get you into the menu.  ‘+’ and ‘-‘ select what you’re changing – the wireless remote mode is a squiggly arrow.  Use ‘Mode’ to change it to ‘On’, then briefly press the power button to set it.  The display should show the squiggly arrow.

  • The camera needs to be set to ‘commander mode’ using custom setting ‘e2’.  Set the built-in flash to ‘–‘, so it doesn’t fire, set both groups to ‘TTL’, and set your channel.  It doesn’t matter what channel you use, but the flash and camera must be the same.  The SB-600 will default to ‘3’, and the camera will default to ‘1’.

If you’ve done all that lot, and I haven’t missed anything out, you should be able to pop the flash pretty much anywhere, and the camera will control it.  By default, the flash will beep a couple of times when it fires, so you know it worked.

In theory, the flash needs a line-of-sight view of the camera, within 30 degrees of the front, and can only be a short distance away.  In practice, indoors, it seems to work in almost any position, and even outdoors, it’s nothing like as touchy as Nikon suggest.

My first attempt was in an underpass in Exmouth – a mural painted by the local school kids.  It was light enough to get a shot, but would have been quite flat with no definite light source.  I put the SB-600 on the ground, to the left of the shot, sitting on its little ‘foot’.  It’s pointing up at an angle towards the area I was photographing:

Mural in Exmouth Underpass

Later, when we were in the pub for lunch, I decided to recreate a shot from David Hobby of Strobist.  My dad and I are the models.  The SB-600 is sitting between us and the menu, pointing at the menu:

Bright Menu

Sam operated the camera, and it was her first time trying it – it focused on the bar instead of us, but the idea worked out ok.

I doubt that flash is something I’ll ever do a lot of, but Nikon CLS makes it easy to achieve some interesting effects, without spending too much time learning and experimenting.  If you want to learn and experiment, or just get lots of ideas, head over to Strobist.

2 thoughts on “First Steps with Nikon CLS

  1. Thanks, Peter. I’ll be playing more soon, I’m sure. I’ve done one bit of ‘product photography’ at work with the new kit, and it certainly made that easier. Is it wrong that I immediately started thinking how much better the shots would be with another little strobe on the other side – another SB-600, or maybe an SB-800?

    These toys are addictive.

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