I preface every review with the same disclosure. I am not a professional. I do not shoot test charts. I do not try every lens with every camera. All opinions are my own, and are only based upon my own experiences with the gear. I haven’t had a ton of gear, or all of the expensive gear. I won’t list every specification or test for every specification. My review is not meant for professionals – if you are a professional, you shouldn’t need a review from an amateur. The information below is simply my own observations while doing normal photography, and is for other car enthusiasts and amateurs like myself.
Nikon CLS Commander
The SU-800 is Nikon’s flash commander, designed to mount on the flash hotshoe and send IR signals to remotely mounted flashes. While some of Nikon’s cameras have the Creative Lighting System (CLS) built into the camera and can control the flashes, not all of the consumer line has that feature. An example is the D600 and D5100 – the D600 has a CLS commander built-in, but the D5100 does not.
If you own a camera with the CLS commander function built in, you are probably thinking that you wouldn’t gain anything by getting the SU-800, but there are a couple of differences that are quite noticeable.
The first difference between the built-in CLS commander and the SU-800 is range (working distance). The SU-800 greatly extends the range of the CLS commander communication between the camera and the flashes. If you are shooting outside or around a lot of objects, it will reduce the amount of time that you fiddle with angling the flashes to see the infrared commands from the camera. Basically, it appears to be more powerful than the CLS commander built into the popup flash.
The second difference is no extra light from a popup flash. When you use the CLS commander built into the camera, you have to popup the built-in camera flash, so that it can control the external flashes. While the output of light from the popup flash is much lower than the output from the external flashes, it is still adding light from the cameras location for every shot. Most of the time this will not be an issue, but for people who need to control the light completely, this is an issue. Nikon makes a part that blocks the visible light, and allows the infrared to pass through, but that is an additional part to purchase.
The third difference is probably the biggest difference – the SU-800 lets you command 3 separate groups, while the Nikon camera built-in CLS commander only allows 2 separate groups. Obviously, being able to toggle on a separate group is a good thing, and allows you to preset your lighting in multiple locations and intensities ahead of time.
The downside to the SU-800 is cost, and it is another piece of equipment to carry. It does come with a carrying pouch that slips onto your belt though, just like the flash cases. Additionally, the SU-800 is pretty rugged, and matches the Nikon flashes in design.
The battery that the SU-800 uses is not AA, which is another issue. While it doesn’t seem to use much power, and quickly goes into standby mode to save power, Nikon should have used AA batteries, so that you only would have to have one type of battery with you, instead of a different type.
The biggest problem though with the SU-800 is that it is an infrared commander, rather than a radio commander. If it was radio-based communication, it would be close to perfect. Infrared just doesn’t have the working range that it needs, and is fickle about working when in bright sunlight, or when placing flashes behind objects. It needs line-of-sight, and that can be too restricting. Radio gets around all of the problems that infrared has.
Luckily, there is an inexpensive solution if you have already have a SU-800.
Compatible with the Youngnuo YN-622N
One thing that you will not find elsewhere is the results of trying the SU-800 with the new YN-622N flash triggers. Bottom line – this is the cheapest way to turn your SU-800 into a radio commander.
First, let me explain a simple concept – if you use the SU-800 on the YN-622N, it is not working as a CLS commander, and it is not communicating to the flashes as an infrared commander. When you are using the SU-800 to commander the flashes, you have to put them in “Remote” mode. When you use the YN-622N triggers, you leave them in TTL mode.
Yongnuo designed their triggers to use a Nikon commander flash mounted on the YN-622N hotshoe, so that you could put a YN-622N trigger on your camera, and then mount a Nikon commander flash on top of the trigger, and use the flash to send the commands to remote flashes mounted on other YN-622Ns. I simply thought about it, and knew that the SU-800 used the same technology, so I mounted my SU-800 on top instead. The SU-800 is much lighter than a flash, so it works quite well.
Range is much better with the YN-622Ns, as they are handling the communication. All of the SU-800 functions work, and bright sunlight is no longer an issue, nor are objects/walls.
I highly suggest getting the triggers to add onto your SU-800, if you already have the SU-800.
If you don’t have an SU-800, but you are considering one, I would suggest looking at other options first. If you are working indoors, or in an area where you can control the light and objects, then it is a good option, but be aware that it is older technology.
If you are working in a variety of locations, often outdoors, or where you need to place flashes in areas that are not within line-of-sight, then you need to look at radio triggers. Currently, the Yongnuo YN-622Ns or the Phottix Odin system are much better values. I went with the Yongnuo system, and recently sold my SU-800, as I got the YN-622N-TX transmitter, which is much smaller and uses AA batteries.
As for a backup flash commander system, my D600 still has a built-in CLS commander, so if my YN-622Ns failed, I still have Nikon’s infrared system, but I am limited to 2 groups instead of three.