REVIEW : Nikon SB-5000 Speedlight

Possibly one of the most popular speedlights ever is gone, Nikon's venerable SB-910.  Strobists all over the world came to depend on this very popular hotshoe flash.  Why is it gone?  Nikon has stepped up their game to add radio control to their lineup, extending the Creative Lighting System to become the Advanced Wireless System (AWS).  The first in the family is the SB-5000.

Nikon strobists will notice some changes in the user interface on the SB-5000.  This is the first major UI change in a long time and purists have already called it complicated.  It is a change, and the benefits outweigh the time required to learn the new interface.  The menu systems have become more rich, in order to support radio, without crippling the proven CLS system.  There are additional buttons that I will cover, and new linking choice which in the end is simpler than the old Off-On-Master-Remote options on the power switch.  The SB-5000 has Off, On and Remote, so you don't have to be changing the switch position when you want to alternate between the unit being a flash or a commander flash.

I got the SB-5000 and WR-R10 wireless transmitter, WR-A10 mount and WR-T10 remote to test as part of a deep look at the Nikon D5.  Many folks just put the flash on the camera hotshoe and blast from there. 

Using the SB-5000 is as simple as putting it on the camera and turning it on.  The default mode out of the box is TTL.  I find Nikon's option for Balanced Light to be an excellent general choice as it does a nice job of working to balance the flash with the ambient light as possible.  Many people dislike flash because it looks like flash.  The BL setting when the flash is on camera works to address this.  I almost never shoot with the flash in the hot shoe, but when the shooting situation necessitates it, I find that the Balanced Light option is very helpful.

One of the things that you can do on many Nikon bodies, that is not necessarily this simple in other lines is to allow for High Speed Sync via a single setting in the Flash Setup menu.  I confess I prefer this to having to set things on the flash, because if I am working under pressure navigating one menu is faster than navigating multiple menus.  On the D5, and on most other Nikon bodies that support High Speed Sync, you simply choose your flash sync speed to be the one that ends in FP.  For the D5 that is 1/250 FP where FP stands for focal plane.  As a compulsive strobist, I like having a flash at the ready all the time even when the sun is strong.  By setting these two options, if I am shooting with the flash on top of the camera, when I turn it on, it comes up in TTL mode, with both Balanced Light and High Speed Sync ready to roll.  This is fast and very convenient.

The SB-5000 comes with a small flash stand that is tapped for 1/4-20 so you can mount it to anything with the widely used 1/4-20 stud.  I have met too many folks who have bought a Nikon flash and mistakenly thought that this was a display tool.  It's really useful, so put it in the supplied soft case so it does not get lost.  Like its predecessor, the SB-5000 comes with a dome diffuser, a full cut hard CTO cover and a fluorescent correction hard cover.  I happen to like the hard covers for speed because I use them a lot.  If I want some other gels to use, I use the Rogue or HONL systems, but I use the full CTO frequently and this filter cover is convenient.

I do want to touch quickly on the dome diffuser.  It is just that.  It diffuses the light, but it doesn't soften light because it does not really change the size of the source.  A dome diffuser typically cuts a full stop of power when in place.  That said, I am prepared to pay that price, particularly when using the unit in bounce mode or when firing into a general use umbrella either in bounce mode or in shoot through mode, because the dome diffuser spreads the light for more coverage of the overall light shaping tool.

The SB-5000 runs on 4 AA batteries.  I strongly recommend high output rechargeables.  Regular alkalines get used up quickly, and recycle times are never truly optimal.  I always look for rechargeables rated at a minimum of 2500mAh.  Anything lower may be able to take more charges, but the recycle times are longer and that is a pain.  A longer battery life in exchange for missed shots is very poor value.

If you will be working your SB-5000 hard, I recommend an external battery pack.  Nikon makes the SD-9 which allows you to support the flash with more batteries for faster recycle times.  Bear in mind that the SB-5000 still includes Nikon's thermal protection circuits which will shut the unit down if it starts to overheat due to overzealous users. 

While some have complained about the redesigned menu systems, they are actually quite intuitive and referring to the documentation while valuable is not really necessary for folks who are comfortable around Nikon flash units.  The manual becomes very valuable when you want to start using the wireless or optical systems, or the group functions or repeating flash simply because of order of operations.

Nikon makes a free app available on the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store that downloads and stores the user manuals for your Nikon products on your smartphone.  This is terrific and I highly recommend using it because I always keep a digital copy of the manuals for my gear on my smartphone for when, not if, I will need it.

The TTL performance on camera is great, but Nikon provides additional modes of operation.  Full manual control is of course available, and the SB-5000 gives you a wider range of output from full power called 1/1 down to 1/256.  Earlier Nikon flashes only went down to 1/128.  While this may seem somewhat a moot point, I like using multiple flashes to place kisses of light in parts of the image, and the added range will be, I believe, useful.

In addition to TTL and Manual, there is the long established Aperture mode.  In this mode, a reflected light sensor on the flash itself turns the flash off when it determines sufficient flash has been expended for the ISO and Aperture set on the flash.  Folks with long histories of working before TTL flash will remember this mode, and while I do not use it very often, it's certainly nice to have.

There is also a GN or Guide Number mode.  Those who are users of GN mode will love this, but candidly, the remaining buyers will probably never go there.  Nice to have it, but not a must have feature.

Lastly, but not least, at least for creative types is RPT mode aka stroboscopic or multi-flash.  This versatile mode allows the user to set the flash to fire a specific number of pops per second, for a total duration.  So for example you could set the repeat rate to 5 hertz or 5 pops per second and a total count of 10 pops.  You can of course also control the power of each pop, but typically you will have the manual power setting down fairly low to accommodate such rapid pops.

The SB-5000 has the same style locking foot as other Nikon flash units.  The foot is made of metal and is well affixed to the flash body.  I have seen multiple offshore built flashes snap off at the foot due to lousy anchoring or plastic feet.  This unit is solid.  That doesn't mean that you should use the flash as a handle with which to carry your camera though.

As expected, the tube in the head has a nice zoom range.  Natively it offers a coverage range of 24mm to 200mm.  There is the also expected flip out spreader panel that ostensibly widens the coverage to 14mm.  There is also the slip out little catchlight card that can throw a catchlight into the subject's eyes when the head is in a bounce position.  Mounting the dome diffuser automatically sets the zoom coverage to 14mm.  In my tests, I did not find the coverage complete at 24mm until I used the dome diffuser.  My hard test was a plain sheet of white paper, and the hotspotting was noticeable.  This is not really something that you will encounter in real life, but if you were shooting a large group at 24mm, you might be concerned about early falloff.

The head can rotate fully through 180 degrees, wonderful if you need to fire it backwards to use a white wall as a reflector or if you are using a bounce card to increase the relative source size.  This is also handy if you are using the SB-5000 in remote optical mode, because it allows you to position the body so the optical sensor can see the Master, while still allowing for alignment of the head to where you want the light to go.

Moving onto remote use, everything you know about optical triggering using the Creative Lighting System still works, and works awesomely.  What makes the SB-5000 special is the inclusion of a radio receiver.  Note this, I said receiver because the flash on its own has no transmitter function.  This is different from other radio hotshoe flash such as Canon's 600 EX-RT which is both transmitter and receiver.  I confess to being disappointed to discover that to transmit radio signals, the owner must purchase additional equipment, and in the case of my test D5, I needed the wireless radio kit which includes the WR-A10 connector and bay, the WR-R10 transmitter, as well as the WR-T10 remote release.  I wish Nikon had made the SB-5000 transmitter capable. 

Connecting the radio is quite easy.  On the WR-R10 there is a single button on the face and a sliding switch on the top.  The switch selects which radio channel you want of choices, 5, 10 or 15.  On the SB-5000, you put the power switch to Remote and then you select the same channel and from the Menu configuration area choose your Link Type.  The default is Pairing and it's very easy.  You go into the camera Flash Control menu after connecting the WR-R10 and turn on AWL.  This powers up the transmitter.  On the flash itself in the Configuration menu, choosing Pairing and then press Execute while pressing the button on the front of the WR-R10.  LEDs blink, and you will get a message that pairing was successful or failed.  If it failed, you missed a setting.  Once paired, the flash and the WR-R10 will remember each other unless reset so in the future, you turn the flash to Remote and it will connect to the WR-R10 so long as it is range.  Radio can be used to control all the different flash modes and you can make the settings on the flash or in the Flash Control section of the camera menu system.

I was able to set the WR-R10 up quickly and use two SB-5000s in two different groups, mixing their modes from the camera position.  If you are an existing or past Nikon CLS user, it works the same way but because it's radio instead of optical, you are not limited by line of sight or shorter ranges. 

You can mix the SB-5000 with other flashes that support CLS with optical control and even use the SB-5000 as Master in mixed mode using both radio and optical triggering.  Note that only the SB-5000 can respond to the WR-R10 radio triggering.  There is no optical option on the WR-R10, the same in this aspect as Canon's RT-E3 transmitter.

As a strobist, I love having the radio option, because despite the functionality of the CLS system, I am not Joe McNally and have not been so successful using it in distant and difficult situations.  It also minimizes the need for external TTL capable radio systems that may or may not work properly in all flash scenarios. 

The SB-5000 lists at $769.95 MSRP $CAD, quite a jump from the SB-910.  Some have questioned the price jump considering the primary difference is a radio receiver.  A fair question, but do consider that a Pocket Wizard Flex TT5 TTL capable radio receiver, without groups, sells for about $290, the price jump makes a bit more sense.  The Wireless Remote Adapter Set lists for $359.95 MSRP $CAD and this is similar in cost to a Pocket Wizard TT1 transmitter and separate AC-3 Zone Controller.  The Nikon wireless system supports up to six groups versus three from most competitors.

I'm giving the SB-5000 a three star rating.  The product does what it is designed to do, but loses points for not having an integral radio transmitter when used on camera as a Master.  That's a let down.  The other point lost is that while I love the radio, the new price point is going to place the system outside the budget of many users who will eschew flash completely as a result.  Punching the ISO up is not equivalent to bringing your own light to the party.