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Nikon Creative Lighting System (CLS) review

Introduction

CLS came into being with the introduction of the Speedlight SB–800 in July 2003 and the SB–600 that followed. The new system can only be utilised when the speedlights are mounted on CLS–compatible camera bodies, which at the time of writing include Nikon D50, Nikon D70/D70s, Nikon D2H/D2Hs, Nikon D2X, Nikon D200 and Nikon F6 (the last is the only film camera compatible with the CLS). The new speedlights will also work with older cameras in the modes that those cameras support.

If compared with previous Nikon flash systems, CLS boasts the following features: i–TTL flash control to further improve flash exposures, FV (flash value) lock to obtain correct flash exposures for off–centre subjects, advanced wireless lighting to implement sophisticated lighting with multiple flash units wirelessly, auto FP high speed synchronization to unreservedly go beyond your camera's top sync shutter speed when using flash, wide–area AF–assist illuminator to ensure fast and precise autofocus even in almost entire darkness, as well as flash colour information communication to further advance Auto White Balance performance of digital SLRs. It has to be noted, however, that if a camera is compatible with the CLS it does not necessarily mean that it supports every feature of the system. For example, Nikon D70/D70s does not support auto FP high speed synchronization. Likewise, there are some features of the system that the SB-600 does not support. Let us have a look at each of the features in detail.

i–TTL

i–TTL is a new flash exposure control system. It relies heavily on monitor pre–flashes that are fired immediately before the main flash goes off. Flash control sensor or 1005 pixel RGB metering CCD of compatible cameras analyze "feedback" from the pre–flashes and this then is further combined with the information from Matrix metering to ensure that main flash output balances perfectly (or as desired) with ambient light thus creating perfect flash lighting or fill–flash. Monitor pre–flashes are also used to control remote flash units when utilising advanced wireless lighting through a technique called pulse modulation. I am happy to report that this system does indeed work as promised by Nikon and one gets very subtle fill flash even in most difficult lighting situations.

 
Nikon CLS - iTTL
 

Nikon Creative Lighting System produces very subtle fill–flash
Without it the image above would have been ruined by harsh shadows (taken with a Nikon D70s)

The system appears to be tuned so that when you use fill–flash in bright daylight shadows are pertained in such a way that, on the one hand, they are less harsh than otherwise and, on the other hand, the use of flash is not too obvious. In less contrasty situations the use of fill–flash very often can only be revealed by a catchlight in the eyes. Another factor, of course, is that fill–flash would never blow out highlights.

 
Nikon CLS - iTTL
 

In less contrasty situations use of fill–flash is almost undetectable (taken with a Nikon F6)

Flash Value (FV) Lock

The purpose of this new feature is to further make i–TTL flash control more flexible—it guarantees that your main subject receives a correct amount of flash light even if it is small and positioned in the corner of the frame. The function works as follows: position the main subject in the centre of the frame, focus on it and press the FV lock button (at this point the camera determines correct flash output for the subject and locks it in); after that you recompose, zoom the lens in or out if necessary and press shutter release to take a photograph. FV unlocks when you press FV lock button once again or turn the camera off.

Obviously, FV lock operation is akin to the procedure when one uses his camera's spot meter (central censor) to determine exposure using a tiny area of the scene, locks exposure in using the AE–L button, recomposes and presses shutter release button.

Nikon's better camera bodies have a function button (on the right side of lens mount below the depth–of–field preview button) that can be programmed to serve as a dedicated FV lock button; on Nikon's lesser bodies (e.g., Nikon D70/D70s) this function is available through re–programming the AE–L/AF–L button at the back panel of the camera.

Advanced Wireless Lighting

This is the part of the CLS that actually makes it "creative" as it allows using multiple flash units to unveil your imagination and create all conceivable combinations of lighting (within reason, of course) wirelessly and without hassle. This feature is absolutely brilliant and actually works flawlessly in real life. Where you had to deal with lots of wires and/or calculations before, you can now simply position flash units as you wish and let the system automatically determine appropriate exposure and flash output for all units; if necessary, you can then adjust flash output of all or some of the units—all wirelessly and from the commander speedlight. I believe that this feature shall redefine how photographers perceive and use speedlights—Nikon CLS offers sophisticated flash lighting for the masses.

Advanced wireless lighting can be employed with as little as a Nikon D70/D70s with only one SB–600 unit or as much as a Nikon D2X with multiple SB–800 and/or SB–600 units in up to four groups (Master, A, B and C; note, though, that only SB–800 can serve as master/commander speedlight). If you opt for the latter, the number of flash units in each group is only limited by what is practical. Each group of speedlights can be fully and wirelessly controlled from the Master flash unit—a group can be enabled/disabled and set to a preferred flash mode (i–TTL, Auto Aperture or manual); its flash output can be directly adjusted from the commander strobe, too. Furthermore, the master flash can be set to not fire during the actual exposure and serve as a controller only.

The great news for the D70/D70s owners is that the cameras' inbuilt flash can be used as the commander speedlight to trigger remote flash unit(s)—albeit in a somewhat partial manner. First, the inbuilt flash is used as a commander speedlight only and its light output is insufficient to contribute to the exposure. Second, all remote flash units must be in one group and exposure compensation applies equally to all of them. Although this is quite limiting, being able to use even only one (group of) remote flash unit(s) still allows for a lot of flexibility and creating interesting lighting patterns.

To use your D70/D70s' inbuilt flash as a commander and SB–800/SB–600 unit(s) as remote strobe(s) you simply need to do the following:

  • On your camera, go into MENU and then further into CUSTOM SETTINGS, find custom setting no. 19 (flash mode), select "commander mode", then further choose "TTL" and press OK. This might sound a bit complicated but it is really easy once you have done it. When you are done using inbuilt flash in commander mode do not forget to change back to TTL mode (go back to custom setting no. 19 and simply choose "TTL" instead of "Commander") as otherwise the flash will be firing only monitor pre–flashes.

  • On remote SB-800 unit(s) first go into custom settings (by pressing and holding "SEL" button), choose Wireless Flash Mode, then select "Remote" and press and hold SEL again to exit custom settings mode. After that you need to choose "Group A" and "CH 3" (channel 3) (as instructed by the camera's manual) and you are ready to shoot. Again, do not forget to turn the remote mode off once you are done using the flash remotely.

  • On remote SB–600 unit(s) first go into custom settings (by pressing "ZOOM" and "-" at the same time), choose Wireless Flash Mode, press MODE so that "On" is chosen and hold down "ZOOM" and "-" to exit custom settings mode. Again, you then need to choose "Group A" and "CH 3" (channel 3) and you are ready to shoot. Once more, do not forget to turn the remote mode off once you are done using the flash remotely.

Remote flash units can be located anywhere within reasonable distance (up to ten meters) from the Master flash and although the manual advises to position sensor windows on remote speedlights where they will pick up pre–flashes from the master strobe, in practice it appears sufficient if reflections of pre–flashes from other objects reach remote speedlight units, i.e. in many circumstances the master speedlight does not need to directly "see" the rest of the flash units and they can be positioned behind walls or other obtrusive objects.

Communication between the commander and remote flash units can be done through one of the four channels. The purpose of using different channels is to avoid the risk of triggering other photographers' remote flashes in situations where one is not using the wireless system alone. In other words, up to four photographers can use and control the system independently during the same session at the same location.

Auto FP (Focal Plane) High Speed Synchronization

When enabled this feature allows using speedlights at shutter speeds exceeding the top sync speed of a compatible camera—in fact, it would work up to the camera's top shutter speed. This might be used to freeze action, employ larger apertures to obtain blurred background or simply when shooting outdoors in very bright ambient light. Technically, FP mode outputs a series of smaller continuous flashes during the exposure which are timed to precisely coincide with the shutter's opening and closing.

This function was also available in Nikon's older flash systems but the major difference is that it is now fully i–TTL automated and works even if a speedlight is being used wirelessly, whereas in the past it was nearly manual and required a lot of fiddling. All this means that if one owns a compatible camera then its top sync speed is no longer a limitation. The only price one has to pay is extra power consumption (i.e. shorter battery life) and reduced flash range. Note that this feature is supported by Nikon's better camera bodies only, though.

Wide–Area AF–assist Illuminator

The SB–800 speedlight projects a pattern of red light that covers all eleven autofocus areas of the Multi–CAM2000 AF system. This allows obtaining precise and fast autofocus in lighting situations below –1EV (at ISO100) using any—not only the central—of the eleven autofocus areas. On Nikon's camera bodies with lesser AF systems wide–area AF–assist illuminator works, too. Note, though, that, for instance, on the D70/D70s the SB–800 emits red light regardless of which of the five AF areas is being used only with lenses of focal lengths longer then 24mm; with lenses of shorter focal lengths red light is projected only when the central AF area is chosen.

Flash Colour Information Communication

The colour of light being emitted by a strobe changes slightly as flash duration increases (longer flash duration tends to produce redder results). The CLS communicates the degree of colour change to the camera's Auto White Balance (Auto WB) system so that the latter can make relevant adjustments and produce accurate WB irrespective of flash duration. Although I doubt that many photographers are going to notice a significant enhancement of their cameras' AWB performance it is nonetheless an improvement.

A sophisticated creature into itself

Nikon Creative Lighting System is a sophisticated creature into itself. It exists neither in any particular camera body nor in any of the speedlights. One gets a glimpse of the system when using, say, a D70s and can see more of it when mounting a compatible flashlight onto the body. However, the CLS' nature can only be fully embodied and appreciated when the company's top–of–the–line digital (yes, digital) SLR and its top–of–the–line speedlight come together as one whole being.

Nikon is a pragmatic business that does not write manuals for metaphysical substances—even those created by the company itself; instead, and some would say quite logically, they write manuals for separate pieces of equipment that they produce. But what do you then do about a system that cannot be fully incorporated into or represented by a single piece of gear? Apparently, Nikon does not have an answer to this question which, in my opinion, has resulted in inadequate presentation of the CLS and its improper marketing.

One does not get full information on the CLS in any one place. Camera manuals only briefly mention the system's features that they support while speedlight manuals advise to "see your equivalent camera's instruction manual for details on the Creative Lighting System"; moreover, manuals keep referring to each other back and forth. Finding answers to simple question about a particular camera/speedlight combination or what happens when a certain setting is changed is not an easy task. How many photographers are actually dedicated and patient enough to spend their time figuring all this out?

Nikon did produce a brochure that introduced the creative features of the SB–800, which was a good attempt at clarity. However, they could have gone one step further and produced a marketing–aimed CLS manual that would introduce all features of the system and then further explain in plain terms if/how every feature can be implemented with each particular camera/speedlight combination. What is more likely to increase sales and make photographers' life easier—abstract knowledge about cool features of the system or a practical advice in layman's terms as to what one can do with, say, a D70s and a couple of SB–600s?

Nowadays an SLR camera and a flashlight mounted onto it represent a highly integrated and complicated system wherein changing settings in one part influences how the other half operates, as well as how they function together. This interdependence is intricate to such a degree that it has to be explained separately in clear and simple terms as, otherwise, the CLS' metaphysical self is not going to live up to its potential and drive sales of the separate pieces of equipment that so far have been refusing to recognize it as a legitimate being.

Conclusions

Overall, Nikon Creative Lighting System is most definitely a huge step forward—in my opinion to the extent that it makes upgrading your speedlight(s) and/or camera(s) to the ones that support all its features worthwhile. The fact that the F6 is fully compatible with the CLS further and significantly widens the gap between the last 35mm film Emperor and the F5/F100. I reckon that wedding photographers would especially appreciate the system's capability to relatively easily produce excellent lighting results.

I only wish Nikon could explain in detail and layman's terms how the system operates. Be prepared to thoroughly read both your flash's and camera's manual as well as conduct online research to juxtapose information and be able to utilise the system's more advanced features.