As already mentioned I have made over 10,000 exposures in two years with this unit. It is a part of Nikon’s Creative Lighting System (which employs iTTL control ) and comes in a large black case of goodies. If you buy the complete Nikon SB – R1C1 Commander kit it will set you back by around £600: the component parts: 2 x SB-R200 flash guns (£370) plus the SU 800 wireless speedlight commander control unit (£299.00) taken alone come to £669.00. In addition there is a substantial black fitted case with a host of goodies – the unit that holds the flash guns, adapters for various lens filter diameters (52/62/67/72/77 mm), stands for the SB-200 units, clamp, filters, diffusers for the flash guns and a diffuser sheet plus two close-up adaptors…not bad for the money. The simpler R1 Remote kit has the two flash heads, adapter rings etc but no commander unit since it utilises the internal electronics of those Nikon FX and DX digital cameras that support the Creative Lighting System (CLS).
With the R1C1 Commander kit you get a flash system that copes with virtually anything you can throw at it (not literally – although it is well-made) in a close-up and macro sense. It is not a casual purchase, no commercial macroflash system is, but it is light, robust, compact, free of cables and, above all, has proved reliable under heavy use.
Exposure failures have usually been attributable to me :
a. inadvertently switching the channel on the radio control so it is different from the guns and they do not work.
b. fumbling on the front of the D300 and managing to switch on ‘bracketing’ so that subsequent exposures are over or under…that has now been adjusted.
With complicated DLSRs it is good to know how to reset the system and save fiddling.
The bulk of my macro work is in the field – for example in a meadow where, in May, there can be dozens of orchids, spiders, butterflies and a host of flowers that I want to capture in a day’s (or less) work . With a ‘macroflash unit’ (with which you have become familiar) you are almost at a ‘point and shoot capability’ where you can relax, wander and capture images consistently. When you want to change aperture to control depth of field the system compensates and you can do this without lifting your head from the viewfinder.
I don’t always use a tripod – in fact with insects very seldom. I tend to work with a shutter speed of 1/250th sec and rest the unit on the top of my rucksack or use the Novoflex Minipod or a beanbag, log or stone….
I have also (as is my usual practice) been able to adapt this kit to become effective with ultra-wide lenses – there is an account here. You can use the macroflash kit as it comes or put on the diffusers for going close and more or less eliminate hot spots.
The SU 800 wireless control unit is simple to use with a clear reverse display. From it you can control multiple flash guns in three groups using one of 4 radio channels (just in case you have companions nearby who also have the same unit – you can change channels). It has a range of 20m with larger guns such as the SB-900, SB-800 and SB-600 and around 4m with the SB-R200 units.
A small switch in the battery compartment lets you choose a mode where each of the groups is displayed and you can adjust the lighting of each separately. The display takes two forms: Close-up Mode where you can adjust the lighting ratio of the guns and then increase / decrease the total brightness by simply pressing a switch. TTL control is available for groups A and B and manual for C. In Commander Mode all three groups are shown and lighting is adjusted in EV rather than ratios.
The commander unit allows much more than macro lighting and as well as controlling multiple units in three groups for a full indoor or outdoor studio set up there is a repeat flash mode. This allows stroboscopic photography – several images on the same frame as long as you use a gun that recycles fast enough (the more powerful SB 900,800,600 but not the SB-R200 heads).
The flash units in this system will work with High Speed Sync mode built into many Nikon DSLRs where in TTL mode you can use shutter speeds faster than the maximum sync speed of 1/250th sec. As the shutter curtains travel the flashes can be made to fire a series of rapid pulses thus creating the exposure in ‘sections’: the flash intensity is reduced and so the coverage is less.
The trouble is, as with all modern digital equipment there is so much that can be adjusted it is easy to make small errors at first. You learn by mistakes and problems are left behind.
For the SB-R200 flash unit:
@ ISO 100 = 10m/33ft
@ ISO 200 = 14m/46ft
recycling time to full 6 sec
max flash duration 600μsec (0.6 millisec or 1/1600th sec)
Even with a 180mm f/3.5 macro lens these units are positioned far enough off axis to give some relief…if not you just unclip one of the guns and hold it in the hand.
I have found that the small stands that come with the kit let me set up the guns easily close to a subject for high magnification work at home and not worry about where the cables go…
Each of the SB-R200 flash heads and the SU-800 commander unit is powered by a 3 volt CR123A Lithium battery – weight is kept down compared with two AA type cells but more expensive. There are re-chargeable cells available and I have kitted out with six of these and two chargers that can be plugged into a car cigarette lighter socket.
Essential or not?
As I write this I have been trying to think whether this item is essential – the answer is “no” in the sense that I could do most of my photography with a simpler system, though perhaps not with repeat accuracy or the level of control but I would get there. It is just so convenient in simple things: for example, there are no coiled or trailing cables to get in your way or even to move and thus scare off subjects. When I had a system based on a Kennet Macroflash bracket it held a couple of Nikon guns and looked like a bedecked Christmas tree. It also had a ‘magnetic attraction’ for low branches and brambles…on one occasion wearing shorts and tee shirt I was in pursuit of a Camberwell beauty butterfly through a woodland ride and, thanks to adrenalin, oblivious to the pain of nettles and things that tore at flesh. I did not notice ‘that’ branch and it whipped off the flash.
If macro work is an essential part of what you do then I would unhesitatingly recommend this item or its equivalent from other manufacturers: it has served me very well in two years of hard use.
For occasional use you can do a great deal with a normal gun used off camera with a diffuser
If you have a product code then you can download a coloured Sample Guide for the SB-R200 from the Nikon site in your country: there is also a very detailed Guide/instruction book in pdf form
© Paul Harcourt Davies 2010