Everything the SB-28DX was, plus a few nifty new twists.
This review was originally written in 2003 and has been re-edited in 2013 for the new site. Note that if you have a post D2 DSLR that uses i-TTL, the SB-50DX is not the flash you want. Thus, this flash is mostly useful for D1 series and D100 users.
What is It?
The Speedlight SB-80DX was announced at PMA in February 2002 along with the Nikon D100. The press release for the new Speedlight wasn't particularly revealing, and plenty of prospective flash purchasers asked the obvious question: SB-28DX or SB-80DX?
After some preliminary use, I don't think there's any doubt: get the SB-80DX. Things that are new or changed over the SB-28DX:
- Slightly Higher Guide Numbers. The maximum GN is 184 (feet; 56m) at ISO 100 and with the head zoomed to 105mm. While not obviously better than the SB-28DX (164 max at 85mm), any boost in output is welcome. What's the exact difference? The new flash is as powerful at 70mm as the SB-28DX is at 85mm.
- Wider Zoom Ability. Besides the 105mm top end, the SB-80DX can zoom to 24mm (14mm and 17mm with the fold-down adapter). You also get a Stofen-like "diffusion dome" that automatically sets 14mm and softens light.
- Wireless Modes. The return of wireless control to the top-of-the-line Speedlight! In automatic modes, the claimed maximum distance is 23 feet (7m), in manual modes this increases to 131 feet (40m).
- Digital ready. Besides the obvious D-TTL modes, the SB-80DX also features the Auto Aperture (AA) automatic flash mode first seen on the SB-28DX. Better still, the FP High Speed sync mode is fully functional without having to do any calculations (e.g., the display shows the shooting distance).
- Additional features. A functional modeling light, a redesigned and simplified button structure, large letters on distance scale that are readable from several feet (!), and the excellent flash foot from the SB-50DX. Not noticed by many is the 1/128 power mode in manual flash or the ability to set up to +3 EV flash exposure compensation. The autofocus assist lamp also works out to 33 feet (10m).
This is all in addition to the SB-28DX-like features. For example, swivel and tilt are unchanged, as are power sources. In terms of size, it's almost identical to the SB-28DX.
Nikon has also endorsed NiMH battery use with this flash (4 second recycling).
How's it Handle?
Just like the SB-50DX, the SB-80DX has the best hot shoe foot of any flash Nikon has made. The foot slides into the camera-side shoe easily, then you flip a little lever and the flash is locked to the shoe. To get the flash off the camera, flip the lever the other way and pull the flash out. No more hassling with the knurled lock-down knob of older Speedlights, which had the frustrating practice of jamming in the locked position. If you can't get the SB-80DX on and off your camera instantaneously, you're missing some fingers.
The tilt and swivel mechanism hasn't changed from that of the SB-28DX, meaning that you have to push in a button at the side of the head to move the head. A series of click stops help keep the flash oriented, although the only "locked" position is the default straight on one. Like the SB-28DX, this new flash doesn't allow it's head to be rotated to all angles, though the limitations aren't problematic.
A convenient modeling light sits at the back of the head, just above the LCD. The modeling light is a very fast, pulsed type that lasts just under three seconds. A close distances it indeed works very much like a traditional modeling light, letting you see how and where shadows will fall.
The button controls have changed once again (the SB-24, SB-25, SB-26, SB-28DX, and SB-80DX all have similar features, but Nikon has continually tweaked the buttons). Separate buttons for Mode and On/Off flank a direction pad at the center. Press the center of the direction pad for Sel (select), the up and down directions replace the plus and minus (up and down) buttons, and the left and right directions control zoom. The buttons are clearly labeled (and backlit when the lighting is on!). If you're wearing gloves of any thickness, you might have trouble pressing the right buttons, but you also won't accidentally press them, either.
The flash test fire button is easier to press than previous versions, though you'll probably still need a decent fingernail to depress it.
In short, if you're familiar with any of the previous top-of-the-line Speedlights, the SB-80DX is going to be mostly familiar--you won't be running to the manual to figure out where controls are and what they mean.
The LCD doesn't use a distance scale with a moving bar any more. Instead, we get actual distance numbers (as in 2.1-23 feet). But those numbers are BIG and easy to see. Some will like the old method better, those of us with presbyopia in our aging eyes will like the new method better.
Setting some of the less often used controls (autofocus illumination light, meter/feet switch, etc.) overburdens the three buttons on the back of the flash. There's a cheat sheet on the pullout white bounce card, though it's so cryptic you might want to study the manual before relying upon this shortcut. For the first time, we have a flash complicated enough that it actually has a reset function (press Mode and On/Off simultaneously).
How's it Perform?
Yep, there's a smidgen more power than my SB-28. Recycling and other performance characteristics all seem unchanged. Nikon's published GN's are a bit overstated, as usual, but in general are within a third stop in my initial testing. I've seen other comments that express disappointment in the overall reach of the SB-80DX, but I suspect this is not so much an issue of the output of the flash as how it is used. If you shoot outdoors and expect the SB-80DX to light something further away than the SB-28DX can, you'll probably be disappointed. Remember, not only is light falloff working against you, but there are no walls or ceilings to reinforce what light you can throw. The 105mm setting for the flash head helps a bit, but there seems to be a limit to how well the Nikon heads can channel light over long distances. Nikon's manual doesn't list distances over 66 feet (20m), just as with the older flash units.
The supplied diffusion dome does a good job of softening light, though at the expense of output (the highest GN with it attached is 52 [16m]). Note that when you use any over-the-head accessory, such as the diffusion dome, the flash automatically sets to 14mm. Some have questioned why this is, but clearly Nikon is trying to throw light into all portions of the dome and let the dome direct the light. With close subjects, I've taken to stuffing gel filters into the dome to get just the right color balance with my D1x. It looks a little kludgy in operation, but the results are in the photos: nice, soft, and properly colored lighting.
Battery performance seems about on-par with the SB-28DX, which is to say, decent. Using NimH rechargeables with the SB-80DX makes a lot of sense, as it cuts consumable costs and provides faster recycling, at the expense of slightly fewer flashes per charge than alkaline or lithium batteries. Unfortunately, the battery compartment door hasn't been improved (though there is a amateur-looking new "holder" that keeps it from coming entirely off)--just like with the SB-28DX, I've managed to dump my batteries on the ground about once a week by accidentally dislodging the cover.
FP High Speed sync mode no longer requires any calculations (at least on modern Nikon bodies). You get a distance displayed on the LCD just as you do with any manual flash mode level. Still not TTL, but getting easier to use.
Another small touch that some might enjoy is that you can set flash exposure compensation up to +3 EV (previously we were stopped at +1 EV). This last feature is a bit deceptive, as the flash may not actually be able to fire at +3 EV due to long flash-to-subject distances or wide zoom head settings.
One area I found a bit problematic was the wireless trigger. Unlike the trigger-happy SB-26, the SB-80DX needs the triggering flash aimed pretty much directly at the wireless sensor, especially if you want to use the automatic wireless flash mode (where the SB-80DX turns on when it sees a remote flash and turns off when it sees the other flash turn off). The sensor is on the right side of the SB-80DX. While this means you don't have to have the SB-80DX pointed at the triggering flash, the one-sidedness is a limitation.
- Wireless isn't perfect. The placement of the sensor will bother some. The range in automatic wireless mode will be problematic to others. And if you use a digital SLR (D1, D1h, D1x, or D100), you can't use the automatic wireless mode with a flash in TTL on the camera.
- Tilt/Swivel could be improved. Why does the SB-50DX tilt down further than an SB-80DX? The only lock positions are the defaults. As with the SB-28DX, there's a couple of positions you can't reach (135 degrees right, for example).
- No High Speed TTL. It really shouldn't be that hard. After all, Minolta and Canon have managed to do it...
- Best Foot Ever. A joy to put on the camera and take off. If Nikon makes another flash without this foot, that new design better slice bread and purify water.
- 14mm Coverage! Wow, a flash that can provide flash when using the rectilinear 14mm lenses on 35mm bodies. Sure, the GN drops to 56 (feet; 17m), but who's lighting distant objects with a 14mm lens on the camera?
- Wireless Ability. The built-in SU-4 is nice. I still don't know why Nikon took it off the SB-28DX (it was on that flash's predecessor, the SB-26). While somewhat limited due to the sensor position, nonetheless it makes this flash very useful as a second unit.
- Lots of little touches that are a modest step forward.
dp asks: With regard to the placement of the wireless sensor, why not just rotate the head 180 degrees in order to use the flash on the other side?
Thom's Response: If you're rotating the off-camera flash to position the sensor, yes, that's not a huge issue, but it does add a set-up step you must pay attention to, and there are positions that don't put the sensor quite right. As distance increases, dead-on sensor positioning becomes more important.