PDNonline Product Review: Nikon SB-910 AF Speedlight Review

February 10, 2012

By Theano Nikitas

Bumping the Nikon SB-900 AF Speedlight from its top-of-the-line strobe spot, the new Nikon SB-910 AF Speedlight has been tweaked to address the thermal cut-out issues many photographers complained about with its predecessor. Some of those issues, which caused the SB-900 to suddenly shut down when it overheated during heavy usage, were fixed by a firmware update for the flash from a few years ago.

The new, redesigned SB-910 was touted by Nikon as a new solution to those old problems when it was announced last November.

With the new SB-910 Speedlight, Nikon also took additional features from the smaller but highly capable SB-700 Speedlight, and incorporated them into the new model.

The result? A welcome improvement that may well have photographers putting their SB-900’s up on eBay after ordering its replacement.

No Disco Strobe
But before you start dreaming of running this flash like a disco strobe without consequence, let’s take a realistic look at how the Nikon SB-910 handles heat. There’s no internal cooling mechanism or science fiction solution forcing the SB-910 to keep its cool, but as the flash heats up, recycling time slows down. It’s that simple.

It should be noted, however, that the Nikon SB-910 Speedlight doesn’t start to slow down for quite a while during usage. When shooting continuously on high speed with the Nikon D3s, the SB-910 (at reduced power) and freshly-charged AA batteries, the camera’s buffer slowed down the flash sooner than any increase in temperature.

Shooting at full power during my testing, of course, resulted in longer pauses before the flash was able to fire again but I was able to squeeze out a flash here and there even before the ready-light turned red.

The SB-900, in contrast, got cranky and was close to shutting down after similar testing. While it’s possible to turn off the thermal cut-out on the SB-900, as far as I can tell, you can’t disable it in the SB-910 and that’s fine because it’s unlikely you’ll need to.
Cut and Run
Initially, the SB-910 recycles faster than the SB-900, most noticeably at full power. While it’s difficult to quantify exactly when the SB-910 starts lagging behind the SB-900, the latter speedlight certainly recycled faster.

But waiting a little longer between flash bursts with the SB-910 is a small price to pay to avoid having the flash power off at the worst possible time during a shoot. (Wedding photographers, in particular, raised the loudest concerns about the old flash cutting out at inopportune moments, such as during the all-important cutting of the cake during the reception.)

Sure, it’s likely you can push the SB-910 to the edge if you try hard enough, but it’s going to take a lot more effort than with the SB-900.

Slightly Smaller Build; Glows in the Dark
Physically, the SB-910 is slightly thinner and lighter than its predecessor, the changes are so small that they hardly matter (and you probably wouldn’t know it unless you read the specs).

More important changes are visible on the rear surface. A Menu button replaces the SB-900’s Zoom button, making it a lot faster and easier to get into the menu to adjust settings.

You’ll also notice minor, but positive, differences on the menu screen. More importantly though, the LCD is much brighter, which makes it more convenient when checking settings.

The trio of function buttons under the screen now glow-in-the dark; a particular bonus for newcomers to the flash who might still have to look at which buttons they’re pushing.

Physical changes also include a locking battery compartment, although I’ve never accidentally opened the plastic sliding door. (It was difficult enough to open on the SB-900, so I never felt a need to lock it closed.)

Like the SB-700, the SB-910 now comes with hard plastic filters rather than flimsy gels that were bundled with the SB-900.

And, like the SB-700, the flash, diffusion dome, filters, and stand now come in a square soft case instead of the long, narrow case that housed the SB-900. The square design fits more neatly in my camera bags, but others may still prefer the vertical case.

The Bottom Line
Sure, the Nikon SB-910 AF Speedlight is “only” a tweaked version of the SB-900 but while the list of new and improved features is short, the impact of the revised thermal cut-out protection to prevent unexpected shutdowns is huge. Add the rest of the incremental changes, and the SB-910 is a more-than-worthy successor to the SB-900 and an excellent solution for photographers who need a high-powered flash.

Pros: Revamped thermal cut-out system makes flash less likely to shut down at inopportune moments; added Menu button makes it easier to change settings; brighter LCD and glow-in-the-dark buttons helps for making adjustments in the dark; hard filters supplied instead of flimsy gels

Cons: Recycling slows as flash heats up (to prevent shutdowns); square soft case may not fit neatly in all camera bags; slightly more expensive than SB-900

Price: $549.95;