The Nikon SB-80dx

by Moose Peterson

I received my SB-80DX on the afternoon of 30 March and by that evening, I'd already filled a card with around the house "test" images. Nikon has been lagging in introducing new flash technology for both conventional and digital shooters (the 80DX works for both). Is the SB-80DX the flash we've been waiting for? Since I'm a digital shooter and this is a digital site, this review is going to be weighted towards digital. This is ironic since while the SB80DX is a DX flash many of its cool features only work with conventional bodies. Too bad! Well.on with the show!

Physical Layout The SB-80DX is a slight departure from the SB-28DX in size, weight and layout. The SB-80DX weighs in at 12.3oz while the SB-28DX weighs in at 11.5oz (without batteries). That extra gain in weight is most likely attributable to the very beefed up flash foot. Along the lines of the SB-50DX flash foot, the foot on the SB-80DX is a single molded piece that's part of the whole lower unit. There are no longer four external screws holding it in place like on the SB-28DX--the foot itself is made of metal. There is a new locking lever on the foot as well, gone is the knob you had to rotate to lock the flash in place. Still present in the foot design though is the locking pin in the hot shoe.

The flash head itself is a different style on the 80 than on the 28, both externally and internally. The 80DX can zoom from 24mm to 105mm, either manually or automatically. Interestingly, the zoom is in increments of 5mm between 35mm and 105mm. You can manually set the zoom head to 17 or 14mm (it goes automatically to 14mm when the Dome is attached). This is accomplished by pulling out the wide-flash adapter and then depressing the wide button to select either the 17mm or 14mm setting. This brings up an interesting external feature of the 80DX flash head and the Nikon Diffusion Dome SW-10H.

On the bottom side of the flash head on the 80DX you'll find a small little button. When the Nikon Diffusion Dome (or Sto-Fen Omni Bounce, LumiQuest) is slipped onto the flash, this button is depressed and the flash head is automatically set to 14mm. If you're not careful, this button is depressed when you use the large elastic band to attach the Better Beamer to the SB-80DX (put the seam at the top of the flash head and watch the LCD to make sure it doesn't set to 14mm)! Well, I thought there must be a way to deactivate this button. Right? I mean, you wouldn't want to be stuck at 14mm every time you use your diffusion, would you? Nope, there is no way to deactivate this button that I've found so far. You cannot even depress the telephoto button and change the zoom position. I don't know about other flash users, but I vary that zoom head to fit how I want the lighting and I'm not sure this early on if this will be a handicap.

One neat thing about the Nikon Diffusion Dome is that it snaps into place. There is an arrow on top of the Dome that must be on top for it to mount correctly. On the sides of the flash head there are two small indents into which tabs on the Dome snap--securely holding the Dome. It won't be knocked off by accident!

While I'm here, what about the performance of the Nikon Diffusion Dome? You have four options for ultra wide lenses (18-14mm) with the SB-80DX; straight flash head set to 24mm, built-in wide-flash adapter and the flash zoom head set to either 17mm or 14mm or the Nikon Diffusion Dome. Which option you select is really a matter of taste because what we're changing here is the quality of the light. From my early testing, I prefer the built-in wide-flash adapter. The main reason is that it loses less light compared to using the Dome. While we're talking only ½ stop gain between the wide-flash adapter and the Dome, when it comes to flash every ½ stop helps!

I was told the Dome aids in close up photography and that it does. When your subject is 12 inches or closer, the Dome does a marvelous job of bouncing and wrapping light around the subject! You're so close that any light loss caused by the Dome is negligible! Nikon designed the Dome to be used in conjunction with the wide-flash adapter for macro work. While not a macro guru, I do like the lighting pattern this combo provides.

Speaking of funny external "things", the SB-80DX has a one that's a mystery to me. On the right side of the flash you'll find a small, ½" square thing that looks like a cover that's called the Light Sensor Window for wireless slave flash. What's weird about it? First, it's opaque black, second, it doesn't seem to come off. does light get into the sensor for wireless operation? I don't have an answer yet but I will discuss the wireless TTL features of the SB-80DX in a moment.

Admittedly, it is a little faster to make changes to the functions of the SB-80DX with its new layout. On the back of the SB-80DX you'll find the LCD panel. There is no problem reading the information it offers as all the type is larger. Gone is the analog bar graph for aperture / distance. The SB-80DX reads out in giant numbers the effective range of the flash for the selected aperture.

There is no long small buttons hard to punch with big fingers. There is a Thumbpad similar to that found on the back to the D1 family / F5 / F100. This four way Thumbpad permits you to rapidly change settings. There is a large, easy to push On/Off button which you don't have to depress for two seconds to turn the 80 on or off like that on the SB-28DX. There is a largish Mode button that's very is to depress to change modes. And the open flash button is very sensitive and easy to depress to fire off the flash, especially compared to the SB-28DX.

You know how the flash tells you the amount of underexposure in the top right corner of the LCD if the ready light blinks at you after the picture has been taken? You know how fast that reading disappears? Well with the SB-80DX, you can depress the Mode & SEL button and that underexposure info is recalled and displayed for you. Cool!

You tilt and rotate the flash head on the SB-80DX just like that of the SB-28DX. Depress the button on the right and continue to depress as you move the head. The SB-80DX has a built-in white card with some instruction printed on the back must like the SB-28DX. The only other new thing on the SB-80DX externally is the modeling light (Modeling Illuminator button) button that's on the back of the flash head.

One last thing, the battery door. It's different from the SB-28DX. You still depress it while pushing it in a downward direction but now when it pops open, it's held into place by a small rubber band thingie. While it does make it easy to get batteries in and out quickly, it's a real weak point and I can see some easily breaking off in the heat of battle.

Performance / Operation Cut to the chase, the SB-80DX does not deliver to you any real more power than the SB-28DX. I was at first told the SB-80DX was about 1/3 stop more powerful and that's probably true, but it's really hard to confirm that with real life testing or get excited about. Where there is more power and where I really needed it and appreciate it is in the AF illuminator. The SB-28DX provides a scant 20 feet range for the AF illuminator. The SB-80DX tests out to 34 feet which is killer! While this is not a feature many use, this is important to me in my nocturnal wildlife work and reason enough for me to buy the SB-80DX!

Recycling time: I was surprised to find the SB-80DX recycles about 8% faster than the SB-28DX (using PowerEx AA 1600mAH batteries). This is an open flash, manual burst. Connected to the camera and in TTL 3D Matrix and within the range of the flash, the recycle time is only a tad faster, not enough to get excited about.

The SB-80DX has a GREAT exposure compensation range, +/- three stops! This is a big improvement and addition to me and my photography. In comparison, the SB-28DX only went +1 and -3 stops. It's real simple to dial in exposure compensation on the SB-80DX, just depress the + or - sign on the Thumbpad on the back of the camera. What's unique is that the compensation is increased in ½ and 1/3 increments at the same time in the SB-80DX! That's to say it goes from .2 to .3 to .5 to .7 to .8 to 1, etc. I think that's pretty darn cool!

The Modeling light feature is pretty cool as well. When you depress the modeling light, you have about a five second continuous burst from the flash. This does take the charge out of your capacitors so you have to wait for the ready light to come back on to shoot. But this will help take the guess work out of flash photography for many photographers!

The "custom settings" are really not that custom. What it is really is just a means of turning on or off certain features of the SB-80DX. By depressing the Thumbpad for more than 2 seconds, you can select: Wireless Flash (not available on D1 family), Sound Monitor for wireless operation (not available on D1 family), On/Off AF Illumination, Standby duration (40, 80, 160, 300seconds, Auto-I really like the Auto), Meter or Feet distance scale, Cancel Power Zoom, Emergency Mode (in case you break off the wide-flash adapter) and On/Off LCD panel illuminator. I was hoping the custom settings might have something cool, like automatic over exposure on the flash, underexposure in the camera or other cool TTL tricks. This is it.

Let's go over the "wireless" features of the SB-80DX for the D1 family user..

There isn't any!

I have to be straight with you, I'm more than a little disappointed here! Now I could have this all wrong as I've only been trying to figure it out for three days, but this is what I've found so far. First, you can't even activate the wireless feature of the SB-80DX when it's connected, either directly or via the SC-17 to a D1 family camera. If you set the SB-80DX to Standard TTL (not 3D Matrix) the SB-80DX does not fire off the Monitor Pre-Flash. In 3D Matrix mode, the Monitor Pre-Flash fires off just a nanosecond sooner than that of the SB-28DX rendering the SU-4 useless. So the only option for D1 family users for multiple flash, TTL (really OTL) operation with the SB-80DX is with the SC-18/19 cords. (The wireless feature comes alive when the SB-80DX is connected to current Nikon conventional camera bodies but since that does me no good, I've not tested it yet.)

On the bright side, shooting with the SB-80DX as the main flash and the SB-28DX tethered via the SC-18/19, the exposure and quality of light is nicer than the same set up but with two SB-28DXs!

I'm sure your real question is: What about exposure? I tested the SB-80DX on the D1 / X / H against the SB-28DX. The flashes had freshly charged PowerEx 1600mAH batteries. The cameras were all set to the same ISO, WB, metering, exposure compensation and f/stops. This is what I found.

For D1 owners, the SB-80DX does not make flash life any better for you. There is no magic cure in the SB-80DX for the odd flash software of the D1. The 80DX does the same stupid pet tricks as the 28DX. D1X & D1H owners the news is only slightly better. I found the 80DX delivered consistent exposures from f/stop to f/stop where the 28DX varies a tad.

What did I test? I shot a tan stuffed animal at ten feet and twenty-five feet against a white and a black background. I waited for the ready light and then counted to eight before taking each shot. The only variable in this test that I can't count is the effect the age of my SB-28DX plays. But if you think of it logically, my 28DX is 3+ years old and the 80DX is new out of the box. If anything, the 28DX should do worse not about the same. To say this is a lack luster performance rating is an understatement! When I first started testing and saw the results, I thought I had set something really wrong. I went and doubled checked all the settings and reshot the tests but with no change in my results. I'm hoping this is pilot error but so far, it doesn't look like it!

This is just a brief review from my first days with the SB-80DX. Do I recommend it to you over the SB-28DX? Yeah but only for a couple of reasons. The exposure compensation range, AF Illuminator and modeling light make the flash worth purchasing. If you're looking for more power, I'm afraid we're all in the same boat, still looking! This isn't meant to be a users guide, just some quick tips to get you up and running. In our upcoming eBook, there will be a whole section devoted to the use and operation of the SB-80DX. As with any new product, the more I get to use and play with something, the more I learn and I can pass along--which I will do with time.

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