What’s So Special About The Nikon SB-80dx Flash For Real Estate Photography?

June 27th, 2011

For those of you that have Scott Hargis’s Lighting Interiors eBook or have been hanging out in the PFRE flickr group for any amount of time, you understand why Nikon SB-80dx manual flashes are THE small flash of choice for real estate photographers so move along, there’s nothing here for you. However, the questions I’ve gotten recently about, “why not use some of the SB-80DX alternatives”, indicate it would be good to recap what’s so special about the SB-80dx and how do you set them up.

First of all let’s get some of the basic assumptions out of the way:

  1. We are talking small manual flash here. Scott’s eBook makes the case for using manual small flash and shows you how to do it. Nikon CLS and Canon E-TTL is just not reliable enough for interiors. The infrared signals will work OK some of the time, but they work best with line-of-sight conditions. The signal will bounce around corners, but not reliably. With interiors work, we rarely have line-of-sight.
  2. This manual small flash approach is for any type DSLR: Canon, Nikon and all other DSLR bodies. Optical triggering is not brand-specific.
  3. Flash triggering is as the diagram from Scott’s book above illustrates. Some kind of radio triggering from the camera to the first flash and optical triggering for all other flashes. There are many alternatives (Cybersyncs, Skyports, Cactus, RadioPoppers, etc.) for the triggering of the first flash. Pocket Wizards are the “gold standard” for radio triggers. You could also mount a flash on the camera’s hot-shoe (when the on-camera flash fires all optical triggered flashes will trigger), and eliminate the need for any radio trigger at all!

So, you can see from the diagram that the only requirement for the first flash is that you can connect your radio triggering device to it. But the requirements for all of the rest of your flashes are:

  1. Very sensitive, reliable, built-in optical slave.
  2. The optical triggering should be good enough that it works around corners.
  3. You want to have total and complete control of power adjustments for these flashes.
  4. Doesn’t cost an arm and a leg because you want to carry a bunch of them.

Here is a list of all the flashes I know of that are a possible fit:

  1. Nikon SB-80DX – Cost about $180-$200 on Ebay, Amazon, Keh.com
  2. Nikon SB-26 – Cost <$100 Ebay – This flash is not as powerful as the SB-80 and the power is not as adjustable as the SB-80.
  3. LumoPro LP160 – Cost $159 – David Hobby gives this flash a positive review but I hear other complaints about build quality.
  4. Yougnuo YN-560 – Cost $75 – David Hobby’s review reports this flash has build quality issues.
  5. Vivitar 285HV– with Wein Peanut optical trigger cost $110 – David Hobby reports some quality control issues with this flash.
  6. Nikon SB-800 – Does everything you want, but expensive!
  7. Nikon SB-900 – Does everything you want, but really expensive!

The bottom line is that the SB-80dx is reliable, has great optical trigger sensitivity, has excellent build quality so even at $180 to $200 that it has become these days, it is one best small flashes for real estate photography.

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5 Responses to “What’s So Special About The Nikon SB-80dx Flash For Real Estate Photography?”

  • I feel partially responsible for inspiring this post with an embarrassingly n00bish question regarding flashes. Though, thank you, Larry, for posting this up. For me, finding the right equipment is the most challenging part of getting started, since I’ve never, ever dealt with using small flash for anything before this, besides one external mounted to the camera.

    Hopefully, others can learn from my errors:
    I own an LP160 – build quality is mediocre… but it performs wonderfully. I baby my equipment, so durability wasn’t a huge factor in my decision. Overall pleased with it. Very powerful, too.

    I also managed to borrow an SB-800 from my work at the newspaper. Best flash I’ve ever used, period (though not saying much – still a n00b). Too bad they’re so expensive and I couldn’t keep it.

    Avoid Bower brand flashes…

    Here’s an interesting solution I came up with for getting powerful, well-built flashes that will flash every time for less than $150 each:

    Used Canon 540EZ ($110) plus Cactus V5 radio triggers ($65 for a set of two, which is only $32.50 per flash… plus one for your camera of course). They’re $40 if you buy them each one at a time.

    I own the Cactus V5 system – they work just like pocket-wizards except they can use just the hot-shoe connections if you like. And, they’re not $180 (!) a piece, which is nice if you want to branch out and do some other strobist-style stuff on the side.

  • I just picked up my first SB80dx to use with 2 SB600s and a 900. I have to use radios with the 600s, or a cable or have one on camera. I’d trade them for SB80’s in a heartbeat! The optical slave is SO much more sensitive or reliable than the CLS version in the 600s. I guess it isn’t having to be so clever but still, the SB80’s slave is super sensitive.
    I’m slightly puzzled by being able to see my flash fire in the viewfinder.. sort of suggesting it’s pre-flashing before the mirror comes up (in manual mode). Any idea why? It’s still being recorded in the image as expected, but I didn’t think I’d see it fire in the viewfinder. SB900 behaves the same so I can see I’m being ignorant but I’d love an explanation.

  • Charlie: A lot of the newer speedlites, especially when using TTL, use a less intense pre-flash on the subject in the photo to work out how much light the actual flash pulse needs to output. A good resource on this issue is here: http://www.cambridgeincolour.com/tutorials/camera-flash-2.htm. Sometimes it’s not desirable, for example in portrait shoots when you want the person’s iris to remain dilated in a dark setting. It can also interfere with optically-triggered slave units, i.e. they may trigger on the pre-flash rather than the main one.

  • Great article! Thank you so much for all your help. My question is this; I shoot with a Canon 5D mark iii, if I purchase a couple Nikon sb80dx flashes will they work with my camera being that the brands are different?

  • @Jason – Yes, the sb80dx’s are not physically connected to your Canon body and except for one they are triggered by a flash of light so they have to physical connection to your Canon.

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