“The Moment of Impact” 11 Nikon flashguns and SU-4 mode

Yesterday I talked about the overall ideas behind how we shot the “Moment of Impact” campaign, and as promised, today I’d like to go into more detail about how I lit it, as this was an integral part of the shoot. A quick recap – I’m firing a Nikon D500 at 10 frames per second, and I’m lighting with a mix of up to 11 different Nikon flashguns – SB5000s, SB900s, SB800s, and SB80DXs, all triggered via SU-4 mode. Why old-fashioned SU-4, not something more high tech? Are you some sort of luddite Tom?

Punching a Watermelon, shot on the Nikon D500
Tom “Fire Kid” Duquesnoy punching a watermelon. Shot on the Nikon D500 at 10 frames per second.  The setup shot is below.

Whilst Nikon flashes have the very clever CLS system that allows remote TTL lighting, as well as full control over power output, it only works on the newer flashguns, so that rules out my older SB80s. I’ve had triggering issues with it in the past as well, as the sensors really need a nice clear line of sight to the triggering flash to work properly – you can’t really hide them behind things and expect them to work. It’s also not the fastest to respond, and on testing it before the shoot, it struggled to keep up with 10 frames per second. I don’t want to have to add a radio trigger to every flashgun, as that will over-complicate things. For me, as a long-time user (and lover!) of Nikon’s flashguns, the answer is very simple: switch them all to SU-4 mode, and use one flashgun on camera to trigger them.

Watermelon setup shot - all flashguns on SU-4 mode
Setup shot for the shot of Tom punching the watermelon, taken from a reverse angle. Starting from the left of the frame; 2 flashguns with small flags on to outline Tom and the watermelon against the background, 3 flashguns in a silver brolly to light Tom and the fruit, the D500 on a tripod, with an SB5000 on top to trigger all the flashes, 2 flashguns aimed at different spots on the back wall to throw some light onto it, and 2 more flashguns with small flags on to outline Tom and the fruit from the other side.

For those that don’t know, SU-4 mode on Nikon flashguns has been around for a while, and is found in many of their models, including my older SB80s. It’s a simple optical slave just like you would find in a studio flash head – the sensor in the flashgun sees a flash, which sets off its own flash. Simple as that.

Kicking a cake at 10 frames per second
Tom sending the top tier of a wedding cake flying.  Setup shot below

Of course, the drawback is that there’s no control over things like power output, or TTL metering. If I want to change the power of a flashgun I must physically walk over there and change it, which is a bit of a faff with 11 flashes! The loss of TTL is no problem for me at all, as I use manual mode pretty much all the time. My lighting background comes from using studio lights, which have only started to have TTL in the past couple of years, and even then, in only a handful of models – manual is what I’m familiar with, and what I trust implicitly. My reasoning is always that if I’m taking the time to set a shot up to the degree I am with a shoot like this, why leave the output of the flashes to an automatic algorithm? Using manual mode, I can tell each flash EXACTLY what to put out, and it will put the same amount out each time. With TTL I’d probably get a decent exposure, but if I reframed, or objects within the frame moved so that the image had different areas that were now dominating, the TTL exposure would change. No thanks – I’m in manual exposure mode on the camera, I’ve done test shots, and I know what exposure I want, so I’ll stick to that thanks!

"Moment of Impact" behind the scenes
A reverse angle of the cake shot showing the lighting. 3 flashguns in the silver brolly being used to light the cake and Tom, 2 with small flags on to outline him against the background, and a 6th putting a spot of light on the back wall.  There’s a matching pair of flashguns with small flags on the other side of the table, but I couldn’t fit everything in the frame.

Now, this might sound like I’m just being a luddite for the sake of it, however, I think the fact that Nikon has retained this old-school technology is to be hugely commended. I’m sure it would have been very tempting to someone in Nikon’s R+D department to remove this functionality at some point, and just stick to the headline grabbing CLS and the new radio controlled wireless systems. I’m very, very glad they’ve kept it in. Not only does it allow me to create shoots like this, but I frequently (too frequently to mention) mix my flashguns in with my Profoto studio lights, and they all work together quite happily. A Nikon flashgun in SU-4 mode, on manual power, is basically a lower powered studio light without a modelling light – they can both trigger each other quite happily. Use TTL in any form however, and the pre-flashes that TTL uses to assess exposure will often trigger the studio flashes. Some kit will let you set the amount of pre-flashes they’re sensitive to, so as to limit this problem, but then you’ll need to reset them again afterwards when you revert to just using manual.

Some modern triggering modes, like Nikon CLS and Profoto Air, are capable of quite incredible tricks. However, they only work at their best when they’re inside a fully compatible system, and often don’t mix well with others. Unless I’ve got the option to have every piece of kit singing from the same hymn sheet, I much prefer the robustness and reliability of shooting with SU-4 mode and manual power output. You can call me old-fashioned, because that’s what I am…..

In case you’ve never come across it before, here’s how to enable SU-4 mode in the various flashguns I used on the MMA D500 “Moment of Impact” shoot:

SB900 (Mine)

  • Hold down “OK” to bring up the menu.
  • Roll the scroll wheel round until you highlight “SU-4” in the left column
  • Hit “OK”
  • Roll the selector to “on” and hit “OK”
  • Hit “Exit” (should be the button top left)
  • Now switch the main mode dial to “remote”
SB900 set to SU-4 mode
An SB900 set to SU-4 mode. Note the mud engrained in the mode dial, indicating it’s one of mine, rather than one on loan!

SB800 (Mine – ancient, and held together with gaffer tape and willpower)

  • Hold down the “SEL” button until the menu appears
  • Use the arrow keys to navigate to the remote menu – the icons look like 2 flashguns being attacked by snakes. Probably not what the designers had in mind, but that’s how it looks to me!
  • Press “SEL”, then navigate until SU-4 is highlighted
  • Press “ON/OFF” to exit the menu

SB-80DX (Mine)

  • Hold down “SEL” to bring up the menu
  • Press the Up or Down arrow to move through the options
  • When you reach the option with the snake on the bottom left (it’s them again….) press the Left or Right arrow to change the option from “Off” to “On”
  • Press “On/Off” to exit the menu
11 Nikon flashguns, SB900, SB800, SB5000, SB80DX
A mix of old and new Nikon flashguns.  Some in better condition than others.

SB5000 (Borrowed from Nikon)

  • Turn the main selector switch (the one with “off/remote/on” on to “Remote”
  • Press the remote mode selection button (left of the illuminated lightning bolt) until the rear display shows “REMOTE DIRECT” with our old friend the snake in the top left corner.

I love high-tech, new toys, believe me, but sometimes the old ways work better!  There’s a full set of images from the campaign here, yesterday’s blog post about the thought process is here, and there are behind the scenes videos on youtube as well.  Spoilt rotten, you are!

*I’m aware that much of the rest of the world calls flashguns “speedlights”. They were called flashguns when I started using them in the early 1990s, and old habits die hard, so I still call them flashguns. Let’s not fight over this!

Interested in learning more about lighting?  I have a full course right here that walks you through everything you need to know to understand lighting in photography.

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