Best Cheap Nikon Flash: Nikon SB-600

The Nikon D90 DSLR built-in flash is adequate in many cases. Personally, I’d rather work with the existing light wherever possible; it’s more interesting. Even with existing light a little fill-in flash can make a big difference, and the on-board flash is adequate for this. However, the on-board flash has shortcomings. The onboard flash is too close to the camera body, casting lens shadows at close distances when photographing macro or using long lenses. Also, the onboard flash cannot be bounced it or easily diffused, making flash shots harsh. A hot-shoe external flash overcomes these limitations. The sweet spot for me for a Nikon flash was Nikon SB-600 SpeedLight refurbished.

Eastern Garter Snake

Eastern Garter Snake taken with Nikon SB-600 SpeedLight, diffused

The SB-600’s full-size chassis clears the lens at close macro distances; I put on a tall diffuser made from a rubbing alcohol bottle, and I’m good to go.  It also clears a long telephoto better. It is currently $375 new–pricey because it is discontinued. Look for it used at $275. It’s $150 more than the SB-400 (see below), but that extra $150 brings a lot of utility: it has more strength and throw as well as on-flash adjustments. It can even be used as a slave with the built-in flash or an SB-800 or SB-900 for side-lighting or lightbox work. (I built a lightbox out of PVC pipe, cardboard and a white sheet.) I use the flash infrequently, so I load it with Sanyo eneloop Rechargeable Batteries that retain their charge in storage well. It’s replacement is the SB-700, which we discuss at the end of this article.

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Affordable Cheap Flash Alternatives

The Nikon SB-400 AF Speedlight is the first choice among value-conscious Nikon owners for a better flash at $120. It’s small and very portable, but lacks versatility. It has no on-flash controls. It won’t act as an off-camera IR slave. It can be bounced upward, but not swiveled. It does not zoom like the SB-600.  It also hugs the camera more closely; getting the flash up off the camera helps reduce flash reflections and red-eye. Diffusion options are available. I think the SB-600 offers much more bang for the buck.

The SB-600 has been superseded by the Nikon SB-700 AF Speedlight Flash; the SB-700 is available new at $330. Now that it has been out a while, it’s beginning to overlap the SB-600 in price for used and refurbished via the big outlets like Amazon or Adorama. I’ve noticed that discontinued Nikon equipment that still has some new stock in the channel tends to hold price for a while, and the SB-600 seems to be stuck in this currently. You might still do better on the SB-600 if you look carefully or go third-party, or if you wait until all new stock dries up. The SB-700 does offer some nice improvements, so do have a look. I have not used it.

The Nikon SB-900 AF Speedlight (or it’s recently-discontinued predecessor, the SB-800) is the next step up, but the additional features don’t interest me for its $475 price.

A ring flash would be ideal for macro, but I have not had the time to sort out all the dubious third-party alternatives. The Nikon R1C1 Wireless Close-Up Speedlight Kit is an insane $800! With the SB-600 and a diffuser I can do macro and normal flash work.