There was a time when I hauled around a studio lighting set to every wedding that I shot. The set was power-pack based and weighed in at close to forty pounds. I had stands, umbrellas, softboxes, grids, snoots and reflectors – just about anything you could want for on location shooting. What I lacked was a pack mule to haul it all around for me.
Then several years ago a friend turned me on to the Nikon CLS flash system. I had already seen pictures that she had taken at the last wedding she shot and the images were nice and bright so I was predisposed to like the system. Then she showed me the small bag her lighting gear fit into. That’s all it took to make me a wannabe convert.
The Nikon Creative Lighting System (CLS) consists of Nikon Speedlights and whatever stands and light management tools you care to take with you. The rig I use for demos has three SB-900 Speedlights, stands, and three umbrellas. With this comparatively lightweight setup I’m ready to shoot group shots as large as six or seven people.
Before we delve too deeply into the overview we need to be aware the the CLS feature is not available with every Nikon flash and camera. CLS features are only possible with Nikon branded equipment.
Nikon’s CLS system provides communication between the Commander unit (master) and one or more groups of remote (slave) flashes. The system is in two parts: The Commander unit which can be an SB Speedlight, the built-in flash of select cameras, or Nikon’s SU-800 non-flash command unit. The remote Nikon Speedlights are the other part of the system.
To date, these Nikon cameras offer Commander Mode with their built-in pop-up flashes: D700, D300 series, D200, D90, D80, D70s, and D7000. Nikon Speedlights that support CLS are: SB-800, SB-900, SB-700, SB-600, and the SB-R200.
To use CLS with a camera lacking a compatible pop-up flash (or no pop-up flash at all) we use the SU-800 Commander unit or SB-900 Speedlight. The older SB-800 Speedlight has a Commander Mode as well but this model has been discontinued for a while.
After assembling a CLS compatible kit it’s time to get familiar with the concept of remote, wireless TTL flash. The technical part about how it all works we are going to leave alone, right now we are interested in using it not taking it apart to see what makes it tick.
The key to using any system is working within its limitations. In the case of Nikon’s CLS flash all units, Commander and all remotes, must be in line of sight. We can’t stick a flash out of sight and around a corner and expect our Commander to control it.
As we setup our Speedlights on location we turn them on, select a receiving channel and assign them to a Group. We can have up to three groups of flashes (four with the correct flashes and commander) and each Group can have an unlimited number of flashes in it.
This is the fun part. Once our remote flashes are set inj place and assigned to a Group we can control their behavior from the camera or camera mounted flash Commander mode. For example we can have all of the Speedlights in Group A dialed in as the main light, they will provide enough light as determined by the camera’s meter. Group B we can choose to use as fill flash and we can set all Group B Speedlights to be 2/3 stop less than the metered exposure. Finally for Group C we want to use them for hair lighting so we set this group to be just over one stop more than the camera’s metered exposure.
All of these settings are made from the camera position on the Commander unit. There is no running back and forth to each remote Speedlight. We are all set so we take the shot. Uh oh, our fill light was too strong so using the Commander we dial Group B down another half stop. That simple, auto-exposure TTL flash control cannot be accomplished with a studio lighting set.
What has just been described is a basic three-light CLS operation, but there is so much more to it. Groups can be set to entirely different flash modes. For example Group A can be TTL while Group B is set for Manual. In short, Nikon’s CLS can create an unlimited number of flash configurations and exposure patterns.
For even more flexibility CLS offers several channels for operation too. At another wedding I attended there was a three-photographer team shooting the reception. One photographer was setup to shoot formals, another roamed for party pictures while the third was shooting portraits of the guests. All three photographers were shooting in the same room and since each shooting venue could be assigned a channel there were no instances of one Commander unit setting off the other guy’s flashes.
By the way, we haven’t even mentioned that since Nikon’s CLS is based on battery operated Speedlights the whole system can be used outdoors, miles from the nearest AC outlet.
In conclusion: Nikon’s CLS flash has a lot to offer in convenience, portability and exposure control. The CLS capable Speedlights and cameras can be arranged to suit almost any need. While CLS provides unprecedented control over flash it does come with a significant price tag. The Nikon SB-900 Speedlight costs just a little more than a comparably powered Bowens moonlight. However the Bowens light has no TTL exposure capabilities. The upside is that a CLS Speedlight system can be acquired one flash at a time.