Packing Light


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UPDATE: Link to SB-80 User Guide added!

Here’s a question I get asked a lot: what’s the best speedlight for shooting interiors?

Simple answer: Nikon SB-80dx.
Why?  Let’s look at what’s important for interiors work.

Interiors is all about finesse. When I’m pulling 6, 7, and 8 speedlights out of the bag for a shot, it’s not because I need the watts – it’s becausSB80_Stocke I have 6 or 8 subtle lighting tasks. A lot of lights at low power are much more useful than 1 or 2 at full power. So the first thing to consider is not the gn, or Guide Number. You’re more interested in how low you can set the thing.
Flash output is controlled in stops, just like the camera operates. Full power on the flash is called 1/1, and represents the biggest output the flash can handle. The next step down is 1/2, which obviously means Half Power. Then comes 1/4, 1/8, 1/16,  etc.

The best flashes allow you to control the output in 1/3 stop increments (just like your exposure controls on your camera). And, the best flashes will go all the way down to 1/128 power. That’s just the tiniest ‘kiss’ of light – so slight you might think it’s worthless! But it’s not, and I can tell you that my flashes are set at 1/16th and below more often than they are at 1/4th and up. Less is more.

The second consideration is how you plan to trigger your flash remotely. I’m not going to go into the myriad ways of accomplishing that here: suffice it to say that the options are many, but fundamentally you’re going to need either a PC port (to plug in a radio slave) or an optical slave. The camera-specific systems that carry the trigger signal (as well as exposure and output information) are simply not reliable enough without line-of-sight to work well for interiors. And line-of-sight is rarely an option in my kind of work.

Here’s where the Nikon SB-80 shines: it has a built-in optical sensor that absolutely ROCKS. I can place a flash around a corner, down a hall, upstairs, behind the couch, pretty much anyplace I want, and it will fire reliably every time it senses another flash going off. It doesn’t matter what the source is; my client’s point-and-shoot will trigger my flashes.2864720048_cb3dc07d74
NOTE: this optical system is wonderful indoors, but it’s not nearly as useful outdoors. For outdoor work, you’ll need line-of-sight for the optical system to work; you’re probably better off with Pocket Wizards.

And that’s why I also use a set of Pocket Wizards. The transmitter sits on the hotshoe of my camera, and my first flash has the receiver. All the rest of my flashes are set on optical mode, and thus with almost not setup time I can fire as many flashes as I want with only 2 PW’s. It doesn’t matter that I shoot Canon – the flashes are not “talking” to my camera in any way. Even a bolt of lightning outside will set them off.

Why not an SB-800? Or the sexy new SB-900?
They’ll work just fine (set them to SU-4, which is the optical mode). But unless you also plan to use the CLS system, you’re paying for a lot of electronics you don’t need, and I mean PAYING – current list for an SB-900 is upwards of $350. Meanwhile the humble SB-80 is going for less than $200 on eBay.
(Did I mention that they don’t make SB-80’s anymore? The fools.)

I haven’t talked about Canon flashes at all. Here I will discuss the upside of Canon flashes:



Well, that didn’t take long, did it? Seriously: until the latest (and outrageously expensive) iteration of the 580EX, Canon refused to consider the existence of things like Pocket Wizards, and did not have a single model in it’s lineup that included a PC port. Even the newest model still generates enough RF noise to create havoc with the newest Pocket Wizards. To my knowledge, there is no Canon flash with an optical sensor, either. So why even bother with them?

So here’s the punchlist in favor of the SB-80:
•    Cheap
•    Built-in Optical trigger that rocks
•    PC port in case you need it
•    Same GN as the SB-800, so you’ll have the juice when you need it
•    Goes down to 1/128 in third-stop increments
•    Built like a tank, I’ve abused mine for years
•    Did I mention “cheap”?

Here’s the user’s guide for the SB-80, in PDF format.

60 responses to “Packing Light

  1. Scott,

    You’re the reason that SB-80DX’s have gone from $100 to $150+… darn you. (Okay, the Hobby guy may have had something to so with it too.)


  2. Thanks for the tip, my quandary is solved. I shoot Canon and the flash options are pricey. Canon need to get that sorted, in mean time I’ll get some SB 90’s.

  3. I know this post was about the flash, but what about the stand you use. It looks like you are using some small tripods. I have had a hard time finding a stand that will get me in some tight places and did not even think about using a tripod. Am I correct in my thinking?

  4. Dave, it’s a Slik SDV-20 (or is it SVD-20?) – which has been discontinued. Still looking for the best replacement. Advantages: tiny, tiny footprint, goes really low, weighs about 2lbs., costs under $30, has a quick-release plate you can leave attached to your flash (makes setup a snap).

  5. Maybe I’m just not getting it, but I don’t see how I can control the strobe output when I’m in the optical (SU-4) mode.

  6. Clark, I just edited the original post to include a link to the SB-80 user manual, in PDF format.

    But basically, to control the output of the flash while it’s in optical mode, you use the round central “rocker” button on the control panel: “+” will increase the output, in one-third-stop increments, and “-” will decrease the output. You have a range of 1/1 (full power) down to 1/128 (very little power).

  7. Thanks. I didn’t explain correctly that I was trying to get this to work with my SB 28s… duh… but it does work fine on my SB 800. I just ordered an SB 80 from KEH. BTW your photography is stunning.

  8. Scott,

    I like your philosophy regarding flash power – less is more. However, do you ever find yourself in situations where powerful monolights would be more appropriate?

    Until recently, my work has been panoramic so I’ve utilized bracketing & HDR processing – my speedlight stays in the bag mostly. But now more clients are asking for architectural shots and I’m grappling with how to go about it. A lot of my work is view properties so the clients want windows & doorways properly exposed. It’s very bright here in Hawaii, and the high-end interiors are typically expansive with dark furnishings and non-white walls – challenging situations that I’ve learned to deal with for panoramic work but using pure HDR for good quality architectural photos is, in my opinion, not the best route. It’s really hard to get proper colors without supplemental lighting. Even more so now that everyone is using those terrible CFL bulbs.

    I’ve got a 580ex and 540ez. I’m thinking of picking up some more 540ez’s and using the Radiopopper JrX transmitter/receivers/RPcubes. The system allows adjusting the power of up to 3 groups of flashes from the camera. The receivers also let you remotely adjust the power of Alienbees monolights. What do you think? From what I can tell, you’re manually adjusting the power of each of your speedlights…do you spend a lot of time doing test shots and running running back and forth to your various speedlights adjusting their power?

    • Dave,
      I think the RP’s look very cool. I’m manually adjusting flash output, but it’s less work than you’d think, because it gets very intuitive quickly and I’m pretty close with my first guess.
      That said, there are certainly times when mono’s (and the time to set them up) would be good. I think AB800s and AB 1600s would be the way to go for residential work.
      The place where I REALLY need the big lights, though, is in my (expanding) portraiture work. Speedlights are really hurting me there, because in the course of a lengthy shoot I’m killing off batteries and even when they’re fresh, the recycle times just aren’t good enough. I’m shooting a lot of action stuff lately, and a 2 or 3-second recycle time is definitely cramping my style!

  9. You could perhaps mediate your portrature/speedlight issue by ganging them up behind your umbrellas. 2 – 4 speedlights set on lower power will produce comparable output to a single speedlight on high power and give you faster recycles & longer battery life. Yeah it’s Rube Goldberg-ish but so what?

  10. Anyone know if SB-80s would work in conjunction with a Nikon CLS system — i.e., adding the manual adjusted SB-80 to the iTTL? I suspect it wouldn’t work because the pre-flash use during CLS would set off the SB-80 and throw off the readings. But I just wanted to confirm.

  11. Scott,

    You should check out the Four-square softbox. David Tejeda uses it for a lot of his portraits. Its basically a softbox that you can put up to four speedlights into, looks pretty sweet.


    No, it won’t work. Not with CLS triggering. You can’t even do TTL flash with the SB-80DX on any of the newer Nikon cameras. That said, in manual mode, the SB-80DX is just like an SB-800.


  12. Zeikos ZE-TR57A an inexpensive replacement for the Slik tripod. Maybe not quite as nice as the Slik, but for $17 including shipping…

    Thanks for all of your information sharing Scott!

    • What kind of bracket/shoe should be used, then, to hold the flash on to the tripod? I’m guessing one with a hole for the umbrella shaft would be the most efficient.

  13. Rick, with the lightweight video tripods, you use the quick-release plate that comes with the tripod. Just leave it permanently attached to the bottom of the flash, and you can set up in the blink of an eye.

  14. Scott-

    Thanks for the blog. I’ve been enjoying your posts as an aspiring photographer of the inanimate, yet beautiful.

    I have a Slik U-8000 that sits just like your SDV. I’ve had mine for many years and it’s a nice lightweight little job that I only use for lights now. Amazingly, it appears to still be available. Check and elsewhere.

    I look forward to reading more of your posts…

  15. Aloha Scott,

    How about a low-end (or any other) alternative to the SB-80s?

    I came across these off-brand name “Speedlights” and wonder what you think of them?


    I have a great system already including 3 AB1600 and a Canon 580EX Speedlight. Shooting with a Canon 5D and using Cybersync transmitter and two recievers.

    But… I ofen need to fill in all those hard to get at nooks and crannies and my ABs are a bit much so I am looking at adding some Speedlights but can’t justify the huge cost of more 580EXs.

    I wish I could get ahold of some SB-80s as you recommend but they don’t seem to be very readily available (even used).

    Any other recommendations you could help me out with here to enhance my lighting needs?

    Love all the information you have provided and shared!!!!


    • Hmmm…..
      How low-cost do you need them to be? SB-80’s run about half the cost of SB-800’s, and even less than that compared with Canon flashes. At some point you’re going to have to pay money for gear, mate.

      Right now there are at least 4 SB80’s on eBay, and 5 more at

  16. Adorama also sells used SB-80DX flashes. I just bought 2, listed at $180, but you can usually negociate price if you call. They came in great shape, not a scratch, and work beautifully.

  17. “Adorama also sells used SB-80DX flashes. I just bought 2…….They came in great shape, not a scratch, and work beautifully”

    Thanks so much for the great recommendation for Adorama’s used department – but please don’t hesitate to contact me if you ever need after-sales advice or support.

    Helen Oster
    Adorama Camera Customer Service Ambassador

  18. Scott, have you tried the SB28DX? Seems like a similar unit for a bit less.

  19. Oh well, I just bought an SB80dx at Adorama for $139. Used but functional.

  20. So now that the LumoPro LP160 is out, would you say that it (being controllable down to 1/64 and about $160 new) is a good candidate for this kind of work as well? I’m thinking of picking up a kit from MPEX with a couple of them.

  21. Kerrick, I don’t know much about them. Do they have optical slaves built-in? And if so, how good are they?

    Given that $160 is about the median price for a used SB-80, it’d have to have some sort of advantage to get me interested.

    • They’ve got optical slaves, a PC jack, another jack I don’t use, and of course the hotshoe. Supposedly the LP120’s they replace had a great slave that could be triggered around the corner indoors from the reflections, so I assume these would too.

      LumoPro “crowd-sourced” the design of the flashes from the Strobist community, so supposedly they should be everything we could want. And they seem pretty powerful, too. I suppose I should try to find somebody with a LP160 and somebody else with an SB-80 and compare them, if I could.

  22. Scott, What do use to connect flash shoe to tripod quick release plate? I assume some sort of cold shoe adapter? Any specific recommendations?


  23. Hi Scott (LOVE your new book!!!!!!!!)

    I have the same question as Cal, how to “connect flash shoe to tripod quick release plate”

    The flash will connect to the plate with the “flash feet” that came with the flash, but it does not feel sturdy at all. I am betting my flash would fall.


  24. Kiera’s got it — I use the AS-19 flash foot. The stud on the quick-release plate screws into the threaded hole on the bottom of the foot, and the flash clips into the “shoe” on top. Push the lever over to the right so the locking pin engages, and you’re ready to go.

  25. OK, I feel silly now. I somehow forgot about the lock, thank you!

  26. Cold shoe also works. If you get a metal one, put a strip of gaffers tape down to insulate the points on the bottom of the flash foot.

  27. I have not sen anyone talking about the sb 600’s. Will they work the same as the sb80’s?

  28. Thanks, that helps me. I have been racking my brain trying to figure out what to buy. Your book really motivated me to take my passion to the next level. Unfortunately, my budget wont let me. What do you suggest for someone like me. I currently have a 580ex for my RebelT2i. I bought this before I got into Real Estate photography. I want to use it, because it cost a small fortune. I was thinking of using it as a trigger and starting out with 3 Sb80s. Does that sound like a good start to you. Thanks for all your input.

    • Darryl, that’s EXACTLY the setup I’d recommend. Very little you won’t be able to do with that. Just don’t succumb to the temptation to use the on-camera 580 as the “main” light — make sure one of your remotes is doing the ‘heavy lifting’.

  29. Thanks great article, still trying to decide between Nikon sb 80s or the LumoPro LP160

  30. Hey Scott, just discovered your awesome blog last week. Despite what you wrote here about Canon speedlights, will you please comment on the new  Canon Speedlite 270EX II? It seems action packed for only $169.

  31. @ T. Barnes,

    I don’t own any Canon flashes, so it’s hard for me to really speak to any specific model’s performance. I just took a look at Canon’s description of the 270, and I have to say it looks like a pretty worthless piece of equipment, to me. No PC port, poor recycle time, no optical slave, essentially no zoom ability, only 2 AA batts (meaning you’ll be changing batteries a lot), no wide-angle diffuser….what action-packed features are you seeing here? Am I missing them?

  32. Doh…I’m so embarassed. I just find your blog and I’m chiming in. I forgot about the optical slave part (and these other features) that makes you prefer the Nikon SB-80. I also failed to mention that I’m like Daryl who says he’s working with a main flash of the 580ex for my Rebel T2i and thought the built-in wireless transmitter would save hassling with another piece of equipment (i.e. the PW). Sorry for my ignorant question but much much thanks for clarifying.

  33. T. — no worries, I didn’t mean to dis you, but I definitely don’t see the value in that particular flash. If you’re using one on-camera, then all you need are remote flashes with opticals and you’re golden — no radios, cables or infrared nonsense involved. Easy.

  34. Scott, after reading you r great ebook, I just purchased some great sppedlits for $80ea they are Yongnuo YN560s. They are copycats of Nikon and Canon 580 at 1/8 the price. They have optical slave, 1/128 power PC port, zoom 24-105, rotate like a Canon 580 etc so I’m going to try them out next week before i shoot my first display(project) home next Thursday. i also purchsed some Tripod stands for $20 from
    and they have a quick release plate, bubble level, light and strong, 170cm tall so great value. Last, but not least, the best AA batteries new eneloops 4HR-3UWX-SECH-BPSanyo 2500mAh fully charged when you buy them and they hold their power (guaranteed 75% after a year).

  35. Hi Scott –
    Thanks for the great info. on your blog! I just purchased your book and am in the process of increasing my gear for interiors. I’m doing work for builders mostly and am new at this type of photography. I shoot portraits and seldom us flash. I own 1 SB800 now and have an opportunity to purchase another SB800 + SB600 from a friend who is selling. My questions is whether or not you feel these two units are a smart purchase (combined about $500) or if you think the SB80dx is a far better purchase to watch for? I also have two pocket wizards and shoot with the D3. Thanks for the opinion. I hope to catch one of your workshops some day!

  36. Hi Scott,
    I shot my first home this past week and would have traded one of my children for a multiple flash setup on this assignment. Both the customer and I were happy with the results, (myself showing enthusiasm when I knew it could have been a lot better). I did straighten all the verticals but I need off camera flash capabilities. I shoot a Canon T2i and currently own from my film days a Canon 380ex flash. What I want to do is purchase (2) Canon 430’s and the relatively new Pocket Wizard for Canon radio controlled system. I’d have three flashes, no worries about infra red and not spending the bank on the 580. I know it’s not the same as the Nikon you’re using but I’ve found a comfort zone in the set up. Am I on the right track here or should I rethink, again. I’m a little OCD and this is driving me to distraction.
    Thank you ahead of time for any input you may have.
    I downloaded the Essential Guide the other day and was amused by the fact that at least I see rooms very similar to how you do. Fabulous Job!

  37. Dennis, personally, I think you’ll be spending a lot of money and not really gaining anything…but it’ll work. For the money you’re proposing spending you can have twice as many lights, and not have to fool around with pocket wizards at all….but I don’t know your specific needs. You could be shooting other stuff for which you need the Canon ettl stuff. Opticals don’t work so good outdoors, for example.

    • Scott, this entire Canon thing with slaves is ridiculous. All I’m doing is breaking into the Real Estate Market. I’m willing to spend wisely and buy the right gear first time out. The options are so varied I’m finding it difficult to confidently move ahead with the kind of bravado I’m used to in the business world.
      I’ll keep processing and narrowing this down until I can move with the kind of confidence I’m usually oozing with.
      Thanks for your help.

      • Remember it’s not like you have to live with your decision forever. Buy something, try it. This stuff retains a lot of its value, so if (for example) you get a 430 and a PW flex, and then later decide you wish you’d gone another route, you can sell them off for close to what you paid for them. The difference is the cost of experimentation. Maybe get one Canan + a PW, and one SB. They’ll work together just fine, and you can try them both out in the real world.

  38. Thanks Scott. Luckily, I did decide against the SB600. I’ve started collecting sb80s 🙂

  39. Scott, the sb80’s now seem to be up in the $200+ range. Adorama currently has three for sale at $224 and up. Ebay has three for sale at $192 and up. I can currently pick-up a SB-28DX for about $90. The 28dx seems to be very similar to the 80dx with one exception. It doesn’t have a modeling light. I was curious how often you make use of the modeling light feature on the 80dx?

  40. Just found your site from a referral from the Strobist group on flicker.
    I’m confused about your Canon comments. I own the 580EXII and 430EXII (x’s 3). They all have optical and communicate very well. They have 1/3 increments, down to 1/128th and use 4 AA batteries. (love the rechargeable Ecoloop Sanyo batteries). Is it the just the cost you don’t like or the performance?

    Just purchased the Pixel King (vs. PWizard due to the RF problem) for no line of site flash firing. They seem pretty good but have a few issues.

    Can you clarify your earlier comments? (post above the flash set up image)I think you stated optical sensors are not reliable without line of site; then then said your SB-80 can sense the flash going off and works well. Are you referring to line of site set ups or no line of site?

    Your porfolio looks awesome, natural, balanced, and I can’t find a hint of where the light is coming from! Your book looks very interesting. I own a Kitchen design studio and do my own photography, but haven’t been able to find and good resources on lighting these complex spaces. Glad I came across your name and site. Beautiful work!

    • Take another (closer) read — opticals are GREAT for interiors, with or without line of sight. When working outdoors they’re not so good, and *do* require line-of-sight.

      And — check your owner’s manual: there are no Canon flashes with optical slaves.

      • Sorry, I got optical confused with infared. …I’m kind of a newbie in the world of flash, so being new I’ve never heard of optical until I saw your site. Thanks.

  41. You’ve commented several times about opening up the aperture if your speedlights aren’t doing the job. It seems like this is going to make your image a little bit soft.

    Why wouldn’t you use high speed sync in a situation like this and just add another speedlight to the mix? If there is something I am missing here please let me know. I am just breaking into interior lighting and everything I know so far I have learned from you.

    PS: Good job on your new videos. Well worth the $175!
    My only input would be for you to pause a little longer on the before & after shots.
    I think I could learn a little more if I could had a bit more time to contemplate the photos.

    • Working with such wide angles, you’re likely nearing (or at) hyperfocal distance at relatively wide apertures, so your image likely won’t go soft from being out of focus. For example, on a full-frame camera at 24mm, focusing 12 feet out means everything from about 7 feet to 50 feet is sharp, and goes slowly out of focus from there. Play around with the Depth of Field calculator:

    • @TSchultz,

      I don’t think I recommend that…more likely to add a second speedlight as you suggest, or drag the shutter a little.
      High speed sync is fairly worthless for interiors, unless you have a LOT of flashes (as in, dozens). Flash output decreases by a stop for every stop of shutter speed you gain, so you have to double the number of units for every stop…that gets cumbersome quickly. High speed sync is more useful when you’re working at close quarters, as in macro work, or studio portraiture.

      Glad you liked the videos! I’ll pass along the editing feedback.

  42. Scott, I bought your book yesterday. Outstanding read well worth the money! I have one question – when bouncing flash what would be your most typical zoom? I am assuming the closer you are to the bounce target, the wider the setting. Or do you nearly always keep it as wide as it goes? I’m using two SB800’s, a SB80, and I have a SB600 with an add-on optical trigger. I plan to get a couple more SB80’s as I find them. For now I am triggering with the on-board pop-up set to its lowest value, but I will be getting the new pocket wizard when it ships later this month.

    • Jerry, I normally leave it at 24mm, unless I’m trying to specifically control spill. Those new PW’s look pretty good! About time the cost came down, too. Hopefully they’ll also be more rugged.

  43. Hi Scott. I know this is an old thread, but what do you advise for Canon shooters? I guess the the SB80 is for nikon shooters, unless you spend and extra $100 per pocketwizard per flash …

  44. Hi Adam,
    I have a terrific article on my blog that details what flash I recommend for Canon shooters like myself, and exactly how it works: