Nikon Flash for Z Cameras

bythom nikon speedlights

Nikon claims that the Z cameras are all CLS (Creative Lighting System) compatible. CLS is also known as i-TTL, and was Nikon's second attempt at a "digital compatible" flash system. While what Nikon suggests about compatibility is basically true, some wrinkles are present that you need to know about. Before I get to those, I'll point to Nikon's "current" CLS Speedlight flashes:

  • SB-5000 — top of the line, do everything, high-power flash
  • SB-700 — a bit less capable, but still strong all-around flash
  • SB-500 — a small, versatile flash that adds a video-friendly LED
  • SB-300 — the smallest, simplest flash, but with limited capabilities
  • R1C1 — a kit of components for Close-up work, consists of a single SU-800 controller and two SB-R200 remote lights
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The above is the complete list, and it's an important list to know, as the internal firmware of the recent cameras, including all the Z cameras, only fully supports these Speedlights (with the exception of the SB-700 for some reason, which does not link to the Flash Control menu in the camera; Nikon calls flashes that work with the in-camera menu as having Unified Flash Control). Other older CLS flashes, such as the SB-600, SB-800, SB-900, or SB-910 have to be controlled outside the Z camera menu system. It doesn't help that Nikon's Speedlight brochure isn't up to date (doesn't cover the Z's) and is also confusing as to all the options and dependencies, and what is and isn’t still being made.

At present, my suggestion for Z camera owners is that they pay closest attention to the SB-500 and SB-5000, as those are two most versatile units that are fully supported by the in-camera menu system on Z-mount cameras. I'm on record as saying that most Z System camera owners should at least have an SB-500 in their kit. If you're going to dabble with a Speedlight, the SB-500 is what I'd steer you towards. You can always use it as an optical wireless remote if you then later step up to a bigger flash on camera.

The Z50 has a built-in flash unit, which is somewhat similar to the SB-300 in capabilities (i.e., lower power and few features). 

If you stick a CLS flash in the hot shoe of a Z camera, it'll work. You may have to make the settings on the flash and not with the camera menus/controls, but it'll work. With a caveat: the Autofocus Assist Lamp in all the Speedlights does not work with the Z cameras. That's because it uses low visibility red patterns to throw on subjects, and the Z system autofocus sensors are on the the blue/green photosites rows, and are sensitive to blue/green light, not red. This is one reason why I've asked "where's the Z System Flash?" Lack of flash focus assist is a primary drawback to event shooting with the Z6 and Z7, for instance, as you can't get flash assist for focus in really low light. 

Wireless capabilities are another area where we have slight issues with flash on the Z cameras:

  • The Z50 internal flash doesn't support optical wireless. You'll need a Commander-capable Speedlight in the hot shoe for that.
  • To perform optical wireless on a Zf, Zfc, Z30, Z50, Z5, Z6, Z6 II, Z7, Z7 II, Z8, or Z9 you need a flash in the hot shoe that can serve as Commander. Only an SB-5000 or SU-800 can provide four groups; the SB-500 and SB-700 provide only two.
  • To perform radio wireless on a Z5, Z6, Z6 II, Z7, Z7 II, Z8, or Z9, you need a WR-R10 or WR-R11b mounted in the remote control connector on the side of the camera (the Z30, Z50, Zfc, and Zf don't have this connector, and thus don't support radio wireless flash). That accessory is pricey, but highly useful and more reliable than optical wireless.

The real "gotcha" that tends to surprise Z camera owners has to do with the viewfinder. Normally, almost everyone always shoots with Custom Setting #D8 (Apply settings to live view) to On (in some cameras and firmware updates, that’s moved to #D9). That means you see the White Balance, Picture Control, and exposure settings in play while you're composing. But obviously, the flash isn't firing while you're composing, so its contribution isn't reflected. Indeed, Nikon has slowly moved from fill flash only to more of a subject/fill flash balance in their defaults over time, so suddenly your viewfinder goes darker—or completely dark in some studio situations with certain settings—when you're using flash. If you're using flash, CSM #D8 (for Z6, Z7; may be a different setting on other cameras) will be automatically set to Off

About third-party flash: here we have the same situation as with lenses. Nikon has been a proprietary shop that doesn't license its mounts or communications to others. The hot shoe on a Nikon has five pins (only two are needed to trigger a flash and are defined by a standard), and features a very complex signal process between flash and camera. Third parties have to reverse engineer what Nikon is doing, and they don't always get that 100% right. Nikon themselves have stumbled over this a few times as they made small and subtle changes to the signaling levels and what they mean. 

After the Z9 was announced, Nikon also produced a joint press release that identified Nissin and Profoto as flash partners. The exact wording was “will be collaborating with...” Exactly what that means still hasn’t been completely revealed, but it was promised that there would be “increased compatibility” with Nissin and Profoto products in the future. I’ve verified that Profoto products work well with my Z9. Eventually I’ll get around to evaluating Nissin, as well.

I've long been hesitant to commit to third-party solutions with flash because of Nikon’s proprietary signaling. Too often I've found something that works only to find that it doesn't work with the next camera, next firmware update, or next small change Nikon makes to the signaling. Over time, the third-party makers have slowly dialed that in so that most tend to work. But I still think there's potential for disruption you need to be aware of. 

For example, the old PocketWizard products don’t work as is with Z System cameras, for instance. You need to purchase a new Raven controller and updated FlexTT5 receivers; if you have older FlexTT5s, you’ll need to pay for firmware updates to those older Pocket Wizard devices so that they speak the new PocketWizard E protocol. 

Updated to clarify Unified Flash Control issues with the SB-700. Updated the #D8 comment. Updated Z30, Z50 comments. Fixed missing Z9 mention. Updated availability and compatibility comments. Added third-party partner comment. Added Zf. Updated the AF Assist pixel problem.

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