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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That's the complete list, and it's an important list to know, as the internal firmware of the recent cameras, including the Z cameras, only fully supports these (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 also 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.

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. I'm on record as saying that most Z6 and Z7 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 sensitive to blue 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 Z5, Z6, or Z7, you also 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, or Z7, you need a WR-R10 mounted in the remote control connector on the side of the camera (the Z50 doesn't have this connector, and thus doesn't support radio wireless flash). That accessory is tough to find, 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) On. 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 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. 

I've long been hesitant to commit to third-party solutions with flash because of that. Too often I've found something that works only to find that it doesn't work with the next camera 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. The big names that charge realistic prices for their products, such as Pocket Wizard, Profoto, and Metz seem to do a better job of keeping their products working with new Nikon gear via firmware updates than do the low-cost Chinese knock-off competitors such as Godox and Nissin.

Updated to clarify Unified Flash Control issues with the SB-700. 
Updated the #D8 comment.

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