Monday, May 14, 2007

Review: Nikon SB-20

My original plan was to do a Sunpak 383 vs Nikon SB-20 comparison article, but the two flashes really are in separate price brackets. While I will compare the SB-20 to the Sunpak 383 in this review, it is primarily about the SB-20. So before I get into the SB-20, lets give an overview of the Sunpak 383 and the options for cheap off-camera capable flashes in general.

Popular Shoe-Mount Flashes for Off-Camera Use

The standard for low cost off-camera flash (learn to light at Strobist!) are the used SB-24 ($70+ including S/H on eBay) or the used SB-26 ($90+ including S/H on eBay). Many have written about these, so I won't spend any time on them (especially since I've never even touched one).

But, if you want to get a new flash with manual capabilities and not spend a lot, the Sunpak 383 ($80 including shipping on Amazon) and Vivitar 285HV ($95 including shipping on Amazon) are your main options. All of these have a safe sync voltage for modern digital cameras (including the Canon 350D/Digital Rebel XT. Please note theVivitar 285 (non-HV) does not have a safe sync voltage, so don't buy a used 285 and then get mad at me that it fried your camera!

If you have $80+ to spend and some time, get an SB-24 or SB-26 on eBay. It might take a while to find a good deal on a flash in good condition, but it is an excellent way to start.

If you have $80-$90 to spend on your first flash and you want a new one (or don't want to struggle with auctions), I say get the Sunpak 383. The Vivitar 285HV is a really close second, but the swivel option on the Sunpak 383 is worth it. The swivel option gives you a lot more flexibility with stand placement, allows ceiling bounce in portrait orientation (or wall bounce in landscape), and the ability to turn the sensor to face the subject when using an umbrella.

Both the 383 and 285HV are powerful, reliable, and can take a sync cable for off-camera flash. Be warned that the Sunpak has a proprietary sync connector (an extended 2.5mm phono jack), but I've found the standard length plugs from RadioShack work if you use a rubber band to hold the plug in. The 383 also lacks a zoom function, but I don't find that to be a big problem since any time I really want to control light spill I use a snoot.

Both flashes also work in auto mode: a photocell measures the reflected light from the subject and quenches the flash when a threshold is reached based on the aperture of the camera. This allows the flash to automatically compensate for a varying distance without depending on special circuitry in the camera. Both also have manual controls (switches) and no LCD screen, but sometimes I wonder if that is a problem or an advantage.

The Nikon SB-20

The Nikon SB-20 was originally designed as an autofocus flash for the F501 and the last Nikon flash which included manual settings but did not include an LCD screen. SB-20s are also very common on the used market now as people sell off their father's and grandfather's equipment. In my opinion, the SB-20 is now the best flash value on the used market. I got mine for $10.99 total because the guy didn't realize that corroded battery connectors prevented it from powering up. And I can even get a new battery door for $8 on eBay!

Look at what the Nikon SB-20 includes for the low, low price of $30 (including S/H) on eBay:

Nikon Quality: This unit actually feels a bit more solid than my Sunpak 383. Not that the 383 isn't solid, but the little things like the switches on the SB20 feel just a bit better. You know, even though the flash design is twenty years old, it still works like a champ. Overall, it is also a more compact flash than most and you won't worry about snapping the flash head off.

Manual and Auto Modes: The SB-20 includes both manual, auto, and TTL flash modes. Of course, TTL only works on older Nikon film cameras, but the manual and auto modes work fine on any brand of camera. In the manual mode, the flash will just pump out the desired power (from 1/16 to FULL). In auto mode, the photocell on the front of the flash will quench the tube when it detects enough light has hit the subject (exactly like the 383 or 285HV).

The SB-20 also has an infrared auto-focus assist light (behind the red transparent faceplate). So far, I haven't figured out a way to enable it (I'd love to stick a switch on somewhere) without taking the flash apart and risking damage.

Can Be Used on Any Camera: Wait, you may ask, aren't SB-20s Nikon-dedicated? Yes, but you can easily take out the Nikon dedicated pins and turn it into a generic flash just like the Sunpak 383 or Vivitar 285HV. See right for the finished product (I didn't have the right screwdriver so I couldn't take it apart again to show the inside).

First, unscrew the four phillips head screws holding the bottom plate and hotshoe on. Pull the plate off, being careful to not tug on the connecting wires too much. Remove the screw(s) that hold the hot shoe circuit board to the hot shoe and pull out all the pins but the center one (if I remember correctly, the springs stay in place on the board). Put it back together, and stash the extra pins somewhere safe. I just wrapped my pins up in a plastic bag and stuffed them inside a cavity inside the SB-20 so I wouldn't lose them.

After taking out the signal pins, the SB-20 works just like an undedicated flash and I've successfully mounted it on my Canon Digital Rebel XT (350D). It actually makes a pretty darn good on-camera flash with the tilt, zoom, and auto settings. And, since the mod above isn't a permanent change, you could always put it back together in the future to resell it.

Tilt and Zoom: The real oddity about this flash is its zoom and tilt capability using a single rotating reflector around the flash tube. The tilt is adjusted with a dial on the side of the flash (shown at right) and it includes a -7 degree setting (which is very useful for close up shots and lacking on the Sunpak 383). The zoom is adjusted by rotating the outside diffuser cylinder (in the picture at right, turn the textured black wheel on the right of the image). The pattern molded into the plastic controls the spread of the light. The current zoom is also indicated through a clear window on the tilt adjust dial (upper left in the picture). For auto modes, I think you also need to flip the zoom switch on the back of the unit to get it to calculate distance correctly.

The nice part about this system is the entire tilt-zoom assembly is compact and relatively durable since it doesn't stick out. The down-side of using a rotating cylinder to control the zoom is a small amount of light leakage around the sides of the diffuser, making it a bit harder to control where the light falls. But that is easily addressed with some cardboard and tape!

PC and Power Connection: Like any good off-camera speedlight, the SB20 includes a standard PC connection and an external power connection (shown at right). I haven't actually used either (I use a hot shoe adapter to an eBay wireless trigger) but I'm sure they work fine.

Is the Nikon SB-20 Right For You?

If you've got the cash, make your first flash a Sunpak 383, Vivitar 285HV, SB-24, or an SB-26. Of course, if you have tons of cash, buy the newer model flash for your camera which supports TTL! But most people don't have that kind of cash just starting out. The SB-20 makes an excellent second or third off-camera flash because it can easily be stuck on an optical trigger or a wireless trigger. It would be super effective as a background light or kicker (you could probably gel and snoot it too, but it might be a bit harder with the rounded head).

If you are truly poor, you know, grad-student poor, then the SB-20 might make a great first flash. You could mod it and start out with it as an on-camera flash with a ton of capability, and then later on get a wireless trigger on eBay to start playing with off-camera flash ($27-$30 including shipping, I recommend magic_trigger). You'll probably also need a PC cable or hot-shoe adapter ($6 from magic_trigger). Yes, the trigger and connector are more than the flash, but it is well worth going wireless, and much more reliable. Then, if you decide it is for you, get an SB-2X, Sunpak 383, etc and keep the SB-20 as a second (or third) light.

I've used the SB-20 with both an eBay wireless trigger and an eBay optical trigger. The optical trigger won't work outside unless the triggering flash is directly facing it, but works great inside and is super reliable. The wireless trigger seems to work well, although a week ago it started malfunctioning (a full-power blast, then nothing until I unplugged and plugged it in again). After swapping batteries the problem went away, so I expect it was battery related.

How can you get one? Search for "Nikon SB-20" on eBay and you'll usually see around five to ten units listed. Easy as that -- I've seen a lot of SB-20s floating around and they often don't get a lot of bidders. Garage sales, flea markets, and swap meets might also be great places to get one -- especially from someone who thinks they won't work on digital cameras!

The Nikon SB-20 is quite an oddball as flashes go, but that works in a poor photographer's favor. An SB-20 will give you a lot of bang for your buck, and for some of us, every buck matters!

Update: Here's the current SB-20s for sale on eBay right now! Mouse-over to see the details, click to see more options. I love these little gadgets...


Cosmin said...

Great review of the advantages and problems with the different flash units. The three you described were on my shopping list but I will most probably have a SB-20 for 15 euros, locally. Thanks!

David Wong said...

Excellent review - I was able to snatch a sb-20 off of ebay at a nice price ($25 with shipping). But haven't found anything low cost since. Would love to get the sb-24/8 series, but boy they go up high, fast.

Although missing the swivel function, tilt and power adjustment is nice for off camera work. I am waiting for Cactus Remote control to really test this out.

Mikhail said...

Just came across your blog and this review. Very handy as I plan on picking a SB 20 up for $30CAD this weekend! Although Im going to have trouble finding a way to attached a snoot and the ilk to it... any suggestions?


Sean said...


I've actually got a plan for snooting the SB-20, but I have yet to actually do anything :( The basic idea is to figure out a way to rigidly attach a rectangular cardboard tube on the head (the same size as my Sunpak 383 head). Then I should be able to use the same snoot for both items.

As for attachment methods, I'm thinking of some sort of cardboard shape that fits over the rounded area of the flash and gets rubber banded on. That'll be the hard part.

Joe said...

which ebay trigger do you use with the sb-20?

Sean said...

The four channel models I have are marked RD604 (that's the receiver, the transmitters are RF604). The same company/supplier also makes RD616 and RF616 (a 16 channel model). From what I've heard, you can't mix and match 604s and 616s.

The triggers may not be made anymore, but they are very similar to the cactus triggers you see on eBay.

To connect to the SB-20, I use plug the 1/8" plug on my triggers into a hotshoe with a 1/8" jack on it.

Anonymous said...

can i use it with my pentax kx?
this flash have it's auto mode right?

Michael D said...

It's noted on the first views of the flash in the instruction book, but never mentioned again that the narrow slot across the center of the top is for holding a bounce card. I never would have noticed if they hadn't mentioned it.

luke said...

Thanks for the review. I snatched one of these on amazon for $18. I have a 5D and was using it directly on the hotshoe without any modifications. But then I thought maybe this old Nikon flash has a high sync voltage. Does anyone know the sync voltage on the hotshoe of this flash? I am planning on using this flash for doing weddings. The workaround is to use a remote trigger on the hotshoe with the flash mounted on that with a PC sync cord to the 5D, avoiding direct voltage on the 5D, but it's a cumbersome setup. Thanks again for the review.