Nikon CLS and SU-800

Strobes (flashes or speedlights) can be quite confusing when multiple units are to be used. Nikon’s Creative Lighting System (CLS) is the easiest way to deal with this confusion. This is a system which does remote triggering of speedlights, high speed sync, flash color correction, and advanced i-TTL fill flash…. everything wirelessly. Nikon launched the Nikon SU-800 as a control unit for its CLS system. The communication happens over infra-red. Over the last many years, this commander unit has remained unchanged and now there are third party options available that also work with the CLS. Recently I was in the market searching for a commander unit to control my speedlights remotely. This article is a summary of what I learnt and a short review of the Nikon SU-800, that I finally bought.



The CLS basics

There are many options available for triggering the flashes remotely. Market is full of options that work on radio waves, IR and cords. However CLS also includes various other features, some of which I have listed above. For me the most important are the i-TTL metering, flash color correction and the remote triggering.

Commander – Unit that can trigger other flashes in CLS and also controls the amount of light output. This is also a speedlight mode where it functions in the ‘Commander’ mode and triggers the other flashes.

Master – Master is actually an old terminology where the unit just triggered the ‘slave’ flashes without any control on the amount of light output. In present day use, this was also used to indicate a difference in how many groups of flashes the unit is communicating to. The number of groups that it is communicating to defines whether to call it master or commander but in general use, these two terms are frequently interchanged. In fact now Nikon uses only the ‘commander’ terminology.

Remote – Speedlights that get triggered remotely. Sometimes these are also called ‘slaves’, which apparently is wrong.

i-TTL metering – Through The Lens metering. The camera sensors judge the amount of light needed for the subject, through the lens, and manage the amount of light from the flash units by playing around with the time the flash lasts. This is the main feature of the Nikon CLS system in my opinion. Even more than the remote triggering aspect. The Speedlight fires pre-flashes (actually a multiple number of pre-flashes) before the main flash, which are then picked up by the flash units TTL flash sensor. This information along with the metering system in the camera, enables the exact light exposure. The pre-flashes are so close to the main flash that it appears like a single flash in most instants.

More about flash modes – Flash Modes


Why a dedicated commander unit?

I wanted a commander unit which I could use with my Nikon bodies that did not have a built in flash which could be used as a commander. Some of the camera’s pop-up flashes have this capability built into them, though usually in a limited manner. There were two options. One was to buy a regular Nikon speedlight which had the commander mode functionality or buy a dedicated commander unit (SU-800). For this I checked out my collection of photographs where I had relied on CLS. More than half of them were in vertical format (portrait mode when talking in terms of prints). A regular speedlight that can support commander mode, would have been a heavy accessory mounted on the hot-shoe. Apart from being uncomfortable, I have had a camera where the hot-shoe became loose after some months of using a speedlight with the camera in vertical orientation. I have enough speedlights for my work so I did not want the flash capability in the new unit.

The obvious choice was therefore a dedicated commander unit. Nikon SU-800 is a dedicated commander unit without any flash (strobe) built into it. Now it has been a few years since Nikon released their SU-800 and now ‘Debao’ has been able to copy the same design now and come out with their own version of the SU-800 unit. VKTech Debao SU-800 is one such unit.

Advantages with Debao SU800
Powerful signal so the effective range is better than Nikon’s own SU800
Uses 2 AA batteries which are quite common
Better looking form than the Nikon version

Disadvantages with Debao SU800
Never heard the name before and no idea about its reliability
Sometimes fails to trigger third party speedlights (eg- Yongnuo flashes)
Some of the flash units which are capable of working in i-TTL mode work only in manual mode.
Heavier than the Nikon counterpart, with batteries installed.

Advantages with Nikon SU800
It is a Nikon after-all. Less chances of compatibility issues with present and future models of Nikon cameras and speedlights.
Any failure in Nikon camera electronics due to problem with SU-800 will be covered by Nikon.

Disadvantages with Nikon SU800
Fails under sunlight where Debao’s offering just might work.


What did I buy?

After analyzing the advantages and disadvantages, I defined my own use. Almost always indoors with white walls and umbrellas! So for me the limitations of Nikon’s SU800 were not a problem. Yes, the odd sized CR123A battery from the era gone by, was not a comfortable thought but then it is light and powerful. Lithium batteries are common in this size and so it is easy to stock them up (Batteries). The Nikon SU-800 is sold as a standalone unit or as a part of a set meant for close-up/macro photography. I ordered only the Nikon’s SU-800.


Nikon SU-800 reviewed

The box contains – Nikon SU-800 with a softcase, the usual documentation. Interestingly the users manual is the same as that in the close-up/macro set. Nikon does not provide any batteries with its flash units and even this one was not an exception. I had ordered a couple of the CR123A batteries through Amazon and they reached me just in time for this review. The unit supports wireless communication channels 1,2,3 and 4. The speedlights can be grouped into three different groups – A, B and C for more creative control on the lighting.

The commander unit when mounted looks like a miniature flash and has an odd looking shape. I somehow like the appearance of Debao unit better. The LCD display is very clear. Thanks to the well laid out and self explanatory buttons, it is very easy to set it up. First thing that is visible is a small switch next to the battery compartment. This is for setting up the unit to function as a usual commander unit or for close-up flashes. I set it up for the commander mode.

Next came the setting up of the wireless communication channel. Channel is the communication language that the commander uses to speak to its remote flash units. For the communication to be effective, all have to speak the same language. I set the channel to ‘1’ on the SU-800, as well as on both the Nikon speedlights.

For the testing the Nikon SU-800, I set up two speedlights, one on each side of the camera. I set right side speedlight in group A and the left side speedlight in group B. This way the exposure compensation can be varied for each of the speedlights independently. Setting up variable amount of light adds depth to the images. Equal amount of light from all sides makes the images look flat and two-dimensional.

Left speedlight with EV -1

(In the image above,  group B was set to -1 EV on the SU-800, which effectively reduced the output from the left speedlight. The right side speedlight was set to group A with no exposure compensation. Notice the dark shadow on the left side of the backdrop and also the shadows on the men’s shirt and face.)

Right speedlight with EV -1

(In this image, the speedlight on the left side was given no exposure compensation but the one on the right side which was set as group A, was adjusted to -1 EV, on the SU-800. Notice the dark shadow on the right of the backdrop.)


The SU800 was very effective and easy to use. Nikon SU-800 works without any errors in my largish room. Sometimes when I used to use my camera’s pop-up flash as the commander, the remote units at times would not fire, especially when they were not exactly in the line of sight or hidden behind umbrellas. With Nikon SU-800, this problem has been taken care of. I guess that the IR is strong and the reflected light also somehow works in CLS. Secondly, there is no bright light from the camera, unlike when the pop-up flash is used as commander. This is helpful while photographing people.

I have not tried SU-800 outdoors, in bright daylight. Going by the fact that this works on IR, failures can be expected in such settings. For outdoor use, I recommend using simple radio triggers and calculating the exposure using external flash-meters rather than relying on i-TTL.

It has been a wise decision, buying the Nikon SU-800. Even though its range as per the specifications is less than the Debao’s but in my usage, not even once did I find this problematic. For indoor use even in a large studio, Nikon SU-800 works perfectly and seamlessly.


With the release of SB-5000 speedlight and WR-R10 wireless controller, Nikon has given an indication that in future they will also shift to radiowaves. However till the time, this becomes mainstream with Nikon or they come out with an improved version of SU800 or WR-R10, which combines both IR and radiowaves, I’ll stick with the Nikon SU800.

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