Nikon SB-400 speedlight not bright enough

Today I bought a Nikon SB-400 speedlight at B&H Photo in Manhattan for $80 (in the used section.) I thought this was a good deal. However, when I tried using the speedlight with my camera (D70S) the quality of the flash seems quite bad. At full power, the picture was WAY too dark even at f1.8 and 1/60th shutter speed. When turned up to bounce off the ceiling, the picture was even darker. At this time I have no way of showing you a picture as an example, but take my word for it, it’s very dark indeed. It’s the story with all the other flash modes (Aperture priority, which I never use anyway, seemed slightly briter and the tone was more red and natural looking.) Still far too bright.

I am very upset about this. Is there something I am not doing right? The batteries are fully charged, by the way.

I’m not familiar with the SB-400, but, while judging by its guide number it’s not a particularly powerful flash, it should do the job for regular point-and-shoot type situations.

First, give me more info:

What ISO were you shooting at?
How far away was the subject?
You absolutely sure about the shutter speed?
Have you tried the same photos with the flash on and off, all other settings exactly the same, to see if it’s firing and synchronizing correctly.

While you get me those answers, I’m going to look over an SB-400 manual to see what settings that flash has.

Did you try it in TTL mode? (I assume it has a TTL mode, like the other Nikon flashes–you really shouldn’t be in any mode other than TTL unless you have a good reason not to be.)

I have tried many different distances and subjects, it’s all very dark. It’s still visbile (without the flash, it’s completely black, so it is synching properly.) But it seems too dark.

Upon further reading, it seems this flash cannot be used in manual mode. I set the camera’s flash setting to TTL.

In Aperture Priority mode, it’s brighter, and the lighting is more natural. But I hate AP mode. I never use it.

And, if you have the camera and flash and a subject handy (it could be anything), do this experiment for me:

Put the flash in the regular i-TTL, auto flash mode. Set your D70S’s shutter speed to 1/250. Set the ISO to, say, 400 ISO. At f/4, in a relatively dark room, take a picture of something about six feet away from you. What do you see? It should be pretty much nothing. Now turn the flash on. Report your results.

Just glancing at the SB-400 I see there’s no (on flash) way to bump it up a stop or two. Normally, I have to go up at least a half or full stop if I point my (SB-600) at the ceiling, or at a 45 degree angle. But it does give much, much better results when I can do that.

What were you shooting, what other ambient light was around you? At f/1.8 and a flash, regardless of how dim it was, I’m surprised you wound up with a dark picture.

Have you checked the EXIF data? The thing is, when you added the external flash the camera is going to adjust for that. Not that it’s going to lie to you, it’s still going to shoot what it says on the display, I’m just saying it’s going to stop down the aperture or speed up the shutter to compensate for the extra light in the room (hence manually stopping up the flash when pointed upwards, the camera doesn’t know I did that).

With TTL, the flash should usually compensate properly for bouncing. I don’t dial up or down my SB-900 based on whether it is bounced or not–the camera’s flash metering is smart enough to figure that out. Perhaps the SB-400 is different. Still, if I’m on-camera flashing, I shoot 95+% bounce flash, and rarely find the need to use exposure compensation.

Could you tell me the exact settings that need to be set in the camera’s menu in order to get the speedlight working optimally?

Right now the Flash Mode is set to “TTL.” Is there anything else on top of that which needs to be configured in the camera’s option screens?

I did the experiment you asked above. One picture was pitch black (without flash) as expected; the other one was visible, but unacceptably dark. It was like the only thing lighting the room was faint moonlight. I will upload pics in a minute.

I am leaning towards something being wrong with the flash.

Hmm…that does not sound right.

Looking through the documentation, it does not appear the SB-400 works in manual mode except with a D40. I wonder if you have some sort of exposure compensation set on the flash (or perhaps on the D70s).

Well, boyo, here is the shot I took. With Manual Mode on. f4, 250. Not too good.

I’m disappointed to know the flash doesn’t work in manual mode. I guess that means I’ll have to use it only in the abominable Aperture Priority mode, unless there’s some other way of doing it.

OK, I have a spare D70 someplace in the closet that I just dug up. Not sure if it’s the same as the D70s, menu-wise, but it should be similar.

Hit “Menu”

Select the pencil icon.

Go to #10, which is hopefully “Exp Comp”. You want that to say “off”
Go to #19, you want that to be TTL

Do those settings align with yours?

Perhaps I have TTL turned off. I don’t get a series of flashes, but I (sometimes, not always) get a red grid from the front of the flash…anyways,

Argent, have you experimented with the front diffuser being up or down? Have you tried taking pictures with the external flash removed and using just the on camera flash (just to rule out a problem with the camera)?

The flash doesn’t have an “aperture priority” mode. Just a TTL mode. What do you hate TTL? If you’re doing on-camera flash photography, you really don’t need to venture outside TTL. I never shoot anything but TTL when my flash is on-camera, and that’s how pretty much all the pros I shoot with shoot. There are rare instances we’ll switch to manual, but usually TTL, especially with Nikon flash units, is fine.

Definitely too dark, and a horrible shadow for having an external flash…you’re sure it’s firing, right?
Just for kicks, I’d try having the flash ON, but putting my hand in front of it just to see how big of a difference it makes when the camera expects the flash but doesn’t get it.

Yeah…that’s not supposed to happen. I’ve never heard of that. Sounds like a synchronization issue.

Found your problem. Your EXIF shows you have an exposure bias of -2 2/3 of a stop. That would be the source of your problems.

ETA: Sorry, should explain how to fix. See the +/- button near your shutter? Press that and hold it down. It should say -2.7 if the EXIF is to be believed. Dial that up to 0.0. You should be golden.

What’s not supposed to happen?
Either way, it’s always worked well and I know how to make it do what I want to make it do, like I said earlier, I just manually bump it up a stop or two.

Exposure bias? I assumed you downloaded the picture, I just used the EXIF viewer plugin and didn’t see anything odd, but yeah, I suppose anything stopped down that far is going to be dark. I know what buttons you’re talking about (I have a D70) but I can’t say I’ve ever used them.

Wait, I take that back, I think I may have had something screwy (like this) go wrong but there was a give away somewhere on the camera, either on the LCD on the top or in the lens (big -1 or something) that took me twenty minutes of fidgeting to figure out. I think I came to the same answer that I had to hold that button down to fix it. Yup, I remember now, I had my flash as bright as it could go, slow shutter, aperture wide open, still couldn’t get my pictures to look right.

This fixed it.

I was shooting in bright sunlight and forgot to change it back.

Here is the picture I just took, in Manual mode. When I say that, I am talking about the setting on the camera, NOT the flash. The flash does not have any settings, just an on/off switch!

Now I’m quite happy with the thing. Good to know I made a good purchase.

The red beam in your photos. I have never seen that happen.

Misunderstanding, they’re not in the photos, the flash uses it to meter the light (or the distance to the subject?) before the picture is taken (when you half press the shutter button).