A bigger SB900 issue - my story

Started Oct 1, 2009 | Discussions thread
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Paul Grupp
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A bigger SB900 issue - my story
Oct 1, 2009

Like many professional photographers, I was shocked and dismayed the first time I used my new SB-900 flash professionally -- it went into thermal shutdown at a wedding reception, and left me wondering if there was something wrong with my flash.

After reading the manual more carefully and chatting with other pro users of the SB-900, I learned that you could simply disable the shutdown feature, and turn off the warning beep, and the SB-900 would simply behave like any other flash from Canon or Nikon. I was once again happy with my purchase of two SB900s and two D700s.

Fastforward ahead about 10 weddings -- I arrived at the groom's house to take a few getting ready pictures and removed my D700 and flash from the bag. I flipped the flash head up to bounce off the ceiling, and the flash started to fire multiple times randomly, while the AF illumination on the front blinked crazily. You can imagine my consternation, and the immediate loss of credibility I suffered. The groom and his family were looking at me like I was some kind of idiot. Then, when I actually tried to take a picture, the flash refused to fire. Quick switch to my backup kit (a Canon 40D and 580EXII).

Strange behavior, right? So that night, I put the SB900 on a different D700 body. It behaved perfectly. So then I tried a DIFFERENT SB900 on the first D700 body. Same bad behavior - wierd flashing of the strobe and AF lights. As I attempted to troubleshoot the problem there suddenly was a large "pop" from the SB900. It was fried.

So I sent both the D700 and the SB900 off to Nikon with a careful explanation of what was wrong.

Yesterday, I got the D700 back. With a sinking feeling, I read through the repair invoice -- they adjusted the AF, they "checked" the hot shoe, they checked this and that -- but not one repair or parts replacement listed on the sheet. Uh oh. Sure enough -- I put an SB900 on the body, and the same old symptoms showed up instantly. How could they have missed this? Then, just to be sure, I put a brand new out of the box just delivered today from Amazon never been used SB900 on the D700. Again, same light show, no joy.

So now I'm mad. I notice that there is a LOT of wiggle to the flash in the D700's hot shoe. I look at the clearance between the contacts on the hot shoe and the ground plane. Clearly, the distance the contacts move when the flash is wiggled is greater than the distance from the contact to the ground plane. I surmised that what must be happening is that when I adjust the flash head direction, it puts enough stress on the flash to make it wiggle in the hot shoe, which in turn causes the flash contacts to short to ground.

A quick google confirms my suspicions. There are a lot of people experiencing exactly the same issue with SB900s and D700s that I am. Why Nikon didn't replace my hot shoe when they had my camera for repair is beyond me. But I have eight weddings coming up in the next four weeks and I can't afford to send one of my D700s on another two-week vacation to Nikon.

So I got out a big set of wide-jaw pliers, and found I could get a purchase on the back of the hot shoe. I VERY gently squeezed the two sides together, narrowing the opening where the flash slides in. As I did this, I noticed that the top flanges also pointed down slightly more. Promising. When I slid the flash in, this time there was almost no wiggle at all. And best of all, the symptoms vanished. The flash works perfectly, without any lightshow. I grabbed the flash body and wiggled it around -- no issue. Flash fires properly every time. Problem solved. Too bad I had to do it myself. Clearly, squeezing the hot shoe puts a lot of pressure on whatever is used to mount it to the body. I can imagine that applying too much pressure on the pliers could easily snap the hot shoe off the camera. But -- for me, this was an emergency, and I took the chance. If you try it and break your camera, don't blame me.

It is obvious to me that the tolerances of the hotshoe fit are too sloppy on the D700. Additionally, I suspect that the combination of the great size and weight of the SB900, combined with the relatively soft and bendable material of the D700 hotshoe, conspire to make the connection loosen up over time, with the end result being that eventually, one or more of the flash hotshoe pins contact the ground plane, resulting in unpredictable, or even damaging behaviour.

I think Nikon needs to seriously consider a recall of the D700 -- perhaps they could replace the hotshoe with one that has tighter tolerances and a greater rigidity with a higher resistance to bending as the SB900 wiggles in the shoe during normal use. Because my guess is, sooner or later, every D700/SB900 owner who uses their camera a lot is going to see this problem - especially if the move the bounce head a lot, torqueing on that connection every time.

If you've stuck with me to the end - congratulations -- you have stamina! For those looking for something to whine about regarding the SB900, I think you've finally found what you're looking for. I think the thermal shutdown issue is completely overblown, but this one -- this one looks like it'll be with us for a long time.

It'll be interesting to see what Nikon does about this. For now, I'll be carrying large jaw pliers in my trunk in case the issue surfaces again.


 Paul Grupp's gear list:Paul Grupp's gear list
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX100 Nikon D700 Nikon D800 Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3 Nikon D750
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