Using Nikon Creative Lighting System: a.k.a “McNally-style”


If you have read my blog for any length of time you’ll know that I’m a big manual lighting kind of guy and I’m not much of the TTL, Creative Lighting System (CLS) type of Nikon shooter. I like the control I get with manual. Sure, it has it’s annoyances and may add a little extra time to your shoot but it puts the photographer in 100% control.

I’ve been reading Joe McNally’s new book “The Hot Shoe Diaries: Big Light From Small Flashes” and he talks an awful lot about CLS. And I mean an AWEFUL lot. So after reading it again and again, I decided to play around with it a bit.

CLS is great if you need to work fast and are running and gunning on a shoot. Why? Because you can shoot in Aperture Priority and the camera will meter the scene and tell your flashes what they need to output to get a proper exposure. You can further control your foreground to background ratio using exposure compensation. It’s also really convenient because if you’ve got a D70, D80, D90, D300, or D700 you don’t need to have a hot shoe flash as a Commander as you can use your pop-up flash.

CLS also has it’s limitations. The one that bothers me the most is the fact that the signal is line-of-sight (LOS) so your Commander unit has to be able to see your Remote flashes. Now, if you’re in a room with white walls the signal will bounce around a little, but not all that much. This is where radio triggers really shine because RF isn’t limited so much by LOS as infrared is.

In the shot above I put my SB800 on a lightstand with only the diffusion dome on. It was still pretty bright outside, so I beat down the California sun and got some saturation back in the sky my dialing in -1 EV (Exposure Compensation) and changing my camera’s white balance to Tungsten. This gave me a deep blue sky, but it makes EVERYTHING blue. So I put a full cut of CTO gel on my SB800 so it would warm up the light hitting my subject. Skin tones are nice and warm and my problem is solved. This was shot with my D90 at f8 1/100th ISO 200 @ 50mm with a Nikon 50mm f1.8 lens.

I call working this way “McNally Style” because it’s how he works with speedlights. It’s on a very rare occasion that he will shoot in Manual. He puts a lot of faith in Nikon CLS and rightfully so because he gets great results.

You can read more about Nikon CLS right here.


3 thoughts on “Using Nikon Creative Lighting System: a.k.a “McNally-style”

  1. Hello Steve,

    You referenced to look at the picture above in this article about Speedlight control but I think you forgot to add the picture.


    • Chris,

      Thanks for letting me know! I’m not sure who the culprit is (Blogo or
      Wordpress), but my HTML for the image got stripped out of the post
      when I published it from Blogo. Fixed now.

      Thanks again,


  2. Stephen, a question re: shooting M w/SB-800 or 900. Camera & flash are to be set to M ? In studio w/one light doing headshot, set camera to M, get light meter reading w/ambient, then set flash to appropriate 1/1, 1/2, 1/4…?

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