Nikon has recently released Speedlight SB-500 – a new compact flash. In the company's line-up of speedlights, Nikon SB-500 represents a lower-end mid-range flashgun that stands between SB-700 and SB-300. In this review, we are taking a closer look at Speedlight SB-500 and comparing it to SB-700, which is also a mid-range flash.
Nikon Speedlight SB-500 is significantly more compact than SB-700. It is noticeably smaller and about 40% lighter (226 g / 8 oz vs. 360 g / 12.7 oz.). It is powered by only two AA batteries unlike SB-700, which is powered by four. So, if you consider the weight with the batteries, the difference is approximately twofold.
Both flashes work great with DSLR's, but considering the size, SB-500 is better suited for use with Nikon COOLPIX compact cameras.
Despite its small size, Nikon SB-500 is quite powerful. If you look at the advertised Guide Numbers, you can see that SB-500 has a GN of 24, and SB-700 is rated at 28. Typically, Nikon specifies the Guide Numbers for its flashes at 35 mm flash zoom. Speedlight SB-500, however, is fixed at 24 mm, whereas SB-700 has a zoom head. So, to have a fair comparison, we need to look at the numbers for the same frame coverage. At 24 mm, the bigger Nikon SB-700 actually outputs slightly less light (GN 23). Thus, all things being equal, the new SB-500 flash is actually a bit more powerful than its bigger brother. This means that, when used with light modifiers, SB-500 can be equally useful in terms of light output. This is because, often times, you want your flash to be set to the widest zoom position when using softboxes, umbrellas, and diffusers alike. (See, for example, our tests with a LumiQuest softbox).
Now, that we've established that Nikon SB-500 is not shy on power, the question is how fast it recycles. With only two AA batteries, it cannot be too fast. Indeed, with Alkaline batteries, it takes Speedlight SB-500 4 seconds to recharge after a full-power pop, while SB-700 has an impressive recycling time of 2.5 seconds. Not only that, you get about 100 full-power flashes out of SB-500 on a single set of batteries, while SB-700 can deliver 160 pops. It's worth mentioning, that with NiMH batteries, the recycling time of SB-500 slightly improves and goes down to 3.5 seconds, while SB-7000 maintains the same time regardless of the battery type. Both units, gain about 30% in the number of flashes when used with NiMH batteries.
Flash head is a very important component of a portable hot-shoe flash, because it can give you many bouncing options when used on-camera. We were happy to see that SB-500 is not that much limited compared to SB-700. Both flash heads swivel left and right full 180 degrees. SB-500's head can tilt up to 90 degrees with stops at 60 and 75 degrees. SB-700 adds -7, 45, and 75 degree stops, which are nice to have, but it is not really a big advantage.
Where Nikon SB-500 really lacks is the flash zoom. As we mentioned, it does not have a zoom motor and always stays at 24 mm. Nikon SB-700 has a full-featured zoom head (which can go from 24 mm to 120 mm) with 8 different zoom positions. Additionally, SB-700 features a built-in wide-angle diffusion panel to get the frame coverage as wide as 14 mm.
The interfaces of the two Nikon's mid-range speedlights are very different. SB-700 has a large LCD screen and some buttons and switches. The screen menus are intuitive, and they allow to control all functions of the flash. Speedlight SB-500 features one switch, two buttons, and a few LED's. Such a simplistic interface design makes SB-500 very easy to use. However, as a result, some of the functions must be controlled via in-camera flash menu, which means that you need to have a camera body that is capable of doing it.
Quite surprisingly, for such a small unit, Nikon SB-500 is loaded with features. It supports the i-TTL (both, Standard and Balanced) and Manual flash modes, though it does not have the Distance-Priority Manual flash mode that can be found on SB-700. SB-500 is compatible with Nikon Creative Lighting System (CLS), and not only it can serve as a remote flash, but also as a master unit (controlled via in-camera menus).
Nikon Speedlight SB-500 supports modeling flash, flash value lock (FV lock), auto FP high-speed sync, rear-curtain sync, exposure compensation, slow sync, and firmware updates. It has a thermal cut-out and standby functions. However, unlike Nikon SB-700, it is missing AF-assist light, which can be critical in low-light situations.
Even though the wireless functions of SB-500 are very impressive, they are more limited than the ones of SB-700. When used as a remote, SB-500 is always set to Channel 3, and it can only belong to the groups A and B (the group C is not supported). SU-4 type wireless mode (the "dumb" optical triggering) is also not available with SB-500.
Nikon Speedlight SB-500 is currently the only Nikon flash equipped with an LED light. The light has a maximum output level of approximately 100 lx at 3.3 ft (1 m). It is not very bright, but it can actually be helpful when recording movies or even capturing still images. For stills, you would only want to use it for close-up and macro shots.
The LED light has 3 power levels, which are easily accessible with a single button. With the LED light turned on, you can use SB-500 on- and off-camera.
Clearly, the LED light of SB-500 is not designed for serious cinematography, but it can help novices learn lighting techniques.
SB-500 flash comes with a stand and a soft case. Speedlight SB-700 also ships with a stand and a case, but it also includes a diffusion dome (for more bouncing options) and two snap-on filters to be able to match the color temperature of the ambient light (for even more creative control).
If you are learning flash photography, SB-500 has a lot to offer with its simple controls and impressive power. If you need a very compact flash for travel, but don't want to sacrifice too many features, Speedlight SB-500 can also be a great choice. However, if fast recycling times and full-features zoom head is important for your photography work, you may want to spend some more money on the bigger SB-700.
The price difference between these two mid-range flashes is about 25% percent. You can buy SB-500 at around $250 USD, and SB-700 is going to set you back about $330 USD (check the latest prices below). You may also want to consider third-party options like Nissin Di700 or Metz 52 AF-1.
If you have any questions or comments, please post them below.