Nikon Flash and Commander Mode

Commander mode allows you to control remote flash unit from your camera. If you never use external flash unit, you may not find this topic very interesting but, if you do, I think this article will help you a lot to understand what this mode is for and how it works with Nikon D90, other Nikon semi-pro and pro body cameras.

Commander mode is one of the very powerful feature available with most of the advance DSLR cameras including Nikon D80, D90, D200, D7000 and D300 that allows built-in flash of your camera to control remote (off camera) flash by sending infrared signal over wireless. Most of the today’s advance flash like SB-600, SB-800, SB-900 and SB-R200 supports commander mode but unfortunately SB-400 flash unit doesn’t support commander mode. SB-400 is not considered as Advance Wireless Lighting strobe. It can only be used in the hot-shoe or on a sync cord connected to the hot-shoe. The Nikon SB-900, SB-800, SB-600 and SB-R200 Speedlights can be set as wireless remote units and can be triggered by using an on-camera SB-900 or SB-800 set in “Master Mode”, directly from the built-in flash on the D80, D90, D200 and D300 or using the SU-800 Wireless Commander Unit.

Nikon SB-600 flashSB-R200 is Wireless Remote Speedlight which works with Nikon Advanced Wireless Lighting System and other Wireless Speedlight Commander unit like SB-800 and SB-900 or SU-800 Wireless Speedlight whereas SB-800 or SB-900 unit can also be used as a master unit (like built-in flash) in commander mode to control other flash units like SB-600 or SB-800 or even SB-900 wirelessly. Now lets discuss how to set Nikon D90 camera commander mode so that we can control external flash unit.

How to set commander mode for Nikon D90?

Here I am setting up Nikon D90 to control external flash unit using built-in flash as a commander flash.

1. Press the Menu button on the back of your camera.
2. Go to Custom Setting Menu option (pencil icon).
3. Select e, Bracketing/flash, menu and press OK.
4. Select e2, Flash cntrl for built-in flash, and press OK.
5. Choose Commander Mode.

commander mode setup menuWhen you are inside Commander mode, you can set different parameters to control remote flash unit. But at the same time you have to be careful about which Group and Channel you selected because you are going to use same Group and Channel settings in your remote flash unit. Group is set to combine multiple flash units in single or different group for exposure settings and Channel is used to avoid interference with other camera’s settings around you using by different photographers. If you set Built-in-Flash option to – - mode, your built-in flash unit will send signal to control remote flash unit but will not fire flash itself to control exposure.


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Comments

  1. SB-600 is great flash from Nikon but SB-900 is the best I think which is more flexible to control more external flash unit over wireless media.

  2. SB-600 is of course a great flash unit. I own one and it’s great to use as a kicker flash.

  3. Thanks for the nice tip.. But what about new Nikon D5100 ? Can the built in flash can be used as a master flash ? Please advise..

    • Raj,
      Nikon D5100 doesn’t have built-in commander mode. That means you can’t control external flash unit wirelessly using D5100. However, it is CLS wireless compatible using an SB-800, SB-900 or SU-800 as commander with an SB-600, SB-800, SB-900, or SB-R200 as remote flash units. So in your case, you can use SB-900 as a master flash unit to control SB-600 unit remotely.

      Hope it helps.

  4. I have a d7000 and sb600 flash. When I set the camera to commander mode, and the built in flash to –, and the sb600 to TTL, the built in flash also fires. In theory, if the pop up flash is set to –, it shouldn’t fire, but it does! I read on a blog that it has to fire in order to communicate with the sb600. Further, that when built in flash is set to –, that it only fires to communicate and not to adjust the exposure. That the only way to eliminate the built in camera flash was to buy a piece of plastic – available on Amazon:

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/B000E1G0LI/ref=redir_mdp_mobile/176-1820922-1668043?ref_=cm_cr_pr_pb_t

    to block the pop up flash, therefore blocking the direct light, yet allowing the camera to communicate with the sb600. Is this true? Are there any alternatives?

    • Cerati,
      Everything you said here is true. It does fire to communicate with remote flash units but that doesn’t play any role on exposure. Timing is in microsecond and we feel like it’s happening at same time but that small amount of signal (pre-flash) used by built-in flash really doesn’t do anything on exposure. But if you think its effecting your light settings, you can use one of those but again it doesn’t affect and to be honest with you, I have never used any of those in any of my remote flash unit setup.

      Hope it helps.

  5. Thank you!

  6. Kathi Wood says:

    I am use to using monoligts, I have a few alienbees. I decided to try my hand
    at speedlight strobes. I like their portability. So I tried some preliminary tests
    with an sb-600 in commander mode attached to a light stand, but set to manual.
    But I am finding out that I can’t successfully use an incident meter.
    Readings were jumping all over the place. Then I thought that the on camera flash (commandr or trigger) needed to be on the metered subject. This helped some but meter readings still not accurate. I figure u can’t get a meter reading in TTL but I thought it would work in manual.

    In camera, I have on cam flash with — . The sb-600 is in group A set to manual.
    and I am manipulating the flash power for sb-600 on the camera.

  7. 1. How can I use two remote sb 600 and firing them from the built in flash in Commander mode. Now I want each flash to have a differnt output level. I couldn’t figure how to this with TTL.

    2. Is it possible to mix two remote flashes, one SB 600 and one SB 900 that would fire at the same time after triggered by the built in flsh in Commander Mod?

  8. Yoram,
    Here is what I think will work in your case.

    1. You can use two SB-600 and assign them into different group so that you can have different power set to different devices.

    2. Yes, you can mix two flashes or as many flashes you want. You can assign them same channel and group number and trigger it from built-in flash in commander mode.

    Hope it helps.

  9. Very usefull text,thank you. I am doing dental macrophotography and considering buying 2 wireless flashes sb-r200(using ring flash for the moment). My question is should I buy the whole R1C1 kit with the SU-800 controller or just a couple of the SB-R200(I am with Nikon D90). Do you think it is worth almost to double the price. And one other quetsion -could you advise for a soft box for these flashes- I see people use piece of paper A4 bended but it seems kind of impravctical.Thank you

    • If you have D90, its built-in flash works as a commander unit and controls SB-R200 wirelessly. You don’t have to spend money buying SU-800. I would also recommend using A4 size white papers or any white board but if it’s not possible in your setup, I suggest you to go with small size (6″x8″) softbox which costs around $15 I guess.

  10. Thank you very much,really appreciate it,I promise I”ll post the first attempts in the forum;)

  11. Thanks jason

  12. im a owner of nikon d5000. i want to buy my 1st speedlight but im stuck with which one to choose either sb 600 or nissin di622 mark 2 and im also in budget right now. im gonna use it on camera all the time and im confuse with the commander mode and the cls

    • zul,
      To be honest with you, I have no experience with Nissin di622 mark 2 flash unit but I looked very briefly and seems like works great with Nikon and Canon DSLRs. It costs almost half of SB-600 and if you are in tight budget and planning to use on camera flash only, go for it.

      Commander mode is a feature available in camera (as far as I remember, D5000 doesn’t support commander mode) which allows camera’s built-in flash to control flash unit remotely by sending wireless signal and CLS (Creative Lighting System) is technology implemented on Nikon’s speedlights (flash units) to make them more efficient, robust, user friendly with Nikon’s DLSRs.

  13. hi again :D thank for ur fast reply btw lol. actually here in my country the nissin cost about RM4xx for 1st hand and the sb 600 i can get around Rm5xx 2nd and the sb 700 around rm9xx 1st. so i think i should wait and get the sb 700 because of the cls( i just realise it a technolgy on nikon speedlight from ur comment lol and i think it kinda useful technology). what do u think is it worth for the future where i will not upgrade my speedlight again if i buy the sb 700 which i prefer upgrade my lens or body in future. thanks for ur reply again.

    • In that case, I will definitely wait and buy SB-700. It’s new and improved version speedlight unit and supposedly upgrade for SB-600 I think.

  14. Great site and love all the help.

    For the first time today I decided to get my SB-700 off of my Nikon D-7000. I set it all up and went to commander mode as explained and put my placed my master flash to —. Got it all on the channels and boom it all worked great. SB-700 fired perfectly and built in flash did not. Then halfway in to practicing…the built in flash started firing.

    Now I can’t get it to stop. I didn’t change anything in the set up of the cammonder mode. I am about to lose my mind and can’t figure out what to do. It is firing in full flash mode and did start affecting my shot’s exposure. Any ideas??????? I have a shoot tomorrow indoors and was hoping to get this working. Thank you!!

    • When you use your built-in flash as a commander, it fires flash not to affect exposure but to send signal and measure how much lights in the environment and then send that information back to remote flash unit. You may want to reset your SB-700 to default factory setting and start all over again. The per-flashes that you are talking about is necessary to send signal to remote flash unit though.

  15. hi! i just got my nikon d5100 i allready had a flash, the sb-600. I´ve never used it external. I understand that my build in flash cannot control my external flash. How can i control it then? Do I have to buy a second flash just to be able to contoll it? or is it a cheeper way of doing that? some kind of wireing? And how does it work? Pleas help!

    • Cheaper solution would be to use cable, SC-29 (plug and play), but If you want to control flash unit wirelessly, you can either buy SU-800 or get pocketwizard or other wireless transmitter and receiver compatible with your camera.

      Alternatively, if you are planning to get another flash unit in future, get SB-910 which can act as a master unit and your extra flash unit as well.

  16. Thank you!

  17. Hello and thank you for all the time you spend to advise us!!!
    I have a nikon D7000 and SB700 external flash , and like Kelley Craig I also have a big problem with the flash who fire and ruin my exposer ,I tried to set like you explain, but nothing hap end…it may be a factory problem? or , someone have the secret to solve it ?! thank you again!

    • Hi Lucian,
      When you set your commander flash to – -, it will tell camera not to fire commander flash (or built-in flash in your case ) to interfere exposure but it will still fire pre-flash to communicate with remote flash unit and transfer data if you are using i-TTL mode. The pre-flashes are extremely short, and are almost impossible for the human eye to see. But if you feel like those pre-flashes are taking part in overall exposure and ruining your shot, try different angle or more distance with your subject just to experiment with lights power and direction.

  18. I have a 300s. I have set it to remote according to instructions with the inbuilt flash set to — –. According to the user’s manual this should mean that ‘the built-in flash does not fire, but the AF-assist illumination lights’. This sounds pretty clear; the flash should not fire. But mine, like others mentioned here, does, and we’re not talking pre-flashes something is amiss.

    • I think I am missing something here but I never noticed that built-in flash contributing on exposure when it is set to — in commander mode but it fires pre-flash though.

      Update : To all who are experiencing that pre-flash is contributing to exposure, I will recommend trying to increase camera distance with your subject, change aperture (one stop down may be) and try again if that helps. May be being too close to subject with on camera flash (which is used as a commander and not supposed to contribute on exposure when set to — mode) and widely opening aperture is letting that small fraction of pre-flash coming to the sensor and affecting exposure.

  19. Very helpful stuff. Looking at the menu you’ve posted up there is the option to choose between TTL and M, what’s the difference?

    • TTL (Through-The-Lens) means camera will get the lighting information through the lens and calculates how much flash power is to be needed to properly expose your subject and send that information to flash and flash will be fired accordingly. Whereas in M (Manual mode), you trigger the flash remotely but you have to provide flash power (1/64 is less power and 1 is full power) manually.

      You want to use TTL (smart technology) if you are not sure about lighting condition and M is mainly used if you want consistent light over the series of photographs you are going to take in one spot.

      I hope it helps you.

  20. Could I use the in-camera flash on my D7000 to fire my SB-800 above it on a stroboframe bracket?

    Could I use an SB-400 with the diffuser snapped on to fire the SB-800 on a stroboframe?

    If so, doesn’t that negate the need for a TTL cord, or is having that AF illuminator lowered worth the purchase?

    THANKS!!!

    • Yes! you can use in-camera flash on your D7000 to fire SB-800 mounted on stroboframe bracket.

      No! you can’t use SB-400 to fire SB-800 because SB-400 can’t be used as a master flash unit to fire other remote wireless devices. It can only be used on hot-shoe or using sync cord attach to hot shoe.

    • Yes you can use the built-in flash of the D7000 to trigger the SB-800 mounted above it in ITTL mode.
      Yes you can use the SB-400 to fire the SB-800 using its built in slave, but only in non ITTL mode.

  21. Have you seen that having the cord and its AF illuminator is any benefit in normal use? I can see that the closer the subject is to the camera, the more that lowering the AF illuminator would come into play. Anything else in your experience?

  22. I think I can help you guys with your pre-flash problem. Built-in flash units on your cameras will fire at reduced flash output levels when used as Commander units. This may slightly affect results if pictures are taken from close distances. To prevent this, use the Nikon SG-3IR. The SG-31R is a $12.00 device that slides into your hot shoe and extends out in front of your built in flash and a blind flips down and blocks your onboard flash and keeps it from affecting your closeup exposures. I hope this helps.

  23. hello need helpp!!! i am very new to flash photography
    i have a canon 600d will sb600 work on canon?? and will i be able to shoot with two sb600 on same time?

    • I am not sure if that particular Canon camera supports commander mode but if it does then it should work. But best solution for you would be triggering flash using radio devices such as PocketWizard. Those devices would work independent of camera or flash brand.

  24. Christian Duarte says:

    Hola a todos
    Tengo una nikon d7000 y un flash sb 700. Mis preguntas son:
    como hago para disparar el flash ubicado fuera de la camara desde la d7000?
    como tendria que configurar ambos (camara y flash) para realizar esto?
    Desde ya agradeceria sus comentarios de ayuda !!!.

  25. First off, I’m incredibly impressed you’ve taken the time to be so helpful to all who leave comments. Makes a world of difference. Thank you for all the help you’ve provided to everyone.

    I was going to ask a quick follow up to all the others inquiring about setting the camera’s flash to “–” and it still going off. I took pictures into a mirror to find out. I guess stopping down or adding distance like you said is all you can do.

    Thanks again. I bookmarked this site to check it out.

  26. jepoy hizon says:

    i have a d5100 and i am planning to get a nissin di622 mark II. my question is, can i use it off cam since di622 has a wireless mode with my d5100 or there is still a need for me to get a wireless trigger? thank you.

    • D5100 doesn’t support wireless commander mode which means it can’t trigger any wireless flash device remotely on it’s own even if flash is capable of operating via wireless signal. That means you still need third party wireless trigger device. Hope it helps.

    • I see this is an old post but the info may be of use to someone. Yes the Nissin di622 can be triggered by the D5100 wirelessly without an additional wireless trigger. Set the Nissin to SD mode (slave digital) then adjust the Nissin flash power manually (not via ittl). The D5100 can trigger off camera flashguns without getting an extra wireless trigger (not via ittl) as long as the flash has a slave mode.

      • Really? I think D5100 doesn’t have commander mode and won’t support wireless triggering to remote flash unit. Do you mind explaining little bit or may be reference to article that supports your argument? It will be really helpful.

        Thanks for stopping by and dropping your comment.

        • You are correct in thinking the D5100 doesn’t have a commander mode but it can still trigger any flash with a built in slave. The nissin slave mode ignores the preflashes then triggers its flash (may only be used in its manual mode, not sure if it has an auto mode when used as a slave). Any flash with a built in slave mode can be triggered from the 5100 but not all will trigger correctly when it uses its preflashes for ittl, for some you have to use the built in flash in manual mode. This is all non ittl though and the external flash will either have to be in manual mode or if it has a built in sensor in automatic mode (marked A on Nikon flashes like the sb-800, sb-26 etc). You can also get optical slaves that ignore the preflash and would trigger a flash such as the sb-800 which could then use its A mode or manual. The same would apply to using wireless triggers.

  27. Hi,
    I have a Nikon D90 & SB600. Prior to SB600, I owned a YN465 as my flash unit. I can use my SB600 as an off camera flash unit with the camera as a commander unit with no problem at all. My question is:
    1. Can I use the YN465 as the second slave unit working together with the SB600 and the camera as commander to control both the flash? I obviously need a 3rd party wireless flash trigger to work with the YN465. And how do I set it all up?

    Thank You in advance,

    • I am not familiar with particular flash model you mentioned here but if it doesn’t support wireless mode, then you certainly do need third party tool like PW to control them wirelessly. You will need one transceiver that goes to the camera and two receivers that go into the flash units. If you have an extra time, I have written a post about CLS vs PW which you may find something interesting to read if you haven’t already.

  28. Thank you for writing this article. Your tip on setting the D90 on commander mode resolved my problem with my SB R-200 mounted on Nikon 105mm. I thought I needed to buy another SB as a commander flash. Basically, I use this set-up for dental photography but I find the D-90 kind of heavy. May I ask what may be a good replacement/upgrade for D90 (keeping the same lens and flash)?

    Thanks!

  29. Question please

    I am using a D90 with a VF-901RX trigger for flash strobe units. All fires OK but exposure is out?

    Thanks

  30. Andrew Barry says:

    First, let me thank you for this informative article, it’s been very helpful in helping me start wireless flashing. But I’m hoping you could maybe help me out with a little issue. I own a Neewer tt560 speedlite and I can’t seem to get it to properly work with my camera. If i leave it on the lowest power setting i can manage to get it to work perfectly, the problem is when I up the power on it, it doesn’t translate somehow in my image. I was hoping you could help me deduce the problem. I’m somewhat a novice when it comes to wireless flash so i apologize in advance for the trouble.

    • Hi Andrew,
      I have no experience with device you are currently working but did you try different distance and angle for line of sight with camera sensor? It may not solve your problem but I was just curious.

      Sorry that I couldn’t help you.

      Happy Shooting!

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