Nikon CLS Commander Wireless Remote AWL Flash Tips and How To

Part 2 - Using the Nikon CLS Commander Remote Wireless Flash System (AWL)

If you came in here, Part One of this was about the basic setups.

Summary, Pros and Cons of the Commander system

There is much good in this Nikon Commander/Remote system, and very much convenience. This automatic system is extremely handy and extremely quick to throw a couple of speedlights out there, snap the picture with automatic setup, and pack up and be gone (it is automatic point & shoot remote wireless multiple TTL flash). This is not suggesting there is no advantage of learning some lighting and photography principles, but the system can give you automated good exposures. And certainly the work can be much more serious too (pay attention, and if necessary, correct what needs it, and do it again). But at some point, the Commander/Remote system is not without a few limitations too.

Some advantages of Commander/Remote system are:

Some downsides of Commander/Remote system are:

The Nikon Commander is a wireless system. The D200/D300/D700/D800 cameras disable the camera PC sync connector anytime the internal flash door is open (commander or not, but a hot shoe flash does not disable camera PC connector). The Remote flashes also disable their PC sync connector and their flash foot anytime in Remote mode, so no connections are possible. There is no way to use an adapter in the camera hot shoe if the internal flash door is open for commander, or if the SU-800 commander is used.
Radio triggers, for remote Manual flash? You will need either the hot shoe or the PC sync port, and the internal door open shuts down both.

Exceptions if using a hot shoe commander: (if with the specific equipment):

Handheld flash meters will simply meter the early weak commander signals, not the final flash. We cannot control TTL lights anyway (except via Flash Compensation). The visible commander signals will also interfere with the meter, same way, for TTL or manual level. Every shutter button flashes to send TTL or Manual power level to the remote. The meter will meter this, not the actual flash unit. However, an infrared commander may not interfere with the meter. Sekonic meters (has IR filter to Not be sensitive to infrared) can be used with Commander Manual power levels, in some cases -- IF using a SU-800 commander, or IF the Nikon SG-3IR IR Panel is used in front of the camera commander, AND ALSO IF meter is not too close to the commander. Meter should be at least 5 or 6 feet distant from shielded infrared commander to not see any effect (may see EU error if closer). You cannot meter the internal flash this way (in Commander mode), the red infrared panel interferes, and without it, the command flash interferes. Any TTL group preflash will still interfere, but FV Lock can shift that to be earlier. Switching all lights to real Manual mode is the easy solution, especially if you plan to use a flash meter. Triggering can be optical slave or radio trigger (SB-700 to SB-910 all have the SU-4 mode).

Alternately (handheld flash meter) without filters, you could just set a 1/2 second shutter speed in the flash meter, regardless if you are using 1/200 second in the camera. This causes the meter to sample the light for 1/2 second, so it will see both the command, and the final flash. Assuming the final flash is much stronger, this can work. It is a different time sample than the camera will sample however.

You do realize these are kludges, right? Really, just pick either a Commander system or a Manual flash system, and go with it. All works great if you don't attempt to mix systems.


There are many downside issues, and the Commander is not always the best choice, not even always a workable choice. However, it does a lot too, and what it does do is pretty impressive.

Again, the correct plan really has to be (as if there were any alternative): Either choose to use the Nikon Commander system, as designed, or choose to use an all manual flash system, as designed, but forget about trying to mix two very radically different systems.

Just wishing... If only this fancy automated system were a radio system, integrated into camera and flashes, many of the drawbacks of the optical system would be eliminated (i.e., line of sight, range, bright sunshine). Radio Poppers and Pocket Wizard have special radio systems for Nikon to relay these commander optical commands via radio for greater range, and it would solve some of the other issues too. Note though, all of the other radio triggers are manual mode only, and not compatible with the commander.

Not at all unique to this system, but any speedlight flash power and recycle time can be marginal in some cases. At ISO 200, one SB-800 at full power in 45 inch white reflective umbrella can do f/5.6 at ten feet to fabric for groups, or f/11 at four feet to fabric for portraits. The SB-600 should be very close to this too, but this is full power. This power is often adequate... the issue is more likely the longer recycle time.

Umbrellas are the only modifiers the speedlights fit easily, but umbrellas are simply fantastic (they are large! Nothing substitutes for large).

FV Lock - Working Around the Blinking in Humans

Manual Mode flash (the actual real Manual mode called M in the menu of the flash unit) does not cause humans to blink. But the flash is sudden, and the shutter is at the same instant, before they can blink. But if using the Commander, it flashes commands first, which cause the blinking, and then the shutter comes along at just the right time to capture the blinking. If using the Commander, there are three ways to minimize blinking in humans:

  1. Use the Nikon SG-3IR panel over the internal flash commander (see below). Or using the SU-800 Commander is about the same idea (filtered). The remote TTL flashes still preflash however, so much improved, but not fail safe.
  2. Set all Commander groups to its MAN manual mode (which is NOT at all the same thing as real Manual mode — light meters and optical slaves still don't work, etc.) Commander signals are then much closer to the shutter opening, with no TTL preflashes, and probably no pictures of blinking.
  3. Simply use FV Lock with TTL mode, to get all the preflashes and blinking over with before the final picture begins.

FV Lock is very important. The cameras without a Commander do not have this feature. FV Lock (Flash Value Lock) is a function button on the camera, often programmed to be the Depth Of Field Preview button (on the models with a commander and DOF Preview). FV Lock is the solution to several things. You can frame and focus, and push the FV Lock button. Then the preflash and metering occurs, and the subject's blinking also occurs too, to get it over with before it matters. The shutter does not activate with it. The camera remembers this metered Flash Value, and shows a small L symbol in bottom left of viewfinder to indicate the flash exposure is locked (see camera manual: FV Lock). Then the next several shutter buttons will use that same remembered Flash Value, without any more preflashes or blinking. You can press the FV Lock button again to turn it off, or more common, it will time out when the display light times out (both of which loses the L, so learn to watch that L symbol in viewfinder, which keeps you informed). Shutter half press resets time out to keep the display on, and there is a menu to set a longer display time out.

Metering: TTL BL flash may meter all the RGB sensors in all the frame area, but TTL only meters an area in the center of the frame. Modes Matrix, Center, and Spot are only about ambient light, and selecting a different metering mode will not affect a TTL picture indoors in insignificant ambient (implying low ISO). However, FV Lock is different. Note the chart in the camera manuals under FV Lock says that FV Lock meters a different size area in the center (for iTTL, both modes), and this can change results. FV Lock actually acts more like we would imagine Spot metering would (but does not follow focus point). That is for hot shoe flash. For Commander and remote flash, which is TTL BL (unless Spot metering), it says FV Lock continues to meter full screen.

One function of FV Lock is to focus and meter at one place, and then to shift the camera somewhat for the final shutter. Because of this, FV Lock also ignores D-lens subject distance data that affects TTL BL direct flash. With the Commander however, FV Lock is very important for pictures of people, who blink at all of the Commander flashing. The tabletop scene above couldn't care less about blinking, but the commander signals often do make humans blink at just the wrong time. Even hot shoe TTL preflash causes some people to blink. FV Lock is the only way to bypass that problem for TTL flash. But again, FV Lock can be used to reframe the camera view after the exposure was metered. FV Lock does all the TTL signaling and preflash and metering and blinking early (at the FV Lock button).

However, for Manual power levels, nothing at all happens at the FV Lock button (no preflash, no metering). For Manual power level groups, the Commander menu already specifies the power levels to use. Then... regardless if TTL or Manual level, and regardless if FV Lock or not, the power level signal for each group to use is transmitted to the remote immediately before shutter opens.

Just to see this happen once, you can differentiate between the command signals and the final flash by setting Rear Curtain Sync and a slow shutter speed of about one second. Then you can see the difference, before the shutter, and at the end of the shutter. FV Lock will do the TTL preflash and metering early (for each individual TTL group). Then BOTH modes, TTL and manual power levels, continue to send command flashes immediately at the start of every shutter button (which I believe to set power level, and ready the remote to trigger in the next short period). Then you see the one second shutter, then the Everybody Fire NOW! trigger, and then the remote flashes flash, and the shutter closes.

NOTE: You need to be aware that adding a hot shoe commander (SU-800 or SB flash) to a camera without commander does not add the FV Lock feature. FV Lock must be in the camera, and the Nikon cameras without commander do not have it. Pity... One common use of FV Lock is to separate the command flashes and the remote TTL preflashing from the shutter, to prevent blinking. It can also be used to advantage with hot shoe TTL flash. If the added commander is the SU-800, it uses an Infrared filter to suppress visible light, and blinking is minimized (however the remote TTL preflashes could still do it). Or, the Nikon SG3-IR panel (below) can be added. My own notion is that money to add such a commander might be better spent for a camera model upgrade instead... which can also provide a Commander.

Unwanted light contribution from Commander Trigger Signal

There are some demonstration pictures below, showing the Commander Trigger signal in the bulleted list above (using a mirror to show it). The Commander must flash a weak signal to trigger the remotes after the shutter is open. Then the Commander can in some cases cause catch light reflections in close or shiny subjects.

The first picture below shows the D300 Commander's trigger signal, even though the internal flash is disabled with the "- -" mode (camera commander menu, mode for the group for built-in flash). There is additional commander signal flashing before the shutter opens (which can cause the subject to blink). This trigger shown occurs after the shutter opens, to trigger the remote flashes in sync. This trigger flash is very low level, but it can reflect in close shiny things. This mirror is exceptionally reflective, but it could also be a catch light in a glass vase or a human eyeball. This trigger signal is the same for either Commander TTL or Commander manual power level modes. FV Lock does prevent all the flashing that causes the subject to blink, but FV Lock does not affect this necessary trigger signal.

This room lighting is from the bounced remote SB-800 on the stand behind camera, about four feet below the ten foot ceiling. Yes, this remote sensor (on side of flash) ought to be aimed at the camera in the mirror, but it wasn't. This is a small room with lots of mirror reflection, and it works easily anyway. There is a white card taped to the mirror in lower right, just to have something close and bright at 3 feet.

Without Nikon SG-3IR panel

Shooting into a mirror at 3 feet. ISO 200 f/8 1/200 second. The internal flash is disabled with mode "- -", so it does not contribute, but the Commander trigger signal is visible to the subject. You can see it is not very bright, but it still can sometimes affect close or shiny subjects. This trigger (for the remote flashes) occurs after shutter is open, so this reflection can sometimes appear in our pictures, not routinely, but in some situations... Catch lights in the eyes typically.

With Nikon SG-3IR Panel

Same as at left, except the Nikon SG-3IR IR Panel is flipped down to cover the internal flash. The panel blocks the visible light, but it still passes the infrared commands. The trigger reflects from the mirror, and still triggers the remote. It is IR now, and the subject no longer sees the visible light from commands.

Same as above, just with the Remote SB-800 turned off so we see only the commander. Same f/8 exposure, and no IR panel was used. This is the magnitude of the Commander "Everybody fire NOW!" trigger. It is not very strong, not enough to contribute any light into the black picture, normally no big deal at all, however it might cause a visible reflection in a close shiny thing (Note this picture shows the reflection in a VERY shiny object, the mirror). The subject (camera and me) is 6 feet from the flash. Even the white card on mirror at 3 feet is not visible, but there is a slight hint of the chrome tripod leg at bottom.

Same as above, with Infrared panel covering the internal flash, and Remote SB-800 is turned off. At f/8, only the slightest tiny hint of seeing the flash now, in a very black picture.

When I checked this, the IR panel reduced the D300 commander range by about 1/3 (from 120 feet to 77 feet, best direct case). That may still be slightly more than range of a SU-800 (which has a similar built-in IR shield).

Same as above, but f/2.8 (opened 3 stops). No IR panel, and the Remote SB-800 is turned off. More effect is visible at f/2.8, it can contribute a bit now, enough that close and shiny stuff can be a concern. We would not consider f/2.8 for macro, but the flash would be much closer then. If actually photographing this stuff at f/2.8, surely the real flash would be much stronger (none here), and would largely hide most of this. The illumination is typically insignificant, but the trigger can make a visible catch light in shiny close things, including another catch light in your subject's eyes, when close.

Same as above, but f/2.8. The SG-3IR infrared panel is covering the flash. The IR panel has these slits in it, and there is a flash back there behind it, which we are taking a picture of. The sideways spill behind the panel is what is illuminating the finger. There is that tiny bright spot on tripod, but otherwise, this picture looks black. Even macro distances (surely at stopped down aperture for depth of field) should see little problem.

For reference, at f/8 again, the internal flash is enabled to TTL mode here (shooting flash into a mirror is not always wise). TTL metering says "Wow that is a lot of light" and reduces the internal TTL flash tremendously. The real flash magnitude is much different, significant fill light contribution on close things. The remote SB-800 is also on, and no IR panel used. The mirror is making visible direct flash shadows, behind tripod and camera strap, adding substantial fill on the body of the remote flash, and even a shadow of the remote flash body on the far wall (about 15 feet from the mirror). So the "- -" mode definitely sets the internal flash OFF in the previous frames, for no contribution.

This is instead the pink orchid above, its same f/11 exposure at only two feet, with no IR panel used, with only the Commander, otherwise the main flashes are turned off. The orchid is not very shiny.

So this commander trigger is NORMALLY no issue for us, but close shiny things can be issues, especially if using a wide aperture. SG-3IR panel is a solution then (intended for macro work), and it can also reduce subject blinking.

Re: SG-3IR panel - This is a replacement item. It also comes in the box with the Nikon R1C1 speedlight closeup kit with SU-800 and SB-R200 flashes for macro use. Any flash outputs strong amounts of both visible and infrared light. Photo-detector cells respond to both. This panel blocks visible light, and passes infrared. Photos and humans see only visible (so it helps to prevent humans from blinking at it. And it prevents contributing any visible light into the photograph result.) Light meters filter out infrared (to be representative of the visible that the picture will see), but slave sensors still work fine with either. However, the Nikon speedlight remote sensors do also have a red filter to filter out visible, my guess is to help prevent blinding from the sun (the Sun has much infrared content too, but less relatively than flashes — and any reduction has to be a good thing.)

Re: HSS - Auto FP mode - One more choice to prevent this close trigger reflection is to use HSS mode (if available on your camera). Set a shutter speed just slightly faster than maximum shutter speed, to shift the flash to continuous FP or HSS flash mode. The price is high, and it will cost more than 3/4 of your power capability, and there will be no speedlight motion-stopping capability. Power likely will not matter for close or macro work (where this reflection might be an issue). The point is, this FP mode necessarily triggers the continuous flash units early, before the shutter opens, so there will be no trigger visible in the picture. The internal flash cannot do HSS mode itself, but it can still be Commander to trigger Remote FP mode, but only if its own contribution is disabled (mode "- -" in the commander menu). Said again, the internal flash cannot do FP mode itself, so if the internal flash is open and NOT disabled in Commander menu with mode "- -", then you will not be able to advance the shutter speed into FP range.

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