CLS - Nikon's Creative Lighting System
Darrell Young (DigitalDarrell)
Nikon's Creative Lighting System (CLS) is a combination of technologies, such as intelligent-TTL or i-TTL, 3D Multi-Sensor Balanced Fill-Flash and Advanced Wireless Lighting. In this article, we are going through the main aspects of using CLS to get consistently better images using a flash unit. All Nikon flash units being sold, including the old and venerable SB-800 work for this.
The modern units, such as the SB-5000, SB-910 or SB-700 work at least as good as the older ones and you might be interested in our comparison of these modern Speedlights. If you're into Speedlight history, we have something for you there as well.
Btw, if you have a Nikon flash question, please do visit our Speedlights forum and post there.
We have many articles on CLS and Speedlights and suggest that you look through them. If you are interested in professional lighting for photography, we have several in-depth articles on that as well.
Compatibility with CLS and your camera
CLS works with any camera since the D2X and D70 up to the latest D6, D850, ZZ7ii and Z6ii mirrorless. In this article we discuss using CLS together with the aged D200 Nikon DSLR, which was the current model when the article was originally written.
CLS is a very advanced system, yet easy to use at the basic level. To get the full advantage of CLS, you will be using more than one unit, at least two. One master unit (which can be a flash or a specialized master unit) and one unit acting as a slave, the flash itself. Very often the small pop-up flash of your camera (if it has one, e.g. the D500 does not and so does none of the D single digit pro cameras) comes in handy as the master in a CLS system.
You now use one or more separate flash units (as slaves), placed around the subject or object to photograph. If your camera has no pop-up flash, you can use a Nikon commander unit, such as the SU-800, or another flash e.g. connected directly to the hot shoe of your camera.
With the SB-5000, you can use Nikon's radio based wireless protocol to control your flash units (and cameras). For this you need the separate WR-R11a or WR-R11b controller and a compatible camera. See our separate page on these controllers for more info.
Your Nikon camera can operate in Commander Mode as a controller for multiple Nikon Speedlight flash units. While some of the professional-level Nikons, such as the D2X requires the separate purchase of the Nikon SU-800 controller unit, e.g. the D500, D300 or D200 has full Nikon Creative Lighting System (CLS) technology built right into the camera.
You can use full i-TTL flash technology with the DSLR's pop-up flash or use the pop-up flash to control up to two groups of an unlimited number of external Nikon Speedlight flash units. Nikon makes the powerful SB-800 flash unit, along with its slightly less powerful SB-600 brother. The Nikon D200 is happy to let you arrange professional lighting setups using these relatively inexpensive and very portable speedlights. The following pages are about using these two Speedlights with the Nikon D200 camera.What is the Nikon Creative Lighting System (CLS)?
CLS is an advanced wireless lighting technology that allows you to use your imagination in designing “creative” lighting arrangements. Since no wires are in use, and the flash units are controlled by a central “Commander,” you can experiment with setups and flash output. It allows visual preview of how things look by firing the pulsed modeling capability within Nikon’s Speedlights when you press the D200’s depth-of-field preview button.
There is no need to figure complex lighting ratios when you can control your flash Groups right from the camera and see the results immediately. CLS simplifies the use of multiple flash unit setups for portraiture, nature, or any situation where several Speedlights need to work in unison.
You can simply position the flash units where you’d like them to be, and let CLS automatically figure the “correct” exposure, or you can change the lighting ratios directly from the menu of your D200 camera. This is all done wirelessly — and in less time than it takes to describe it.
Nikon’s Creative Lighting System is world-class in power, and not too difficult to use. The Nikon D200 camera contains everything you need to control a simple or complex CLS setup. Let’s learn how to use it!
Originally written on June 30, 2006
Last updated on January 23, 2021
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Brian Woodman (brianwdmn) on September 14, 2013
Thank you Darrell. This is exactly what I was looking for. Well written!