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How-to's Camera Reviews Accessories Reviews

Using CLS

Darrell Young (DigitalDarrell)

Keywords: nikon, d200, camera, bodies, cls

Show pages (7 Pages)

Nikon D200 and Nikon's Creative Lighting System

The Nikon D200 camera commands attention, both in a crowd and in Commander Mode as a controller for multiple Nikon Speedlight flash units. While the professional-level Nikon D2X/s requires the separate purchase of the Nikon SU-800 controller unit, the D200 body has full Nikon Creative Lighting System (CLS) technology built right into the camera.

Nikon D200 DSLR and SB-800, SB-600 speedlights

Understanding the built-in Commander Mode Speedlight controller


You can use full i-TTL flash technology with the D200’s pop-up flash (Nikon calls it a Speedlight®) or use the pop-up to control up to two banks 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!

What is Commander Mode and How Does it Work?

Commander Mode is controlled from a screen in the menu of your D200. It looks like this:

Nikon D200 Commander Mode screen

Nikon D200 Comander Mode Screen


If you examine this Built-in Flash mode screen, you will see that you have controls for the Built-in flash, and two groups or banks for external flash units. You’ll also see that you can set exposure compensation for either of these.


How would you use it?

Without going into great detail yet, let’s take a simple three light setup where the Built-in flash provides only a little fill-flash, Group A is the “main” flash unit, and Group B provides some background separation. Later we will consider in detail how you would configure the camera and flash unit’s settings, so don’t get stymied by the next paragraph. Right now I just want you to look at how easy it is to use the Commander Mode screen. Look at that screen above or in your camera, and then read the next paragraph:

First, you would set the “Built-in” flash compensation (Comp) to two stops underexposure to add just a little fill (Comp -2.0). Then leave the main light’s “Group A” compensation on Comp 0, and “Group B” background light’s compensation on one stop under (Comp -1.0). For now, leave all three Mode settings on TTL.

If you leave Custom Setting e4 – Preview Button Activates Modeling Flash set to the factory default setting of ON, you can fire your Speedlight’s built-in modeling lights by pressing and holding the D200’s depth of field preview button. Or, if you prefer, simply take a picture and look at it.



If the main light is too bright, you can either move it farther away, or dial its power down by setting Comp to underexpose a little. You can set Comp in 1/3 stop increments, so you have very fine control of each Group’s flash output.

My imaginary setup above may not work well at all. The point of this exercise is that you have control to experiment until you get the image just the way you want it. Sure, you could do things the old way, use a flash meter, or get your calculator and figure out complex fill ratios. Or, you can use CLS to vary your settings visually until the image is just right.

Isn’t it more fun to simply put some initial settings in your Commander Mode screen, and then take a test shot? If it doesn’t look right, change the settings and do it again. Within two or three tries you’ll probably get it right, and will have learned something about the performance of your CLS system. In a short time you’ll have a feel for how to set the camera and flash units, and will use your flash/camera combo with authority.

© J. Ramon Palacios (jrp)

It’s about that time that your happiness will overflow and you’ll start buying flash umbrellas, light stands, and offer your portrait services to any victim … er, subject, that you can find — just for the fun of it!

Using the Nikon D200 in Commander Mode, in Detail

Gather up your Nikon D200, its user’s manual, and your external flash units with manuals. Keep them close by since we will refer to the camera and flash unit LCD menus and manuals for additional details.

For an overview, look on pages 163-166 of your D200 manual for detailed information on Commander Mode. In the Nikon SB-800 manual “wireless” information is found on pages 74-83. For the SB-600 look on manual pages 52-65.

Let’s start by putting our Nikon D200 cameras into Commander Mode. We’ll do that by changing Custom Setting e3 to Commander Mode. Look at Figure 1 below for the screen series to set this option.


D200 Commander Mode Screens

Setting Comander Mode in the Nikon D200 Screens


Normally, Custom Setting e3 defaults to TTL (see Screen 3 of Figure 1), which represents the single-flash i-TTL technology used by your pop-up Speedlight, or by any i-TTL compatible flash unit you put in your Nikon D200’s hotshoe. Since this article is about controlling multiple flash units, we’ll have to change that setting to Commander Mode as shown in Screen 3 of Figure 1 above.

On page 163 of the D200 manual, you will find a chart of settings that complement the Commander Mode screen. Open your manual and let’s discuss the settings. First we’ll look at the Commander Mode in TTL, which is the easiest to use, since it allows you to set exposure compensation for each of your flash Groups. Next we’ll look at M mode, since that gives you fiddly control of your flash from full-power to 1/128 power. We’ll briefly look at AA mode. Then finally we’ll consider the “--" mode, which prevents the D200 pop-up flash from firing the main flash output, but does not stop the dim monitor pre-flashes.



Special Note on Monitor Pre-Flash: For those who may not know what "monitor pre-flashes" are, here is a short tutorial. When you press the shutter release button with the flash open, the D200’s pop-up Speedlight fires several brief pre-flashes, then fires the main flash. The big flash of light you see is actually composed of several rapid pre-flashes and a big powerful flash of light. Most people don’t notice the pre-flashes, since they happen so fast. It just seems like one big blast of light. These pre-flashes fire any time your camera is set to i-TTL mode; even with single-flash use. The camera can determine a very accurate exposure by pre-flashing your subject, adjusting the exposure, and then firing the main flash pop.

Remember, you must ALWAYS raise the pop-up flash on your D200, when you are controlling multiple flash units, no matter what Commander Mode settings you use. The D200 evidently communicates with the external flash units during the monitor pre-flash cycle.

On page 165 of the Nikon D200 manual it says the following: “Position the sensor windows on the optional Speedlights where they will pick up the monitor preflashes from the built-in flash (take particular care when not using a tripod).”

Now, back to the main subject.

Nikon D200 Commander Mode Settings

Basically the Commander Mode’s Mode fields will display the selections listed below. Use your thumb toggle switch to change the values.



Mode Settings Overview:

• TTL - i-TTL Mode
• AA - Auto Aperture Mode
• M - Manual Mode
• “--“ - Double-Dash Mode (what else would one call it?)

Mode Settings Detail

TTL Mode

The TTL setting represents using the full power of i-TTL technology. By leaving Mode set to TTL (as shown in Figure 1) on each of the Built-in or Groups A or B, you derive maximum flexibility and accuracy from all your flash units.

In this mode the Comp setting (Figure 1) will display exposure values from -3.0 EV to + 3.0 EV, a full 6-stop range of exposure compensation for each Group of Speedlights. You can set the compensation in 1/3 EV steps for very fine control. If you change Comp to a “+” or “–“ setting, the LCD Control Panel will show the flash compensation symbol.

AA Mode

I am only briefly touching on the AA mode, since that is an older non-i-TTL technology included for those accustomed to using the older technology. With the SB-800 it is used primarily by cameras not compatible with the Creative Lighting System. It is not available for the built-in pop-up Speedlight on the D200, or for the SB-600. You can safely ignore the AA mode, unless you want to experiment with it. It will not provide as accurate a flash exposure as TTL mode though, since it is not based on the amazing i-TTL technology.

M Mode

This allows you to set eight different levels of flash output for the pop-up flash or the Speedlights in Groups A or B. The settings you can put in the Comp field are: 1/1, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, 1/32, 1/64, or 1/128. Many people are used to working with flash units this way, so it seems more familiar. CLS is willing to oblige those experienced in working manually.

-- Mode (Double-Dash Mode)

The built-in pop-up Speedlight will not fire the main flash in this mode. It will fire the monitor pre-flashes, since it uses them to determine exposure, and communicate with the external flash groups. Be sure you always raise the pop-up flash in any of the Commander Modes, otherwise the flash Groups will not receive a signal and won’t fire their flashes.

Special Note: Since the pop-up’s monitor pre-flashes always fire, be careful that they do not influence the lighting of your image. Use a smaller aperture, or move the camera farther away from your subject if the pre-flashes add unwanted light.

When setting the Mode for Group A or B to Double-Dash mode, that entire group will not fire any flash output. You can use this mode to temporarily turn off one of the flash Groups for testing purposes.



Setting the Channel (CH) for Communication

Look at Figure 2, or your D200’s Commander Mode screen and you’ll notice that just below Group B you’ll see a Channel 3 CH selection. (Outlined in red in Figure 2) The number “3” (factory default) is the communication channel your D200 is expecting to use to talk to the external flash Groups.


You can select any number between 1 – 4. There are four channels available, just in case you happen to be working in the vicinity of another Nikonian who is also using Commander Mode. By using separate channels you won't interfere with each other.

It is important that you realize that all your external flashes in all the Groups must be on the same channel. This involves setting up your individual flash units to respond on a particular channel. We’ll next examine how to do that for the SB-800 and SB-600 Speedlight units.

Setting Up the Nikon SB-800 Speedlight Unit for CLS

Now we’ll depart a little from our camera, and turn to the setup of the Speedlight units themselves. Most of us have a Nikon SB-800 or SB-600 with our Nikon D200 camera. If you have both that is even better.

Use the information below to configure each flash unit you have, and try to become familiar with the Wireless slave mode entry and exit procedures. Once you learn how to get in and out — you can usually figure the rest out by scrolling through menus on the flash units.


Nikon SB-800 Speedlight

Nikon SB-800 Speedlight Configuration

The Nikon SB-800 Speedlight Unit has built-in Commander Mode functionality, just like your D200. However, you probably will not use it often, since you can control your external flash units with your pop-up flash. Setting the Nikon SB-800 to be used in a Group controlled by your Nikon D200 is nearly the same as configuring stand-alone Commander Mode on the SB-800.

The difference is in setting the SB-800 to REMOTE mode not MASTER mode. When you are in REMOTE mode, the flash is ready to respond to input from an external controller. In MASTER mode it wants to be the controller itself. You’ll use REMOTE mode most often with your D200. Here are the steps and LCD views to prepare the SB-800 to be controlled by the Nikon D200.


Setting REMOTE Mode on the SB-800

Overview of Settings:

1. Turn the flash on with the ON/OFF button.
2. Press and hold the SEL button in the middle of the big toggle switch for about two seconds. (see SB-800 manual page 68)
3. Once you enter the next screen press SEL once again and OFF will become highlighted. Use the down toggle (-) to scroll down to REMOTE and press SEL again to select it.
4. Hold SEL down for another two-second period, and the LCD will switch to the REMOTE settings screen.
5. Press SEL once and CH will be highlighted. Now use the up or down toggle to select the Channel.
6. Press SEL once and Group will be highlighted. Now use the up or down toggle to select A or B. Don’t use C, since the D200 cannot control that group.
7. Take the picture!

Detailed Settings, with LCD images:

Turn the SB-800 on, then press and hold the SEL button until the following Screen appears. (see Figure 3 below)

Nikon SB-800 LCD

Press the SEL button once more and Off will be highlighted. Scroll down until REMOTE is highlighted and press SEL to select it. When selected, the highlight will go away and an arrowhead will appear to the left of the word REMOTE. (See Figure 4 below)

Nikon SB-800 LCD

Now, hold down the SEL button for about two-seconds and the camera will change to the REMOTE screen. (See Figure 5) You can move around this screen by pressing the SEL button. Move to the CH setting on the top left, and select a channel with the up or down toggle switch. Then use SEL to move down to the GROUP setting on the bottom right. Use the up or down toggle switch to select a Group. Remember, the D200 can only control Groups A or B.

You are now ready to shoot pictures with the SB-800 as a REMOTE wireless slave flash. Do a test shot to see if your D200 will fire the SB-800 remotely. If not, check to make sure the Channel and Group on the flash are set to the same settings as on your D200’s Custom Setting e3 Commander Mode screen.

How to Exit the REMOTE Mode on the SB-800 Flash

This drove me nuts for a while, since the manual never really tells you how to exit once you’ve set your flash to REMOTE mode. Oh, it does tell you that you hold down the SEL button for two seconds, or press ON/OFF to return to the normal setting mode. However, what it does not tell you is that until you get the blasted flash unit out of REMOTE mode it will never go back to being a normal flash. Here’s how to do it:

1. While in the REMOTE screen with the channels and groups, hold down the SEL button for two seconds and it will switch back to the screen that allows you to select MASTER, REMOTE, or in this case the all-important OFF selection.
2. Press SEL again, and scroll up to OFF, then press SEL again to select OFF.
3. Hold down the SEL button for two seconds again, and it will then switch back to being a normal i-TTL stand alone flash.

Setting Up the Nikon SB-600 Speedlight Unit for CLS

Nikon SB-600 Speedlight Configuration

The Nikon SB-600 speedlight is designed to be a stand alone i-TTL flash, or a REMOTE wireless slave flash for the CLS system. It does not have a Commander Mode (Master) like the SB-800 does.

Nikon SB-600 Speeddlight

Nikon SB-600 Speedlight

It is a simple but powerful Speedlight flash, and does a great job as a slave for your D200’s Commander Mode. Let’s look at the configuration method for the SB-600. It is quite different from the SB-800 in the previous page.


Setting REMOTE Mode on the SB-600

Overview of Settings (see SB-600 manual page 52)

1. Turn the SB-600 on with the ON/OFF button on back.
2. Hold down the ZOOM and – buttons for about two seconds.
3. Use the MODE button to turn REMOTE mode on.
4. Hold down the ZOOM and – buttons for about two seconds again, and the flash will switch to the remote screen.
5. You can move around this screen by pressing the MODE button.
6. Move to the CH setting and select the channel with the up (+) or down (-) buttons.
7. Press MODE again to move to the GROUP setting and select the group with the up (+) or down (-) buttons.
8. Press the MODE button again to finish. You’ll see two red lights blinking about every two seconds on the front of the SB-800 when it is ready to be fired.
9. Take a picture!

Detailed Settings, with LCD images:

Turn the SB-600 on, then press and hold the ZOOM and – buttons at the same time for about two seconds. It will switch to the screen as seen in Figure 6’s middle picture.

Nikon SB-600 LCD

Now press the MODE button to change Off to On as shown in Figure 6’s right picture. This has enabled the REMOTE wireless slave functionality of the SB-600, but we need to validate the channels and groups settings to be sure they match our D200’s Commander Mode settings.

Hold down the ZOOM and – buttons again and the SB-800 will switch to the screen that allows you to set the Channel (CH) and GROUP.

Nikon SB-600 LCD

Use the MODE button to move around this screen. (Figure 7) Move between the CH and GROUP settings, while making sure they match your D200’s Commander Mode settings.

Press the MODE button until you see the Channel (CH) Number flashing. Now use the up (+) or down (-) toggle key to change the channel number.

Press the MODE button again until you see the GROUP Letter flashing. Now use the up (+) or down (-) toggle key to change the Group Letter to A or B.

Press MODE again to finish and you are ready to take some pictures.

Do a test shot to see if your D200 will fire the SB-600 remotely. If not, check to make sure the Channel and Group on the flash are set to the same settings as on your D200’s Custom Setting e3 Commander Mode screen.


How to Exit the REMOTE Mode on the SB-600 Flash

It is relatively simple to turn off REMOTE mode on the SB-600. Simply follow these steps and your flash will return to a normal iTTL stand-alone condition:

1. Hold down the ZOOM and – buttons for about two seconds. The screen will change to the remote ON/OFF screen.
2. Push the MODE button once to change ON to OFF.
Hold down the ZOOM and – buttons for about two seconds again and your flash is now back to iTTL standalone mode.


This article only covers how to use the Nikon D200 camera and Nikon SB-800 and SB-600 speedlights hardware. The number of variables involved with setting up a good multi-flash shooting session extends beyond this topic and my goal was to acquaint you with the basic settings.


Nikon SB-800, D200, SB-600

Nikon SB-800, Nikon D200, and Nikon SB-600


Once you’ve mastered the settings, I suggest you get a good book on Lighting Technique and study it well. You’ll have to learn how to control shadows and reflections. Plus, you’ll have to understand something about lighting ratios so that you can recognize a good image when you see one.



Buy a couple of light stands and a cheap white flash umbrella and set up some nice portrait sessions of your family or product shots. With the Nikon D200 and even one extra Speedlight, you can create some very impressive images with much less work than ever before.

Nikon CLS sample

The really nice thing is that the Nikon Creative Lighting System built into your Nikon D200 and external Speedlight flash units will allow you to shoot without worrying so much about detailed exposure issues. Instead, you can concentrate on creating a great looking image.


Keep on capturing time…

(1 Vote )
Show pages (7 Pages)

Originally written on June 30, 2006

Last updated on October 28, 2016

1 comment

Brian Woodman (brianwdmn) on September 14, 2013

Thank you Darrell. This is exactly what I was looking for. Well written!