In recent months, Nikon's new i-TTL or Creative Lighting System system of electronic flash has been generating some buzz,as they say. I have read of people purchasing two,or three,or four or even more SB-800 flash units,and trying to use those as a way learn how to bring studio-type lighting effects into their photographic repertoire. I'm all in favor of Nikon advancing electronic flash technology. I am all in favor of people taking steps to improve their own photography. I am fully in agreement that moving the flash unit OFF of the camera is a good thing; even a flash bracket moves the flash off of the camera, and can improve lighting results compared to on-camera flash. But the thing I am not in agreement with is how Nikon's Creative Lighting Sytem is being adopted by people who are using it as their introduction to studio-type lighting. I think sinking a lot of money into Nikon speedlights as a way to learn electronic flash lighting is a big,big mistake. And I am not alone in my feelings; notable,really notable experts in photography seem to share my belief that once one gets into the need for multiple flash lighting, that old-school "studio lights" actually work better than a handful of small speedlights, and allow one to achieve complex lighting effects fairly easily. I think,especially for beginners, that the Nikon CLS system is a diversion from the direction that would allow them to really learn how to use auxilliary lights in the fastests and yes, the best way possible. By seeing what they're doing,and not by "shooting blind" using speedlights.
I am not really sure WHY the idea of multiple speedlight flashes is so alluring to people. Oh, I get the techie fascination with being able to trigger a remote flash unit,one that's not hooked directly TO THE CAMERA...I get that....I understand the fascination with being able to trigger MULTIPLE speedlights--I did that back in the 1980's with a system I rigged up myself, but it was NOWHERE near as good at actually lighting things as a Speedotron Brown Line 1600 watt-second power pack, and three Brown Line M-11 flash heads with 11.5 inch reflectors, a softbox, and a handful of umbrellas and a few reflectors, and a boom stand and six light stands and some clamps and tape. Sounds like a lot of gear, but it fits into a large rolling suitcase, except for the three 11.5 inch reflectors. Seven-inch reflectors will fit in the suitcase however! I bought the above-mentioned Speedotron Brown Line box-and-cable system in 1987 I think it must have been. I payed about $1699 for the whole thing,as I recall. Every piece of that original Speedotron lighting kit still works--flawlessly. Since then I've added two more power packs and some more flash heads and some more stuff,stands,a Pocket Wizard remote triggering system,Bogen Auto Poles,etc. Personally, I think that the main reason traditional studio lights are better is the sheer amount of POWER they have,compared with shoe-mount flash units. And also, the ease of attaching light modifiers is so much greater with a real studio light unit. And, things like 10-,20-,and 30-degree honeycomb grids are very,very useful but are impossible to fit to shoe mount or handle-mount flash units. Barn doors and large softboxes, etc,etc--when it comes to attaching a wide range of light modification devices to flash units, camera-style shoe mount flash units are basically out of the running. Multiple speedlight setups usually means having about three 80 watt-second flash units,all firing in the same configuration,more or less; naked, or through an umbrella, or being bounced off of something like a wall,ceiling,floor,or reflector.
When we're talking about buying three,or four,or five camera maker flash units which cost upwards of $300 each, the amount of flash power per dollar is not really all that great in terms of return on investment,particularly when you need four or five lights. In terms of ease of mounting light modifiers, we have umbrellas,soft boxes,reflectors and onto the reflectors is how we affix 1-honeycomb grids and 2-barn doors or 3-snoots or perhaps 4-snap-on diffusers of various matrials--translucent plastic,window screen,etc and also using some type of frame that snaps on to a reflector is how we attach 5-gel sheets for either 7 inch or 11.5 inch diameter reflectors. So, with a regular,traditional studio light head, you get the ability to mount an umbrella,softbox,reflectors ranging from 7-inch to 20-inches in diameter,a snoot, or a reflector with a diffuser of some type, or a reflector with a gel fitted to it to color the light. Adding an umbrella to a shoe-mount flash is pretty easy to do,and works surprisingly well as long as you do not need a lot of flash power. The most serious limitation of speedlights is that they simply do not accept nearly as many light modification devices as conventional studio light units can accept; things like softboxes or reflectors or snoots or reflectors+gel holders. The shoe-mount or handle-mount flash unit was never really designed to mate with a wide variety of lighting accessories,and there's not as much flexibility with speedlights as with regular studio light units. As if the accessory light modifier superiority of studio lights were not enough, there's also the issue of modelling lights,which are built-in lamps,usually incandescent type bulbs or higher-intensity quartz-halogen style (very hot!) modelling lamps. Modelling lamps range from around 150 to 250 watts,and they mimic or "model" the light that will come out of the light when the flash fires. They are on continuously,and help tremendously in previewing lighting effects as one moves the lights through an arc to adjust and aim them. MODELLING LIGHTS HELP. A LOT. ESPECIALLY WHEN YOU ARE LEARNING to use studio light and light modifiers.
I've watched the practice and test shots of a few people who were learning to use the Nikon CLS system. While their posted results were okay,all had some problems with consistency and with ratioing their lights properly and with the getting the exact effects that THEY wanted to achieve. And,while their results were "okay to good", actually nothing matched the quality of lighting that I associate with using even just one umbrella and one 4x6 foot reflector and 400 to 1200 watt-seconds of flash power. The quality of the light, its q-u-a-l-i-t-y, is simply not that great when it's coming out of a 1 x 2 inch flash window. That ain't truly quality light. It's good as fill light, but one,or two,or three naked SB 800 lights does not give the same quality of light as three lights run off of a power pack,or two packs for speedier recycling, or for those times when a LOT of flash power can be utilized. The problems I've seen in looking at these folks' results is that,without modelling lights, they often had their flash units positioned so that they'd get a catchlight in one eye,but not in the other eye. Or their lights would be positioned too high,or too low,or too far back and toward the subject,and the lighting sometimes looked to me like it would have been much better had there been a modelling lamp clearly SHOWING, and I mean showing, the best location to set the main light AS THE LIGHT WAS BEING POSITIONED, before the shots were made. The modelling light allows you to take hold of,and physically rotate,elevate,swing,tilt,and angle the light unit to position it so that you get the placement of light you want,and with the light's beam positioned "just so". With a speedlight, you're basically shooting blind. And uh, that stroboscopic modelling light substitute? Well, not really the same thing. Sorry, just ain't.
I think the answer is "studio lights",and not multi-speedlights. As to which kind of studio lights, there are hot lights which I am not advocating for most people, and flash systems of either monolight style, like Alien Bees or Elinchrome or White Lightning or the new and inexpensive JTL Systems monolights (and many other brands too), or the older style which is often called box-and-cable. I grew up using box-and-cable systems,and I actually prefer them over monolights for many reasons, but I honestly think that owning three "real" studio light units is important if you wanna' get into studio lighting effects. And I think that,especially for beginners, they NEED the help that modelling lights provide. Learning how to establish successful lighting patterns is one hell of a lot easier if you can acually SEE what you are doing, as you position the lights and then refine their positions. With modelling lights, you get a decent representation of the effect; with multi-speedlight shooting, you're shooting blind...you're shooting without being able to see what the light is doing to your subject. Shooting without seeing what the light is doing to one's subject is generally considered bad practice. Electronic flash gives tremendous output per dollar spent as long as the dollars are spent on conventional studio flash equipment like Alien Bees lights, or Speedotron Brown Line, but $350 speedlights that give off 80 watt-seconds of power are not a good deal.