A Guide to Choosing Strobes and Video Lights
The amount of camera equipment available for underwater photography can quickly make a beginner’s head spin. Will the cheaper gear produce good results? Do I need filters? What are wet lenses? How do lights improve my photos?
This article discusses the best underwater camera lights for beginner photographers and video shooters.
Why do We Need Lights Underwater?
The vast majority of underwater photos you see are lit using underwater camera lights. Some exceptions might be freediving photos that are very blue in color, shipwrecks that are also a muted blue/green, and mammals like dolphins close to the surface.
We know that we lose light as we descend in the water column, which is why many divers carry a torch (or dive light) to bring out the vibrant colors of the reef at depth. Underwater strobes and video lights serve the same purpose; they bring back the color and contrast lost as we descend.
As underwater photographers, this color helps bring POP and energy to our images, fill in gloomy shadows, and help capture sharp images due to the extra light available (and resulting camera settings).
Do you need a light or strobe to shoot underwater photos? Nope. Would I recommend one for a beginner photographer. Absolutely.
Underwater Strobe Basics
Underwater strobes is the term we use for flashes. These lights produce extremely powerful bursts of light that not only bring back color, but help freeze the motion of our subjects. This helps us create crisp, vibrant images.
Strobes are used for underwater still photos. Sorry video shooters!
How do Strobes Work?
Strobes are specifically designed to work with underwater camera housings. The most common method to trigger the flashes is through a fiber optic cable that relays the light from the camera’s flash to the strobe input. When the camera flash fires, the strobe detects the light via the fiber optic cable and triggers the flash.
DSLR and Mirrorless cameras often use a flash trigger, or TTL converter, which turns the camera’s electric signal into a light flash that then triggers the strobes. The benefits here are quicker flash firing and no extra use of camera battery to power a pop-up flash.
Sync cords are an alternative to the fiber optic cable system with their own set of pros and cons.
Most underwater cameras allow divers to shoot strobes using automatic power measuring (a process called TTL), but many advanced shooters prefer to control their strobes manually. This manual control is something to consider if you would like strobes that can grow with your underwater photography career.
Underwater Video Light Basics
Video lights are just like regular dive lights, but with specs designed specifically for lighting underwater video. Both dive and video lights are regarded as constant light and require much different camera settings than if you were using a strobe.
Your dive light probably has a narrow spot beam, which travels further through the water and is great for inspecting shadows, lighting little caverns, and signaling your dive buddy.
An underwater video light, on the other hand, has a wide beam angle (110-130 degrees), that helps evenly light a wide scene in front of you. This is essential for photo and video shooters, but divers might notice they don’t reach as far and often create more backscatter/haze during night dives in low visibility conditions.
Video lights are versatile tools. They can be used for shooting video (of course!), as a focus light for macro still photos, and even for general still photo lighting.
Which is Best: Strobe or Video Light?
The choice between a strobe and a video light is a tough one, and really depends on what you plan to be shooting. Let’s break it down by type of shooter.
On a Tight Budget
This shooter likely has a compact housing and is looking for the most affordable way to add underwater lighting. Remember, not only do you need to purchase the light, but you need a tray with handle for your housing, as well as an arm to hold and position the light.
I recommend a video light between 1,000 and 2,500 lumens. This setup will do well for macro photo and video, and even allow you to light some carefully composed wide-angle scenes. It won’t deliver the same results as a strobe, but compensates by being versatile.
The nice thing is that if you start really practicing underwater photo and video, and want to invest in a more advanced system, this light stays with you as a macro focus light. A good investment!
Entry Level Setup
This diver wants to shoot nice photos on a budget and also might experiment with some video.
I recommend a strobe AND a video light for this setup. The level of each will come down to budget. While I’m very conservative on recommending advanced cameras, I do say that investing in your lighting is a smart move, as you can grow with the gear for as long as it lasts.
The strobe will help you capture crisp still photos – both macro and wide-angle. The video light will serve as a macro focus light (still photos) and as a video light for the occasional clip.
This diver is serious about underwater photography.
I recommend two strobes AND a video light. Dual strobes take wide-angle photography to the next level while really helping to minimize backscatter in your images. As before, the video light works both as a macro focus light and as a video light if desired.
This diver lives for the motion of clips. Dual video lights give wide-angle video more lighting, which is essential for reefs, big animals, and divers, where the shadows and backscatter from a single light can prove troublesome.
Dual lights also increase the light coverage area, allow key light and fill light effects, backlighting and much more.
Advanced Ready for Everything
Our last diver has the cash and the desire to shoot both photo and video – sometimes even on the same dive! This setup will require both dual strobes AND dual video lights.
How do Strobes & Lights Connect to the Housing?
Underwater strobes and video lights are both mounted to arms that mount to the top of a handle and tray system that attaches to your housing. Phew! The handles help you keep the housing stable while improving ergonomics and ease of use. There are two systems available, each made by a number of different manufacturers.
Watch my 21-minute video tutorial on Underwater Strobe Positioning to see the arm and clamp system in action!
Arm and Clamp System
This is the most widely used system and universal across almost all housing handles. The aluminum arms come in a number of different sizes, offer different buoyancy characteristics to offset the weight of different camera/lens/port combos and allow virtually any standard strobe or light position.
A simple twist of the clamps tightens and loosens each segment for quick custom positioning.
Flex-Connect & Loc-Line Systems
These systems are much lighter, smaller and more affordable, making them a great choice for those interested in a light, low-profile camera rig.
SeaLife’s Sea Dragon Flex-Connect System is perfect for those who want an all-in-one solution for camera + light(s) + strobe(s), or any similar combination. The modular system offers a number of positioning possibilities, while the clever quick disconnect system makes setting up and breaking down the system insanely fast.
I find it a lot of fun to experiment with disconnecting and handholding a light for creative shots when using the Flex-Connect system (since it’s so easy to disconnect/connect).
Loc-Line arms are popular for Underwater GoPro Lights, but not adopted much beyond that. The arms make some noticeable creaks when moving them around, but the compact size and light weight make them another great option for a low-profile camera system.
3 Basic Tips for Positioning Strobes
Buyer’s Guide: Strobes and Lights
Below are some great underwater camera lighting options at a few price points. Of course, there are many more options available from your local camera retailer, but these are some of my favorites.
Check out my Camera Gear Advice page if you would like me to help you pick out the best gear for your photo/video goals, budget and dive style.
Read my 2020 Underwater Strobe Comparison for more details and specs on all the strobes below.
SeaLife Sea Dragon Universal Flash
Retail: $349: Specs & Purchase
Sea & Sea YS-01
Retail: $399: Specs & Purchase
Retail: $650: Specs & Purchase
Sea & Sea YS-D2
Retail: $690: Specs & Purchase
*In my camera bag!
Retail: $949: Specs & Purchase
Remember that you’ll also need a fiber optic cable to trigger your strobe, plus a tray and arm system to mount the strobe(s).
Underwater Video Lights
SeaLife Sea Dragon Mini 1000F
Retail: $149.99: Specs & Purchase
Kraken Hydra 1000+ WSR
Retail: $189.99: Specs & Purchase
Light & Motion Sola Video 2000 S/F
Retail: $399.99: Specs & Purchase
Light & Motion Sola Video Pro 3800
Retail: $699.99: Specs & Purchase
*In my camera bag!
Remember that you’ll also need a tray and arm system to mount the light(s).
LEARN MORE ABOUT UNDERWATER CAMERA GEAR