Underwater Camera Lights 101

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.

TOPICS:

Why do we Need Lights Underwater?

Strobe Basics

Video Light Basics

Which is Best: Strobe or Video Light?

How do Strobes and Lights Connect to the Housing?

Video: How to Position Strobes & Lights

Buyer’s Guide: Strobes and Lights

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.

scuba diver using dual strobe camera system
A diver using both strobes and video lights zooms in for a still photo.

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.

Close up of Sea & Sea’s TTL Converter, which converts an electric signal from the camera’s hot shoe into a light flash that triggers the strobes.

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.

underwater video shooter with dual video lights
A video shooter using two lights films a bull shark amidst chum particles off the coast of Florida.

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.

The Photographer

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.

The Videographer

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 stabile 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 for beginners, and found on every intermediate, advanced and pro shooter’s camera rigs. The 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.

housing arm and clamp system for strobes and video lights
This shot of me gearing up for a remote lake dive shows Ultralight Control System’s arm and clamp system paired with some I-Torch video lights.
Flex-Connect System

This system is much lighter, smaller and more affordable, but offers limited positioning due to the shorter length. Flex-Connect arms are popular for Underwater GoPro Lights, but not adopted much beyond that.

One notable exception is SeaLife’s Sea Dragon Flex-Connect System. While maneuverability of the arm extension is limited, the quick disconnect system allows you to easily disconnect the light/strobe to handhold in just the right spot.

sealife sea dragon flex connect handles
Here I am checking out the SeaLife Sea Dragon Flex-Connect system as part of a camera review assignment.

3 Basic Tips for Positioning Strobes

This video tutorial focuses on the basics for positioning strobes, however the same techniques apply for underwater video lights.

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.

Remember that you’ll need a tray and handle system, plus an arm system for your new lights. A dedicated focus light is usually mounted on a cold-shoe mount with clamp or with a triple clamp.

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.

Underwater Strobes

Read my 2019 Underwater Strobe Comparison for more details and specs on all the strobes below.

sea-and-sea-ys-03-underwater-strobe

Sea & Sea YS-01

Retail: $399: Specs & Purchase

inon-z-330-underwater-strobe

Inon Z330

Retail: $650: Specs & Purchase

sea-and-sea-ys-d2j-strobe

Sea & Sea YS-D2

Retail: $690: Specs & Purchase

*In my camera bag!

ikelite ds161 strobe

Ikelite DS161

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
kraken hydra 1000+ WSR Focus Light

Kraken Hydra 1000+ WSR

Retail: $189.99: Specs & Purchase

light & motion sola video 2000 s/f

Light & Motion Sola Video 2000 S/F

Retail: $399.99: Specs & Purchase

light & motion sola video pro 3800

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

Best Underwater Cameras for 2019

Packing Your Underwater Photo Gear

How to Clean & Maintain Your Housing

Brent Durand

Professional writer and underwater photo instructor. Brent is an avid diver and surfer, and has led many intensive photo workshops around the world. BrentDurand.com.