Underwater Strobe Comparison 2020

Underwater strobes light up our world. They bring vivid color back into wide-angle and macro scenes, while also freezing motion to deliver crisp images of the subject. I’ve written this underwater strobe comparison in order to help you find the best strobes for your kit, whether upgrading or buying new.

The list and comparison below incorporates of some of the most popular underwater strobes on the market today. I’ve intentionally left off a few strobe models and brands, but that’s in an effort to keep this guide practical and helpful in your research and as a 2020 buyer’s guide.

I’ve compiled specs into a comparison chart below, but note that it uses manufacturers’ available info, which isn’t always apples to apples (welcome to underwater photography gear).

It’s an exciting time to be in the market for strobes as we have several new models and upgraded strobes mixing it up with the workhorses of the past few years.

What is the Best Underwater Strobe?

The best underwater strobe is the model that combines the power level (guide number), features and price for your photography goals. This strobe comparison evaluates the specs and subjective qualities of the best strobes on the market today.

Related: Underwater Lights vs. Strobes

strobes vs lights underwater

Strobe Comparison Chart 2020

This includes new strobes previewed at the DEMA tradeshow!

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Sea & Sea YS-03Sea Dragon FlashBackscatter MF-1

Inon Z-330Sea & Sea YS-D2JSea & Sea YS-D3

Retra Flash PrimeIkelite DS161Ikelite New StrobeKraken New Strobe

2020 underwater strobe comparison chart
Sea & Sea YS-03

This is a nice strobe if you’re on a lean budget or looking for a simple lighting solution, as it doesn’t offer manual strobe power control. My opinion is that strobes grow with you and if you really think you’ll get into underwater photography, try to spend the cash on the YS-D3 (which does offer manual control (featured below)). Note that the YS-03 receives an internal redesign for 2020.

$300 | On Backscatter | On Amazon

SeaLife Sea Dragon Universal Flash

The SeaLife flash comes with the Flex-Connect tray and handle, making it a quick solution for adding light to a compact camera and housing. Manual and TTL control, plus the quick assembly/disassembly of the arm system make it very simple to use. SeaLife also sells combo kits with dual flashes, a flash and light combo and more.

The flash is compatible with any camera using fiber optic cables.

$399 | On Amazon

Backscatter Mini Flash MF-1 – NEW!
Backscatter Mini Flash 1 with Optical Snoot

Backscatter has developed their own strobe and snoot combo in response to the snooted macro photo craze. This compact flash combines the features found in many strobes and snoots into one small unit. It has a powerful LED focus beam, aperture cards to adjust the size and shape of the snooted light point, bright light even when shooting at f/32, and well-thought-out ergonomics for adjusting the light while concentrating on shooting.

My opinion is that this flash can be a primary if macro is your thing, or it’s an accessory you use for macro when not using your normal strobes. Watch Backscatter’s video review. Price below is for the flash and snoot combo.

$499 | On Backscatter

Inon Z-330

Inon released this follow up to the Z240 in 2018. This strobe really upped Inon’s game vs. Sea & Sea’s wildly popular YS-D1. You can read Adam Hanlon’s review on Wetpixel.

Note that Inon also makes the S-2000 strobe ($365), which is a more affordable option than the Z-330. It has a guide number of 20, whereas the Z-330 is 33.

$650 | On Backscatter

Sea & Sea YS-D2J

The YS-D2J is the workhorse of many serious underwater photographers and my first strobe recommendation. I use the older YS-D2 model, but these rock. Enough said. Use the 100 degree diffuser set instead of the 120 degree.

$690  On Backscatter | $630 On Amazon

Sea & Sea YS-D3 – NEW!
Sea & Sea YS-D3 Strobe

Sea & Sea has announced the YS-D3 strobe, the latest in a line of extremely popular strobes. The YS-D3 features a redesigned flash tube lens for wide-more even light distribution, lighting-fast recycle time for shooting fast action, improved control ergonomics and a complete internal overhaul designed to be more modular (easy to fix in case the user floods the battery compartment).

This strobe is sure to find its way into the camera bag of many underwater photographers. Hopefully my D2s last years longer, but the YS-D3 will be my replacement when the time comes. See all my photo gear.

Price TBA | I’ll link to the product once available in April 2020.

Retra Flash Prime – NEW!
Retra Flash Prime

Retra hit the scene a couple years ago with their LSD (light shaping device), helping spark a second wave of macro snoot photography. They released the Retra Flash, and for 2020 have upgraded it to become the Retra Flash Prime. A Pro version of this flash will soon be available as well, although I would look more towards the Prime version. It goes without saying that this strobe plus the Retra LSD is an elegant combo.

$899 | On Backscatter

Ikelite DS161
ikelite ds161 strobe

A solid strobe with a reputation for quick recycle time. These strobes have a quick 1.5s recycle time, making them popular with wide-angle action photographers. The extremely accurate TTL (automatic) mode also ensures you bring home the shot. Aquatica housings have an option for built-in Ikelite strobe compatibility to take advantage of the TTL exposure.

$949 | On Backscatter | On Amazon

Ikelite NEW Strobe – Name TBD
Ikelite Underwater Strobe

This new strobe is reported to pack more power and wider beam angle into a more compact unit. The strobe will use the same NiMh rechargeable batter as the current DS161, making the upgrade easy for Ikelite strobe shooters. Stay tuned for updates once this hits the market in early 2020.

Price TBA | I’ll link to the product once available in early 2020.

Kraken NEW Strobe – Name TBD
New Underwater Strobe TBA

Kraken Sports is bringing a new strobe to market in early 2020, offering us a sneak peak at DEMA. The strobe is small and compact, has a guide number of 24, color temp of 5000K and 90 degree beam angle. The strobe will have a rechargeable battery, and I’ll keep my eye on reports from the first users to see how many batteries are recommended (e.g. if the strobe lasts many fires, you need less batteries to make it through a long dive day).

Kraken products always have a high-value price point, so expect this strobe to become popular for those building camera systems on a budget.

Price TBA | I’ll link to the product once available in early 2020.

Featured Tutorials
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Underwater Strobe Positioning (video + tutorial)

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How to Create Black Backgrounds (video + tutorial)

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.