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.
Strobe Comparison Chart 2020
This includes new strobes previewed at the DEMA tradeshow!
Related Video Tutorial
Sea & Sea YS-03 Solis
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 Solis has received a redesign in 2020.
$349.95 | On Backscatter
The Inon 2000 is a great entry level strobe that allows you to shoot TTL (automatic) or manual – perfect for easing your way into underwater photography. The strobe is light and compact, making is a great addition to a compact camera system.
$365 | On Backscatter
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.
$399.95 | On Amazon
Sea & Sea YS-01 Solis
This redesigned version of the popular YS-01 strobe features a wide, even 110 degree beam, ability to shoot in manual or automatic (DS TTL II), modeling light, and refreshed reliable circuitry. This is a fantastic first strobe option!
$449.95 | On Backscatter
This is a great strobe for Ikelite shooters who want quality, light weight, compact size and the versatility to shoot in TTL or manual modes. There are six manual power settings, adjusted with a large dial that is easy to read and adjust.
$449.95 | On Backscatter
Backscatter Mini Flash MF-1
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.
The Backscatter flash is becoming very popular for those ready to invest in macro accessories. The guide number (strength) of 16 means it won’t replace any of the higher-end strobes for wide-angle shooters.
Price below is for the flash and snoot combo (batteries and charger not included, so you’ll have to spend more for those).
$499 | On Backscatter
Another great Inon strobe, the D200 boasts a much faster recycle time than the lower S2000 model. The strobe is slightly buoyant underwater, which means less float is needed to make your rig neutral. A rotating light shade helps control light while the phosphorescence back control panel is easy to operate during day or night.
$499 | On Backscatter
The Kraken KR-S02 strobe is small and compact with a guide number of 24, color temp of 5000K and 90-degree beam angle. The strobe uses a rechargeable 14.8V Li-ion battery pack (4x 18650 batteries wrapped to single cell). A digital read out screen on the back shows the current strobe power level and estimated number of flashes remaining – very cool for those times you know you’re low on battery but not sure just how low.
Kraken products always have a great value to price ratio, and combined with the integrated video light, will be a great option for photo and video shooters.
$599 | On Backscatter
Inon released the Z-330 strobe 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.
Ikelite DS160 Strobe
A solid strobe with a reputation for quick recycle time – just 1.5s at full power. These strobes have a guide number of 24, so if you’re a dedicated wide-angle shooter you might want to look at the DS161. The extremely accurate TTL (automatic) mode also ensures you bring home the shot. The strobes are designed for use with an electrical sync connection (sync cords instead of fiber optic cables).
$799 | On Backscatter
Sea & Sea YS-D3 Lightning
Sea & Sea has announced the YS-D3 Lightning strobe, the latest in a line of extremely popular strobes. The YS-D3 Lighting features a redesigned flash tube lens for wide-more even light distribution, lighting-fast recycle time at half power 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.
Price $849.95 | On Backscatter
Retra Flash Prime
Retra hit the scene a couple years ago with their LSD (light shaping device) Ultimate Snoot, helping spark a second wave of macro snoot photography. They released the Retra Flash, and for 2020 have released two more high performance strobes – the Prime and the Pro. Both strobes feature a circular flash tube for unparalleled light output.
Retra also released the Supercharger, which doubles battery life while providing a lighting fast recycle rate. It goes without saying that this strobe plus the Retra LSD Ultimate is an elegant, powerful combo.
$989 | On Backscatter
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.
Retra Flash PRO
The Ferrari of underwater flash. This flash uses a circular flash tube, creating unparalleled light output and very fast recycle times. Retra works closely with the top underwater photographers to fine-tune every product, and it shows in the elegant design, control ergonomics, and features.
The Retra UWT App allows you to set advanced features and customize the flash for the way you shoot. Add a Supercharger for what I believe to be the fastest recycle times on the market (great for fast action sequential shooting). The Retra Pros are part of My Camera Gear.
$1,099 | On Backscatter
Important Strobe Battery Info
Underwater strobes today are designed for high performance, creating bright light and firing rapid bursts in succession. You’ll get the most from your strobes by using high performance rechargeable batteries – so much in fact that most manufacturers specifically recommend the batteries below.
Note that if you shoot an Ikelite, Kraken or Backscatter strobe you’ll use their proprietary batteries, so this doesn’t really apply to you. It’s important to mention, however, that the Backscatter strobe requires a specific high-quality 18650 battery, so be sure to follow their recommendations.
Best Underwater Strobe Batteries
Panasonic Eneloop batteries are widely regarded as the best rechargeable AA batteries for your underwater strobes. The regular Eneloop batteries are the most popular, however you’ll get the fastest recycle times with the Pro version.
Note also that the batteries do wear out over time, so it’s a good idea to recycle them and replace with new ones every couple years or couple hundred photo dives.
I’ve listed a great 3rd party battery charger below, which I use for all the AA batteries and AAA used in my TTL-Converter. It soft charges 8 batteries at a time (all independently) and is very affordable compared to alternatives.
Panasonic Eneloop Pro Batteries for Strobes – 8 Pack
$32.63 | On Amazon
Panasonic Eneloop Pro Batteries with Charger – 4x
$32.99 | On Amazon
Panasonic Eneloop Batteries for Strobes – 8 Pack
$18.99 | On Amazon
Maha Powerex MH-C800S 8-Cell Smart Charger for AA / AAA
$39.95 | On Amazon
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