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 flashes on the market today. I’ve intentionally left off a few strobes models and brands, but that’s in an effort to keep this guide practical and helpful in your research and as a 2023 buyer’s guide.
I’ve compiled specs into a comparison chart below, but note that it uses each 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 necessary 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.
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Strobe Comparison Chart 2023
Underwater Strobe Positioning
Why You Need Light Underwater
2023 Best Underwater Strobes
SeaLife Sea Dragon Universal Flash
The SeaLife Universal Flash is sold as a single unit or paired with the Flex-Connect tray and handle, making it a great flash for compact camera and housing systems. Manual and TTL (automatic) 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 Universal Flash is compatible with any camera using fiber optic cables.
Sea & Sea YS-03 Solis
This is a nice strobe if you’re on a lean budget or looking for a simple lighting solution. The YS-03 Solis doesn’t offer manual strobe power control, but it did receive a complete redesign for last year. 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-01 Solis or even the YS-D3 Lightning, as both offer manual control.
Backscatter Mini Flash MF-2
Backscatter has many years experience working with underwater photographers and it shows in every detail of the Mini Flash. This compact, lightweight flash is a great choice for small camera systems and all macro photographers, including creative shooters interested in pairing it with the Backscatter Optical Snoot OS-1. The Mini Flash boasts power comparable to others in its class, simple ergonomics for those with bare hands or thick gloves, replaceable batteries to keep you shooting all day, and a powerful LED focus beam that makes using the Optical Snoot very user friendly.
The MF-2 is an updated version of the original flash that includes a much faster recycle time, wireless remote control, high speed sync, lager 21700 battery for more life, and more.
Batteries and charger not included, but you’ll want Backscatter’s high quality batteries for best results.
The Inon S-220 is a compact underwater strobe with guide number of 22. The flash features an easy-to-use control dial, “fly eye” dome lens that emits a flash beam angle of 140 degrees horizontal and 100 degrees vertical, and phosphorescent rear dial (shine a light on it during a night dive and it will glow for a bit). The S-200 has reliable S-TTL Auto mode and a 12-step manual flash.
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), a modeling light, and refreshed reliable circuitry. This is a fantastic first strobe option.
Ikelite DS51 II
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.
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 and flare, while the phosphorescent back control panel is easy to operate during day or night.
The Kraken KR-S05 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.
Kraken products always have a great value to price ratio, and combined with the integrated video light, will be an interesting option for photo and video shooters.
Sea & Sea YS-D3 Lightning II
Sea&Sea’s latest strobe, the YS-D3 Lighting Mk 2 features redesigned circuitry, redesigned flash tubes for even light distribution center to edge, new charging circuit, and larger capacity condensers for quicker flash recycling. At half power (guide number 16 of the total 33) the strobe will fire continuously without any recycle time. Wow! This updated strobe has an excellent price point and is sure to find its way into the camera bag of many underwater photographers.
YS-D3 Lightning original on Amazon
Ikelite DS160 II Strobe
A solid strobe with a lightning-fast recycle time – just 1.0s at full power – Wow! These strobes have a guide number of 24, so if you’re a dedicated wide-angle shooter you might want to look at the new DS230. The extremely accurate TTL (automatic) mode also ensures you bring home the perfect exposure. The strobes are designed for use with sync cords instead of fiber optic cables.
Retra Flash Pure
The Retra Flash Pure is an elegant strobe. A circular flash tube produces powerful light with very fast recycle times. Retra flash units stand out due to the soft, even light they produce, minimizing hotspots, even without a diffuser. The flash features intuitive and easy to use control ergonomics and a bayonet mount compatible with the LSD Snoot, several diffusers, macro reduction rings, and more.
For those who shoot a lot of photos or use high power, I highly recommend adding the Retra Booster, which allows you to use 8 AA batteries instead of 4. This delivers longer battery life and faster recycle times. As always, use Eneloop Pro rechargeable batteries, explained in the battery section of this guide.
Watch my detailed video on the 1st gen Retra Flash PRO & Accessories.
$1,025 | Backscatter
Retra Flash Prime +
The Retra Flash Prime + uses the same elegant body as the Flash Pure above, but packs more power (90 Ws instead of 70 Ws). It also includes a leak detection system and High Speed Sync function.
The flash features intuitive and easy to use control ergonomics and a bayonet mount compatible with the LSD Snoot, several diffusers, macro reduction rings, and more. For those who shoot a lot of photos or use high power, I highly recommend adding the Retra Booster, which allows you to use 8 AA batteries instead of 4. This delivers longer battery life and faster recycle times. As always, use Eneloop Pro rechargeable batteries, explained in the battery section of this guide.
Watch my detailed video on the 1st gen Retra Flash PRO & Accessories.
$1,250 | Backscatter
A solid strobe with a reputation for quick recycle time. The extremely accurate TTL (automatic) mode also ensures you bring home the shot. Designed for use with fiber optic cables, the DS162 flashes also have a fiber optic cable adapter and can be triggered remotely. This strobe has been discontinued but is still available for sale!
This is Ikelite’s flagship strobe and one of their newest. They have an insanely quick 1.2s recycle time paired with some of the highest power available in underwater strobes, making them popular with wide-angle action photographers. The extremely accurate TTL (automatic) mode also ensures you bring home the shot.
Retra Flash Pro Max
The Ferrari of underwater flash. This flash uses a circular flash tube, creating unparalleled light output – very soft beam at 140Ws power – 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 leak detection system is great for peace of mind and I’ve found the modeling light in my 1st gen version to be useful for the occasional video even when focused on still photography.
The front bayonet mount accessories include the LSD Snoot, several diffusers, macro reduction rings, and more. For those who shoot a lot of photos or use high power, I highly recommend adding the Retra Booster, which allows you to use 8 AA batteries instead of 4. This delivers longer battery life and faster recycle times. As always, use Eneloop Pro rechargeable batteries, explained in the battery section of this guide.
The price is high but the strobe is significantly smaller and lighter than similar-powered Ikelite and Seacam flash units.
Watch my detailed video on the Retra Flash PRO & Accessories.
$1,575 | 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 21700 (MF-2) or 18650 battery (MF-1), 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 and most flash fires with the high-capacity 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 my rechargeable AA and AAA batteries. 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
$34.99 | Amazon
Panasonic Eneloop Pro Batteries with Charger – 4x
$32.99 | Amazon
Panasonic Eneloop Batteries for Strobes – 8 Pack
Go for the high-capacity Pro versions above if you can!
$18.99 | Amazon
Maha Powerex MH-C800S 8-Cell Smart Charger for AA / AAA
This is the charger I use for strobe batteries!
$44.95 | Amazon
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