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 2021 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.
Strobe Comparison Chart 2021
Underwater Strobe Positioning
Why You Need Light Underwater
2021 Best Underwater Strobes
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, and well-thought-out ergonomics for adjusting the light while concentrating on shooting.
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).
$399 | 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 and flare, while the phosphorescent back control panel is easy to operate during day or night.
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.
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.
The Inon Z-330 is a workhorse strobe for many pro photographers. Small and light with a powerful 33 guide number, this strobe gets it done for macro or wide-angle. Use of fiber optic cables or sync cords is easy. Learn more in Adam Hanlon’s review on Wetpixel.
Sea & Sea YS-D2J
The YS-D2J is the workhorse of many serious underwater photographers. Powerful and easy to use, this line of strobes has been one of my top recommendations for years. I prefer to use the 100 degree diffuser set instead of the 120 degree set.
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 perfect exposure. The strobes are designed for use with an sync cords instead of fiber optic cables.
Sea & Sea YS-D3 Lightning
Sea&Sea’s latest strobe, the YS-D3 Lighting features a redesigned flash tube lens for wide-more even light distribution, lighting-fast recycle time at half power, 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.
Retra Flash Prime
The Retra Flash Prime is an elegant strobe. A circular flash tube produces high-quality light and very fast recycle times. The flash features a built-in leak detector, intuitive and easy to use control ergonomics, and a bayonet mount compatible with a range of fun accessories.
For just $100 more, I suggest looking towards the more powerful Retra Flash PRO.
$989 | 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 font bayonet mount is compatible with the LSD Snoot, several different round diffusers, macro reduction ring kits, and reflectors.
The Retra Pros with Superchargers 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
$34.99 | Amazon Prime
Panasonic Eneloop Pro Batteries with Charger – 4x
$32.99 | Amazon Prime
Panasonic Eneloop Batteries for Strobes – 8 Pack
$18.99 | Amazon Prime
Maha Powerex MH-C800S 8-Cell Smart Charger for AA / AAA
$39.95 | Amazon Prime
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