Monday, January 28, 2008 

Choosing an Underwater Strobe for Point & Shoot Cameras


I have a Fuji E900 and Ikelite housing. What strobe would you suggest for this set-up and what price range am I looking at? I would appreciate your help.


The E900 is a great little camera, I shot mine for 1.5 years with good results. I get asked this same question by many underwater photographers looking for an external strobe to use with various cameras. The below information is derived from my experience and pertains to most point & shoot cameras and housings.

An external strobe is a way for photographers to add more light to bring out colors and detail that would otherwise be lost and creatively light their subjects, to emphasize, or de-emphasize subject matter. Also by angling the light away from the subject directly, you can you can reduce backscatter; particles in the water that reflect light directly into the camera lens.

When buying a strobe, you pretty much get what you pay for in terms of features, power, coverage and speed. It's important to consider what subject matter and shooting conditions you will be diving in. Wide angle photography requires much more powerful strobes, really 2 strobes, for success. You have to light a wide swath of reef or larger subjects. For macro and fish portraits, you can get by with much less. In turbid conditions the same applies. I'm making some generalizations; it is quite possible to do close-focus wide angle photography and use only one strobe. It's good to also consider your long-range photography goals as well; if you eventually want to upgrade to a DSLR for instance.

There's lots of manufactures and options for strobes. Remember that you will also need a tray, handles, arms and sync cord to use it. Here's a few that I'm familiar with.

I've used a variety of Inon strobes, they are very good, physically small, but sort of expensive. They also tend to be a bit negatively weighted in the water. The Inon z240 & 2000 have S-TTL and an external auto mode (works ok for close-up stuff), as well as 13 steps of manual control. The S-TTL mode will work with most any camera, measuring the light output automatically, but as it makes the camera do a full dump of light (instead of what's necessary for exposure), it can be slow to use, around 11 secs between shots on the E900!

I've used an Ikelite DS-51 with an external manual controller as well (the auto TTL controller is not compatible with the E900). Again, its very slow to work with that camera, due to making it do a full dump. It was better with the Fuji F810. I had problems with the manual controller flooding and it's another piece of gear to mount and swim with, although a fairly powerful little strobe. I think overall the setup is bulky and not as full featured, when compared to other strobes on the market at a similar price point.

The Ikelite DS-160 is a great wide angle TTL strobe when used with their housings, with a Nikon TTL converter, or in manual with other housings. It has a nice warm cast to it and plenty of power. It has a rechargeable battery, but the charger is sold separately.I don't recommend the DS-161 Movie strobe, as the internal video light is quite weak and uneven. A separate video light is much more powerful.

Ikelite has come out with a Fiber Optic Converter that works with their strobes, but it only works in manual mode.

I sell the Fantasea NanoFlash ($99), the best-selling Sea & Sea YS-01 ($429) and the Sea & Sea YS-110a ($634). If you want a huge reef-lighter the Sea & Sea YS-250Pro is also available at $1069.

The Fantasea NanoFlash is a small starter strobe. It's pretty good in clearer waters for macro, or close-in fish portrait photography. It is very small and light, making it easy to swim with. But it's not suitable for wide angle photos, or "lighting up the reef".

The Sea & Sea YS-01 is probably my most popular strobe. It has a guide number of about 20, a wide 100x100 beam angle, targeting light and TTL. It also has 10 steps of manual adjustment. There is also the YS-02 that is the same stobe, but without the TTL or targeting light, and it sells for $109 less.

With most M4/3rds or DSLR cameras, I'd recommend any of the Sea & Sea strobes, leaning toward the YS-110a. It is more powerful at a guide number of 22, has a wider beam angle, and has 13 steps of manual control. It also has a target light, and can be used with a DSLR that has electrical sync should you upgrade in the future. YS-110aIt does have a D-TTL mode (like Inon's S-TTL) that works with most cameras, depending if it uses multiple pre-flashes or single. However some cameras, notably the Olympus XZ-1, and the Nikon D7000 do not work in TTL mode with Sea & Sea D-TTL. I do think they much easier to use with gloves than the Inons, as the knobs are a bit larger, and there's less knobs to deal with to operate it. They are considerably cheaper than the Inon strobes, and tend to be lighter in the water.

All of these strobes work with a fiber optic sync cord, with one end of the cord velcroed on the outside of the camera housing and the other plugged into the light sensor of the strobe. You should black out the camera's internal flash on the inside of the housing with some electrical tape, except for a small area under the connector to trigger the external strobe. This will reduce backscatter and let you control the light.

To control backscatter, you have to have your strobes pointed away from your subject and use only the edge of the light to light it. Basically you have the lights pointing forward and away from the center. This allows the light to reflect away from the camera lens for particulates in the water column.

A focus light is very necessary for you to see to frame and your camera to lock auto focus. They are particularly convenient for night diving. Many users are also including video lighting or a more powerful focus/video light in the systems, like the new iTorch Pro-mini.

We sell all of these strobes in various lighting packages of trays, arms, handles, sync cord and choices of focus lights on my website at reasonable prices. The Optical Ocean packages are modular and work with most any housing; you can add different components to each package to customize to your desires. I especially like the Wide S-Tray that adjusts in and out to fit various sized-hands and housings. It can be configured for either ball & joint or flex arms.

Another low-cost option is to consider using a red filter on the port of your housing, it will reduce the cyan cast and give a much more natural color, especially when used with manual white balance.

Please also see our free guide "Basic Principles of Strobe Positioning" for more information.

(This article has been updated as of 1/12).

Tuesday, January 22, 2008 

Got a Light?

New underwater lighting packages offered by include a line of reasonably priced modular trays, handles, arms and clamps. Unique, thin but strong, "bar-bell" style arms are available in two styles; ball-to-ball and ball-to-strobe YS mount in 3.3, 4, 6 and 8” sizes. Handles feature rubber grips with a ball mount that allows for precise control of the camera system.

Made from high quality, black anodized aluminum, these lighting parts can be purchased separately or together in many different single or dual lighting packages. Choices include Fantasea or Sea & Sea strobes, sync cord, focus lights and more. Shown at left is the OpticalOcean Ultimate Lighting System with the Sea & Sea YS-110 strobe. Adapters are available for other strobe brands. They can also be optionally bundled with a choice of Fantasea Nikon CoolPix housings, including the popular FP5000 housing (shown) for the CoolPix P5100 camera at attractive savings. is a Fantasea Line dealer and ships worldwide.

More information:
Lighting Packages
CoolPix Housing Systems
Trays and Arms

Thursday, January 17, 2008 

ExperienceWA - Scuba Diving in Washington State

Sunset at Three Tree
Originally uploaded by Pixel Letch.
Last summer I was hired to write, photograph and organize the Scuba section of Washington State Tourism’s ExperienceWA website. I had previously licensed photos to them through their advertising agency EverybodyWeKnow, and they became aware of my writing the Optical Ocean blog. So it was a perfect fit!

The site is at ExperienceWA/Activities/ScubaDiving. I wrote and took photos for 15 shore diving sites as a start. They were selected for their accessibility and user-friendliness for visiting divers, as well as trying to cover a fairly broad area from South Puget Sound to the San Juans. I also tried to have a selection of sites that appealed to different interests and experience levels. Everyone has their favorite site, but not all of them are accessible easily, nor are they places for divers who are new to the area.

Site locations are described, as well as a dive briefing included, so that a diver can find important geographic features, as well as look for the usual marine animals inhabiting the sites. Hazards and conditions, and on many sites tidal conditions and weather, were discussed. Nearby facilities are also listed.

Obviously in the space available on a web page, the information is brief, and is not a substitute for divers researching and developing their own dive plans. But the website should prove to be a good place to plan a trip, or visit new locations within the state.

This is just a fraction of the diving available in Puget Sound, specifically boat dives are not covered, but it is a start, and divers should be able to make a few dives and explore more on their own.

We are now working on expanding the web area, possibly adding more sites, boat dives, linking from it to video, photos, marine animal information, safe diving practices, state, city and private facilities and other points of interest like Aquariums, charters and more.

This should prove of interest not only to divers, but also to the general public, so that everyone can learn more about the waters beneath Washington State.
I have many more photos available
ExperienceWA dive sites (and others)
Diving in Puget Sound

About Jack

  • Adventurer, diver, sailor, photographer, writer and sometimes graphic designer. Proprietor of Optical Ocean Sales, LLC. Enjoy the blog, check back and please leave comments!
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