Focus Lights for Underwater Photography
An overview of this important tool for your underwater photography
By Scott Gietler & Brent Durand
Focus lights are different from “aiming” or “modeling” lights. Light & Motion, I-Torch, Fantasea, Nocturnal, Sea & Sea, Princeton Tec, Big Blue and several other companies all manufacture focus lights. There are focus lights available for all budgets as well as a few DIY ideas for those just beginning to shoot underwater photos. Focus lights can often double as video lights and vice versa.
Why do I really need a focus light?
Focus lights aren't necessary in all situations but are highly recommended. Digital cameras, both compact and DSLR, focus by detecting contrast at the focusing point. Water absorbs light quickly, so using a fous light allows the camera to see the contrast and quickly focus. Using a focus light is critical for shooting at night (it also serves as a primary dive light), for shooting supermacro and oftentimes for shooting macro. Many experienced photographers use focus lights while shooting wide-angle into bright sunlight as well.
Do you need to buy a focus light? Not necessarily... we've seen all of the following solutions:
- Go without a focus light - many compact users do this, although focusing in low-light may be difficult.
- Hold a dive light in your hand - easy to do if you can single hand your compact camera, and many people do
- Mount an inexpensive dive light on your rig with creative DIY methods
- Use the spotting light of your strobe, but we don't recommend doing this all the time. Strobes should not always be pointed at your subject since doing so causes backscatter.
- Buy a focus light and mount it on your rig.
- Use a video light as a focus light.
Will I see the focus light in my images?
Because critters are usually shot at fast shutter speeds and small apertures, the light from a focus light often doesn't show up in a photo. One thing is for sure: you'll have a higher chance of getting a hot spot if you're shooting macro at f/2.8, 1/60th than if you're shooting at f/16, 1/250th. Small apertures and/or fast shutter speeds block out most of the ambient light, including your dive light, especially if you are using the edge of the beam. Strobes provide the light that illuminates your photo subject.
Which focus light should I get?
Focus lights also differ in their burn time, beam width, size and intensity. The majority of new focus lights are LED, however several Halogen options are available.
Mounting: Most DSLR and Mirrorless underwater photogaphers mount a focus light on top of their housing via a cold shoe mount. This allows some flexibility in light positioning for different compositions. Compact users often do the same or use a "triple clamp: to attach a focus light at the first junction of their strobe arms. This doesn't allow as much flexibility in positionsing, but is an efficient way to safely mount a focus light on your rig. Hand-holding is the last (and least desirable) option.
Additional considerations before purchasing a focus light are budget and intended use. Will you be using the light solely for focusing during daytime? If you do night dive, then this light will probably become your primary dive light as well, and you should look for one with plenty of lumens. If you plan to shoot video, you'll need to consider whether the light has a "hot spot" in the center of the beam and beam width in additon to lumens. An obvious fact is that longer burn times are better than short ones, and that lights with multiple power settings help lengthen burn times.
Below are some of our favorite options:
Light & Motion
Sola Photo 500, 800 & 1200:
Sola Photo lights are very popular for their small size, light weight and easy operation between various power levels. They also feature a rechargable integrated battery, meaning no more fuss with o-rings! Sola lights offer several mounting options in order to fit your camera system. The 1200 is a powerful light, with 1200 lumens and a red light to help sneak up on shy critters (many marine creatures cannot see red light). The Sola 800 is 800 lumens with a red light, and the 500 is 500 lumens without a red light. All of these models are flood lights, not spot lights - ideal for underwater photographers. All Sola lights easily flip between 3 different power settings for white light and red light (depending on model). Burn time is about an hour on full power.
Light & Motion SOLA 1200 with red light mode.
Sola Dive 500, 800 & 1200
Sola Dive lights are similar to the Photo lights, however do not have a red light. The benefit for diving is that they offer both spot and flood lights. Flood lights provide a great wide-angle beam (perfect getting up close with a subject), while the spot light is ideal for swimming and seeing farther at night. These lights come with a wrist mount, however are adaptable with any other Sola mount.
Sola Video 1200, 2000, 2000 S/F, 4000
Sola Video lights are similar to the Photo and Dive models, but pack many more lumens needed for capturing vivid, colorful video. At the 2000 lumen level, Light & Motion offers a flood and a flood/spot light version. Mount a couple 4000s on your rig and watch the reef errupt color in front of you!
Light & Motion SOLA Video 2000.
I-Torch Video Pro6 (coming in July '13!)
The Pro6 is I-Torch’s newest video light, boasting 2400 lumens and a very wide beam. The Pro6 has combined popular features from many lights into one compact unit. There are 4 power levels for the white beam, two for the red beam and a UV (ultraviolet) light. The modes are accessed through a button on the top of the light right where the mount is. A power indicator light is also built into the switch and glows green, orange or red. The Pro6 takes one rechargeable lithium battery but comes with two so that one will always be charged. Burn time is one hour on full power.
i-torch Pro6 Video & Focus Light.
I-Torch Video Pro5
The Pro5 is a 1600 lumen video and focus light that delivers an even 110-degree beam at a great price. Light in weight and compact, the Pro5 has two power modes (100% & 50%) that are turned on by twisting the head of the light. The Pro5 takes 2 rechargeable lithium batteries with burn time dependent on power setting. The light comes with 4 batteries, so you can use a set all day as a focus light, then put in a fresh set for a night dive. Burn time is about an hour on full power.
I-Torch Video Pro4
The Pro4 is a 1300 lumen video and focus light. The size is larger than the Pro5 but the soft edges of the 110 degree beam and the red light feature make this a great light for photographers. Both white and red lights have 3 power settings each, adjusted by half-depressing the power switch on the rear of the light. Another great feature is that it doesn’t just shut off when the battery dies. Instead, the power slowly decreases after 1.5 hrs burn time at max brightness. This provides a nice heads up when on a long night dive. The I-Torch Pro4 takes one rechargeable battery but comes with a second.
The Gamma features a precision-machined aluminum body that boats over 220 lumens. The compact focus/dive light is depth-rated to 400ft (120m) and features a heavy-duty mechanical tail switch that provides either continuous or momentary lighting at the touch of a button. The Ikelite Gamma takes 2 rechargeable batteries and comes in red, black or silver. Burn time is 10 hours.
Ikelite's Gamma light.
Light Tests & Comparisons
There are many great light options available these days, whether you’re upgrading focus lights or looking to purchase your first. One thing is for certain – all serious underwater photographers need to have one.
This photo of a blue-ring topsnail was taken using the red "stealth" mode on the SOLA 600. Attempts to take the picture using white focus light only caused the snail to retreat into its shell. Photo by Michael Zeigler.
Support the Underwater Photography Guide
Please support the Underwater Photography Guide by purchasing your underwater photography gear through our sister site, Bluewater Photo & Video. Click, or call them at (310) 633-5052 for expert advice!