Underwater Strobes

Features and comparisons of strobes for compact, mirrorless and dSLR underwater cameras
By Scott Gietler

An external underwater strobe, also known as an underwater flash, is very important in underwater photography. It allows you to reduce backscatter, and enables you to try different lighting options. After a camera housing, it should be your first purchase. Inon, Ikelite and Sea & Sea are popular makers of underwater strobes.

You can also learn about how to light underwater with strobes, and learn about various underwater strobe positions.

Underwater strobes come at many different price points, from $75 to $3200. Here are their features, and what you should look for to get the best possible underwater strobe.


Underwater Strobe Power:               

  • More is better. Power of an underwater flash is usually given by a guide number. The higher the guide number, the stronger the strobe. The precise formula for guide number = distance * F-stop. For example, a strobe with a stated guide number of 20 (meters, above water) might have a guide number of 10 underwater. This means, if you are shooting at a subject 1 meter away at full strobe power, at ISO 100, F10 will give you the correct exposure. At 2 meters away, you will need a larger aperture, F5.6. At a half meter, you would use F20.

  • Guide numbers are usually given in meters, at ISO 100, usually above water but sometimes below water. Check to see if this number is with a diffuser or not, since a diffuser will reduce the guide number. when you look at the power of a strobe, you must also look at the angle of coverage. For example, the Ike DS-51 is fairly strong, but has a smaller angle of coverage, so this strobe needs less power.

  • Also keep in mind that strobe guide numbers sometime vary from real world results. View the strobe choices below for more insight on strobe power.


Strobe Angle of Coverage

  • You will want a higher angle of coverage for wide-angle shots. Strobes like the Ike DS-51, with an angle of coverage less than 90 degrees, are sufficient for macro. Strobes meant for wide angle usually have an angle of coverage of 90-100 degrees or more in both directions. The number quoted can be with or without a diffuser, so check the specifications carefully.


Recycle Rate Of The Underwater Strobe

  • Faster is better. 1 second is considered very good, 3 seconds a little slow. This recycle time is only for a "full dump", which means the strobe fires for its maximum duration. Lower strobe powers will recycle faster. Remember, when comparing strobe recycle rates, you also have to compare them at the same power setting. If Strobe A and B have the same recycle time, but Strobe B is a stronger strobe than strobe A, Strobe B will recycle faster than strobe A when both are set to Strobe A's maximum power. 


Shots Per Full Battery Charge

  • More is better; the normal range is 100-300 shots per battery charge, assuming a full dump (strobe is fired at maximum power). The best batteries for your strobe are usually 2700mAH or 2900mAH rechargables. Batteries often don't meet their specs, so get a high-quality battery like Maha powerex or Sanyo, and check out battery reviews


Underwater Strobe Size and Weight

  • Less is better. Figures are usually given for above water, and under water.

Sea & Sea YS-D1 strobe


Spotting Light

  • A spotting light, also know as an aiming light or a modeling light, is a light that comes out of the strobe, lighting up the subject to help with auto-focus. I find very few people use this feature, most of the times strobes are not aimed exactly at the subject. They can be useful as a backup light on night dives though, or as an emergency focus light if your focus light goes out or floods. They can also be used to help you know which exact direction your strobe is pointing. But I would never use an aiming light as a criteria for selecting a strobe.


TTL Converter Compatibility

  • Although TTL Converters are available for automatic operation, not all strobes are able to communicate with the housing especially if they are brand specific.  


Color Temperature of A Strobe

  • Color temp of most strobes will range from 4700 to 5600K. See the color temperature section for more info. A slightly lower (warmer) color temp, e.g. 4700K, can be beneficial for wide angle shots because of the better blues it produces. Ikelite strobes are a warmer strobe. Some of the highest end strobes, like SeaCam, even have adjustable color temp.


Bulb size

  • Some more expensive strobes have a tubular or curved bulb for better quality of light. The difference will be very subtle.


Recommended Underwater Strobes:


Best Underwater strobes

dSLR users:

Some of the popular underwater strobes or flashes for dSLR users are the following:  Sea & Sea YS-D1, S&S YS-D2, S&S YS-D2J, Ikelite DS-160, Ikelite DS-161, INON Z240 and the new Inon Z330. All are excellent choices, at different price points. Subtronics and SeaCam have a good reputation at a higher price point and are used by many professionals. Ikelite came out with a stronger DS-160 and DS-161 strobes, which are also popular.

Sea & Sea first came out with the game changing YS-D1 strobe, read our YS-D1 strobe review here. They updated it to the YS-D2, and then moved production to Japan for the YS-D2J to improve the reliability of the strobe.

Some people may start choosing the Inon S2000 or the Sea & Sea YS-01 for a small macro setup - read my Inon S2000 review.


Mirrorless Users:

Most of you will be served best with a Sea & Sea YS-D2J. If you already own an Ikelite strobe, you can get a fiber optic adapter so it can work with the fiber optic connection of your housing. If you are only doing macro, you might be able to get away with a less expensive strobe like the Inon D200.


Compact Camera Users:

Sea & Sea YS-01, Sea & Sea YS-03, Inon S2000, and Ikelite DS-51s are all popular choices. You may want to look at the Sea & Sea YS-D2J if you want to get great wide-angle shots. Check out our video on the Sea & Sea YS-O3 Solis Package




Bluewater Photo Buyer's Guide to Underwater Strobes

ikelite ds-160 strobe

Strobe Choices - A Quick Overview

I'm going to give a quick overview of some of the most popular mid-level strobes. This does not cover some of the very inexpensive strobe makers like Fantasea or Epoque, or the more high-end strobes like SeaCam, Subtronic or Hartenberger.

Strobes are listed in order of increasing power.


Sea & Sea Strobes

Great quality strobes - small, strong, with a fast recycle time - especial the YS-D2J, YS-02, YS-01 and Ys-110a. Those models also have an optical TTL feature that works well. Easy to use buttons. Takes AA batteries.

* Read our comparison between the wildly popular Sea&Sea YS-D2 and YS-D1 strobes.


  • YS-17TTL - not considered a good strobe for the money

  • YS-27dx - Popular choice for compact cameras with fiber optic cable

  • YS-01 - New strobe, direct competitor to the Inon S2000, very similar specs.

  • YS-02 - same specs YS-01, but less expensive - no TTL or LED modeling light.

  • YS-90 - Replaced by the YS-110

  • Sea & Sea YS-110 - Replaced by the YS-110a, good choice for macro & wide angle. Three second refresh rate at a full dump. Read my YS-110 review, and the comparison of the YS-110 and the Inon Z240.

  • Sea & Sea YS-110a - Faster refresh rate than the YS-110, 1.5 seconds on a full dump. Good choice for macro & wide angle. Has an optical TTL feature. They are used by compact and dSLR users. 

  • Sea & Sea YS-D1 strobe - great specs, this strobe is small and very powerful. This is a top choice for underater photographers.

  • Sea & Sea YS-D2 strobe - similar specs as the YS-D1 but with upgraded control panel, better knobs, audible confirmation beep and redesigned battery compartment.

  • Sea & Sea YS-D2J strobe - same as the YS-D2, but produced in Japan where the reliabiltiy rate ranks equal to any other strobe

  • YS-250 - Professional level, very strong, larger & heavier, made for wide-angle. Ultra-fast recycle time.Recently discontinued.


Ikelite Strobes

Excellent reputation for strobes, known for good color temp (Ikelite DS-125 & above) and fast refresh rate. Strobes are larger & heavier than S&S and Inon, and take a proprierary battery pack. People with Ikelite housings usually get Ikelite strobes so they can use the Ikelite TTL converter. An Ikelite fiber optic adapter is needed to work with a fiber optic cable.

Ikelite recently came out with a new lithium battery for the DS-160 and DS-161 which gives it quite a good number of shots.

  • Ikelite DS-50 - Replaced by the DS-51

  • DS-51 - Used for compact cameras or dSLR macro photography.

  • Ikelite DS-125 - Replaced by the DS-160, used for macro and wide-angle, one of the most popular strobes for dSLRs.

  • Ikelite DS-160 - One of the top choices for dSLRs, fast, powerful, used for macro and wide angle. 2nd generation has new lithium battery.

  • Ikelite DS-161 - Released in Dec 2009, same as DS-160 but includes a 500 lumen LED video light. 2nd generation has new lithium battery.

  • DS-200 - Professional level, made for wide-angle. Older strobe, the DS-160 is a better bet. Discontinued.


Inon Strobes

Solid reputation for strobes, known for excellent build quality, small size, a good S-TTL (optical TTL) feature which mimics a camera's preflash. The Inon S2000 is their latest strobe. The dials can be a little small on some models.

  • Inon S2000 - Brand new as of early 2009, could be the new top choice for compact cameras. Slightly smaller, cheaper, and almost as powerful as the D2000. Considered the "hot" new strobe for compact cameras. Takes 4 AA batteries. Guide # of 20. Retail price is around $450 USD. Read the Inon S2000 review

  • Inon D2000 - This strobe has been a top choice for compact cameras over the last couple of years. It's fired by a fiber optic cable. Replaced by the Inon D200.

  • Inon Z220 - Replaced by the Z240. great choice for dSLRs, fired by sync cord only.

  • Inon Z240 - Outstanding strobe, small, powerful, great for compacts or dSLRs. See my Inon Z240 review.

  • Inon Z330 - Their latest strobe, more powerful than the Z240, equivalent to the YS-D2J


Sea & Sea and Inon TTL, S-TTL

Sea & Sea's TTL, and Inon's S-TTL, also known as "optical" TTL, will allow you to shoot TTL without using a TTL converter, as long as the camera has it's internal flash firing, and the strobe can "see" the flash fire via a fiber optic cable. The strobe will mimic the camera's preflash. This type of TTL is becoming very popular in compact cameras, and is even spreading to dSLR's where the housing allows the internal flash to "pop up". 


Subtronic Strobes

Subtronic strobes are heavier and more expensive strobes, but some pro's swear by them for their soft light, power and even light coverage. If you have the money, and don't mind the extra weight, consider Subtronic strobes.

Underwater Strobe Chart

Special thanks to Bill Van Antwerp for helping me put together this underwater strobe chart.


Strobe ManufacturerOutput Guide Num (meters, under water)BatteryOutput Power Watts-SOptical TriggerSync Cord Triggercoverage for wide-angle?Price MSRP
Epoque ES 15092 AA YYY$299
Epoque ES 230132 AA YYY$449
Hartenberger 12516Proprietary125YYY$1,400
Hartenberger 25022Proprietary250YYY$1,800
Hartenberger 62532Proprietary625YYY$2,400
Ikelite AF354.54 AA35YNN$420
Ikelite DS5194 AA50YYN$400
Ikelite DS 12511Proprietary125YYY$600 used
Ikelite DS 16012Proprietary160YYY$840
Ikelite DS 20012Proprietary200YYY$1,100
Inon S2000104 AA YNY$449
Inon D2000104 AA YNY$600
Inon Z240124 AA YYY$750
Inon Ringflash114 AA NYN$1,300
Intova ISS2000 Slave Strobe94 AA YNN$135
Athena Ringflash62 AA YYN$1,000
Sea&Sea YS 01104 AA YNY$430
Sea&Sea YS 1562 AA YNN$250
Sea&Sea YS 1772 AA YNN$250
Sea&Sea YS 27104 AA YNN$350
Sea&Sea YS 90114 AA YYY$300 used
Sea&Sea 110114 AA YYY$400 used
Sea&Sea 110a124 AA YYY$650
Sea&Sea YS 250 Pro16Proprietary YYY$1,100
Sea&Sea YS 35016Proprietary YYY$1,400
SeaCam 10011Proprietary100YYY$950
SeaCam 15016Proprietary150YYY$2,015
SeaCam 25020Proprietary250YYY$2,400
SeaCam 35026Proprietary350YYY$3,500
Subtronic Nova20Proprietary YYY$2,400
Sunpak52 AA YUNN$230


Saving Money: Used & Budget Strobes

If you are on a budget, older YS-110s are good strobes with good strength and coverage, and can be bought fairly cheaply if you look hard enough. I’m guessing around $250. Ikelite DS-125's and Inon Z220's are also great, strong strobes that be bought used at good prices.

And if you are really on a budget, the Fantasea Nano strobe costs $105 new, and works ok without a fiber optic cable, with most point and shoot cameras. I haven't tried the Intova ISS2000 ISTR Slave strobe, but I heard it's a good value for the money at $135, for macro shots. The Intova is also sold as the UltraMax Ultrapower UXDS-1 strobe.

You can find good options on less-expensive strobes here

You can also read about choosing the right arms and clamps.


Quick Links: Instructional Video Tutorials On Strobes

Video tutorials on using a strobe

Using a strobe for the first time

Reducing backscatter with your strobe

Basic strobe positions for macro

Basic strobe positions for wide angle

Quick Links: Tutorial On Using Strobes

Shooting with a Single Strobe

Examples of Common Strobe Positions

Black Backgrounds Strobe Positions

Advanced Technique: Backlighting 

Advanced Technique: Lighting with a snoot




Further Reading


Scott Gietler is the owner of Bluewater Photo, Bluewater Travel, and the Underwater Photography Guide. Bluewater Photo, based in Culver City, CA is one of the world’s largest and most prestigious underwater camera stores, serving many thousands of customers each year, where nothing is more important than customer service. The Underwater Photography Guide is the world’s first website to feature free tutorials on underwater photography, and has become the most trafficked resource on underwater photography worldwide. Bluewater Travel is a full-service dive travel wholesaler sending groups and individuals on the world’s best dive vacations. 

Scott is also an avid diver, underwater photographer, and budding marine biologist, having created the online guide to the underwater flora and fauna of Southern California. He is the past vice-president of the Los Angeles Underwater Photographic Society, has volunteered extensively at the Santa Monica aquarium, and is the creator of the Ocean Art underwater photo competition, one of the largest underwater international photo competitions ever held in terms of value of prizes. He lives in California with his wife, newborn girl and scuba-diving, photo taking 4 year old son.

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