There are two types of lighting which are used underwater, strobes (AKA flashes) and Video Lights (Constant LED Lights). After creating the Ultimate Strobe Guide, we wanted to share our thoughts on the second type, and help you choose the best underwater video light for your needs.
If you want to skip directly to the recommended video lights section, click here (Updated Aug 2019).
Strobe, Flash, Flashlight, Torch, Video Light… HELP!
Let’s set things straight. As we mentioned, there are only 2 types of lighting underwater:
Strobe – A Xenon based light bulb which can emit a very strong pulse of light for a brief moment.
Also known as “Flash” (not flashlight!)
Constant light – A device which can emit a constant beam of light for minutes to hours, today commonly based on LED technology which can be focused to perform as a dive light or spread out to perform as a video light.
Also known as “Torch”, “Flashlight”, “Dive Light”, “Video Light” and unfortunately even “Strobe” in the topside industry, which is incorrect for underwater photography lingo.
An underwater video light is basically a waterproof flashlight. There is some confusion due to the use of the word “flash” in “flashlight”, but don’t let linguistics mess with you. “Flash Light” and “Flashlight” are two different things!
Now that we got that out of the way, we’ll continue to discuss video lights!
Main Features of Video Lights
There are several terms and features commonly used when comparing video lights. Let’s go over them.
This is perhaps the most important feature differentiating between video lights.
The power emitted by a light is measured in units known as Lumens. Without getting into the science of it, the more lumens a light outputs, the stronger it is. Common lumen ranges today are 500-1000 for a basic light, 2000-3000 for a medium range light and the most powerful ones can even reach 30,000 lumens (!!!).
An important thing to remember is that Lumens are measured by collecting all the light the device emits, so the actual brightness of the subject lit by the light will vary according to our next feature – Beam Angle.
A video light can be engineered to focus or spread out its light output in different manners. Focusing all the light to a very narrow beam with lenses and mirrors, will actually create a dive light, which is great for spotting out things or signalling to other divers. On the other hand, spreading the output to a 60 degree, 100 degree, or even a 120 degree angle, is much better for lighting up videos, so that you can cover the entire frame with 1-2 wide (aka flood) lights.
Most video lights will feature a 60-120 degree beam angle. This factor will determine how bright your subject would be in the frame just as much as lumen output. For example, lighting up a Grouper in blue water with a Sola 2000 Flood on 60 degree beam angle, will probably be more effective than using a 90 degree Sola 2500 Flood, even though it has lower lumen output.
However, when lighting up an entire coral system, you may prefer to get closer and use the wider beam light.
There are several types of lights available: Flood only / Spot Only (dive lights) / Flood & Spot / Variable Beam
The variable beam lights seem ideal but they usually can’t reach a very wide beam angle for video. There are add-ons available for some lights which modify the beam from flood to spot or vice versa.
Flood & Spot lights are the most versatile option and allow you to switch from dive light to video with a quick press of a button. This leads us to our next feature.
Over the years, manufacturers have created several types of controls for underwater lights, each with pros and cons.
1. Twist method – This method is quite straightforward. Twisting the light head all the way in will turn it off and unscrewing it slightly will turn it on. This is the easiest for the manufacturer to implement and lowers the cost of the light significantly, which is a big plus. However, this method risks corrosion of the O-ring after some time, increasing the risk of flood as well as risking potential flooding by human error – unscrewing it too far underwater without noticing and effectively destroying your light. Nowadays very few manufacturers use this method.
2. Push Buttons – The is the most common method used on most video lights. Using either 1 or 2 buttons to control the light is a safe and efficient method for powering up/down and switching between modes. A 1 button light will be more affordable than a 2 button light, but usability is greatly improved when using 2 buttons. A single button allows 2 types of presses – short press, usually switching between modes and long press, usually to power on / off. A 2 button light will allow more options such as one button for mode switching and the other for switching output levels, making the overall experience easier and faster.
3. Other – Some manufacturers have developed their own signature controls such as Sola’s sliding lever, which functions in a similar fashion as 2 buttons, but in a much more elegant way of gently pushing a single switch back and forth. FIX Neo lights come with 3 buttons and an LCD screen, creating a little control panel on the top which is incredibly useful.
4. Remote Control – This is a fairly new method, developed by Nauticam on their FIX Neo light system, as well as by I-Torch on their Venom series. By connecting fiber optic cables to the lights, as single master remote controller can control several lights at once, making it much easier and faster to change your lighting instead of setting each light separately.
Modes and Levels
We have already discussed the two main modes – Spot (narrow beam) and Flood (wide beam). Another common mode included in video lights today is a Red light mode. The red light is very useful as a focus assist beam, since the camera can read it easily and use it to facilitate focus, while marine life are not disturbed by it, since it’s out of their visible spectrum. The red light is also to weak to show up in most photos so it won’t affect your overall lighting.
A cool mode introduced lately is UV or Blue Light. This is similar to black lights which are painfully familiar from those underground parties back in the 90’s. Essentially it’s an ultraviolet light which excites bio-luminescent organisms underwater and when paired with a barrier filter (yellow filter) it creates a unique glowing effect which looks great on photos and videos.
Another mode which is included on some lights is SOS or Emergency. This causes the light to randomly flash a white light, indicating that you have a problem or you are lost. This can be very useful in emergency situations, but also very annoying if one of the divers sets it off accidentally and can’t figure out how to power it down…
Power levels are almost always implemented in some way, allowing you to control the power output from low, medium and high. Some lights have 3-4 modes and some have complete control from 0-100 in 1 unit steps (FIX Neo). Most lights are set to operate for about 1 hour on full power. Using the light on lower power settings increases usage time significantly, allowing you to use it for several dives before charging / changing batteries.
Generally, more modes and levels are great! However, this affects the complexity of the using the light and if you have just a single button to control many levels and modes, you may find yourself scrolling frantically between them while the once-curious-now-bored Hammerhead swims off to the deep blue.
Beam quality is usually measured by how even the beam is across the output circle.
Using multiple bare LED’s may result in a less even beam than one single LED or a diffuser dome spreading the light out evenly. Some LED’s create a more even beam than others. Video light manufacturers will always need to compromise between an even beam, power output, price, heating and more factors which create various types of LED formations.
Another important factor is CRI rating (stands for Color Rendering Index). This number indicate how accurately the light will reproduce the true life colors of the subject (Ideal light = Daylight/Tungsten). The higher the number (closer to 100), the more accurate the color rendering will be. Check out this excellent video explanation of CRI.
Just imagine getting a new $1000 light which you intend to use on your $3000 system which you are taking tomorrow to a week in the Galapagos Islands, just to find out the mounts don’t match! Before you start creating MacGyver solutions with tie-wraps and sticky tape, go back a few days in time and order the correct mounts for your system! Most lights will come with one mount as default and additional mounts optional. Some arms will support one type of light mount or several.
Usually you can’t go wrong with a 1″ Ball mount, or a YS mount which are easily interchangeable between them. Make sure you add a mount to your Sola lights since most of them come without.
It might be a good idea to get a second type of mount upon purchase. You never know when you might switch trays or lend the light to a fellow diver who wants to try it out before buying.
When creating cross brand systems, you might not be sure if the light will match your current setup or vice versa. Consult with our experts and they will figure that out for you.
Batteries and Charging
Most lights have a fairly similar battery life on full power of about 50-70 minutes. However, there are several different battery implementations:
1. Interchangeable rechargeable battery – The light can be opened and the batteries changed as needed. Each battery can be charged individually. This is the standard method and has the advantage of getting several batteries and switching them between dives. This method also increases the risk of flooding due to human error or bad O-ring maintenance.
2. Factory Sealed lights – Sola lights are factory sealed, which means they are less prone to leakage due to human error. That’s a huge advantage and insures hassle free use for a long time. The downside is that you can’t replace the battery. That means you have to remember to charge between dives and if you aren’t near a power outlet for the whole day, chances are you will not use the light on the last dive. Light and Motion have implemented a new Fast Charge technology on their new lights, reducing the charging time significantly to about 1:45 hours, but this still doesn’t help if you forget to plug it in or if you don’t have an available power source.
3. Interchangeable Light Heads – Nauticam’s FIX Neo and I-Torch’s Venom series have created a line of interchangeable light heads which mount on the same base. This means that you can get a second light body without getting a whole new light as a new battery. It’s pricier than just a battery but still more affordable than getting a second light. You can also get several light heads and use them as needed on your light bases.
We can babble on forever, but in the end, it all comes down to price. All the features we discussed here, may lead you to believe that you want the best, strongest, most versatile option available, but then you find out that it either doesn’t exist or will set you back a few thousands of dollars more than you expected. Indeed, creating a quality product doesn’t come cheap and you have to prioritize. Video lights range from $100 to $3000+ so you need to decide on your budget before hand and then consider your best options within that budget.
We gathered here some of leading video lights in the market (Updated Aug 2019) to help you choose:
Kraken Hydra 3500S+ WSRU | US$519.95
This excellent and versatile video light by Kraken is capable of producing 3500 lumen of flood and 800 lumen of spot light. In addition, Red light is also available for focusing at night without scaring off the critters, and UV light for an exciting fluorescence dive. Easily controlled by two push buttons, YS and Ball mounts included, waterproof lighthead and more cool features. Did we mention the cool carrying case it comes in?
This is truly one of the best value lights you can get.
Update: The newer version 3500S has a built in strobe feature, triggered by a fiber optic cable, which produces a burst light of 4500 lumens. This is a great feature to use as a main strobe for macro shots or as fill light when pairing it with a main standard strobe.Go To Product Page
Light and Motion SOLA Video 3800F FC | US$599
The Sola video 3800 Flood is Light & Motion’s best value light, with a strong output of 3800 lumens and beam angle of 90 (expandable with optional dome). Factory sealed with fast charge technology for 1h 45m for full charge.Go To Product Page
Sealife Sea Dragon 3000F | US$499
The Sea Dragon 3000F uses flat panel COB LED technology to closely mimic natural sunlight, bringing out amazing colors in underwater photos and videos. With a Color Rendering Index of 90, the Sea Dragon 3000 solves the issue of blue underwater photos and videos by giving divers the ability to add light down to 330 feet/100 meters with portable sunlight.
The incredibly wide 120-degree beam of the Sea Dragon 2500 ensures maximum lighting coverage and is ideal for cameras with a wide field of view, like the SeaLife Micro 2.0 or GoPro. With a lab verified lumen output of 3000, the light has a 60 minute burn time at full power – making it incredibly efficient as well as bright.Go To Product Page
BigBlue VTL3800P | US$399.99
Small and highly sophisticated light with 2 sets of LEDs featuring a flood and spot mode. This light is 2 in 1, a video light and a dive light. Depth rated to 100mts/330ft.
Wide beam can be set at 4 power levels. Red beam is offered in one low power level and SOS mode is also available.Go To Product Page
FIX Neo 3000 DX II Light | US$599
Small and powerful light by Fisheye FIX. 6 High intensity LEDs deliver up to 3000 Lumens of white light at a 100 deg beam angle. The light features an advanced LCD display and control panel for simple operation. Comes with plenty of mounting options, best control panel in the industry and excellent build quality.Go To Product Page
Big Blue AL2600XWP II (AKA “Black Molly V”) | US$299.99
This is one of the best value lights available in the market. It’s tiny, it’s powerful and it has amazing battery life!
Capable of 2600 lumens, 120 Deg beam and even red light feature in a surprisingly small package! You can take it down to 100m, and max burn time on full power is 2hrs!
The AL2600XWP-II comes standard with built-in red LED’s for enhanced focusing and night video work.
The light comes with a Yellow removeable filter, and a 1″ ball for easy video system mounting.Go To Product Page
Can you use a video light for still photography?
Yes and no. A video light can never replace a strobe as a main lighting source for photography due to a much weaker output. A medium range strobe would be about 10 times as powerful as a medium range video light. That’s because video lights produce constant light while strobe give just one short pulse.
However, for macro photos or even closeups, you definitely can use a video light or even a dive light (spot mode). For more info on that, read this.
One interesting option is I-Torch’s dual purpose lighting unit – Video light and Strobe in one light! The Symbiosis comes in two models – SS-2 and SS-1. And the newly released SS-3. Read our review on it here.
How many lumens do I need?
The more the merrier. Even very high output light will have a lower output mode, so you probably won’t encounter a problem of having too much light. However, high power output comes at quite a price, as well as size and heat problems. You need to find the right balance for you, which fits your budget and look at other important factors such as modes, controls, beam quality and more of what we discussed above.
These days the standard is 2000 – 5000 lumens, but remember that actual intensity varies with beam angle. That means a 60 deg 1600 lumen light, would actually feel stronger than a 120 degree 2500 lumen light, but with less coverage.
One light or two?
If you want to go as compact as you can, one light is definitely enough. You can get a strong light with a very wide angle to cover all of your field of view, if you are shooting with a wide angle lens.
If you get two lights, you will have better coverage and better illumination of your subject, especially if they are hiding. Trying to get a hiding sea horse or blenny lit properly with just one light might be much harder than two opposite directions.
Which is the best setup for my GoPro?
Remember that a GoPro has a very wide view angle, so you want a light that will cover your entire frame. 2 lights here might be a good idea, especially with BTS’s excellent boomerang tray, the GPT-4. It adds stability to your footage and gives you excellent coverage from both sides, with whichever lights you choose. If you wish to stay even more compact, a single light with a pistol grip tray will be great, especially for those harder to reach places. Get a light that has a 120 degree beam to cover the entire frame. 2000 lumens will be a great number to start from in total, so either one light of 2000+ or two lights of 1000+. As we mentioned above, the higher the output the better reach you will have.
Do you have any more questions on underwater video light that you want answered?
Let us know in the comments and we will be happy to update the FAQ section!
Visit his personal portfolio at www.ranmorphoto.com.
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