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2024 Underwater Strobe Round Up - Its Getting Bright in Here!

The chances of finding your ideal strobe are getting better all the time.

The last few years have (thankfully) brought several new manufacturers to the UW strobe industry with new ideas, priorities, designs and price points. Traditional manufacturers have taken notice and introduced new models into the fray as well. All this means more and better choices for underwater photography as a whole and competition only brings better options.

What follows is a visual and observational take on the strobes in review. It is not about naming a "winner" or even about making a hard proclamation of exactly what each strobe is capable of. Rather look at this as a coffee table discussion of what we note about the strengths and potential drawbacks of each strobe so that it might be a little easier to determine what might be the best fit for each individual's needs.

We have included a photo of relative light coverage and intensity at full power under controlled conditions simply to give a sense of what all the strobe specifications might mean in the real world. Guide Numbers, angle of coverage, watt output, etc., are not always accurate indicators of performance as there is no agreed upon standards for such measurement in this specialty application we all participate in. In other words, strobe specifications should be considered with a grain of sea salt and not a direct interpretation of what each person will experience.

All the strobes in this review are currently available for purchase, as of June 2024, with the exception of the Inon Z-330 which has been discontinued. We wanted it in the mix as it has been one of the world's most popular strobes and the replacement for it has been anxiously awaited but is likely still a number of months from being released.

As you will see in the photos below, anytime you use a diffuser, you will lose light intensity. So, all manufacturers claim light output without a diffuser. Some strobes can work well without a diffuser, other strobes cannot. It is also important when considering a powerful strobe upgrade to ask yourself if you ever felt your current strobe came up short on power? Have you ever even fired your strobe on full power? Many of us have not, but some have. By way of example, it is fairly easy to buy a car that can run at 150mph these days, and though most owners will never do that, some might enjoy knowing they could do that. Which is to say, try to focus on the strobe features you know you would like to use or could possibly use.

Our Line Up:

Inon Z-330 
Price $699 (2022)

Inon S-220
Price $399

Sea & Sea YS-D3 Duo
Price $895

Backscatter Hybrid Flash 1
Price $899 (introductory)

Kraken KR-S160 Flash
Price $850

Retra Flash Pro Max
Price $1600

Ikelite DS230 Strobe (w/o video light)
Price $1295

OneUW One160X Mk II Digital Strobe
Price $2195

Full Power Performance Examples

All photos were shot with a strobe distance of 4' from the chart at ISO 100, 1/250 shutter speed and f22.

 Inon S-220


 We are starting out with our smallest and least expensive newcomer. Inon introduced the S-220 strobe as a replacement for the venerable and popular S-2000. They improved virtually every aspect of the strobe design while maintaining its petite form factor. The strobe got a substantial bump in power and while it can't compete with the big guns in absolute power, it does a pretty amazing job on coverage and intensity for a $400 strobe that is about the size of a Red Bull can. No other strobe in its price point comes close which is also making it popular as a backup travel strobe and pocket backlighting or snoot strobe.

 Inon Z-330

 Next up is the discontinued Inon Z-330. With its relatively small size, decent power and coverage along with reputation for reliability, the Z-330 has been a go-to for a variety of shooters. For this test, only the V1 Z-330 was available which means this is shot with a diffuser as V1 did not have an "insect eye" dome. The V2 Z-330 can be shot without the diffuser which offers a bit more power than what is showing here. As always, Inon strobes offer close to a daylight WB which is cooler than some other manufacturers. The Light output still remains respectable by current standards, particularly considering the price point. A new Inon replacement for the Z-330 is expected by late 2024 and while details are limited, it should provide improved power output and features.


The Sea & Sea YS-D3 Duo is the latest version of the popular YS-D3 strobe series. This is an example of a strobe that must be shot with a diffuser or you get a very harsh ovoid light output. The controls have continued to be updated and the optical port has improved sensitivity. Fortunately, the YS-D3 has enough power to effectively handle the included flat diffuser or optional dome diffuser. One of which should be used at all times to avoid hot spots. 

Above is the YS-D3 Duo utilizing the flat diffuser where it produces much more pleasing and effective coverage. Not unlike the Z-330. One of the DUO updates allows for RC mode for automatic exposures with Olympus (OM) cameras without an additional TTL Converter.

Kraken KRS-160 Flash

It is nice to see Kraken jumping back into the strobe market after a couple of previous efforts that were interesting, but never caught on. Above is the new KRS-160 Flash that is a pretty amazing performer for a $850 strobe that includes the Li-Ion battery and charger. It has a circular flash tube that is similar to other high-end strobes and provides the signature soft, bright lighting that doesn't really need a diffuser unless you are just wanting to dim the light a bit. This strobe also displays the pleasing warm white balance common to round flash tubes. The KRS-160 is rated at 160 watts but seems to produce a good deal more light than some other manufacturers produce with the same watt rating. The Kraken is best geared towards someone who has no interest in TTL as it is the only strobe in this group that is strictly a manual strobe. The kraken also jumps to a bit larger form factor that most of higher priced strobes follow. Although it is a bit heavy, Kraken offers optional floats to make the strobes completely neutral.

Because the Kraken is one of the most powerful strobes on the market, there may be times you would want to reduce the output with the included dome diffuser, but it does not enhance overall coverage as seen above. Most of the time, we would probably leave it off.

Backscatter Hybrid Flash 1

The new Backscatter Hybrid Flash 1 is super-bright on the "+2" setting which is more than "full" power (exposure here without a diffuser). It is hard to understand the logic of those power indicators, but there is no question on the intensity and coverage of the strobe output which is clearly the brightest of the bunch. It should be noted that the recycle times that are quoted, which are quite fast, are for "full power", not "+2 power". The performance of this strobe is also strongly affected by the type of batteries used, so stick to the recommend Nitecore option. Use of the built in video light will also substantially reduce the number of strobe firings, so be judicious on when to use such a feature. This strobe is little larger than Inon or Sea & Sea strobes and very similar to the size and weight of the Ikelite DS230. But the HF-1 has a video light that is twice the lumens of the Ikelite DS230 and the strobe output is significantly brighter than the DS230.

 Use of the flat diffuser, as pictured here, does not weaken the flash output very much and coverage seems similar. The difference underwater may be more noticeable as the HF-1 has a flat clear port over the flash tubes which often narrows the light in the water. We would shoot this strobe with the diffuser almost all the time. The HF-1 is capable of High Speed Sync (HSS) with compatible TTL converters, but does not offer TTL with any cameras except Olympus (OM) through RC mode. There are plans for a possible Sony TTL option later in 2024, but no confirmed date at this time. One concern with very powerful strobes is sometimes how low the power can be adjusted manually. The HF-1 shooting macro at a distance of about 6" from the subject can offer good exposure down to about f13 (at ISO 100) before starting to overexpose a subject at the lowest power setting with the flat diffuser in place. With a high power strobe like this, it may require greater distance from the subject if trying to shoot shallow depth of field macro or perhaps an ND diffuser will become available. But for smaller apertures the manual power settings offer good compensation.

Ikelite DS230

This shot is taken without a diffuser on the DS230 which is probably best for most wide angle shooting as a diffuser will knock down the power considerably. It may help for macro as discussed below. The round flash tube does provide a soft, warm light coverage. This 213W strobe provides noticeably less light than the 160W Kraken which seems surprising at first, but remember specs do not tell the whole story. One characteristic unique to Ikelite is that the flash tube has a very long duration when fired. This means that on higher sync speeds, you will never get a full power exposure. So, the exposure in this shot at 1/250 was less powerful than if shot at 1/200. In fact, any shot above 1/160 sync speed will not offer a "full power" exposure with the DS230. But even at 1/160 sync speed, the DS230 still appears less powerful than the KRS-160 or HF-1 and has a similar output to the Retra Flash Pro Max shown below.

One other consideration for macro shooters using the DS230 is the limited number of manual power settings. We found that even at F22 and ISO 100, a subject less than 6 inches away would be blown out at the lowest power setting. Ikelite explained that they have twice as many power settings in their TTL mode allowing for better close-up performance when shooting TTL. But for manual macro shooters, this is probably not the best choice.

 Retra Flash Pro Max

Retra has rapidly developed a following and is now on its third generation of aluminum strobes. Each generation has made noticeable improvements in controls, features and battery arrangements. This strobe makes the most of its circular flash tube and offers soft warm light without a diffuser. One of the premium features on the Retra is an option for shooting High Speed Sync (HSS) with a camera and compatible TTL converter. This allows very high sync speeds with compatible equipment but does add considerably to recycle times when doing so. In general, Retra strobes do not offer overly fast recycle times due to their fairly high output. Their inventive solution for this is to allow for 8 batteries per strobe when desired. Their optional Booster is a pretty elegant solution for packing in all those extra AA batteries. This does make for a larger and heavier strobe though.

Retra does offer an extensive line of options for their strobes with many different accessories including, bumpers, dome diffusers, macro rings, snoots, reflectors and shark diffusers.

Above, the Retra "Soft Diffuser" dims and warms the light.


OneUW ONE 160X MKII Digital TTL Strobe

The OneUW is a unique strobe for a few reasons and has been thoroughly updated in this MkII version. It famously has about the most even, strong light output of any strobe with minimal light falloff even without a diffuser. The new Hybrid Flash 1 has a higher absolute output, but the 160X just makes beautiful light right out of the box and needs very little accessorizing. Recycle time is excellent and geared towards action shooting. This is also the only strobe in this group that has built in programmable TTL for Canon, Nikon and Sony. The firmware can be updated, so if you change cameras, the strobe can adapt with you. This is the most expensive strobe in the group, but you do save cost on the TTL converter that the other strobes require. The 160X also has the most unique and sophisticated control panel with a display that can be inverted (as most of us look at our strobes upside-down which strobe makers never seem to get - until now).

The 160X MkII is on the large end of this groups size range but does have options to lighten things in the water and handles similarly to the Ikelite, but with much easier to access controls.

All the exposures in the article are compared above.

So, what is the "right" strobe for you in 2024?

The first take away from reviewing this latest group of strobes is that virtually any of them can deliver great results if applied towards what they do well. We would happily grab any of these to go shoot at one of our local dive sites. It is pretty amazing how far underwater strobes have come over the last 10 years. If anything, development and innovation has accelerated in the last few of those years.

Partnering with the right strobe set up is a very personal experience. Some people just tolerate strobes that they have found frustrating, but they make it work and assume there is nothing they can do about it. Others only do a couple of trips a year and want to optimize their equipment to get the most out of their precious time underwater. For some having the lightest, smallest rig they can carry on the plane is essential. The new high-power strobes available are perfect for blue water shooters trying to get light on more distant subjects that are impossible to get close to. There really is something for everyone available at this point. It can be beneficial to remember that good strobes do not make you a better photographer. But getting strobes that match your preferences and shooting style can certainly make underwater photography easier and more enjoyable.

If you have questions or want help, we love talking about strobes. Just reach out to us and we can help make sense of all this!