One Strobe or Two?

By Marty Snyderman


This month’s column focuses on whether two strobes are better than one. Tiffany B. of Philadelphia e-mailed the following: “During a recent trip aboard the Bay Islands Aggressor, I heard a discussion about whether or not it is best to use two strobes. I am a novice and only have one strobe. Will a second strobe make my photographs better?”

My opinion is that Tiffany does not need two strobes. Certainly, there are many situations in which a two-strobe camera system is the best choice, but there are also times when a one-strobe system makes more sense. Like the Sea & Sea YS-110a strobe systems found at Scuba.com.

Now, before deciding I’m a few f-stops shy of enlightenment, give me a chance to elaborate. As a rule, most underwater photographers begin with one strobe. A problem that sometimes occurs with one strobe is that you end up with extremely dark shadows in which all details are lost. The harsh shadow results from strobe light being blocked out of a portion of the frame. For example, if you are photographing a Moray Eel poking its face out of a crevice and you position a single strobe above and to the side of the eel, odds are that you will have a harsh shadow on the opposite side of the eel’s face. Check out examples of underwater photos at Scuba.com under the photo contest entries.

In an effort to soften the shadow so you can see some detail within, some photographers add a second strobe. In this case a second strobe is more likely to be beneficial. However, it is important to understand which strobe is going to be primarily responsible for the overall exposure and which one is going to be used to soften the shadow.

Beware that a second strobe not only means more hardware and potential failure points, but the added arm and strobe also mean your setup gets bulkier. The added size can make it difficult when working in tight quarters. And, if you’re photographing big, fast moving subjects like sea lions and sharks it is sometimes impractical to use a two-strobe system.

A second strobe is valuable at times, but invariably it makes you slower, and if things are happening fast, wonderful opportunities get missed. Adding a second strobe can be helpful, but before you do, be sure you understand exactly what you want to accomplish with the second strobe, and don’t feel like you have to use it all the time just because you own it.