Photography techniques continually evolve. Back in the ‘sixties when I first started life as a photographer, lighting for photography was directly developed from lighting for movies. Huge spotlights of 2000 watts and more were called ‘brutes’ because they could really hurt you. Smaller ones were called ‘pups’. Little 500 watt spots were called ‘inky-dinkies’ because they produced so little light. Camera exposures were long, in the order of a second or more. Live subjects had to keep very still.
Lighting men wore heavy gloves and needed to be very muscular. The lights themselves produced a huge amount of heat, which meant ramifications, especially with food photography because the subject would literally cook under the lights. Enterprising photographers got round this by substituting mashed potatoes for ice cream, painted ball bearings for peas, and so on. No wonder the contents of food packaging never looked like what was shown on the label!
Flash was limited to expendable flashbulbs, some as big as household bulbs, which came at a cost. Then reliable electronic flash was invented and the likes of David Bailey and modern photographers of the ’sixties never looked back. Of course, it needed a lot of skill to use because you could not see what you were getting until the film was processed.
This was paralleled in the underwater photography world. Pioneers used big flashbulbs because the batteries needed to fuel big constant light sources were impractical.
Eventually, underwater electronic flashguns (sometimes called strobes) became reliable and small enough not to encumber a diver already with a big camera. Electronic flash became ‘de rigeur’ for underwater still photography. Shooting video was different. You needed a constant light output.
Bulb and battery technology was such that as recently as 1992, I was taking a video rig into the water that weighed more than 100kg thanks to the huge ni-cad batteries for the lights. It often had to be derrick’d into the water. Even so, the lights were not bright enough to be effective over more than 75cm distant and totalled only 400 watts.
Times change and technology develops. Today you can buy a 15,000 lumen LED light that weighs less than a kilo including its battery. At the same time, underwater electronic flash (strobe) has become quite tiny compared to its light output. Obviously, you need a constant light source for recording live-action, but which is better to use for still pictures?
Well, we don’t have to wait for our film to be processed to see results thanks to digital technology. The results appear instantly on the LCD screen of the camera the moment an exposure is made. So what are the differences?
Electronic flash, even in a small package, can deliver a very high output, more even than that 15000 lumen light, in a very fast burst, freezing the action. A set of four small batteries with last for hundreds of exposures.
However, you need to have some idea of what you are doing. This comes with practice because you cannot see the effect before you press the camera’s button. You need to spend a little time familiarising yourself with the controls. You need to take at least one shot to be sure of what you are getting.
Some electronic flashguns have aiming light built in. These are only good for telling you where they are pointed during a night dive. They cannot be a substitute for a dive light. To help a camera focus on macro subjects, often it’s a good idea to employ a separate aiming light mounted on top of the camera. These can have an auto-flash-off function so that there is no annoying spot of light added to your pictures. They can also have a red light mode so that marine life is not aware of your light at night and you can ambush it with the pulse of white light from your flash.
When lighting a subject for the camera you can see its effect before taking the picture but it will not give you such a small working exposure as a flash and less depth-of-field (focus). It can also be difficult to get close to marine life because the light might scare it, and you will need to get close for it to be effective. Of course, a constant light source (video light) can be used to live action as well as still pictures and its controls will be easy to understand.
So which is best for your needs? A flashgun or a video light? There is now one solution available that combines both. The iDivesite SS-1 Symbiosis and the doubly powerful SS-2 Symbiosis each combine a 2000 lumen video light with an electronic flashgun (strobe), powering both from the same rechargeable battery.