The Ikelite AF35 attached to my Sony camera housing

Adding a strobe: the Ikelite AF35 Autoflash

Proper underwater photographers, having viewed the quality of my normal photographic output, may argue that me enhancing my camera set up (currently just a Sony DSC-TX5 with an MPK-THJ housing missing one small bit of rubber) would be like putting lipstick on a pig (not sure who or what the pig is in this analogy). It’s still a pig, at the end of it all. This was my suspicion too, but with encouragement from those who believe in my limited abilities even when I don’t (how lofty does that sound – I’m talking about my husband here) I decided to try and get my hands on some sort of lighting rig to assist the Sony’s tiny, tiny flash. The loss of the aforementioned piece of rubber also meant that for close-up shots, there was a weird thing going on where the flash only fell on one side of the photo, because the now-uncovered metal rim around the flash diffuser on the housing caused it to reflect.

The Ikelite AF35 attached to my Sony camera housing
The Ikelite AF35 attached to my Sony camera housing

With assistance from Shannon at Orca Industries I acquired an Ikelite AF35 Autoflash kit. This wasn’t cheap – none of this stuff is – and cost about the same as my current camera and housing did when I bought them. (Of course a week after bringing them home I saw the camera and housing on special for 30% less elsewhere, but that’s another story.) However, it cost a lot less than a new and more powerful camera, which would have been my other option had I been able to justify and wangle it financially.

The AF35 is made to fit camera housings that don’t have the little widgets required for ordinary TTL (“through the lens”) strobe sensors, that usually sit just in front of the lens on the camera housing and are the size of pencil erasers on curly wires. You know the ones I mean. They tell the strobe how strongly to fire based on the available light. The sensor on the AF35 is the size of a large ice cube and is positioned on the strobe arm, and – forgive me for not using the correct words here, as this whole area of electronics is new to me – reacts fast enough that when the flash on your camera fires, the AF35 is activated while the shutter is still open.

Setting it up was embarrassingly easy – there are detailed instructions in the box, but basically I turned the dial on the strobe arm to 1, turned the strobe on at its head, made sure the camera housing was positioned next to the strobe arm, and pressed the shutter button. Voila! (If this doesn’t work, I think you’re supposed to turn the dial to 2, and try again. Or start at 5. The instructions have it.)

Yellow snapper in southern Mozambique
Yellow snapper in southern Mozambique

I used the strobe for the first time on our trip to Mozambique. It was fabulous. I’m still figuring out how best to position it to avoid backscatter (we did have some Cape Town-like visibility on some of the dives) but I got better results immediately. The three dimensional effect and bright colours are something to behold. For everything except really wide-angle far off stuff I used the strobe on the lowest setting, or on Auto (TTL – so automatic exposure adjustment). I found the Auto mode to be too strong if the subject of the shot filled too little of the frame, because the exposure level is determined by averaging across the entire frame. For things far off, such as leopard sharks, I cranked the strobe up to maximum and held thumbs.

This isn’t a very good set up for macro work (this probably isn’t news to you), but in some situations I was able to adjust the strobe arm to provide only a very little light to close up objects. Ikelite supply a little piece of rubberised black velcro to cover the flash diffuser on your housing – only a tiny bit of flash is required to trigger the strobe, and the idea is that you don’t actually need the additional contribution from the built-in flash. Once or twice I turned off the strobe and removed the velcro for a shot, but this is asking for trouble. That velcro is going to get lost. Fortunately they supplied five times as much as one needs with the strobe.

The Ikelite AF35 is made to fit a large range of compact camera housings, made by Sony, Panasonic, Olympus and Canon. It goes without saying that it also fits all Ikelite ultracompact housings, and some of their compact housings too. There’s a camera housing compatibility chart here but it didn’t help me at all as my camera housing isn’t listed. The strobe tray and arm comes with a set of little black plastic spacers, shaped like flat, chewy dog bone toys. You select the one that fits your housing, remove a strip of plastic to reveal some adhesive, and stick it onto the housing tray. The appropriate housing then screws onto the tray in such a way that you can open it without removing the strobe arm. The adhesive on the spacer is poor, and mine fell off after five dives. Fortunately I caught it, and I’ve set it aside until I need to unscrew my camera from the tray and replace it. When the housing is screwed on tightly, you can actually take the spacer off. Just keep it, because if you ever need to reassemble the set up you will need it.

When the flash (covered with velcro) fires and the strobe doesn't
When the flash (covered with velcro) fires and the strobe doesn't

In addition to the housing compatibility issue, you need to ensure that the camera you’re using emits a pre-flash. Most digital cameras do this apparently. It goes without saying that your flash needs to be turned on at all times in order for the strobe to fire.

The strobe uses four AA batteries. I used good quality rechargeables and probably got about 300 shots (in 25 degree water – I expect less in Cape Town) before the recycle time dropped to 10-15 seconds, at which time (1) Ikelite recommend you change the batteries and (2) the photographer gets somewhat cranky and impatient.

The housing plus camera varies between slightly positively and slightly negatively buoyant depending on depth of the dive, and with the addition of the strobe there’s hardly any noticeable difference. The tray and arm are more or less neutrally buoyant, and because the arm is bendy I can hook it over my forearm at the safety stop or while I’m unclipping it from my BCD next to the boat.

Here is some good reading on TTL, strobes, with more advanced stuff here – just look at all the technical stuff I’m still learning.

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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