Field Review: ONEUW Strobe
By Wetpixel Associate Editor, Alex Mustard
The Egyptian Red Sea. July 2019.
ONEUW is a new name on the underwater photography scene, whose first product - the ONE160x - is a beautifully engineered and high specification strobe. The name can be pronounced either as “one underwater” or “one oo-dopia-voo” – that’s UW in their native Italian, or just “one.” I took a pair to the Red Sea for a thorough 40+ dive examination, shooting wide-angle wrecks (inside and out, including using the strobes off camera), colorful coral reefs, large marine life, schools of fish, divers, and for macro shooting fish portraits and classic macro. It is a destination and list of subjects that I have shot many times, so it was ideal for assessing their substantial performance in familiar situations. I used them with both my Nikon D5 and D850 cameras and with Nikon 8-15mm, 16-35mm 28-70mm + WACP, 105mm and Trioplan 100mm lenses.
I generally limit the reviews I make to the products that excite me, the ones that promise to enhance our photographic capabilities underwater. Who wants to waste their dive time trying out that’s inferior to what’s already available? So that’s already a tick in the positives column for this product.
The ONE160x retails in the EU at 1790€ (direct from OneUW), in the UK at £1559 GBP (source: UWVisions) and $1700 in the US (source: Backscatter). The strobe has manual powers, TTL and can be fired with either electronic or fiber optic synch cables. From its price, performance, size and build quality, this is a product aimed at demanding, experienced photographers and this review is tailored to this audience (it goes without saying that this strobe outperforms the common smaller strobes on the market – but is considerably more expensive, heavier, etc.). I have tried to cast a critical eye over this high-quality product to help you evaluate a potential purchase, rather than gush praise.
These strobes were loaned to Alex Mustard for this review by ONEUW and UK dealer UW Visions. They were returned after this shoot.
Unboxing the ONE160x is highly gratifying for both your eyes and touch - each item oozes build-quality. These are large and relatively heavy strobes – one with battery inside clocks in at 1.6 kg on my kitchen scales. Despite their mass on land, both of my housings were neutral with the strobes in the water, with my Zen 230 dome and 2 Stix floats per strobe arm. The business end consists of a large circular flash tube on a parabolic reflector (wrapping around a central focus light) behind a clear domed front element – the setup that I have always favored for my wide-angle photography for the last 20 years or so. As I have said in many articles about strobes – when it comes to wide-angle photography guide numbers are no guide; in fact, they are a waste of time. Far more valuable is the power output (a whopping 157 Ws), the angle of coverage without a diffuser (130˚) and ultimately the quality of light.
Wide beam strobes are advantageous for lighting the ultra-wide-angle photos that we typically take underwater. They are also easier to use, being more forgiving of errors in aiming and can produce even, attractive illumination, free from unwanted highlights and shadows. The beam of all strobes can be made wider with diffusers, but this cuts power and limits light penetration for more distant subjects. All strobes can also be restricted for low visibility conditions and creative techniques such as inward lighting (assuming such accessories are produced).
My current blue-water, wide-angle strobes are Seacam 150s (introduced in 2007), and it is impossible not to immediately see many similarities between these and this new product from ONEUW. The two strobes are almost identical in size, use flash tubes (both 150+ Ws, 4600K, 130˚) indistinguishable to my eyes, have similar style battery packs, and both even have a red digital display of the power settings! The immediately apparent differences are the colors (tech black versus Seacam silver) and the fact that the ONE160x accepts both electronic and fiber optic flash synch and the price. The ONE160x undercuts the Seacam 150D significantly, as I guess it needs to compete with a very similar rival from one of the most prestigious names in the business.
There has been much gossip in the community about the genesis of the similarity between ONEUW and Seacam strobes. I pressed Luca of ONEUW to go on the record about it, and his political reply was “all the mechanical and optical components have been designed by ONEUW and are produced by an Italian network of highly specialized companies. The electronic part has been designed - to our technical specifications - by an Italian electronic engineering company. ONE160x is a project and realization entirely made in Italy.” I suspect that the opinion of Seacam’s Harald Hordosch is different…
SHOOTING THE STROBES
The reliability of the ONE160x was exemplary, and the quality of the fit and finish inspires confidence. The strobes allowed me to capture many satisfying images of very diverse subjects and situations in the Red Sea. The Red Sea in summer, baked by the desert sun, is bright and packed with big scene wide-angle subjects (massive schools of fish, large coral reef vistas, impressive shipwrecks) that require plenty of strobe power to illuminate, balanced with the powerful ambient light. It is a tough challenge for any strobe.
There is no substitute for strobe power when trying to light up the large reef and wreck scenes, especially against the bright sun.
Getting started, I appreciated the flip-able information display and particularly praise the battery compartment and the battery packs. The compartment is easy and quick to open and close, shutting with a reassuring click (I can’t think of a strobe with a better one). The battery packs always lasted a full dive even under repeated shooting (200+ pictures) at very high power during action-packed dives at Ras Mohammed. They would usually last two such dives. When shooting macro and close focus wide angle, which require lower powers, they were easily capable of lasting all day (500+ images).
The strobes have a battery meter that displays the charge remaining on the screen when switching on or off. Unfortunately, I did not find the three gradations (100-70%, 70-40%, and 40-0% charge) particularly useful under heavy usage. For example, often after one dive, the battery meter would report the remaining charge was in the 70-40% range – which was pretty useless – because if it were 70%, I would happily make another dive, while if after one dive it was 40% I would want to change them.
For the user, battery packs are more convenient to charge and fit than single AA batteries. The downside is that they add considerable cost (175€ per pack) and you cannot just use off-the-shelf batteries if one goes down in the field or you forget to pack them or the custom chargers etc. Battery packs are NiMH, so not as difficult to travel with as Lithium batteries.
The strobes also currently lack diffusers, beam restrictors or a snoot (I use the diffusers for about 75% of my photography with my Seacam strobes, using beam restrictors about 10% of the time and no accessory the final 15%). Luca tells me these are all in the works and will be available as accessories, but lacking them now is a limitation. Moreover, as the INON Z330 continues to demonstrate, you can wait a long time for these things to appear, limiting the capability of your new equipment, while you wait.
The quality of light from the ONE160x is very good and close to indistinguishable to that of my Seacam strobes that I know so well. The light has wide, even spread and also a long throw – ideal for shooting big scenes, big schools or big animals, even in bright conditions. I was running workshops in the Red Sea and shooting alongside photographers using other strobes (including Ikelite DS160s, Sea & Sea YS250 and D2, Retra flash and INON Z330s) it was clear how much more power these strobes had on the most demanding subjects (large schools of fish in bright conditions and sunset splits at closed apertures).
I found the lack of diffusers a limitation when shooting close focus wide-angle reef scenes, where I felt the undiffused light was too harsh. I rigged up some diffusers on the liveaboard and used them for several dives when focusing on these shots. I also missed having beam restrictors for the strobes, which I use when shooting with inward lighting (which requires a hard edge to the light) and also to reduce backscatter when shooting wide-angle in silty environments (where I don’t want light spraying everywhere). After being frustrated with the amount of backscatter that the ONE160x produced without these in the particle-filled holds of the Thistlegorm wreck, I switched over to my backup Retra strobes, with beam restrictors, that immediately improved my shots in this particulate rich environment.
I often see underwater photographers debating recycle times with far more enthusiasm than I have for the subject. Typically, the more of the power you throw out, the longer you have to wait. Powerful strobes mean that we less often use the highest powers, so have to wait less. However, when shooting on or close to full, then we do have to wait and use some talent to time our exposures. I found the recycling time of these strobes perfectly reasonable given the amount of light they were throwing out.
The controls on the back of the ONE160x are somewhat unusual, being two paddles for switching them on/off and for changing modes, with a large rotary dial for power settings (in manual and TTL) which is very easy to use. In TTL the strobe has +/- adjustment over 2 stops. In manual, the strobes has 12 adjustment levels over 6 stops, and despite their high-end power, this allows them to be turned down to very low levels for open aperture macro shooting.
I didn’t care much for the paddles. Yes, they can be used easily with gloves and resist the squeeze of pressure on deep technical dives. However, they are frustratingly slow to use when shooting in the action-packed underwater world, if you are the type of photographer who likes to adjust your lighting for different subjects. The strobes currently turn on as default into TTL mode and electronic synch. If you wish to shoot manual strobe power and fiber optics you need to press and hold both levers to turn the strobe on, then press and hold the mode lever for two seconds to put it in manual (a short press only turns on the focus light). In manual mode the strobe always defaults to full power, so each time to switch on or into this mode you need to turn it to the desired setting (which hopefully you remembered before turning them off). Then you need to press the synch mode lever to change the strobe to fiber optic synch. Oh, and do this for the second strobe too. This is a significant soak of time and a frustration in the middle of a dive.
For many of the subjects in the Red Sea (e.g., wrecks, schooling fish, turtles) I would want to shoot images with and without flash – so was going through this laborious procedure several times per dive. (I do have an ergonomic flash off lever on my D5 housing, which saves this hassle, but not my D850). Luca has suggested updating the firmware of the strobes so that they remember the last settings used, which would be an excellent improvement (although I would still prefer a faster way to turn them off while shooting).
The strobes are milled out of anodized, anticorodal aluminum and feel as robust as could ever be needed. However, the acrylic domes protrude significantly and feel vulnerable to carelessness (ONEUW do make neoprene covers). The black finish of the strobes show some minor blemishes after my trip, and the plastic switches some signs of use. Some photographers prefer their equipment to look box-fresh for as long as possible, others like the silent-bragging that comes with a patina of heavy use. These strobes feel more likely to favor the latter. Also, while I know black is the color of choice for techies, having just been in Egypt during summer, I remain skeptical about heat-absorbing black being a suitable color for underwater photography gear destined to be used under a tropical sun.
A significant feature of these strobes is that they can shoot in TTL and the strobes are either sold as Nikon or Canon compatible units – with firmware that can be updated so that they can be kept current with forthcoming cameras. The strobes can perform i-TTL(Nikon)/e-TTL(Canon), film-TTL and s-TTL (fiber optic) and rear-curtain synch with both Nikon and, more notably, Canon.
I remain frustrated that strobe and flash trigger manufacturers spend so much time developing TTL systems when so few serious underwater photographers are using it. I would like to see more strobes (and flash triggers) coming to the market without this unwanted complication – which could lead to more straightforward and reliable gear, less bulky synch cables with just two wires inside – and, I’m probably dreaming here, lower prices for these products too. I do see the value of TTL in strobes aimed at new photographers, but not in high-end strobes. That said, one group who would greatly value TTL are tech divers who often require high-performance strobes with point and shoot simplicity on their challenging dives. I feel that ONEUW will appeal significantly to tech divers – being black, high specification and expensive (oh, and 200m depth rated)!
I tried to test the strobes in electronic TTL (i-TTL in Nikon speak), but they did not work with my Nikon D850 camera. I tried this with both one and two strobes and never got the consistent and/or correct exposures that TTL promises to deliver. I don’t doubt that the strobes will work with TTL, but they didn’t for me. I checked that the strobes are Nikon formatted and I know that my camera/housing has worked with TTL when testing strobes in the past. Perhaps the cause was dirty contacts somewhere in my system? Although the strobes performed faultlessly in manual using the same contacts and cables.
I tested the s-TTL performance with my Olympus EM-10 Mk3 using the pop-up flash and fiber optic cables. This worked well enough – although the exposures did jump around a bit between frames (even when I didn’t change anything and shot at the same aperture). This could be the camera changing its opinion on what the exposure should be (and not the strobes), but it certainly reconfirmed my dislike for TTL!
The possibility to shoot with rear curtain synch will be a big attraction for Canon photographers. I didn’t test this feature as I had Nikon cameras and Nikon firmware strobes. The strobes worked very well as remote strobes inside the Red Sea’s wrecks – where power and angle of coverage are highly desirable.
The ONE160x is a high specification, high power, beautifully engineered strobe. It currently feels to me more of an engineer’s strobe at present would benefit from some minor photographic refinement, which, according to Luca, is in the works as they get user feedback. The ONE160x’s versatility and quality of light would be significantly improved by the addition of optional diffusers and beam restrictor accessories. It also needs the firmware reprogrammed so that it remembers the modes and power settings it was set in when switched off, to save the frustration and time of having to navigate through the modes with the levers several times each dive. The TTL systems didn’t work at all or well for me, but it might not be the strobes at fault.
On the positive side, the performance and quality of light was indistinguishable to my Seacam 150 strobes – that I currently consider the market leader, and the reason I use them. Overall, this product is great news for our community offering more choice at the high-performance end of the underwater strobe market. Many photographers will not be able to justify the expense or travel weight. Moreover, those that rarely shoot big scene and big animal wide-angle in clear, bright water would rarely need this much power. But for those that do, the ONEUW ONE160x is an exciting new option that delivers on build quality and performance, at a lower price than its most obvious rival.
Alex Mustard (www.amustard.com)