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Capturing Anilao’s Critters with the Retra Flash PRO
By Mike Bartick, November 20, 2020 @ 06:00 AM (EST)

As with this yellow goby, stylized image-making is easy to manage for macro using the Retra Flash PRO and Retra LSD snoot. The strobe’s centered pilot light makes aiming the snoot and directing the power of the flash quite simple (105mm macro lens, 75% strobe power, f/14, 1/200s)
 

I love gadgets—especially underwater photography gadgets that actually work. One gadget that definitely qualifies is the Retra Light Shaping Device, or LSD, which has long had pride of place in my box of tricks for creative macro imaging. Snooting, side-lighting, backlighting, you name it, the LSD has made capturing the critters in my adopted home of Anilao in the Philippines an endlessly interesting challenge.

Retra made a name for itself on the strength of this single “super snoot,” and for years it remained an awesome attachment for strobes made by other manufacturers. Finally, with the arrival of the first Retra Flash a few years ago, and now the updated Retra Flash PRO and Retra Flash Prime, you can take advantage of Retra’s full underwater strobe system, including a range of diffusers and beam restrictors.

I have been fortunate to be able to test out the new Retra Flash PRO along with the company’s two most recent innovations, the Reflector and the Supercharger. Here, I’ll discuss these new accessories and how they work, and show some real examples of what they can do for macro photographers. You can refer to Daniel Norwood’s full review of the Retra Flash PRO, but I’ll also offer my thoughts on the new and improved strobes.
 

Janolus nudibranch two ways: Retra Flash PRO and LSD (top) versus Retra Flash PRO and Reflector. The strobe’s circular flashbulb in combination with the Reflector worked together to create beautifully defined subjects with creamy bokeh backgrounds

 

Now, That’s Flashy!

The Retra Flash PRO’s main attraction is its circular flash tube. There’s something about the light from a circular flashbulb that is very appealing in terms of coverage and characteristics, making it suitable for any type of shooting. I found that the light quality from the strobe was rich, smooth and easy to manage, with very natural contrast, even without using diffusers (of which there are three different types to choose from).

The flash tube is surrounded by a reflective ring inside the strobe head, while the pilot light, which has two power modes, is dead center, making for accurate targeting of your subject when snooting with the LSD. On the back panel, large, easy-to-access controls surround a central button for the pilot light, and there’s a ring around the button that glows different colors to indicate remaining battery power. Milled from a single block of aluminum, the strobe is the perfect complement to the similarly styled LSD.

The frosting on the cake is Retra’s clever smartphone app, which uses Bluetooth to connect to your strobe (or strobes) and allows you to gather stats, make function changes, update firmware, and more. The app’s user interface is easy to understand and easier to use, but the best part is that you’re guaranteed to make your buddies jealous on the boat!
 

The Retra Flash PRO’s bright and accurate pilot light makes it easy to create the perfect lighting for this Rhinopias (105mm macro lens, f/14, 1/200s)
 

Shooting this triplefin with an open aperture and using a wet lens demanded finessing the strobe power (105mm macro lens, Kraken +13 diopter, 75% strobe power, f/8, 1/250s)
 

Hairy shrimp captured using the Retra Flash PRO with the LSD (105mm macro lens, Kraken +13 diopter, f/22, 1/200s)

 

Shiny Happy Strobes

The Reflector is a low-tech device designed to fulfill a simple goal: to boost the output of the strobe without the need to turn the power up. In the lab, the Reflector supposedly increases output by one full stop, which is a fancy way of saying, it doubles the light. For me, however, the real test was to take it underwater, see how it performed in typical scenarios, and get a feel for its creative possibilities.

Crafted from a single piece of machined aluminum and treated with a special reflective coating that also guards against corrosion, the Reflector won’t scratch, snaps on and off easily, and doesn’t fall off during a dive. It’s far from flimsy, and like the matching strobe and snoot, it’s built to last.

The Retra Flash PRO with the Reflector attached (via the Reduction Ring)
 

A blue-ringed octopus shot using the Retra Flash PRO without diffuser (top) versus a lionfish shot with the strobe with Reflector (bottom): The Reflector gives subjects a crisp edge with good contrast and natural colors (using auto white balance)
 

The three main things that I noticed right away when using the Reflector were the boost of light, the angle of coverage, and the beam throw. These three components are all easy to manage, adding an extra touch of control over the image-making process. 

  • The boost: As promised, you get a boost in output from around two-thirds to one stop. This means shooting at a lower power, which equates to less demand on the batteries and faster recycle times.
  • Angle of coverage: Surprisingly, while there is some narrowing of the beam, the strobe still maintains excellent coverage, making it perfectly suited for macro, wide, and close-focus wide-angle techniques. The edge of the beam is moderately diffused, which also helps the light to blend more naturally.
  • Beam throw: The longer beam throw makes a difference when you need a greater working distance to your subject, as is the case when using a long macro lens (105mm) to capture behavior or shooting skittish fish.

I found the Reflector to be a very handy tool for asserting control over the beam spread and power. Compared to using Retra’s Reduction Ring alone, the Reflector creates a broad, bright beam at all power levels. I really liked having the ability to shoot images with open apertures as well as stopping down while maintaining light intensity. Exposures are very natural with good contrast, and color temperature is pleasing.
 

Galaxia pipefish captured using the Retra Flash PRO with Reflector (105mm macro lens, Nauticam SMC-2, f/25, 1/200s)
 

Jorunna nudibranch backlit using a Retra Flash PRO with Reflector and lit from the front with an off-camera strobe with Retra LSD

 

Flashguns with Superpowers

It’s counterintuitive, perhaps, but shooting macro subjects in a shallow, sunny environment can result in extreme demands on strobes—maybe even more so than shooting wide angle. If there’s one slight caveat I found with the Retra Flash PRO, it’s that I noticed somewhat slower recycle times when using high strobe powers of 75% and beyond while also using the pilot light.

This changed dramatically once I added the new Supercharger, which doubles the number of AA batteries from four to eight. The battery pack screws down onto the original battery compartment and protrudes from the back of the strobe. Both the battery compartment and the Supercharger are double O-ringed for protection. With the addition of the Supercharger, you can expect a halving of recycle times and well over double the number of flashes per charge.
 

By doubling battery capacity, the Supercharger significantly lowers recycle times and increases the number of flashes per charge
 

Whether the stamina of the Retra Flash PRO is an issue depends on your shooting style. If you do a lot of burst shooting, then you will likely appreciate the rapid recycle times provided by the Supercharger. I pushed the strobes to see what they could do and only in extreme cases was the recycle time a cause to pause. I never had the feeling that I needed to slow down, and in the time I’ve had the strobes, I felt that I haven’t nearly tapped their maximum potential.
 

Mini-me: A creative Glossodoris sp. portrait captured using the Retra Flash PRO with Retra LSD snoot (105mm macro lens, 75% strobe power, f/29, 1/200s)
 

Jack and purple jelly: After a day of shooting, I felt confident enough to use a single strobe and the Reflector on a black-water dive

 

Final Thoughts

I’ve enjoyed using the Retra Flash PRO for many reasons. The light quality, the soft-edged beam, and natural color temperature are all signs that the circular flash tube is working at its best. The strobes are versatile, too, whether for all-around “blow-and-go” macro shooting or for capturing carefully executed stylized critter shots. I’ve found the Retra Flash PRO delivers on everything that is promised in the spec sheet—with only minor deviations. 

Using the Reflector added a dimension to shooting that was beyond what I had expected. The biggest surprise when using this simple device was the ability to shoot at lower powers while maintaining exposure values. This, coupled with the Supercharger, meant not worrying about battery power for an entire day of diving. The Reflector is fun to use and perfectly suited for any situation, including macro, wide angle, and close-focus wide angle—and, oh yeah, black water!
 

Mike in action using the Retra Flash PRO with Reflector attached
 


 

About the Author: Mike Bartick is a working underwater photographer residing in Anilao, Philippines. He has an insatiable love for finding unique marine life, observing and photographing their behavior, and sharing his insight and knowledge with others. His curiosity and drive for firsthand experiences have led him across the globe in search of that special critter encounter. Mike is a widely published, award-winning photographer, writer and international public speaker with work appearing monthly across various magazines, websites and online publications. He also hosts photo clinics, workshops and seminars at Crystal Blue Resort, concentrating on different aspects of underwater photography as well as the natural history of Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific. www.saltwaterphoto.com
 


 

When purchasing underwater photography equipment like the products mentioned in this article, please support DPG by supporting our retail partner—Backscatter.com
Retra Flash PRO
Retra Flash PRIME
Retra Reflector
Retra Supercharger
Retra Light Shaping Device

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