Is Backscatter’s ultra-compact Mini Flash and Optical Snoot poised to revolutionize underwater macro imaging?
When I first got my hands on the new Backscatter Mini Flash (MF-1) and Optical Snoot (OS-1) at DEMA in November 2019, I was intrigued about just how simple it was to use, its compact size, and the power it produced. The impressive specs of the Mini Flash and using it in the show booth on a little toy fish were one thing, but how would it perform underwater? Fortunately, it wasn’t long before I was able to find out, as Backscatter let me loan a couple of their pre-production Mini Flash/Optical Snoot Combo Kits, and I decided to go all in and shoot exclusively with them for an entire week in Bonaire. There would be plenty of cool little critters to snoot, but what about Salt Pier, the Hilma Hooker, and all those turtles and beautiful sponges? How would those little flashes fare with those wide-angle subjects? Is it more than just a compact macro strobe that can be used for easy snooting or is it just a one-trick pony?
Over an amazing week of diving, I found out just how powerful a strobe the Mini Flash is, figured out a few tricks to get the best results from it, and pushed it to the limits to see what it could and could not do. All of my images were taken with one or two Mini Flash strobes and some with the Optical Snoot attached, a Nikon D850 full-frame DSLR, a 60mm lens for macro (sometimes with a diopter) and a 16–35mm lens for wide angle and close-focus wide angle.
Peppermint goby: Single Mini Flash strobe (60mm, Nauticam SMC-1 diopter, f/20, 1/250s, ISO400)
Peacock flounder: Single Mini Flash strobe with Optical Snoot (60mm, Nauticam SMC-1 diopter, f/36, 1/250s, ISO200)
Close-focus wide angle? No problem with two Mini Flash strobes (16mm, f/9, 1/200s, ISO400)
Big Things Do Come in Little Packages
When you first pick up this compact strobe, it feels lightweight yet solid. It has a very unique design: The controls are located on the side of the strobe because the battery is located in the rear, whereas most strobes have controls on the back part of the strobe. At first, I thought that would pose a challenge to use because the controls are not easily visible, but with a simple orientation of the arm configuration they are accessible and easy to see. Because there are only two controls—a power adjustment dial and large, silver multifunction button—there isn’t really much to master. I won’t explain how to use every single feature since that can be found on the Backscatter website (which I do recommend reading before using), but I will highlight the features I found most useful.
Operation of the strobe is easy once you figure it all out and can be done without looking at it. The main button is pressed five times to turn it on and off (while the dial is in “STBY”). When switched on, press the button slowly to toggle between the three LED focus light brightness settings. Press and hold to get a burst of intense disco-light flashes for about two seconds to spotlight in bright conditions where the high focus setting is hard to see or for skittish critters. The dial is turned from “STBY” to power settings 1 to 6 for the desired exposure with your aperture setting—like any other strobe in manual mode. For macro, I mostly used a power setting range of 2–4, and for wide angle, 4–6. And that is all there is to operating it! The only issue I had with the strobe was with the ball mount bolt that came loose, and it needed to be tightened with the provided wrench. Other than that, it performed flawlessly.
Larger strobes can obviously provide much more power across a wider area, but when it comes to macro and close-focus wide angle, you want a tighter controlled beam of lower intensity light because of the shorter operating distance from the subject to the strobe. The Mini Flash had more than enough power for me in those situations and even enough power for some pure wide-angle photography. The “Mini” in MF-1 refers to the size and definitely not the power.
Macro setup: Nikon D850, 60mm lens, Nauticam housing, Nauticam SMC-1 diopter, dual Mini Flash strobes and Optical Snoot (Note: Position the Mini Flash as shown for easy view and access of the controls)
Wide-angle setup: Nikon D850, 16–35mm lens, Nauticam housing, Zen 230mm glass dome, and dual Mini Flash strobes (shown with diffusers on)
To Snoot or Not to Snoot?
Traditional snoots that are made for larger strobes tend to be big and bulky, difficult to aim and align with the focal point and require a lot of patience. They result in some really good snooted shots, but often with a certain degree of frustration and many missed shots. I have heard, over and over, from people about their frustration with snooting when starting off and many just give up. After my first dive with the Backscatter Optical Snoot, I felt like I had found the unicorn: a simple-to-aim snoot that resulted in a much higher percentage of high quality images, which made snooting fun again.
Designed alongside the Mini Flash, Backscatter’s Optical Snoot is easily attached and removed underwater to give you the freedom to shoot both. When you first jump in, remember to “burp” or remove the snoot underwater to release the trapped air or you will get some funky light patterns. Also, remove and replace the aperture insert as sometimes there is air trapped in there, too. The previous strobe/snoot combinations I have used have had a noticeable drop-off in brightness when attaching the snoot, and I had to turn up the power on the strobe to compensate. But with the Backscatter Mini Flash/Optical Snoot combo, I was again surprised at the bright exposure it produced and in most cases actually had to turn down the power to 3–4 on the strobe when snooting—which helps with both battery life and recycle time.
The bright built-in LED focus light not only shows you where you are aiming the snoot, but the precise footprint of what it will hit—completely taking the frustrating guesswork out of snooting. I found this focus light was even bright enough in shallow water on sunny days, so I never had to use an additional focus light—one less thing to attach to your camera rig. The Mini Flash also has a modeling flash to blast several high intensity pulses of light instead of a constant focus light for skittish critters, but I rarely had to use it.
Snooting can add dramatic lighting to isolate the subject from its background. Pictures of ordinary subjects that you have shot hundreds of times can be turned into eye-popping images rather than a plain old fish ID shot. But when the background is colorful, interesting or tells a good story about the subject, then simply remove the snoot and shoot it like a normal macro shot. With the Mini Flash/Optical Snoot combo, I did both and often shot the same subject both with and without the snoot. I do know some die-hard snooters that nearly always snoot their macro shots to paint with light exactly what they want to. But like the circular fisheye lens, swirl tube extension, magic ball lens, some subjects lend themselves better to snooting than others.
Not snooted: Four-inch longlure frogfish in its natural environment shot with a single Mini Flash strobe (60mm, f/22m, 1/250s, ISO200)
Snooted: More dramatic lighting of the same longlure frogfish using a single Mini Flash strobe with the Optical Snoot (60mm, f/22, 1/250s, ISO200)
Backscatter’s Optical Snoot comes with both circular and oval-shaped aperture inserts of varying sizes, which allow you to adjust the size and shape of the light beam. I nearly always used the circular one and started off with a larger hole and then progressively went smaller as needed. The main advantage of the oval one is that when you can’t get perpendicular to your subject with the snoot beam, you can turn the barrel of the snoot to change the shape from oval to more circular. Also, sometimes an oval beam is actually desirable to get the proper coverage of your subject like on the peacock flounder portrait. The oval aperture inserts are a cool idea, but most of the time I was able to just adjust the positon of the snoot for the desired beam size and shape, so I decided to keep it simple and dive with just the circular aperture insert.
Golden tail moray: Single Mini Flash strobe with Optical Snoot (60mm, f/22, 1/250s, ISO100)
Spotted cleaner shrimp: Single Mini Flash strobe with Optical Snoot (60mm, Nauticam SMC-1 diopter, f/29, 1/250s, ISO200)
In Bonaire, the compact size of the Mini Flash/Optical Snoot combo was great for fitting in tighter spots where larger strobes and snoots can’t go, such as for a juvenile drum or eels that like to hide out under ledges. Other times, you can shoot a somewhat common subject like a Christmas tree worm or blenny and add a new creative look and feel of light to the subject that makes it grander and more artistic.
Positioning the Mini Flash/Optical Snoot combo is easy with the focus light, and I tended to have a centered and slightly forward overhead beam but would adjust it as needed for my optimal subject lighting. With traditional snoots that are more difficult to aim, I tended to position the snoot for the sweet spot and not move it much, so this additional usability was appreciated. Since I had two Mini Flash strobes attached on each side of my camera, I tried the snoot on the left and the right, but preferred it on the left so I could keep my right hand on the camera and use my left hand to adjust the snoot beam.
The Optical Snoot fits snuggly on the Mini Flash and can be attached with one hand, but when I went to position the strobe on a few occasions, I accidently grabbed part of the snoot instead of the strobe and the snoot would come loose and actually fell off once on a dive. As a result, I decided to attach a simple lanyard from the strobe to the strobe arm for peace of mind so I wouldn’t lose it.
Juvenile spotted drum: Single Mini Flash strobe with Optical Snoot (60mm, f/11, 1/250s, ISO400)
Christmas tree worm: Single Mini Flash strobe with Optical Snoot (60mm, Nauticam SMC-1 diopter, f/22, 1/250s, ISO200)
Not Just Macro: Shooting Wide Angle with Two Strobes
I was also interested in seeing just how much power these little strobes could produce and how even the spread would be when shooting wide angle. With the included diffusers, I was surprised at the amount of light they could throw at closer distances of two to three feet. You won’t be lighting up entire reef scenes or rapid firing on continuous with big animal action with the Mini Flash—they were not meant to replace larger wide-angle strobes—but I found that you get a nice even lighting on a power setting of 5 and 6 when within three to four feet from your subject. The trade-off of the higher power settings is recycling time (as with any strobe), but the Mini Flash surprised me there, too, with a recycle time of about 2.5 seconds on high power and about a second on a power setting of 5. Turning it down to 3–4, I was able to shoot at 3fps with little drop-off between flashes. With a quote guide number of 16, I was surprised with the even coverage that seemed to deliver the light and power exactly where it was needed. With the diffuser on, I also seemed to get minimal backscatter in my shots by positioning them at the appropriate distance from the lens as I would with other strobes.
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised with using the Mini Flash for wide angle in the right conditions, and I will definitely shoot wide angle with it in the future. As good as it is though, the Mini Flash won’t be replacing my larger, more-powerful strobes. I will continue to use my other strobes when I need more power and super-fast recycle times for fast action or when lighting up larger wide-angle areas from farther distances.
French angelfish under Salt Pier: Dual Mini Flash strobes with diffusers (20mm, f/8, 1/250s, ISO400)
Swimming turtle: Dual Mini Flash strobes with diffusers (16mm, f/8, 1/125s, ISO400)
The Easiest Close-Focus Wide Angle
As the name implies, you get close to your subject for close-focus wide angle and when within a 1 to 2 foot range or closer, the Mini Flash is perfect and in some cases better than a full-size strobe because of its compact size. Again, the diffusers work well at evenly distributing the light, and at this distance you can even drop the power down to 3 to 4 depending on your subject.
However, for close-focus wide angle, I preferred the directed light that the Mini Flash has without the diffuser, which seemed to have a snooted effect similar to wide-angle snoots that I have used in the past. This type of directed light is exactly what you want when lighting up a close subject like a colorful cluster of coral under a pier or a fish striking a pose. I even mixed it up on some shots of a French angelfish with a diffuser on my right strobe for the background even light and no diffuser on the left side for the fish to create a little bit of dimension to the image.
Curious squid: Close-focus wide angle with single Mini Flash strobe without diffuser (60mm, f/16, 1/160s, ISO400)
Trumpetfish deep below Salt Pier: Close-focus wide angle with dual Mini Flash strobes and diffusers (16mm, f/9, 1/160s, ISO400)
Sergeant major on sponge: Close-focus wide angle with dual Mini Flash strobes and no diffusers (16mm, f/7.1, 1/250s, ISO400)
Batteries: Secure and Easy to Change
Backscatter says the Mini Flash is capable of 1,400 flashes on a single charge of its 3500mAh NL1835HP battery. But with a single battery that you can easily change with one hand by simply unscrewing the rear battery extension and a double O-ring for protection, I was changing mine after every dive for maximum power, so I never got close to that many flashes.
I really appreciated this simple battery compartment design over some of the more complex designs on larger strobes that require two hands, a twisting and pressing motion, and waiting for the click all while hoping the single O-ring doesn’t get pinched. One thing to watch out for is making sure the batteries are well seated in the charger, because they can pop out of position.
Secretary blenny in brain coral: Single Mini Flash strobe with Optical Snoot (60mm, Nauticam SMC-1 diopter, f/22, 1/250s, ISO200)
It’s been about 10 years since I first used snoots given to me by my buddy George Ordenes, who had constructed them out of plumbing fixtures, a mirrored funnel and fiber-optic cables. Later, I invested in a few different types of off-the-shelf snoots, but like George’s homemade specials, these all posed some challenges and required a lot of patience.
The contrast with this strobe/snoot combo couldn’t be greater: Backscatter really got it right with the easy-to-use Mini Flash and Optical Snoot, which was designed for macro, but I found very useful for close-focus wide angle as well as some traditional wide-angle. I don’t know what kind of magic they used to get such impressive power from such a small and compact strobe/snoot combo, but it really is the most compact and brightest I have used.
This very capable strobe should seriously be considered for use with compact cameras like the Olympus Tough TG-6 as well as larger DSLR and mirrorless systems. The MF-1/OS-1 combination is now a permanent fixture in my gear bag and one that I will continue to use on future trips for macro, close-focus wide angle, and wide angle. Go small, lighten up your luggage, and have fun being creative with the little Mini Flash—a much mightier strobe than the name suggests!
Secretary blenny coming at you! Single Mini Flash strobe with Optical Snoot (60mm, Nauticam SMC-1 diopter, f/22, 1/250s, ISO200)
About the Reviewer: Ron Watkins has been an award-winning and well-published underwater photographer and writer for over 20 years and loves to share his knowledge and techniques with others who have a passion for protecting and capturing the beauty of the ocean. He is affiliated with Backscatter Underwater Video & Photography as a trip leader, gear reviewer and workshop instructor. Ron resides in New Hope, Pennsylvania, USA with his wife and fellow photographer Manomi, French bulldog Bodhi and Emma the cat.
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