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Flashguns Subtronic Alpha
Recently, on a liveaboard dive boat, the captain recalled an esteemed US underwater photographer who had been on board and (I quote) ...was fantastically good because he took every photograph many times, bracketing on every single setting of his camera.
     I reflected that there were so many variables under water that I couldnt afford to do that. I dont want to find that I have captured the right moment on the wrong setting. I have to be content with one exposure setting and hope that its the right one. How do I do that I put my camera on TTL aperture-priority automatic and the flashguns on TTL automatic and let the electronic wizardry supplied do the rest. It impresses me, but obviously doesnt impress an audience.
     Gone are the days when I had to discard film because it was too light or too dark. Now the only thing my pictures suffer from is bad composition or bad timing, and there is no electronic wizardry in this world to deal with that.
     I typically use two flashguns at once and have been very happy with my paired Nikonos SB104s. I can plug the flashes into my Sea & Sea housing and get 36 perfectly TTL exposed pictures on every roll without having to think about it.
     They give a powerful burst of light, recycle ready for another in a moment, and take less than two hours to charge from flat. I also carry a spare.
     Unfortunately, as my primary pair began to reach the end of their useful lives, I discovered that Nikon no longer made replacements. What to do
     I needed two matched flashguns that would work together with fully automatic TTL exposure control. I still wanted fast recycling between flashes and fast recharging. It would be a bonus if they were less heavy and bulky than the Nikonos units, but most important, as my equipment has to be paid for by the photographs I take, I wanted a less costly solution.
     The Subtronic Mega Color impressed when I investigated one for these pages. However, it weighed even more than the Nikonos flashguns and cost far too much for me to buy a matched pair. So I went for the entry-level Subtronic Alpha version. Only half the power of the Nikonos SB104, these flashguns are light enough for two to be carried onto flights à which will save me a fortune in excess baggage charges!
     The big flash tubes give a light with a warm colour quality that is less harsh than that of some other makes.
     They have a range of seven power settings but I can use them in TTL auto mode with my Nikon. There is what looks like an adjustment for owners of Canon, Pentax or Minolta cameras but they must specify the special circuitry when they order.
     I especially like the synch-lead design. The standard Nikonos-type synch-lead has its critics but Subtronic has added a second O-ring to reduce the chance of a flood.
     There is also an O-ring that squeezes between the added locking-ring and the housing bulkhead connector. Anyone who has left a synch-lead connected to a housing for a week in the tropics will know that electrolysis between different metals can weld it in place. I suggest that this third O-ring is more to prevent this effect than to make a third barrier for the water.
     However, all these O-rings are extremely difficult to remove and lubricate, as they are so small.
     Talking of flooding, you dont have to open the unit to charge it, as the charger lead goes into the same socket from which the synch lead emerges. A control switch is set to suit. A built-in microprocessor takes control of charging, ensuring that no excess gases build up inside the unit.
     The Subtronic units have all the outward design attributes of a length of aluminium drainpipe. That aside, one unaccustomed bonus was the Alphas in-built modelling light, which is good enough to use as a lamp on night dives.
     The 10W bulb gives a burntime of 90 minutes and can be switched to half-power.
     Without using the modelling light, a fully charged unit is promised to be good for six rolls of film, even with each exposure using full power. The two hour charger unit can automatically adjust to a range of local voltages between 100 and 240.
     The big question I asked myself was, would they pack enough punch Well, two are twice as bright as one but whether they will work together depends on how your housing is wired.
     I found that I was using f/5.6 and f/8 for wide-angle shots, but that was with both firing. So the answer, using them singly, has to be no. My advice, if you are going to buy only one, is to get a more powerful version such as the Alpha Pro or Mega.
     I mounted the twin Alphas using the Ultralight system. The lads at Ocean Optics would have had me take away arms with several sections and at least three knuckle joints each, but for the sort of work I do this is unnecessary, and battling with too much bendy gear in strong currents, I prefer to keep things simple.
     I chose to use only two knuckle joints per unit, with a positively buoyant long arm between them. These nicely balance the weight of the flashguns but they are still a bit ungainly to get rigged correctly once you have hit the water.
     The knuckle joints of the Ultralight system have rubber friction O-rings where they press on the ball-socket, so there is precious little chance of them going wobbly provided you can do them up tightly enough. Alas, the flashgun merely screws on by way of a standard tripod bush, and you can easily unscrew it by mistake while adjusting the flash-head angle under water.
The Subtronic Alpha costs around £800, including synch lead and charger. Ultralight mounting systems cost around £300.
  • Ocean Optics 0207 930 8408, www.oceanoptics.co.uk


  • Divernet
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    + Quick recycling time
    + Fast recharging time
    + TTL auto exposure with a pair
    + Not too expensive


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    - May not be as bright as you would like