**Field Review: Light & Motion’s SOLA600 focus light**
Regular readers of my reviews will know that I try and cast a critical eye over products. Despite the high quality of most gear these days, I don’t see the benefit to readers of writing reviews that say every product is totally wonderful. I adopt a similar approach with my photos, always looking for areas for improvement. So it might be a surprise to hear straight off that the Light and Motion SOLA600 focus and video light is my favourite underwater photography accessory of the last 12 months. Let me explain.
The importance of a focus light for underwater photography is entirely dependant on what you shoot. If you favour shooting large pelagics in the open ocean or wide angle scenics on a shallow Red Sea reef, they are thoroughly unnecessary. But if you like macro, murky water or night diving then a good focus light can make the fundamental difference between getting and shot and missing out. Norwegian underwater photographer Christian Skauge tells me that in his home waters, he always encourages new shooters to purchase a decent focus light for their compact cameras, before even buying a strobe. There is no point taking photos if the camera cannot focus!
Standard diving torches can be used for focusing, but with narrow beams we find we spend as much dive time adjusting their aim as concentrating on our photography. Also with a focussed bright spot of light, we are more likely to spook critters as they are suddenly exposed to the full glare on our approach. They are not the right tool for the job. Another common solution is using the aiming lights from your strobe, however this relies on having to aim the centre of your strobe beam directly at the subject, which is not always ideal. It also requires constant fiddling with your strobe positions making it an inefficient use of dive time.
The big revolution in focus lights came with the introduction of Fisheye FIX light range (highly recommend in James Wiseman’s Wetpixel review in 2004, which was the product that caused a mainstream switch from small diving torches to dedicated focus lights among serious shooters. The FIX lights first used standard bulbs and in the last 18 months or so, have switched over to excellent LED based units. These lights produce a really wide, soft beam meaning basically meaning there is no need to re-aim them during a dive. The wide pool of light also seems to be less shocking to subjects. The FIX lights also raised the financial stakes, taking focus lights from the sub $100 USD realm to that of several 100. The current range topper, the FIX LED 1000, retails around $599 and the FIX LED 500 at £299. This is the high-end market that the SOLA600 is aimed at, retailing at $579 (all prices: Backscatter.com).
I own a FIX LED500 and since many underwater photographers have experience of them it seems an ideal comparison for the key features of the SOLA600. The most obvious difference is size, the SOLA600 is about half the size and lightweight (0.54lbs/245g), a considerable bonus for the travelling photographer. To pretty much eliminate the risk of flooding, the SOLA600 is a completely sealed unit, charged through gold plated connectors on the back and turned on and off via a lockable magnetic switch. You push it forward and release to turn on the torch, pull it back and release to switch on the red light mode (more about this below) and pull or push it to either end and hold to switch it off.
Both lights produce excellent white light illumination, with wide soft illumination. My tests show the SOLA600 produces a marginally wider and softer beam, but this is not a deal breaking difference.
The FIX LED lights have a dial to vary the power output, while the SOLA600 has just three set powers for the white light, and a single power for the red light. The battery can last for several dives. I found a typical 60-70 minute night dive, not using full power, would drain it to only 50-70% on the built in battery monitor. A recharge from this point took about an hour, so it is easily topped up between dives.
It is hard to talk about focus lights and not mention reliability. At the price, one could expect the top models to be bullet proof, but in the past, they have certainly not all been. A quick search of the Wetpixel forums will flesh out the facts. It is always tough to assess reliability during a short review period. Being such a fan of the SOLA, I have been stretching out this review period to extend its stay with me! I have tested it in the Maldives, Florida, Bahamas, UK and Holland. It has worked faultlessly, throughout. I have even lent it out to five other photographers, without problems.
I have a couple of reliability concerns in the design, which are worth commenting on. I should restate, I have had no problems during my tests, but I feel I should mention them as areas to watch. I feel that there is a potential for the magnetic gliding switch to get clogged by sand or salt if not washed out regularly, particularly in a black sand location, like Lembeh. Light and Motion tell me that it has been designed with a wide tolerance to aid flushing of any debris. I found it could get a bit sticky if not washed well. I also feel there is a potential problem with wear on the exposed charging contacts, if a lazy user regularly didn’t wash and dry away salt water before charging. Again, on my test unit, they still look like new. Given the price most of us will be expecting a long life of active service. Nothing I saw made me doubt that the SOLA600 will oblige in this respect.