Perhaps the most exciting feature of the SOLA600 is the red light mode. It is often quoted that using a red light for focusing is beneficial because many species of marine life cannot see it. So you don’t scare your subject in the process of focusing on it. The SOLA really works in this regard, but using it also really taught me that not all red lights are created. I have often added red filters to my diving lights, but have failed to notice any real advantage. This is because many red filters, while turning the light red, let through other colours too, which marine life can see. The SOLA600’s red LEDs produce a very narrow spectrum of red light. You can see the difference by shining it on the cover of a magazine, a poorly filtered light will allow you to differentiate far more colours then the very pure red LEDs. The less colours you can see, the more effective the light.
The SOLA600 is the first red light that I have used that you can clearly see works in not spooking many marine species. I found the red light was most effective on invertebrates: molluscs, crustaceans, coral polyps, echinoderms etc. Another benefit is that this includes worms and other plankton that enjoy swarming around our dive lights at night - these are definitely reduced by the red mode. However, many shallow water fish are clearly able to see red light, but when asleep (on night dives) it didn’t wake them. It is also worth noting that while the light may be hard for critters to see, they will still detect an ungainly approach. It is not a licence to race or trash around. All of the photographers who tried this also commented positively on this aspect. In the Netherlands, one shooter even told me that they thought it even seemed to attract lobsters to the camera. Perhaps the lobsters were confused about the meaning of a red light in Holland?
The other important advantage of the red light mode of the SOLA600 over using a filter is that it allows us to easily to switch modes. The red light mode provides enough light to dive comfortably, but the big disadvantage of staying red is that you don’t see the colour of subjects. Many of the best macro pictures celebrate the beauty of a fabulous creature on a beautiful background. Like the majority of photographers, I don’t believe in moving subjects for the sake of my photos (and as a biologist nothing is more annoying than seeing a critter on a background it would actively avoid in the wild). So to find the best natural compositions, we need to be searching in full colour. It is important that the SOLA600 lets us switch instantly back to white.
Many focus lights are now made powerful enough and white enough to be used for video. Both the SOLA600 and FIX LED lights are designed to also function as video lights for vid-SLRs. I can confirm that both are bright, soft and white. But I am I am not a videoist, so I won’t comment in detail about their suitability for this function. I know plenty of people have used them for this, so please add your comments below.
I have a couple of general comments to add about focus lights. In clear waters, a wide soft beam is highly desirable. It saves us having to re-aim the light constantly and is less likely to scare a critter than a narrow spot of light. However, when visibility is low you need a narrower beam. Otherwise it is like driving in the fog with your headlights on full beam. This issue becomes significant when the visibility is less than 5m/15ft. I would like to see focus light manufacturers providing beam-restricting snoots with their lights for low viz diving. The SOLA600 would benefit in this regard. Secondly, some focus lights have sensors to switch them off when they detect the flash firing. I have never been convinced this is a useful feature. When we shoot macro, we tend to use a small aperture and the fastest shutter speed, so the light beam will not be visible in the shot. We will see the light beam in long exposure wide angle shots, but in this case we should be using rear/second curtain flash synch (so the fish don’t look like they are swimming backwards) and if we do then the torch will not cut out during the exposure, but after it! The SOLA600 and FIX LED lights do not have this feature.
So to conclude, I have been really impressed with the SOLA600. It is an expensive piece of kit (at just under $600 USD,) but is an excellent performer. It produces a wide, soft pool of light, ideal for helping us focus, without having to constantly re-aim our torch. It has been a pleasure to use. The small size is a big plus for travel and for mounting on my housing. The red light mode has undoubtedly enabled me to get close encounters with marine wildlife that I have previously struggled with, ultimately helping me bag shots I hadn’t been able to before. But given the price we should expect it to last and from my tests its fully sealed design seems bomb-proof. If it turns out not to be, you’ll hear about it on the forums.
If you already own a high quality LED focus light, it is hard to justify the purchase of the SOLA600. But if you are a serious macro and night dive shooter then Light and Motion’s new light should be high on your wish list. All the photographers who tried the one I had have already bought one or are planning to soon. Me included. It is the best focus light I have used and my standout underwater photography accessory of the last 12 months. Highly Recommended.