Choosing LED Flashlights For Light Painting Photography – Part One

Um, hello. My name is Kevin Adams and I’m a flashaholic. I don’t remember the first time that I admitted to myself that I was addicted to flashlights. I know I need help, but everywhere I go I see temptation. New and exciting lights of all kinds are coming out all the time, and I want them all.

Light painted tree at night.

Live oak tree light painting with LED flashlight. Nikon D700, Nikon 24-70mmf/2.8 lens, f/5.6, 25 seconds, ISO 1600.

Well, actually, I don’t want them all. I’ve learned enough about flashlights to know that many of them are worthless. But there are a lot of good ones out there, and some that I want purely because of lust, so that still leaves me with a big problem.

Choosing a flashlight (or torch, for those of you across the pond) for light painting can be a daunting task for non-addicts, so I’ve put together this buying guide to help you make an informed decision. Keep in mind that I’m making recommendations based on the type of photography that I do and how I like to work. Standard caveats apply.

If you’d like additional information, I recommend reading A Flashaholic’s Guide to LED Flashlights. Coast Portland, a major manufacturer, produces it but the information in it is not biased and it provides some very good advice about choosing lights. It’s important to keep in mind that the perfect light does not exist and probably never will. Like any piece of gear, you have to decide what’s most important and compromise on the rest.

One thing that you SHOULD NOT compromise on is the type of bulb. It should be LED. Incandescent bulbs are the film of the flashlight industry. Forget them. There are many reasons why. Just trust me.

Here are the things I look for in a good light-painting flashlight:

Power source.

Any light I carry MUST operate on the standard batteries that are available everywhere—AA, AAA, C, or D. Rechargeable batteries have some advantages, but I think the disadvantages outweigh them. Rechargeable lights generally cost more up front, the batteries often do not carry a charge as long and are not as powerful, and you have to have a charger. I don’t know about you, but I have enough chargers to keep up with as it is.

This is so important to me that it is the first thing I look for in the specs. If the light doesn’t operate on standard batteries, I don’t care anything else about it.

Optics and light output.

Okay, listen up. This is important stuff. We’re talking light painting here, and for that, bigger is not always better. Neither is brighter. The most misleading and misunderstood aspect of flashlights is the brightness rating. If a manufacture follows the ANSI FL1 guidelines, the rating is given in lumens and it is based on a standard test procedure. But manufacturers are not required to use these standards and you’ll see all sorts of ridiculous claims. You can reasonably compare lights that follow the FL1 standard, but there is no way to know how they compare with others without trying them out. Just because a company says their light has 3,500 lumens, it doesn’t mean that the light is going to be any brighter than one that claims to be 1,000. It’s best to stick with a known company that uses the FL1 standard, even if the light you purchase is stated as lower in lumens than the other guy.

Lumens is only a measure of the total light output of the flashlight. It doesn’t take into consideration what I think is the most important aspect, and that is the optical focusing system. I have a 100-lumen light has a much brighter light than one that has 212 lumens, and both of them follow the FL1 standard. The reason is that the 100-lumen light has a focusing system that concentrates the light in a tight circle, with very little spill. It works great for defined lighting at a distance, but it isn’t as good for painting large areas up close.

With a good-quality optical system, a lumen rating in the 100 to 200 range is plenty enough for most light–painting situations. My workhorse lights range from 73 to 615 lumens, but the one I use most often is 251 lumens. I’ve heard photographers complain about their lights being TOO bright, but that shouldn’t be a concern. The brighter the light, the shorter the length of time you paint with it. I’d rather have a brighter light for those times when I’m painting something far away or need to light a large area.

That said, once you get into the 500-lumen range and higher, you’re talking about specialized lights that are not only very bright, but also bigger and heavier. You wouldn’t want one of those as your workhorse, but they can be a life saver when you need a ton of light. Yes, you could shine a lower power light for a longer period or raise the ISO, but either of those options is going to increase noise. The solution is to carry at least two lights.

Beam pattern.

This is related to the focusing system talked about above, and it is very important. So much so that I won’t purchase another flashlight unless it comes from a company whose optics I trust or else I can I can try it out first. A flashlight can focus its light in a wide circle or a tight one or anywhere in between. The best lights are those that have adjustable focus from wide to spot. The problem with many lights is the consistency of the light between the settings. You want the light to be even and not have dark spots or obvious rings. This is one area where buying cheap will haunt you. The Amazing Congo’s Mega Super HID Stupendous Flashlight rated at 45,000 lumens for the amazing low price of only $6.95 is going to project a beam of light that looks like crap. Trust me.

In addition to having an adjustable beam focus, you should take into consideration how the focus is achieved. Some lights require you to twist the barrel, which I find cumbersome. The ones I like best are the push-pull type.

Light color.

Just because you’re giving up the warm light of an incandescent bulb for an LED flashlight, it doesn’t mean the light won’t have a color cast. A friend of mine loves his very yellow LED light because he uses it mainly for lighting wildflowers and closeups during the day, when the warm light is pleasing. But for light painting at night, you want to start out with a light that is as white as possible. When you want to add color, you put a gel filter in front of it.

This is another area where buying cheap will get you in trouble. I recently returned a light that had not only a horrible yellow tint, but also green rings. Yes, green! This was the last flashlight I will buy from a manufacture I am not familiar with.

Casing material.

It’s going to be either aluminum or plastic. As a rule, aluminum flashlights are better quality, as plastic is reserved for the cheapos. The exception is for lights intended to be used underwater.

Switch and really stupid effects.

Don’t get me started. I don’t care what you think you need or what you think is going save your butt in an emergency, all you need for light-painting photography is an on/off switch. Hit it once, the light comes on. Hit it again, the light goes off. It’s really very simple. But no, we have to hit that dang switch 14 times as the light cycles through all sorts of stupid light outputs and strobe effects. No thank you. I want on and then I want off.

Unfortunately, very few lights have simple on/off switches. Some of my lights have a high/low switch. Hit it once, the light comes on high. Hit it again, it goes off. Hit it again quickly, and it comes on low power. So it’s High/Off/Low/Off. I don’t mind this nearly as much as a switch that is High/Low/Off. It’s a compromise I can live with, but I will never use a light that has a strobe setting.

Another consideration is the placement and style of the switch. Ideally, it would be on the barrel where you can easily control the light with one hand while you are painting. Unfortunately, you’ll probably have to compromise on this, too, as many of the better lights have switches in the end cap. Some lights, like the Maglites, have twist switches. This is one of several reasons why I stopped using the Mags long ago.

A nice feature is a momentary switch, where a slight pressure turns on the light without having to click it. This can be useful when you need to paint one or several spots in the scene quickly.

Tactical, anyone? (For men only. Women are too intelligent to fall for this marketing hype.)

Flashlight manufacturers love to use the word “tactical” in their advertising. It’s the same as how outdoor gear companies like to use the word “technical.” I’ve always wondered what the flip a technical shirt is, and I wonder the same thing about a tactical flashlight. They’ll say it’s for lights made to higher standards for law enforcement; for mounting on guns; for blinding attackers; and even for using the light itself as a weapon, as if that crowned bezel is really going to make a difference. I think all this is mostly hyperbole designed to appeal to people who have a higher level of testosterone than the average person does.

Testosterone levels notwithstanding, we’re talking about using flashlights for light painting, not attacking people or defending ourselves. Light painting is artsy fartsy stuff, and while we may be doing it with devices that tend to satisfy our machoistic urges, let’s face it, we’re PAINTING. We should choose our brushes accordingly.

Price.

This is the main consideration for some people, but it shouldn’t be. With so many different lights to choose from and so many shady companies selling them, price is simply not a good indication of quality. A quality light for most light-painting situations is going to run in the $35 to $65 range. You should have a good reason before spending any more or less.

Heat sinks, number of LEDs, run time, size, weight, color.

While some of these factors might be worth considering for certain applications, none of them are deal breakers for light painting. Heat sinks are good to keep the light from getting too hot, but I wouldn’t dismiss a light that didn’t have one. Some companies love to brag about how many LEDs their lights have, but the focusing system is far more important. Besides, more LEDs just means more power consumption and shorter run time. Obviously, the longer the run time, the better, but I would go with a shorter time in order to have the other features listed above. Size and weight are considerations for traveling or hiking, but that’s one reason why I have more than one light. And color? Black as the night, of course!

What brand and which specific flashlights do I recommend buying?    

Ah, I knew you were going to ask me that. Don’t worry; I don’t have a problem naming names. In Part Two, I tell you about all the lights I use and recommend for various light-painting applications.

Teaser: Being the testosterone-laden individual that I am, I own WAY too many lights, just like tripods. The four lights that I use most range from 73 to 615 lumens. One is huge, one is waterproof, one is psychedelic, and the final one is my everyday workhorse. All of them are the same brand.

Note: I’ve now updated the buyer’s guide that is in Part Two. Click here to read the new guide in Part Three.

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