Choosing LED Flashlights For Light Painting Photography – Part Three

Note: This is an updated version of the Buyers Guide I posted in March, 2013. I’ve removed the Coast HP14, HP17, and PX45 from that recommendation and added the HP7R and HP314.

In Part One, I talked about all the features a photographer should look for in a flashlight. If you haven’t read it, please do so before reading this one. It contains important stuff you need to know. Here, I’m going to name names and make specific recommendations.

First, full disclosure. Yes, I offer all the flashlights discussed in this article for sale in my online store. But don’t think I’m recommending them just to make a sale. I hand-picked these lights for my own usage long before I decided to start selling them. If you run into to me in the field, you’ll find nearly all of these lights in my pack, so I would be recommending them to you regardless of whether I was selling them. I’ve become quite attached to these lights, so it was only natural that I would want to add them to the store.

If you’re not a flashaholic like I am, you’re probably wondering why all the fuss. Buy a light from Wal-Mart and shine it on something. Big deal, right? Well, actually, there is some truth to that. You shouldn’t get caught up in the trap of not taking pictures because you don’t have the right kind of gear with you. Any flashlight is a great flashlight if it’s the only flashlight you have.

Light-painted waterfall
An LED flashlight with a blue gel filter was used to light paint the waterfall on the left. The image on the right is the same scene without the light painting.

That said, when you become serious about your night photography and light painting, you’ll discover that there are significant differences between the $4.97 Wal-Mart light and the lights I talk about here. Even if you don’t see a big difference on paper, you’ll likely discover it once you’re in the field. All that money you saved won’t be worth a hoot when you drop the light and it stops working.

Who makes good lights and what are the best ones? Good question. A few minutes with Google is enough to overwhelm even a flashaholic. There are hundreds of different LED flashlight models from dozens of companies. Making an informed buying decision is a daunting task.

As with most purchasing decisions, I recommend going with a well-known company that has a solid reputation. There may be lemons in their lineup, but the odds will be in your favor. For light-painting flashlights, good company choices are Fenix, Surefire, LED Lenser, and Coast. (Yes, I purposely left Maglite off this list.) For casual use, buy a light from any of these companies that fits the parameters you’re looking for and you’ll be fine. If you’re a flashaholic, I recommend choosing one of these companies and sticking with them with all of your lights. As with any type of gear, the more know a company and its products, the better armed you are in using them.

I chose Coast flashlights because of the overall quality, the fact that they have a lot of models that operate on standard batteries, the push/pull focusing mechanism, and because their lights are reasonably priced. In my opinion, Coast has the best blend of quality, price, and features of any brand. In case you’re wondering, the company is not giving me any money or free flashlights to say nice things about them. If anyone from Coast is reading this and would like to send something my way, my mailbox is open. It won’t have any effect on what I say about your stuff, but it will give me warm fuzzy feelings about you.

Coast has over 50 LED flashlights in their lineup. No one needs them all, nor can I imagine why anyone would want all of them, even a flashaholic. I’ve spent considerable time studying the specs of all their lights and trying out a lot of them, and as a result have narrowed down the list to seven models that a photographer could use. This doesn’t mean that all of the others in their lineup aren’t suitable for photographers. I’ve just chosen seven that I think work really well and that cover the full range of a photographer’s needs.

You might be wondering why anyone would need seven flashlights. Actually, you don’t. Of these, I use only five on a regular basis (HP7R, HP314, PX20, TX10, PX50). The other two I don’t use because they are too similar to some of the others. (I recommend them because they have some differences that might appeal to you, such as being smaller and lighter and less expensive.) But just because I use five different flashlights, it doesn’t mean you need to. As I state later on, one light is all you have to have.

Coast LED Flashlight Comparisons

The price is the amount you pay in my online store. Prices are much higher from some retailers and a little lower from others. If price is your only consideration, you should shop around.

Coast HP7R (The Workhorse)

This is my new workhorse light. The light’s long-range focusing optic projects the light beam over 1,000 feet, but more important, it keeps the light even across the zoom range and projects a tight beam at full focus. The “R” in HP7R stands for “Rechargeable.” Called the Flex Charge Dual Power system, the light comes with two lithium ion battery packs that can be recharged using AC, DC, or USB power sources, and with all the connectors needed for all three. The HP7R has some other nice features, like coming with a car/wall mount (I used mine to make a tripod holder), belt clip, and sheath. And it features the push/pull focusing system that I require as standard issue. But the long-range focusing optic and the Dual Power system are what makes this light my new fav.

Read more about the HP7R here.

Coast HP7 (The Workhorse's Brother)

This was my workhorse light-painting flashlight up until the HP7R came out. Has 251 lumens, which is more than enough light for all-around use. It nicely straddles the fence between being powerful, but not being too big and heavy. Runs on 4-AAAs and has the push/pull focusing mechanism that I like. If you’re going to own only one light, this is a good choice. I keep two of them in my pack at all times.

Coast G50 (The Workhorse's Cousin)

The G50 is a good choice for general-purpose light painting when size, weight, and cost are primary considerations. It has 166 lumens and runs on 3-AAAs. It has the twist-style focusing mechanism, which I’m not fond of.

Coast PX50 (The Mermaid)

The PX50 has 131 lumens and runs on 4-AAs. It’s not overly bright, but it has one feature that makes it a favorite light. It’s a dive light, which means it waterproof. Anytime you are photographing a night scene that has shallow water in it, you can submerge this light for a really cool effect. The GelGrip™ filter holder will work fine with temporary use under water, as will any gel filter. The specs say it’s waterproof down to nearly 200 feet, but for light painters it’s only the first few feet that matter. Stick this puppy in shallow water and have some fun! There’s no end to the creative possibilities a light like this has to offer.

Coast PX20 (The Mermaid)

I don’t recommend this light for light painting because it doesn’t feature beam focusing and at 125 lumens (white LED), it’s not overly bright, although you could certainly use it for painting if you need to. I recommend it for lighting the trail and for setting up your gear. It features both white and red LEDs on a separate switch, which makes it very convenient to use. The red LED is great for maintaining night vision. Sure, you could use your regular light-painting flashlight for hiking, but I like to keep my batteries fresh in that light. The PX 20 is very small and convenient to carry. Runs on 3-AAAs.

Coast TX10 (The Wild Child)

I keep this little light with me at all times when I’m photographing at night. It has white, red, green, and blue LEDs on separate switches, making it very simple and quick to use. For general light painting, where precise color is not important and you don’t need a lot of firepower, this light is a perfect alternative to the big boys with gel filters attached. It also is great for setting up gear, as all three colors preserve night vision. If you don’t want to carry both the PX20 and the TX10, the TX10 is the better choice for night photographers. Its white LED is not as bright, at only 73 lumens, but it is plenty bright enough to light up the trail. It runs on 3-AAAs.

Coast HP314 (The Man Light)

The HP314 is in a breed all its own. To say this light is for serious light painters would be a gross understatement. When you need supernova brightness and insane reach (1,132 lumens and a beam distance of 2,240 feet!), and you don’t have a lighthouse handy, this baby is what you want. It’s huge and it’s heavy, but it sure packs a punch! The best part? It runs on standard D-cells, unlike every other flashlight of its type and caliber that I’m aware of. I keep a HP314 in my truck for those times when I need either a long reach or a huge amount of light, which is pretty often for some of the light painting I’m doing now. It comes in a surprisingly nice fitted carrying case and includes a shoulder strap (yes, a SHOULDER strap), a belt ring (can’t imaging hanging this guy from your belt, but you can if you like), tail cap for extra protection, and a rubber bezel ring for added grip. Oh, obviously, you can’t use standard gel swatches with this guy, but you can use the 4×5 size, as I do, or cut larger sheets down. You can rig a special holder for the gels, or just wrap them over the lens and hold them in place with your hand.

Read more about the HP314 here.

How many flashlights do you need?

Let’s be honest with ourselves here. All you have to have is one light. It helps if that one light is a good one, but you can do good work even with a crappy light. There are two reasons why we might want several lights. First, having a variety of lights makes our photography easier and faster, and it allows us to light some subjects that we wouldn’t be able to with an inferior light. That’s the reason we tell our spouses. The other reason is because is we are addicted. We like to hold and feel a quality flashlight in our hands. Caress it. Admire it. Admittedly, this is more of a man thing, but I know some women who understand exactly what I’m saying.

I think everyone should own at least two lights, one for general light painting and a utility light that has a white and red LED (or blue or green) for hiking in the dark and setting up gear. After that, it’s just a matter of how much of a flashaholic you are.

Here’s a priority list based on the average photographer’s needs.

First light. Get the HP7R, HP7, or the G50. Choose among those based on your particular preferences. If size, weight, and price are not a huge factor, go with the HP7R.

Second light. Get the TX10. You can have a lot of fun with the different colored LEDs and it will double as a hike light and gear setup light.

Third light. The PX50, because you can do some really cool things with it.

Fourth light. Get a backup to your workhorse light. Choose either the HP7 or G50, depending on what light you already own.

Fifth light. Go for the Man Light, the HP314, and light up the night.

Sixth light. Get the PX20 and keep it in your pocket for setting up gear without losing night vision and for hiking back in the dark. While the TX10 can be used for this, its 4 switches make it more frustrating to use. In fact, I’d personally choose the PX20 before getting the TX10, but I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone.

Seventh light. Seriously? Don’t you think you have enough lights already? How about using that money to take your wife out to dinner instead.

Tags: , , ,

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.