Choosing LED Flashlights For Light Painting Photography – Part Two

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 eight 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 eight that I think work really well.

You might be wondering why anyone would need eight flashlights. Actually, you don’t. Of these, I use only four on a regular basis (HP7, HP17, PX20, TX10, PX50) and one other one occasionally (HP14). The other three I don’t use because they are too similar to some of the first four. (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 four 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 specifications

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 HP7 LED flashlight

Coast HP7 (The Workhorse)

This is my workhorse light-painting flashlight. 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 PX45 LED Flashlight

Coast PX45 (The Twin)

The PX45 makes a great choice for an all-around light-painting flashlight. It’s slightly smaller and lighter than the HP7, runs on 3-AAAs instead of 4, and costs less. It isn’t as bright, but 212 lumens is more than enough for general light painting. Its big drawback, at least for me, is the twist focusing mechanism. I much prefer the push/pull type. If you don’t mind using two hands to focus, you might want to choose this light over the HP7.

Coast G50 LED flashlight

Coast G50 (The 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 HP17 LED flashlight

Coast HP17 (The Man Light)

If you’re looking for a super bright light that isn’t enormous, this is a good choice. It has 615 lumens, runs on 3-Ds, weighs 2 pounds, and is over 13 inches long. It’s big, make no mistake, but it isn’t like some lights that are so large and unbalanced that they are a misery to use. It really handles quite well. You’ll use this light for those times when you need to throw a lot of light over a large area or far into the distance (using a snoot), but you won’t be sticking it in your pocket and probably not even in your camera bag. This one will hang out under the front seat of your car, where it can double as a weapon. Besides the size and weight, the HP17 has another drawback. The bezel is too large to accommodate the GelGrip™ filter holder and gel filter swatches, although you could fix a snoot that would work with them okay.

Coast HP14 LED flashlight

Coast HP14 (The Middle Child)

The HP14 has 339 lumens and runs on 4-Aas. It fills that narrow void of a really bright light that isn’t ridiculously big and heavy. It falls between the HP7, which is a great workhorse, and the HP17, which is crazy bright, but huge. You’ll probably want to get the HP7 (or PX45) first, and then make a decision between the HP14 and HP17 next. Since there isn’t a huge jump in brightness from the HP7 to the HP14, the HP17 might make more sense. It’s a monster, but the HP14 isn’t something you can stuff in your pocket either. Flashaholics will want all three. People that are more sensible will get by with two, or just the HP7. The bezel of the HP14 is just barely small enough to accommodate the GelGrip™ gel filter holder and gel filter swatches. 

Coast PX50 LED flashlight

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 LED flashlight

Coast PX20 (The Trail Guide)

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 LED flashlight

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.

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 HP7, PX45, or the G50. Choose among those based on your particular preferences. If size, weight, and price are not a factor, go with the HP7.

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 another HP7 so you have a backup.

Fifth light. Go for the Man Light, the HP17, and light up the night.

Sixth light. Get the PX 20 and keep it in your pocket for setting up gear without losing night vision and for hiking back in the dark.

Seventh light. The HP14.

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

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