Photo Gear Review—Digital After Dark Night Vision Hat

In my roundup of LED flashlights for photographers, I talked a little bit about the benefit of having a light with a red (or green or blue) LED for preserving night vision. Two of the Coast flashlights I use regularly have this feature, the PX20 and the TX10. I like these lights very much, but for setting up the camera and fiddling with settings, it’s helpful to have a hands-free light.

Night Vision hat

The Night Vision Hat has 2 red LEDs

Up until about six months ago, my light of choice for setting up gear was a headlamp. I started out using one with a red LED that was activated by cycling the switch. You know, click once for white, again for low white, again for strobe white, again (finally!) for red. That got old in a hurry.

I’ve said this many times and I’ll keep harping about it: Flashlight switches that require you to cycle through a lot of light modes are nothing but a pain in the butt. You want on, then off. It’s even more of a pain if red is one of the modes you’re trying to get to. Think about it. You’re out at some dark location looking at the night sky full of stars. You need to adjust something on your camera, so you turn on your flashlight. But before you can get to the red light that’s going to preserve your night vision, you have to go through a half-dozen white modes, which defeats the purpose. Nice thinking, oh insightful flashlight designer.

Some headlamps are well designed. A few have separate switches for the red and white LEDs and some have red lenses that you flip to cover the white lights. I used that kind up until a few months ago. It’s a Petzl light that my friend Drew Eschbacher turned me on to. It’s far from perfect, though. I like the on/off switch and the ability to flip the red filter back and forth, but the filter is impossible to flip while wearing gloves. I glued a little piece of plastic on it to give it more of a lip to grab hold of, but it’s still a pain to adjust.

Night Vision hat

The Night Vision Hat has 4 white LEDs

But that’s just one of the problems I had with headlamps. I’ve always found them to be difficult to adjust when switching from bare head to toboggan and they always seemed to interfere with my glasses. Plus, most of them have switches that are very difficult to operate while wearing heavy gloves. With my Petzl, I always had to remove my glove to turn it on and off. Now that’s convenient.

About a year ago, my friend Barbara Snyder, who owns Vivid Dog Studios, showed me a cap that had built-in white LEDs, thinking it might be something I’d be interesting in using and possibly selling. I told her that for it to be something I would use, it had to have red LEDs as well as white. I didn’t tell her that I don’t like wearing hats to begin with. I figured the red LED statement would get me off the hook without risking insult.

A little later she came back to me with a hat that had just came out that had four white and two red LEDs. Darn! Now I was in trouble. But I thanked her and took the sample she offered me. Six months later, that hat still had not seen the top of my head. One night I decided that to be fair to Barbara I ought to try the hat at least once, so I took it out with me on a shoot. Wow! What a difference! I had no idea how comfortable and convenient a lighted cap could be. The next day, I kicked the headlamp to the curb.

What I like:

  • Easy to put on and take off with one hand. The headlamp always required both hands, but the cap is piece of cake to slip on and off.
  • Comfortable. No elastic band to twist up my hair.
  • Quick to adjust the light beam direction. I figured a disadvantage to using a cap would be that I couldn’t pivot the light up or down, but that is not so. Instead of pivoting the light, you just tilt the hat up or down. And you can do it much quicker.
  • Easy to put on and operate switches while wearing gloves. This is a biggy for me. Even while wearing my heaviest gloves, I can easily put the hat on and turn on the switch.
  • Simple on/off switch for the red LED. Hit the switch once, it comes on. Hit it again, it goes off. What a concept!
  • Easy to adjust when wearing a toboggan. The hat has a Velcro adjustment, which makes it simple to expand it to fit over my toboggan. In very cold weather when I wear both a face toboggan and a head toboggan on top of it, the hat barely adjusts out enough to stay secure. If you have a really big head, you might not be able to adjust it big enough when wearing just a toboggan.
  • The hat doesn’t interfere with my glasses, which was a problem with the headlamp if the elastic band was too far down on my head.
  • I don’t mind being seen wearing it. I’m not a vain person, but I have to admit that I always felt a little uncomfortable wearing the headlamp in a public place. Out on the trail or among other photographers, no problem. But when I’m out among the general public, I prefer to blend in.

I was afraid the hat would be too warm to wear in summer, but it’s not. It’s made from lightweight 100% polyester, which is cool and wicks water very well. I also wondered about the batteries. Would they add an excessive amount of weight, would they make the hat uncomfortable to wear, and would they be difficult to access and replace. I was happy to discover that the answer is no to all these questions.

Probably my biggest concern from the outset was the cap’s bill getting in the way of looking through the camera. I figured that alone would render the cap useless. However, I was very pleasantly surprised that this was not a problem. At first, the bill did get in the way a little bit, but it didn’t take me very long to get the hang holding the camera to my eye without the cap interfering. Even if that’s a problem, it’s a piece of cake to swing the cap around with the bill pointing backwards while you look through the camera.

But the hat is not perfect. As with all gear that I have ever owned and probably ever will own, there are some things about the cap I’m not crazy about.

What I don’t like:

  • The switch for the white LED requires cycling. One click turns it on low beams, the second click turns it on with high beams, the third click turns on both high and low beams, the fourth click turns it off. So if you need white light, you can’t just turn it on and then off. Have I mentioned that I don’t like this? At least this is the case only with the white LED. With red, it’s on and off. Just the way it’s supposed to be.
  • Battery type. If you read my article about LED flashlights, you know I’m a huge proponent of standard batteries—AAA, AA, C, D. The night vision cap uses CR2032 button cells. Admittedly, there is a good reason for it, as it allows for a very streamlined design for the battery compartments so they aren’t a nuisance, but if there were any way to design the hat using AAAs, I’d be a happier camper. At least CR2032s are widely available.
  • The color. I want black, to match the night, and to match the Digital After Dark® t-shirts. But the “Night Vision” hat is only available in navy blue. It’s a fine color, mind you, and I haven’t heard anyone else complain about it. I just like my night photography gear to be black, thank you. There is a different version of this cap that is black, but it’s an all-cotton structured hat, which is heavier, hotter, doesn’t pack as tightly, and doesn’t wick perspiration. I don’t recommend it.

Price and Availability

Okay, time for some honesty. (Not that I’ve been lying to this point, but I just want you to know that I’m being totally upfront with you.) I sell these hats in my online store, but as with the LED flashlights I sell, I assure you that I’m not advocating the Night Vision hat just to make a sale. I used this hat for several months in my own photography and decided to sell it only after I was certain it was a good product for night photographers. I will never sell or promote anything that I wouldn’t use myself. 

Night Vision hat

My wife, Patricia, likes her Night Vision hat!

I’ve been selling these hats at shows for a few months now and they have been big hits. In fact, I have to admit that the positive response has been surprising. The price is $35. The ones I sell have the Digital After Dark® logo stitched on the front brow. (Barbara does the stitching for me, and she also sells the regular hats with white LEDs on her website.)

If you spend some time on the Internet, you might be able to find the hats for a few dollars less  and I’ve seen them for several dollars more. (One online retailer sells them for over $60.) I say, “spend some time,” because these hats are very difficult to find. You’ll see the regular white LED hats all over the place, but the hats with red LEDs are more expensive and most places don’t carry them. If you do find one somewhere else, make sure it’s the same cap. There are some old styles still available that have the red and white LEDs wired to the same switch that you have to cycle through. You don’t want that. Make sure the red LEDs are controlled by a separate switch.

Hat’s off to you!

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