The Best Flashlight For Light Painting

Article Updated: April 15, 2015

Background
A little while back, I posted an article where I reviewed the Brinkmann Dual Xenon Spotlight for light painting.  At that point, it was the best light I'd seen for night photography and it became my favorite "brush" for light painting.  The neutral to warm tint and the gentle, even cast of light worked well in a variety of light painting situations.

Problems With Availability
Not long after posting the article, supplies for the dual xenon spotlight dried up.  I had stirred the interest in people's minds but now they couldn't find the light.  As a result, I've had a pretty steady stream of people asking for an alternative light.  And while, my dual xenon spotlight still works great for me, I felt the need to help find a good light to recommend to others so I decided to take another look at which light would be a best choice for the night photographer looking to add some light painting.

I needed a replacement for the Dual Xenon and in the process, I found a new favorite that does the job even better and reduces the weight I'm carrying when I go out hiking.

Schwabacher Starry Night - Grand Teton National Park

Light Painting Style
Just to clarify, we're talking about a style of light painting where we use the light to illuminate a subject that is in the frame of our camera but the light remains out of the frame.  There's another style of light painting where people use lights in the frame to create all kinds of neat effects.  For the purposes of this article, I'm only talking about the style where the light itself is kept outside of the frame but the light illuminates something in your frame.

New Technologies
With problems related to availability on the Brinkmann Dual Xenon comes an opportunity to re-evaluate the options.  And with that comes a chance to take another look at a lot of new lights that have appeared on the market.  There's been a lot of advancement in lighting technologies with some of them having a good effect on the features and options available to the consumer and how affordable the prices are.

Helpful Information
Early on, my friend Jon Blake was helpful with some great information from his research on lighting options.  He also shared his favorite contact with me - Tod from Illumination Gear who taught me a lot about what to look for.  CCT and CRI were all confusing at first but Tod's patience and his willingness to spend some time on the phone understanding what I was looking for were very helpful.  If you have questions in this direction, you may also consider reaching out to Tod at http://illuminationgear.com/contact.

The Flashlight And The Bulb
Along the way, I learned there's a lot of research behind choosing the best light.  It's about more than just the light, it's about the bulb in the light as well.  In the end, I went with a strategy where I picked a flashlight platform that met my flexible power needs and allowed me to run a variety of bulbs including one that would meet my needs for light painting.  This flexibility is key because I found most people are looking for high power lights that throw a lot of lumens.  I'm more interested in having a good quality light that I can control at various levels of intensity.  The lower levels are the ones I most often use to keep my light painting subtle and the light's ability to let me do this is a big deal for me.  Aside from the helpful information, this flexibility in bulbs is one of the reasons I find that I really like the lights from Illumination Gear.  I simply haven't found anyone else that offers such flexibility - regardless of the helpful information.

An Opportunity With Batteries
There's a pretty good opportunity with a model of battery called the 18650.  This style of rechargeable battery has been around for years - mostly powering laptop computers among other devices.  The reason I like this battery is because it holds a lot of charge for the weight - meaning your light will last a long time and won't weigh as much.  The AA and AAA batteries may be a little smaller than the 18650s but I don't think they're lighter especially when you need to run 3 of them to get similar results.

An Opportunity With LEDs
In the past, I felt that LED lights in general had a color temperature that's too cool for my taste.  My recent research shows that this has clearly changed with some very good options available now at affordable prices.

With the LEDs comes a couple of key improvements - a big one being the reduced weight.  And with enough power and flexibility, there's also a chance that it can replace other lights your carrying.  I used to carry a dedicated light (or 2) for light painting and another for the route to my location.  In addition to my headlamp, I often like another bright light to throw in the direction of noises I hear.  I call it my "what the heck is that light" and it helps to calm my nerves when I hear noises in the dark.  My point here is that the LEDs can often serve this purpose and also do well with light painting and it's only recently that they were able to do this.

CCT And CRT
In looking closer at LED lighting, I learned about the terms that help to identify the lighting characteristics.

     CCT (Correlated Color Temperature) - used to quantify the overall color temperature of a light
     CRI (Color Rendering Index) - used to communicate the overall accuracy and quality of the light.

I found CCT relatively easy to understand, but the CRI deserves a little more explanation.  A light with a higher CRI will result in a better ability to capture colors more accurately.  In general halogen and xenon light bulbs are very good with a CRI rating of 100.  Fluorescent bulbs are considered to have poor quality with a CRI rating in the low 70s.  LED bulbs with a CRI rating of at least 80 are considered very good and bulbs with a CRI over 90 are usually rare and expensive (although recent advancements have brought the costs down considerably).

Tint Vs. Lumens
So while the LED lights generally have a CCT (Correlated Color Temperature) that's too cool, they are tempting because they produce a lot of light intensity.  I am finding now that this has changed in that there are now LED bulbs available with tints that do a very good job of producing a neutral light.  They may not produce quite as much intensity as the cooler bulbs but for my purpose, the neutral tints work very well.

What's Most Important In A Light Painting Flashlight
Over the years, I've improved my techniques for light painting and have learned a lot about what I like and don't like about a light painting flashlight.

Gentle Cast
The first requirement of a light for light painting is that it has to have a smooth, gentle cast of light with no hotspots or dead spots.  I want to gently move my light around the scene and be able to add an even distribution of light across the scene and this becomes a challenge with a light that has anything but an even, gentle cast of light.  This typically comes from a flashlight that has both a wide beam and a quality reflector.

CTT (Correlated Color Temperature)
Whatever the scene is that I'm shooting, it often has some natural light that's generally neutral.  And when I add light of my own, I want this light to be pretty much neutral as well.  It doesn't have to be perfect, but it makes a big difference in the results you get.  In general, most LED lights are usually too cool in temperature for my taste to work well.  Sure, I can "fix" this mismatch in post-processing (to some degree), but I'd much rather get it right in the capture.

CRI (Color Rendering Index)
This is a difficult area to measure because it's a little more subjective but it's a factor that I think deserves some attention.  It's quantified in the world of flashlights as CRI (Color Rendering Index).  In my world of night photography, a high CRI translates to my ability to pick up the warm colors in my foreground.  This is critical to me because trying to correct this later would result in an image with less quality.

Flexible Intensity
For the longest time, I had a hard time finding a good light that had enough flexibility to run at really low power.  Sure they advertise a lot of power, but in a lot of cases, I want just a little bit of light.  Remember, I'm going for subtle in a lot of cases and when the subject is fairly close, these lower intensity settings are very important.

Power Source
I really like the high power to weight ratio of the 18650 battery so I looked for a light painting solution that made use of this battery.  It's nice if the battery comes in a variety of models that works with other batteries - for people with different tastes.  For me though, this is the power source I knew I wanted.

Finding A New Favorite
I was really just out to find a replacement for the Brinkmann Dual Xenon which sounded like a pretty simple task.  But in the process, I ended up learning a few new concepts about lighting and I looked at a lot of lights.

Considering The Options
One of the factors that makes researching lights for light painting so difficult is that there are so many choices.  I ended up looking toward companies including Nitecore, Sunwayman, EagleTac, Streamlight, and Harbor Freight - and could have looked at more.  Of course, this takes time and money to do this which is my best justification for having taken so long in posting this update.  :-)

EagleTac Clicky
One light that looked especially good is EagleTac Clicky, provided by Illumination Gear at http://eagletac.com/html/d25lc2rc/index.html.

EagleTacs come highly recommended with availability in a variety of bulb and tint choices.  This light is meant for tactical use by military and law enforcement but with the right bulb, it also works well for light painting.  I'll admit that the switching between the different modes takes some getting used to but with time, I found it worked well for my needs.  I especially liked that it worked so well for light painting at the lower power settings.  For the hike to and from your planned location, the high power "Turbo" setting works well for times when you want a lot of light.  I tend however, to use it only when I need it to supplement my headlamp, generally not for long periods of time.  And while there are other versions of the Clicky that are powered by AA or even AAA batteries, I really liked that this model allows me to run from a single 18650.

XM-L2 Neutral
After discussion with Tod in April 2014, I bought a D25LC2 Clicky with an XM-L2 bulb and a Neutral tint.  The intent was that the XM-L2 bulb would give a good wide beam that had a more neutral tint than any of the other options.  In testing this light, I've been very happy with it.  With a neutral tint and low power settings, it met my needs for light painting very well.  And with a high maximum power setting, it worked well for me while hiking as well.  In a small, lightweight package, I found it to be a really good alternative that has resulted in some good nightscape images along the way.

Nichia High CRI
Once again in November 2014, I spoke with Tod to get the latest on advancements in bulb choices.  At that time, I was impressed that the Clicky appeared with even more bulb choices and I wanted to make sure I understood what they were meant for.  I was especially interested in one from Nichia that was labelled with a high CRI.  In speaking to him, it did in-fact appear that this bulb would work even better for my needs with improved color accuracy.  He described this as helping to make sure that the Coca Cola red would appear accurately in my images.  And while this would help if I were doing commercial work in the studio, I didn't quite understand how this would help with night photography.  But trusting Tod, I went ahead and bought another Clicky - this one with the Nichia 219 High CRI bulb.  Specs on this bulb and the XM-L2 can be found at http://eagletac.com/html/d25lc2rc/features/output.html.

Comparing The Best 2 Bulbs
Sure enough, when I tested the Nichia High CRI bulb I got to see the difference between it and the XM-L2 Neutral with my own eyes.  The Nichia High CRI bulb did a better job of illuminating the warmer colors which allowed me to capture them better.  The light beam didn't really look any warmer but the colors that appeared when I illuminated an object appeared with a little more warmer color…  or maybe it was that the warmer elements now had more of a chance to show their color.  It was clear that there was some color shifting going on with my XM-L2 Neutral bulb that I wasn't seeing before the comparison.  With this comparison in-mind, I could see that the Nichia High CRI bulb does a better job of capturing those warmer colors in nightscape images.

I saw a slight reduction in overall intensity but this was very slight.  And the tradeoff to get more accuracy in the colors seems very worthwhile.  In comparing the brightest settings between these two bulbs, I found the intensity to be similar but the Nichia beam appeared just a bit more narrow.  Again, this difference was very slight but in comparing the two, I was able to identify this as a difference.  Again, the trade-off for color accuracy appeared very good.

And The Winner Is…
And with that, I now have a new favorite light painting flashlight that I both use and recommend to others.  My favorite flashlight for light painting is the

EagleTac D25LC2 Clicky with a Nichia 219 High CRI Bulb
as shown at
http://eagletac.com/html/d25lc2rc/index.html.

I should mention that I'm recommending the Nichia 219 High CRI Bulb that can be purchased in a variety of flashlights - powered by either the 18650 battery or the more common AA batteries.  I prefer the 18650s so I chose the D25LC2 flashlight but feel free to choose whichever flashlight best meets your needs as there are several that run this same Nichia bulb I picked as my favorite. 

Additional Notes

Notes On Battery Brands
You should be aware that there's a lot of variation in quality with the 18650 batteries and chargers.  And while I'm not an expert, I do believe you get what you pay for.  I've seen a lot of cheap 18650 batteries with the word "fire" in them that I'm told are not worth using and in my case, not worth carrying out in the cold.  I've had good luck with batteries from NiteCore and EagleTac although I recommend EagleTac as my top choice.
http://illuminationgear.com/products/eagletac-18650-3400mah-li-ion-rechargeable

Battery Charger Suggestions
I believe that getting good quality batteries and chargers are often overlooked.  In that direction, I recommend buying quality charger like this one:
http://illuminationgear.com/products/xtar-vp4-li-ion-intelligent-charger-w-acdc-cords