Headlamp Shootout: The Best Headlamp For Night Photography

I've had a headlamp shootout review in-mind for years as I've been searching for that perfect headlamp for night photography.  I learned a few interesting things along the way but in the end, it's all about finding the best headlamp for the job.

What's Important

  • Low Intensity Control

    • This helps to preserve night vision when you're out in the dark and just need a little bit of light.

    • In testing different headlamps, I found that pretty much any headlamp with a minimum intensity rated between 1 and 10 lumens looked pretty much the same.

    • One more thing I found is that red is a bit overrated.  As an example, I found that showing a white light at a really low intensity is better than a red one that can't be dimmed.  And while we've heard that red may be nice for preserving night vision, I found that the ability to show a really low intensity is actually more important.

  • Wide Field Of View

    • Reduces eye strain and fatigue

  • Light Weight

    • Reduces neck fatigue from wearing a heavy headlamp

    • Light weight headlamps are less likely to slip out of position or fall off your head

  • Preferred Battery Power

    • I don't like heavy headlamps or those that drain the batteries too quickly so I like headlamps powered by a single 18650 battery.  They pack a lot of power in a lightweight package.

    • AA batteries aren't very powerful so I often see 3-4 of them - which is just too heavy for a headlamp in my experience.  Lights that use 3 AAA batteries are better on the weight but the performance still isn't great.

  • Approximate Cost

    • Price is not part of the overall score but I did limit the review to headlamps priced under $100 and I included the approximate cost for each model.

Ratings

  • 1-10

  • 1 is horrible, 10 is excellent

Lights In This Review (6)

  • Fenix HP25 - Overall Score: 5.5

    • Description

    • Review Details

      • Low Intensity Control - 9

        • This model has a button that cycles through 4 intensity levels with the lowest rated at just 4 lumens.

      • Wide Field Of View - 9

        • With a dedicated reflector for wide-view illumination, it did very well in showing a wide field of view

      • Light Weight - 2

        • This score was especially low because of the 4 AA batteries.  Having 4 AA batteries sitting on the back of your head opposite the light in the front may be balanced, but for me me it's too heavy.

      • Preferred Battery Power - 2

        • To me, AA is a poor choice with it either not lasting long or being too heavy because we have to run 4 of them.  If this light were powered by an 18650 battery, it would have done much better.

    • Approximate Cost - $70

    • Comments

      • For this model, it's the heavy battery choice that ruined what could have been a great light.

      • In looking at Fenix's latest offerings not reviewed here, I like the HL55 (although it doesn't use the two bulb design that seemed to work so well here).  It looks similar in design to the Nitecore HC30 with power from an 18650 battery, only it's neutral white instead of cool white (which is good) and a little more expensive ($60).

  • LED Lenser H7 - Overall Score: 6.0

    • Description

      • The H7 features the patented "Advanced Focus System" which shows either a wide or narrow beam of light combined with a stageless dimming function.  It's not their newest model but it gives a good idea of how the other headlamps in their current lineup perform.

      • This model was discontinued.

    • Review Details

      • Low Intensity Control - 9

        • This was one of only two headlamps I found with a sliding control for the dimmer and this one is pretty effective!

      • Wide Field Of View - 3

        • While their advanced focus system looks interesting and it works well in concept, it doesn't show wide enough of a beam to be truly helpful.  As a result, the H7 has a narrow field of view that's not fun to hike with.

      • Light Weight - 7

        • Not bad on the weight and at least it was balanced (front/back).

      • Preferred Battery Power - 5

        • Three AAA batteries offers a decent combination of power & weight but I still prefer the 18650.

    • Approximate Cost - $35

      • The H7 is an older version which is why the price is so low.

    • Comments

      • The minimum intensity of 20-60 lumens on LED Lenser's latest lineup makes it tough to consider them seriously.  So while the H7 did well in controlling the light at lower intensities, more current headlamp models do not.  This was especially disappointing to see.

      • The battery power behind this light isn't great, but it works.  It just doesn't last very long.

  • Petzl Tikka XP - Overall Score: 6.25

    • Description

    • Review Details

      • Low Intensity Control - 8

        • This model has a button that cycles through 4 intensity settings with the low intensity setting at just 5 lumens.

      • Wide Field Of View - 3

        • I thought this was interesting because this headlamp has two light sources - one meant for distant objects and another wider one.  Even the wider one seemed too narrow for my taste.

      • Light Weight - 9

        • Three AAA batteries do a pretty good job of keeping the weight down.

      • Preferred Battery Power - 5

        • Three AAA batteries offers a decent combination of power & weight but I still prefer the 18650.

    • Approximate Cost - $40

    • Comments

      • The headlamp also includes a red light but it's not dimmable so I don't find it very helpful.

      • The single button style isn't very user friendly.

      • Petzl offers more expensive lights but none seem to do a significantly better job than this model (Tikka XP).

  • Nitecore HC30 - Overall Score: 7.75

    • Description

    • Review Details

      • Low Intensity Control - 8

        • Using a single button, you can cycle through 5 settings - ultralow, low, mid, high, and turbo with the ultralow rated at 1 lumen and the turbo at 1,000.

      • Wide Field Of View - 4

        • For me, this was the low point of the light with a much more concentrated beam than the other wider alternatives.  I was especially surprised to see this considering the talk about the wide field of view in Nitecore's marketing materials.

      • Light Weight - 9

        • This design (built around the 18650 battery) works well in minimizing weight.

      • Preferred Battery Power - 10

        • This headlamp earns a great score on battery power thanks to a design built around the 18650.

    • Approximate Cost - $55

    • Comments

      • This could be a really good headlamp if it didn't have such a narrow beam.

  • Nitecore HC90 - Overall Score: 9.25

    • Description

    • Review Details

      • Low Intensity Control - 10

        • The slider control is awesome!  The best control over low intensities I've seen.  The lowest intensity I've seen on most of the competition is around 1-10 lumens.  This headlamp allows me to reach what looks like 1/10th of a lumen (0.1)!  The highest intensity is rated at 900 lumens.

      • Wide Field Of View - 9

        • One of the widest in the field!

      • Light Weight - 8

        • It has a little more weight than the lightest headlamps but not by much.

      • Preferred Battery Power - 10

        • This headlamp earns a great score thanks to a great design built around the 18650.

    • Approximate Cost - $90

    • Comments

      • Also includes green, red, and blue lights although they are not dimmable.

      • This has been Mike's favorite light for a while and seeing how it did in this review shows why.

  • Eagletac / Sportac DH10LC2 - Overall Score: 8.75

    • Description

    • Review Details

      • Low Intensity Control - 8

        • Using a single button, you can cycle through 5 settings with the lowest rated at 5 lumens and the highest at 1,120.

      • Wide Field Of View - 8
      • Light Weight - 9

        • This design built around the 18650 battery works very well in minimizing weight.

      • Preferred Battery Power - 10

        • An excellent score comes from a design built around the 18650 battery.

    • Approximate Cost - $65

    • Comments

      • This light (and it's brother, the PH10LC2) are very similar.  The floody DH10LC2 (included in this review) has a much wider field of view which I like.  The narrower beam of the PH10LC2 may be good for spotting objects at long distances, but I find the wider beam to be more comfortable for my eyes.  For those who prefer the narrower beam and the longer reach, you may consider the PH10LC2.

And The Winner Is…

  • First Place - Nitecore HC90 - Overall Score: 9.25

    • The HC90 wins because it has the best control over low intensities with that awesome slider control.  I'm able to turn it on with just 1/10th of a lumen - something none of the competition can do which helps me to preserve my night vision better than any other headlamp.

    • The HC90 has one of the widest fields of view which makes it very comfortable to hike with. 

    • It also has a great design built around my favorite battery (the 18650) so it's lightweight and lasts a long time.

    • http://flashlight.nitecore.com/product/hc90

  • Runner Up - Eagletac/Sportac DH10LC2 - Overall Score: 8.5

    • The Eagletac headlamp was a close second with very good control over low intensities, a wide field of view, and power from an 18650 battery.  Besides that, the $65 price makes it a great value.  In-fact, this headlamp gets the award for the best value of the bunch!

    • When it comes to light quality (which is something I haven't mentioned yet), this light beats all the others hands down.  To give some quick background, LEDs are available in Cool White (the most common), Neutral White (which is less common and better for the eye), and Nichia (which is rare and the best for the eye and for photography).  Eagletac/Sportac is the only company that offers Neutral White headlamps with all the others having Cool White and the difference is nice - much more natural.  I thought seriously about making light quality one of the review criteria and if I had, this light would have been my top pick!

    • Information From Manufacturer: http://www.sportaclight.com/html/dh10lc2/index.html

    • Available From: http://illuminationgear.com/products/sportac-dh10lc2-floody-headlamp

 

Putting Batteries Into Perspective

  • AA batteries have roughly twice the power/capacity/runtime of an AAA battery.
  • Lithium Ion batteries (like the 18650) have roughly 3x the power/capacity/runtime of an Alkaline battery (like AA or AAA batteries) of the same weight.  Li-ion batteries work well with power hungry devices (i.e. lights) where Alkaline batteries are better suited for low power devices (i.e. tv remote).
  • This is why the 18650 makes such a good battery for lights and other high power devices and why the world is moving toward using Li-ion batteries.  You may be interested to hear that’s why the Tesla Model S is powered by approximately 7,000 18650 batteries.

Word Of Caution: In the past, it was pretty easy to approach someone while wearing a headlamp without blinding them.  The lower powered lights and the narrower beam made this a lot easier to do without shining our light into someone else's eyes.  Now with headlamps that are both wider and more powerful, this is more challenging.  As a result, I highly recommend pointing your light down and reducing the intensity (or better yet, turn it off) before approaching someone.  They'll thank you for it!

Note Of Thanks: In compiling the information for this headlamp shootout, I did my own reviews and consulted with a variety of sources.  Along the way, I should mention that I also found Tod at Illumination Gear to be especially helpful.  I very much appreciate all his time and help.  Thank you Tod!