What To Look For In A Headlamp For Night Photography

It feels like a lot of the ads for headlamps lately really seem to push how bright they are and I've started to cringe at that.  It's not that I mind a bright headlamp.  It's just that for the most part headlamps are already bright enough in my view and I'd really like to see people get more control over the lower intensities.

A Blinding View - Below Delicate Arch

I understand that not everyone uses a headlamp for the same thing.  I use mine to hike to my target location for night photography and to provide the little bit of lighting support needed at times during the shooting period.  And if I were shooting alone, my lighting choices wouldn't matter as much.  I'd still want lower intensities to keep my night vision when I'm shooting, but I wouldn't have to worry about blinding other people.  It's those group situations that prompt an article like this - because the right light really does help to be less intrusive (okay, I'll say it - annoying) to other photographers.  Sure, it takes more than just the right light, but it goes a long way in helping to reduce the number of good shots in the group that are affected or even ruined by your lights.

What do I use my headlamp for?

  • In Route - On the way to my planned location, I want a medium to bright headlamp that will help me find the route.  Most headlamps are pretty good at this part.
  • At The Target - Once I get there, I shoot as much as possible without a light on.  When I use one, I want to turn it on with the intensity as low as possible.  I've found it takes some research to find lights that do a good job of meeting this need.

What do I look for in a headlamp?

Much Better Visibility - A Little Lower Down

  1. Good control at the lowest intensity settings - I want to preserve my night vision so I want only the amount of light needed to accomplish a task and no more.
  2. Wide field of view - I've found that I don’t care for the lights if they don't cast a wide beam of a light.  They make me feel like I'm getting tunnel-vision as I walk up the trail.  I expect this when I turn on a spot light when I'm trying to identify something at a distance but I prefer a wide cast when I'm walking up the trail.  Some lights address this by having two bulbs or one bulb that may show a narrow beam or a wide cast.  To me, it's more important to have a really wide cast so I don't feel like I'm walking through a tunnel than to have the flexibility of having a narrow beam built-in.
  3. Light weight - After testing a unit that had 4 AA batteries on the back of my head and the light (that weighed about the same) on the front, I decided that weight was a factor.  Most units are less than that but in general, I like the 18650 batteries best because of their excellent power to weight ratio.

Why do I prefer a headlamp over a small flashlight like the Rigel Skylite?

Rigel Skylites - Old & New

These little lights are popular in astronomy circles and I can see why.  I like how they give very good control over the amount of light that's emitted and the direction, but I don't like having to give up a hand to get it.  That's where the hand's free nature of the headlamp has a distinct advantage and so I prefer the headlamps - especially when I can get good control over the lower intensity levels.

LED Bulbs or Something Else?
I now like the LED bulbs for my headlamps because I think they provide a lot of light for the weight - very efficient.  I would be a little more concerned about the color temperature if I used it for light painting but I usually have other lights for that purpose.

Nitecore HC90

Red or White Bulbs?
I like white bulbs for walking up the trail.  Once I'm at the top, I think it's more important to be able to control the intensity than it is to have a red bulb.  In my case, the light I've been using (Nitecore HC90 - shown on the right) has a white light with a slider control that's easy to use and a red light that's either on or off.  As a result, I find I prefer the ability to control the light so much that I only use the white.  If I could control the intensity of the red light as well, it would be very good for the lowest intensity settings where I need minimal light.  That said, be extra careful not to shine your red light toward subjects photographers are shooting because it's easy for them to pick up the red light and it can be a challenge to remove.