“Flashlight” or “torch”?

No difference. Unless you are American, in which case a “torch” is a flaming stick carried by Indiana Jones.


How bright?

Well, the unit of brightness is the lumen, so more lumens means a longer beam, right? Actually no – high-lumen lights often have shorter beams!

Lumens measure the quantity of light emitted in all directions by an emitter, like a flame or bulb, but not the light that reaches a distant object (which relates to beam intensity and is covered under the next heading). Lumens are like the quantity of water flowing out of a pipe – they have nothing to do with how far that water squirts, as any kid with a water pistol will be happy to demonstrate.

Emitters that produce lots of lumens are often tricky to focus into an intense beam (think gas lantern or incandescent light bulb) so they tend to be “floody”. Not that there’s anything wrong with floody lights – they are actually more useful in many situations than "throwy" beams – but they don’t win shoot-outs to see whose torch does the best job of lighting up a tree across the road.

It's also important to know that twice the lumens don't look twice as bright – in fact, a doubling of lumens is the smallest increase you are likely to notice. So, while a light-meter will say that 1,000 lumens is twice as bright as 500 lumens, you and I will barely see the difference. This is because the relationship between stimulus and perception is logarithmic – if you're interested you can read more here.

In terms of our subjective ability to see brightness, the table above gives a realistic scale. You will find that one notch on this scale is only just noticeable, two notches represents a useful increase, and three notches (a ten-fold increase in lumens) is impressive. So if you're accustomed to a 25 lumen light, which is typical for a supermarket torch, then a 500 lumen light (my least powerful) will be impressive, and my 11,000 lumen Q8 Pro Quad will blow your socks off!

And yes, I'm aware that you can now buy torches that deliver 100,000 lumens or more, but before you flash your plastic please find out how long they can... um... keep it up? While lumens don't relate directly to beam distance they DO relate to the amount of heat generated, so ultra-high-lumen torches must turn themselves down before they melt down!

So ask yourself, when your monster torch steps down after a few seconds, how will it compare to a torch a quarter of the size and price, and are those few brilliant moments worth the extra moolah?


How far?

Illumination – the light falling on something – is measured in lux, and the intensity of the beam that delivers that light is measured in candela, which is lux at one metre. More candela means a longer beam, although twice as many candles don’t deliver twice the throw.

For this reason, most flashlight manufacturers use a formula they registered with the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) to convert candela to beam distance – it works out like the second column in the table below. In terms of this formula, throw is given as the distance at which illumination falls to a quarter of one lux, which is roughly the same as moonlight. Note that this is waaay too dim to be useful, but it does provide a means of comparing one ANSI-rated torch to another.

For more realistic figures, have a look at the remaining columns – 1 lux is equivalent to the brightest moon on the clearest night, and 5 lux is the light that falls on your face if you hold a candle at arm's length. Out of interest, 10 lux is roughly the illumination of a city street at night (if the street lights are working!); a well-lit living room will register about 70 lux; an office about 350 lux; daylight up to 25,000 lux; and direct sunlight is 100,000 lux.

My own tests suggest that effective beam distances should be based on 2.5 lux-on-target – ten times the brightness used by ANSI. At that level of illumination I have no difficulty making out the shape of things (trees, cars, people) and detecting movement, and I have used this as the benchmark for my own "real-world" throw. It works out to about a third of the ANSI beam distance.

However, at distances beyond 200 metres even this calculation becomes increasingly optimistic as the beam is reflected by moisture and dust in the air, reducing light intensity in the same way that wind resistance limits the power of a car at higher speeds. In fact, I'm not convinced that any flashlight in the world can throw a useful beam much further than 300 metres – no matter what it says on the box.

Note that there's an important difference between lighting up something so you can see it from where you are standing, and signalling to someone far away. I've signalled a friend across Table Bay, a distance of 41km, using a torch that wasn't bright enough to see a subject more than 300 metres away.


How much runtime?

State-of-the-art LEDs produce more light for a given quantity of power than any other light-emitter – they are simply more efficient. Also, they are more robust – good quality LEDs are rated for 50,000 hours of service. If your torch dies, it will almost certainly be something other than the LED that has failed.

Sure, you can get lots of lumens from other kinds of emitter – if you’re willing to lug a car battery around and wait for your light to warm up – but if you want a really efficient, bright and durable light that you can carry easily and flash on at full power, your choice is LED or LED. I found the above graph here, and it's very out of date – LEDs that produce over 300 lumens per watt are common today.

Unfortunately it’s still true that the brighter the light, the more power it consumes and therefore the shorter the run-time. For this reason you should take an interest in batteries (scroll down to the battery section below). These days it’s possible to make a torch the size of a lipstick that delivers 1,000 lumens or more, but the tiny battery won’t keep it going for long – if it doesn’t melt down first!

Yup, heat is a key factor – in fact most high-powered torches today offer a "turbo" setting with an impressive output for a minute or two, before reducing power to a more realistic level to avoid overheating. The key questions are: how long can your torch maintain this "turbo" output, and what is the highest level it can sustain for as long as the batteries allow? Unfortunately the official specifications often don't give you the answers.

The good news is that halving lumens – which you can usually do by turning your torch down by one "notch" – is hardly noticeable but your torch will run twice as long and produce half the heat.


How big?

Ah, the eternal question, and one of the most important! The brightest torches must be big, not only to hold enough batteries to feed the beast, and a big reflector or lens to focus all that light into a decent beam, but also to dissipate the heat generated by the LEDs. This is why nearly all torches today are made of aluminium, which is second only to copper for conducting heat. Rubber and plastic torches can't be very powerful – if they were, they would melt!

Pocket torches have been dubbed “every-day carry” or EDC flashlights by our American friends. It’s only when you start carrying a torch all the time that you come to understand just how useful this is, even on this side of the Atlantic. EDCs vary in size from keyring lights, like my S11 Light Capsule, to torches up to 13cm (5") long like my SP33 Brutus, that take bigger batteries and run much longer.

However lots of people prefer a bigger torch that delivers gobs of light and can be used as a blunt instrument in an emergency. The long-and-thin and the short-and-fat types each have their advantages – the long-and-thin like my T217 Hunter and the short-and-fat like the Q8 Pro Quad. Both pack a huge punch for their size and price – in terms of candela and lumens respectively – so it's vital to establish which beam profile suits your needs best.

People who use torches for their work – cops, medics, firemen – have found the sweet-spot of brightness, beam, runtime and size is the "tactical torch" – models that are small and light enough to carry all the time but with enough throw and run-time for almost any situation. The benchmarks in this category are my C8L Panga and SF26 Rapier with an unprecedented 250,000 candela beam and all-night endurance thanks to a new-generation 5,000mAh battery.


Different LEDs?

There are only a few manufacturers of high-end LEDs, each producing models designed for different purposes. Among them, Cree and Luminus dominate the torch market, although Samsung, Nichia, Osram and others are significant players. There's a lot that can be said about their efficiency, "binning", beam tint etc., but the key factors IMHO are size and output.

For reference, here's a quick run-down on Cree's top LEDs:

  • The XM-L was launched in November 2011 and the XM-L2 a year later. This LED dominated the premium torch market for five years because it combined great efficiency, high output and a relatively small size. More recently, Luminus launched their SST-40 which is the same size but delivers more light.
  • The XP-G started to appear in flashlights during 2010, the XP-G2 in 2012 and the XP-G3 in April 2016. Although it isn't quite as bright as the XM-L2 it's physically smaller so it can be focused into a longer beam.
  • The XP-L arrived in May 2014, generating as much light as an XM-L2 but from a chip the size of the XP-G2, which means longer beams. In June 2015 Cree introduced the de-domed XP-L HI (high intensity) which still delivers some of the longest beams on the market.
  • Their XHP (extreme high power) series comprises the XHP35, XHP50 and XHP70. The XHP70 is a big LED, suited to "fat" beams, delivering an unprecedented quantity of light (more than the fragile and inefficient HID or Xenon bulbs). The much smaller XHP35 HI is optimised for long-range illumination, delivering twice as many lumens as an XM-L2 from a similar-sized emitter.

Another important feature of LEDs is that they reach full brightness the moment they are turned on – they don't have to warm up like a Xenon/HID bulb. In fact, when an LED is operating at reduced brightness it may be because it's turning on and off faster than the eye can see – the longer the gaps between flashes, the dimmer it appears. This is called pulse width modulation (PWM) and is very unpleasant if you can see (or hear!) it. With a good quality torch it won't be an issue. Independent reviewers always test for PWM.

If you’d like to know more about Cree (and other) emitters, check out this site. In case you were wondering, Cree don’t make flashlights. If you see a torch with their name on it, it’s a rip-off.


Different batteries?

There are two types of battery that we need to talk about here, and each comes in a range of different sizes. They are not interchangeable (with a few important exceptions) so you need to pick a battery before picking your torch.

On my right we have the 1.5v supermarket batteries. You’ll find them everywhere – AA, AAA, D and C cells, in zinc, alkaline and lithium primaries (non-rechargeable) and NiMh secondaries (rechargeable) which are actually 1.2v, but who's counting?

To my left we have 3.7v lithium-ion (Li-Ion) rechargeable batteries. You’ll find Li-Ions in your cellphone, laptop and camera, but not (yet) at your local supermarket. They come in many sizes. Some are "bespoke" – specially designed for a device like a cellphone or camera – but others are standard, such as the 21700, 26650, 18650, 14500 and 16340. If you crack open the battery pack of an old laptop you'll find a handful of 18650s inside (more recent models have bespoke batteries).

In case you were wondering, the numbers on lithium-ion batteries give the physical size – an 18650 is 18mm in diameter and 65mm long. Well... almost. They usually go through a re-packaging process where they are fitted with a protection circuit board (which trips out if they are over charged, over discharged or short-circuited), a metal "button top" at the positive end, and a protective outer wrapping with a brand label on it. These additions tend to expand the size of the batteries a bit.

As for the lithium-ion chemistry, the fact that your electronic devices all use them now is a clue – they can be recharged more often and hold their charge longer than their 1.5v cousins and they hold more energy for a given size and weight. 

When it comes to torches, we all go through the same learning curve – we buy a torch that takes supermarket batteries because they are easy to find and we think they are cheaper. Then we see a svelte Li-Ion torch that produces more light for longer, we discover that Li-Ion is actually less expensive in the long run, and we wish we hadn’t been so snoep.

Many professional users – law enforcement officers, emergency workers, engineers, hunters – don’t mess about with 1.5v batteries any more, and an increasing number of top torch manufacturers no longer make models that use legacy battery chemistries like the AA and AAA. As for torches that take C and D cells – well, they make good knobkerries.

There’s a lot more that could be said about batteries (batteryuniversity.com is a great resource) but one last thing for now – cheap Li-Ions are cheap for a reason. The specifications on their wrappers usually belong in the fiction section of the library, and some can be downright dangerous, which is why airlines are very reluctant to carry them.

I don't sell cheap batteries – I sell the best quality batteries at great prices. But don't take my word for it, there are independent reviews of many batteries and chargers, good and bad, here. To get the most from your batteries, see my article on Li-Ion Taming, here.


Beam profiles?

I know, it's crazy hey? We're just talking about torches for Pete's sake! But actually beam profiles are THE most important factor when it comes to finding the best torch for your specific needs.

In fact it's so important that I have written a separate article on beam profiles here, with photos and tips to help you make an informed decision about the kind of torch(es) that will suit you best.


“Regulated” flashlights?

Some torches are “regulated” while others are “direct drive”. Regulated or constant-current torches use clever electronics to maintain their brightness at a fixed number of lumens, while direct-drive lights get dimmer as the batteries run down. So regulated is better, right? No, not really, although a lot of manufacturers want you to think so.

Thanks to the logarithmic relationship between stimulus and perception that I mentioned earlier, and the fact that lithium ion batteries operate in a relatively narrow band between 3v and 4.2v (if you run them down too far they will be trashed), you need a light meter to detect whether an LED torch is getting dimmer. In other words, you won’t know what kind of regulation you have unless it’s written on the box. Just to be interesting, some torches do both, for example they may be regulated at one brightness level, or one type of battery, but not with others.

The truth is that direct drive torches are often cheaper and more efficient because the electronics in regulated torches cost money and use power. So you can have a torch that runs longer and appears to be just as bright when the batteries run down, for less money. Or you can boast that your torch never grows dim. Apart from when it steps down to avoid overheating. It's your money. Some of my torches are fully regulated, some are direct drive, some are both. 

Trust me, there are more important things to worry about.

Waterproof? Really?

This is going to sound like I'm playing with words, but please bear with me. Premium torches are often IPX-8 submersible to a specified depth – usually 1.5m or 2m. It’s important to understand that this doesn't mean they are diving torches; they aren't designed to be operated underwater, but rather to work after being submerged. Huh?

Here's the difference. If you turn your IPX-8 torch on and off while it's underwater, the change in internal temperature will suck water past the seals, but if you submerge it and then take it out of the water without changing its state (i.e. leaving it either on or off, as it was before it went in the water) it should be fine. 

In other words, it's designed to withstand an accidental dunking in a river or pool.

Also note that IPX-8 torches will only stay waterproof as long as they are tightly screwed together, and you've looked after their rubber O-rings and grommets for charging ports – which means keeping them lubricated with a suitable goo like silicon grease (not silicon sealant, which is a kind of glue!!!)

Like all those other specifications (lumens, candela) the degree of waterproofing and impact resistance is defined by the American National Standards Institute or ANSI. IPX-8 defines the depth at which a torch has been submerged without water getting into critical areas, while impact resistance specifies the height from which a sample has been repeatedly dropped onto a concrete floor and still works. You can read all about the ANSI-FL1 standards on the Flashlight Wiki, here.

One more thing – water- and impact-damage are not covered by warranties because the manufacturers can't verify the circumstances under which the damage occurred. All they say is that their torches were tested to the required standard, and passed. However I get a steady stream of emails from customers telling me that their torches have survived some serious dunking and bumping, so they really are tough.


How much!!?

If you’re over 40 you’ll remember torches that cost a couple of rands at the local hardware store. They were pathetic, hey? Their bulbs always needed replacing and their batteries always leaked! I loved them, even though I never knew if mine would work.

Today's premium LED torches are simply in a different league, so of course they’re more expensive, although if you take inflation into account I'm not so sure. A decent LED torch may well last the rest of your life and should work whenever you turn it on. Good quality lithium-ion batteries can be charged hundreds of times, will hold a charge for many months, and have a service life of 3-5 years (and often beyond) as long as you use a decent charger.

Old timers (around my age...) ask whether they can “change the bulb”? Actually the LED or emitter is the most durable part of the torch and it's soldered in place so no, you can’t, but you can change everything else. I replace switches and LED modules if they give trouble – I do it for free during the warranty period, and without charging for labour after the warranty has expired (if I can get the parts). I can afford to, because it doesn’t happen often, and the manufacturers are very helpful.

Quality LED torches start at around R1,000 if you include batteries and a charger, and they go up to… well, anything. But like any consumer item, you reach a point of diminishing returns quite early. A car that costs a million doesn’t do much that a car half the price won’t do (if we're honest with ourselves) and it’s like that with torches. If you think any of my torches are over-priced, bring a competing model and a bottle of wine over one evening and let’s see how much light you got for your money. If I can’t beat your torch for less than you paid, I’ll provide the wine.

Some people seem to think I'm pulling a fast one by listing prices without batteries, but remember my torches use industry-standard Li-Ions that fit many torches – a lot of my customers already have these cells, and don't want more. Anyway, you'll find the price with good quality Li-Ions right underneath...


Value for money?

In my book, "value for money" is very different to "price". You'll find lots of torches cheaper than those I sell, but the key question, surely, is can you get better value from me than you will get from any other South African agent selling premium flashlights? And the answer is an emphatic yes!

The reason is that – to the best of my knowledge – all of my competitors sell their torches both direct to the public and wholesale to re-sellers. When a wholesaler sells direct to the public, he can't (ethically) sell to them for less than his resellers can, which means you're paying much more than the wholesale price regardless of where you buy that torch.

I don’t work like that – I import and sell all of my torches direct to the end-user (you!) so you effectively get wholesale prices. That's why you won’t find my torches in your local mall, and it’s also why you'll get much more bang for your buck. Sure, I also like to handle goods before I buy, but I’ve come to understand that it costs me double when I do.

One more thing before I move on to a different kind of "tactics" – I spend virtually nothing on advertising, trade shows and so on. I'd rather give this money back to customers in the form of lower prices and hope they will tell their friends about me. So if you do, indeed, feel you got good value from me, please don't keep it to yourself!


What’s “tactical”?

You’ve seen it on TV – American cops or soldiers crash into a room, with a flashlight in one hand and a gun in the other. That’s “tactical”. In the real world, if they do this at all, they flash the light on and off rapidly so their adversary doesn't have an easy target – but they don't do that in Hollywood because it would be confusing for the audience. To get this party-trick right, you need a tail-switch that turns the light on at full power, but only for as long as it’s pressed.

This description will undoubtedly cause outrage among people who take this kind of thing seriously, so I hasten to add that the light should be compact, bright, reliable and American-made (oops, I just keep digging a deeper hole for myself). The same people snigger at strobes, but the Dutch police have been using (Chinese) torches with strobes for many years and are so convinced of their value that they issue every cop with a torch that always starts with a strobe. You can read all about it here.


Warranties? Chinese junk?

Nearly all of the best torches on the market – and all of mine – are made in China. If you read the latest reviews of premium-quality flashlights at CandlePowerForums.com (an American site!), BudgetLightForum.com (British) or TaschenLampen-forum (German) you'll find nearly all of them are made in China, although some pretend they are made in Germany or Canada. 

In fact, it's hard to find a decent torch that isn't made in China – the two that come to mind are massively overpriced in relation to their performance and durability, but they continue to sell because they have a patriotic user-base. Fortunately you think for yourself, or you wouldn't still be reading...

So there's no question about the quality, performance and value coming out of the East, but what about after-sales service? I was surprised when I began scouting around for quality torches to discover the Chinese are obsessed by their reputations – in fact they weren't keen to have me as their agent until I convinced them that I'm as serious about service as they are. 

Actually it's a little scary dealing with them, because it really shows up just how bad service is everywhere else.

We all know that gadgets are cheaper if we buy them from Hong Kong. But we also know that if we shop overseas, we have to run the gauntlet of customs (and the Post Office?!) when they arrive in SA. And if we have a problem during the warranty period, we have to send our goodies back, at our expense, and wait. And wait. And then do the customs thing all over again. 

Let me be clear – any torch can give trouble, just like any cellphone, camera or watch. Modern electronics are amazing, but they are not perfect.

But you don't have to take that risk. You can pay virtually the same price for a top quality torch (after you've paid shipping and taxes, of course), have it delivered to your door within the next week or so, and have it replaced or repaired just as quickly if it gives trouble.

And you can do it right here.