“Flashlight” and “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 a light bulb or LED, not the amount of light that reaches a distant object (which relates to beam intensity and is covered under the next heading). Lights that produce lots of lumens are often tricky to focus into an intense beam – think about gas lanterns or household light bulbs – so they tend to be “floody”. Not that there’s anything wrong with floody lights – they are actually more useful in many situations – 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 as many lumens don't look twice as bright – in fact, a doubling of lumens is the smallest increase that 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 may say "hmm yes, I can see a difference, but it isn't blowing my socks off." This is because the relationship between stimulus and perception is logarithmic – if you're interested you can read more here.

In terms of our ability to observe increases in brightness, a realistic scale is like the table alongside. 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 30 lumen light, which is quite bright for a supermarket torch, then a 600 lumen light (my least powerful, which is four notches up the scale) will be impressive. And before you try my 18,000 lumen Acebeam X45ii Eclipse, you'd better make sure your socks are glued in place!

 

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 candela don’t equal twice the throw.

For this reason, most reputable flashlight manufacturers apply a formula laid down by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) to convert candela to throw. It works out like the second column in the table alongside.

At those distances the light reaching an object is a quarter of one lux, or roughly the same as moonlight. 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 real-world throw should be based on an illumination of 2.5 lux-on-target - ten times the illumination used by ANSI. At that level 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. However at distances over 100 metres this figure will become increasingly optimistic as the light is absorbed by particles in the air, and our vision becomes less acute.

Let's relate this to some specific torches. Crelant's top thrower is the world-class Hunter 7G5PL which, according to the factory, produces 100,000 candela (my sample measured 104,400 cd). This translates to an ANSI-rated beam of 646 metres – at one metre it's as bright as sunshine! If you'd like to throw 2.5 lux of light on your target, the Hunter will do it for you at 204 metres (ignoring atmospheric conditions).

Want an even longer beam? Well, you're in luck. I sell the Acebeam K70 Apollo and the Acebeam X65 Saturn which have some of the longest beams of any production flashlights on the planet! The centre of their beams have an intensity of around half a million candela, which works out to an ANSI range of over 1,300 metres! In the real world, the Apollo and Saturn will lights up animals (and people) as far as you can see – well over 300 metres on a clear night.

Although their rated beam intensities are the same, the Saturn produces more than four times the lumens of the Apollo (12,000 vs 2,600 lm), which means it has a much fatter beam. However many people prefer the Apollo for game watching and hunting because the narrower beam results in less "back glare" from the foreground, and the Apollo's lower output means longer run-times from a more compact body.

However at one metre either one of these torches is four times brighter than sunlight. They can be used to signal over enormous distances – I signalled a friend in Simonstown from Gordon's Bay – a distance of more than 41km across False Bay – on a not particularly clear night!

Similarly, my Acebeam X45ii Eclipse delivers nearly seven times the lumens of the Apollo (18,000 vs 2,600 lm) but with a much broader hot-spot which reaches (only!!) 622 ANSI metres (the length of two rugby fields in the real world!) but lights up a much wider area – perfect for security or search-and-rescue applications when it's important to leave your subject nowhere to hide!

As you can see from these numbers, there's no real connection between light output (lumens) and beam intensity (candela). In fact the key to a really long beam is a very small light source in a big, well-designed reflector. Bigger (or multiple) LEDs can deliver more light, but this nearly always translates to a fatter beam which doesn't reach quite as far.

To put this in context, let's say there's a waterhole 50 metres away. At that distance, the X45ii will deliver a very useful 38 lux to an entire herd of impala, while the K70 will project an eyeball-searing 168 lux over the leopard stalking them – which is more than enough to ruin the predator's evening, so you should dial the intensity down quite a bit or use a red filter.

If you want a long beam, consider candela. If you want a "wall of light" look at lumens. And what about candlepower? Mmm, how can I put this tactfully… there is no such unit these days. If you’re planning to buy a spotlight with millions of candlepower, I have a diamond as big as an ostrich egg that may interest you…

How much time?

State-of-the-art LEDs produce more light for a given quantity of power than any other emitter. They are simply more efficient. Also, they are more robust – good quality LEDs are rated for 50,000 hours of service, and are extremely durable. 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 this graph here, and it's a bit out of date – Cree now produce LEDs that deliver over 300 lumens per watt!

Unfortunately it’s still true that the brighter the light, the shorter the run-time. For this reason you should take an interest in batteries (scroll down to the relevant 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, even with LEDs. In fact most ultra-powered "turbo" torches reduce their output after a couple of minutes to avoid overheating!

A good quality LED torch will run at high power for anywhere between half an hour and three hours, depending on batteries, brightness and other factors, and for many hours – even weeks – at the lowest setting (usually called "moonlight" or "firefly" mode). And don’t laugh at these low settings – when you’ve finished shining your torch at that tree across the road and started actually using it you’ll come to appreciate the value of the lower settings – try reading a book with your light on full power!

If you want thousands of lumens for several hours, expect to have a big, heavy torch with a lot of batteries. If you want a pocket torch with a long runtime you'll get much less light. That's just the way it is.

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 to accommodate a big reflector to focus all that light, but also to absorb the heat generated by the LED. 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 because, 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 Rofis R1 Jock, to torches up to 12cm (6") long like the Rofis R3 Sidekick, that takes a bigger battery and runs much longer.

However a lot 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 own advantages. These are the real muscle-lights, like my Crelant Hunter 7G5PL and the Acebeam K40M SquireX45ii Eclipse, K70 Apollo and the mighty X65 Saturn.

There's also the "can-of-light" class of torches, roughly the shape and size of your favourite beverage, like the 5,200 lumen Acebeam K30 Energy. These can pack a huge punch for their size, but because their reflectors are compact they are nearly always floody. They lend themselves to applications like walking around at night, lighting up campsites or accident scenes, or checking the backyard for. . . unauthorised activities. . . but they aren't ideal for game watching or farm-watch patrols.

People who carry torches for their work – cops, medics, firemen – have found the sweet-spot of brightness, beam, runtime and size is what we torchies call the "single 18650 class" – flashlights that use one industrial 18650 lithium ion battery – which are small and light enough to carry all the time but sufficiently bright and with enough run-time for almost any situation.

Within this category there are lots of choices. Briefly, those with smaller reflectors like the Hilt SP31 and the Cyclops CH10 headlamp deliver broader, more versatile beams, and fit into a pocket or handbag, while those with bigger reflectors like the Blade SP31T, a lens like the Brinyte B158 Bullseye, or a state-of-the-art LED like the Acebeam L16 Evolution throw longer beams and are carried in a holster when they're not in the hand.

Different LEDs?

There are only a few manufacturers of high-end LEDs, each producing models designed for different purposes. Among them, Cree dominate the market, although companies like Luminus, 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 in my view are size and output. 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 combines great efficiency, high output and a relatively small size.
  • 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 MT-G2 appeared around the end of 2012. It's much brighter than the previous two but it's also much bigger, so it delivers a big fat beam rather than a narrow penetrating one. Its neutral white tint is popular with torchies like me.
  • 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.
  • The XHP (extreme high power) series is the latest in Cree's arsenal, comprising three models – the XHP35, XHP50 and XHP70. The XHP70 is a big LED, more suited to "fat" beams, delivering an unprecedented quantity of light from a single emitter (more than the fragile and inefficient HID or Xenon bulbs). Conversely, the XHP35 HI is the ultimate LED for long-range illumination, delivering twice as many lumens as an XM-L2 from a similar-sized emitter.

By the way, the light from LEDs tends to be blue ("cool"), but the manufacturers put a layer of phosphors in front of them so they approximate the colour of daylight. "Cool white" is more dazzling (like those illegal car headlights) while “neutral white” reflects colours better and is preferred by many users, even though it appears slightly less bright. Only cheap-and-nasty LED torches are noticeably "blue".

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 a torch.

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

To my left we have the challengers – the 3v lithium metal primaries and 3.7v lithium-ion secondaries. You’ll find them in your cellphone, your laptop and your GPS, but not at your local supermarket. They come in many sizes. Some are bespoke – specially designed for a gadget like a cellphone or camera – but others are standard, the most common being the 26650, 18650, 14500 and 16340. If you crack open the battery pack of an older laptop, you'll find a handful of 18650s inside (most brands have now moved to bespoke batteries).

In case you were wondering, the numbers on lithium-ion batteries are not random – they give the physical size – so an 18650 is 18mm in diameter and 65mm long. Well... almost. These cells go through a re-packaging process where they are fitted with a protection circuit (which trips out if they are over charged, over discharged or short-circuited) at the negative end, a metal contact at the positive end (button top or flat top) and a protective outer wrapping. These additions tend to expand the size of the batteries somewhat.

As for the lithium-ion chemistry, the fact that your smartphone, laptop and camera already use Li-Ion batteries is a clue – these cells can be recharged more often and hold their charge longer than their 1.5v cousins and, more importantly, 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 1.5v 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 premium torch manufacturers no longer make models that use legacy chemistries, or else they make “survival” torches (like the Sofirn SP10A Guard) that can take both types. Don’t get me wrong, there are still a few good torches out there that use "penlight" batteries, but they are a dying breed. 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 good resource) but one last thing for now – cheap Li-Ions are cheap for a reason. The specifications on their wrappers often belong in the fiction section of the library, and some can be downright dangerous. 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.

“Regulated” flashlights?

Some torches are “regulated” while others are “direct drive”. Regulated 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, you will need a light meter to detect whether an LED torch is getting dimmer, so 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 with primary batteries, but direct drive with secondaries.

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 looks 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.

Beam profiles?

You’ve seen them in camping stores – torches that can be adjusted from a narrow beam to a broad floodlight. It sounds like a great idea, and it looks good when you push the test button. However, as any regular torch user knows, the ideal beam profile delivers both a narrow "hot spot" and a floody "spill beam" at the same time, to mimic your acute and peripheral vision. Anything else can result in the rather disorienting sensation we call tunnel-vision – it really is unnerving to be out there in the pitch dark, waving around a little bouncing ball of light surrounded by blackness. Imagine if your car headlights were like that!

Most "zoomers" (torches with aspheric lenses) also cut corners in terms of quality and features - see if you can identify the make and model of the LED fitted to those in camping and hardware stores, and try comparing their specifications (lumens, throw, waterproofing, impact resistance) and features (brightness levels, strobes, tail-standing) against fixed-beam torches at a similar price. Fixed-beam torches typically deliver a brighter hot-spot than the zoomer at its narrowest, and a spill-beam that is brighter than the zoomer at its widest – both at the same time – so you're really getting two for the price of one!

Because fixed-beam torches are more comfortable to use, robust and better value, you won't find many professionals using zoomers. Instead, they pick a hot-spot that suits their needs – narrow and intense for hunting; wider for security and farming; and wider still for hobbies and emergencies – and couple it with a spill that is wide and bright enough to avoid disorientation. Together this is called "beam profile". 

At the same time it's important to note that a zoomer fitted with a top-quality LED has the potential to deliver a longer beam than a fixed-beam torch because it focuses all the light into the hot-spot, and this can be useful for certain applications - such as hunting. In fact, after years of dissing adjustable-beam torches, I finally found a zoomer worthy of my vote - the Brinyte (pronounced 'braai-night') B158 Bullseye (pronounced "mooi skoot"). It not only offers a unparalleled suite of features for hunting and safaris, it's as tough as nails and remarkable value for money, as you will see here.

Waterproof? Really?

This is going to sound like playing with words, but bear with me. Premium torches are nearly all IPX-8 submersible to a specified depth – usually 1.5m or 2m – and also impact resistant to a certain height. 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.

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 rubber 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) 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 the rubber O-rings – which means keeping them lubricated with a suitable goo like silicon grease (not silicon sealant!!!) because oil-based lubes like Vaseline perish rubber.

Like all those other specifications (lumens, candela) the degree of waterproofing and impact resistance is defined by the American National Standards Institute. 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 is not covered by warranties, because the manufacturers can't verify the circumstances under which the damage occurred. All they guarantee is that their torches were tested to the require standard, and passed.

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 they 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 should last the rest of your life and 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 if you have a decent charger. Disposable lithium batteries should last for a decade in their wrappers!

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, 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. I can afford to, because it doesn’t happen often.

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, 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 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 and chargers. But remember that most of my torches don't use bespoke batteries like a cellphone or camera, but industry-standard batteries that fit most premium torches, which you can buy from several sources. A lot of my customers already have these batteries and the chargers that go with them. Anyway, I list the price with batteries and chargers right underneath...

Value for money?

In my book, value for money is a very different thing to price. The key question is – will 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 also through retail outlets. As a supplier, the moment you do that you have to increase your prices so that your resellers can make a profit. Brick-and-mortar stores all expect big mark-ups so they can pay their salaries, rent and a thousand other costs that go into running a shop, and they take a very dim view of a wholesaler who sells direct to the public for less than they can.

I don’t work like that. I only sell direct. I have a couple of businesses that re-sell my torches, but they get the same discounts that you will if you buy a similar quantity from me. This is why you won’t find my torches in your local mall – but it’s also why you will get much more bang for your buck. Yes, 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. The reason is that I'd rather give this money back to my customers in the form of lower prices and hope they will tell their friends about the amazing value they got from the Torchguy. So if you do, indeed, feel that 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 viewer. 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. It also helps to have a rubber ring around the battery-tube (the body of the torch) so it can be held like a cigar or syringe while you press the tail-switch with your thumb.

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 will snigger at strobes, but the Dutch police have been testing torches with strobes for many years and are so convinced of their value in overcoming aggressive (but unarmed) people that they now issue every cop with a torch that always starts with a strobe. You can read all about it here.

Finally, some torches are designed for weapons mounting. For this they need to fit into a one-inch scope mount (which in turn clamps onto a Weaver or Picatinny rail); they need to have springs at both ends of the battery tube (so the torch doesn’t blink during recoil); and they need to be compatible with a “pressure switch” which allows the shooter to turn on the light by pressing on a button fixed to the stock. I have torches that do all of that and more, such as delivering true infra-red light.

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!) you'll find that nearly all of them are made in China, although some of them hide the fact. In fact, it's quite hard to find a decent torch that isn't made there – the two that come to mind are massively overpriced in relation to their performance, but they continue to sell because they have long-standing reputations and loyal user-bases. 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 first began scouting around for quality torches to learn that 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 or the USA. We also know that if we shop overseas, we have to run the gauntlet of customs and then, 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. And 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 as if you bought it online from the USA or Europe (after you've paid shipping and taxes, of course), have it delivered to your door tomorrow, and have it replaced or repaired in a couple of days if it gives trouble. And you can do it right here.