“Flashlight” or “torch”?

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


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 emitter, like a flame, bulb or LED, 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 – 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 can 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 30 lumen light, which is typical for a supermarket torch, then a 600 lumen light (my least powerful) will be impressive, and my 8,000 lumen SP36 Pro Evo 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 heat generated, so high-lumen torches must turn themselves down before they melt down!

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


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 apply a formula laid down by 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 their 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.

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 someone far away. I've signalled a friend across Table Bay, a distance of 41km, using a torch that didn't help me see a subject 400 metres away.


How much time?

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 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 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 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 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 maintain 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 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 SP10A Guard, to torches up to 13cm (5") long like the SC31 Detective or SP33 Brutus, that take bigger batteries and run 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 5,500 lumen SP70 Beast.

The short-and-fat format is also referred to as a "soda-can flashlight" because it's roughly the shape and size of your favourite bevvie – my 5,000 lumen Q8 Quad and 8,000 lumen SP36 Pro Evo fall into this class. They pack a huge punch for their size but because their reflectors are smaller, their beams are "fatter", spreading the light over a wider area. They lend themselves to neighbourhood watch patrols, load-shedding and checking the backyard for. . . unauthorised activities.

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 benchmark in this category is my C8G Panga, with an unprecedented 100,000 candela beam and all-night endurance thanks to a new-generation 5000mAh 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 companies like 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 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. 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.
  • 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.

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, such as the 21700, 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 laptops 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 SP10S Guard) that can take both types.

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 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.


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 aspect of the performance of a flashlight, and a key consideration if you want the best torch for your needs.

In general, a beam profile is made up of a "hotspot" in the middle of the beam, and a pale "spill-beam" surrounding it. It's no accident that the beam is shaped like this – it's the way our eyes work, with acute central vision that sees details and colours in bright light, and peripheral vision that registers shapes and movement in low light, but with very little detail and no colour.

To get the ideal light for your application you need to achieve the right balance between the width and intensity of the hotspot, and the width and intensity of the spill beam. It also matters whether there's a clear edge between them or whether they kind of fade into each other, like a car's headlights.

I measure the intensity of the hotspot using a light-meter, and from this I calculate beam distance (as described earlier). It's not difficult to make a hotspot more intense – you just need to fit a bigger reflector or lens. In theory you can focus all the light into a tiny dot, like a laser-beam, which is bright enough to burn through paper and shine to the moon, but that dot will be useless when it comes to identifying things in the distance. To be useful, you need a hotspot that's intense enough to reach as far as you want but still wide enough to light up whatever you're looking for.

At the same time, the spill-beam is vitally important for finding things or moving about in the darkness because our peripheral vision gives us context for what our acute vision is seeing in the hotspot. That's how car headlights work – a more intense light in the middle to see a long way down the road, and less intense light around the edges so we can see the surface of the road and the verges. Imagine driving down the road with nothing but a narrow dot of light...

Even if it were practical to do so, it wouldn't be a good idea to turn the entire beam into a hotspot because the foreground would be so brightly lit that it would dazzle us and limit our ability to see dimly-lit subjects in the far distance. We call this effect "back glare".

Another consideration is the tint (or "colour temperature") of the light. "Cool" white light looks brighter, but neutral and "warm" light shows up colours and textures better. Direct sunlight is around 5,500K, which is where our eyes work best – we call it "neutral white" because it's neither "cool" not "warm". Tints above 6,000K become increasingly blue. They look brighter but wash out colours and cause more glare in dusty and misty conditions. Tints below 5,000K are more yellow, which reduces glare and shows up colours better but looks less bright, even if it's not. There's even something called Colour Rendering Index (CRI), if you're interested.

As a rule of thumb, torches with bigger reflectors and physically smaller LEDs produce the longest beams with pale spill-beams, which are best for spotting subjects at long distances. Conversely, bigger LEDs and/or smaller reflectors produce "fatter", more floody beams, which give a greater impression of brightness – like they are turning night into day – even if they don't shine as far.

And then there are zoomers. These are torches with lenses rather than reflectors, and they have two key characteristics – you can adjust (zoom) the width of the beam, and they have little or no spill-beam. It sounds like a good idea, but when you make the beam wider the light rapidly becomes dimmer, so you have a choice between seeing far, or seeing your surroundings – you can't do both. However a narrow hotspot with no spill can be ideal for game-watchers, because animals don't react to light falling on themselves but rather on the bush around them.

Another issue is that it's more expensive to make a torch with an aspheric lens, rather than a reflector, so the manufacturers of the most popular zoomers cut corners to make them competitive. If you compare the performance of zoomers in camping stores you'll find they can't compete with fixed beam torches at the same price. A torch with a reflector at a similar price can give you a hotspot that shines as far as the zoomer at its narrowest, and a spill-beam that is as bright and wide as the zoomer at its widest, so you're getting two for the price of one!

Zoomers generally aren't as robust (waterproof, impact resistant), powerful (compare those lumens and candela!) or sophisticated (check battery types and operating modes) but there are exceptions. Well, actually just one that I've found so far – the Nitesun Bullseye, which really is the ultimate hunting light because it is robust, affordable and takes interchangeable modules.

Even so, I would not recommend a zoomer for security and general use. To the best of my knowledge there isn't a government in the world that issues this kind of torch to their armed forces and first responders – they need reliable lights that deliver the best possible illumination in the worst conditions, and that means a fixed-beam torch with a reflector.


“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, 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.


Waterproof? Really?

This is going to sound like playing with words, but bear with me. Premium torches are often 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. 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 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 their rubber O-rings and grommets for charging ports – which means keeping them lubricated with a suitable goo like silicon grease (not silicon sealant!!!)

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 is 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.


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 may 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. Lithium primaries 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 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. 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 my torches don't use bespoke batteries like a cellphone or camera, but industry-standard batteries that fit many 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 and undercuts their prices.

I don’t work like that. I only sell direct. That's 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. I'd rather give this money back to my customers in the form of lower prices and hope they tell their friends about the amazing value they got from the Torchguy. 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 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 “remote 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 invisible infra-red light for night-vision scopes.


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 pretend otherwise. 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 under-performers, 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.