When I was young one of my favourite radio programmes was the Surf Show, Pick-a-Box, hosted by Bob Courtney. That was more than 50 years ago, but today I'm inviting you to play the Torchguy Show, Pick-a-Beam! The prize is finding the perfect torch for your needs – and everyone who plays, wins!

What kind of beam?

A "floody" beam is evenly spread – you can see all around you at a glance but you won't see very far:

A floody light can make the foreground so bright that it dazzles us, which affects our night vision so we won't see dimly lit objects in the distance. Torch enthusiasts call this "back glare".

A "throwy" beam is a narrow, concentrated beam that shines a long way. You can see far, and there's no back glare, but you won't see anything outside of the beam because there's no light to support your peripheral vision.

A narrow beam like this makes it difficult to locate subjects in the dark, and also gives the sensation of "tunnel vision" which some people find uncomfortable, a bit like motion sickness.

A hybrid "hot-spot-and-spill" beam overcomes this problem, allowing you to see far AND wide at the same time:

The size and brightness of the hot spot and spill beam relative to each other is the key to finding the best beam for each application, and this "profile" depends mostly on the size of the reflector – a bigger or more sophisticated reflector concentrates more light into the hot-spot and less in the spill-beam (compare the hedge beyond the white box):

What about adjustable (zooming) beams?

The first two beamshots above are from a lens-based "zoomer" – it delivers a flood OR a throw, but not both at the same time. The third and fourth pictures are from fixed-beam torches with reflectors that deliver a flood AND a throw at the same time (BTW, thanks to Bluzie at TLF for these images.)

The actual amount of light (in lumens) in the third and fourth beams is the same, but the third beam is better for security (leaving an intruder nowhere to hide) while the fourth is preferred for long-range applications like game-viewing – the spill-beam is just bright enough to support peripheral vision and avoid tunnel-vision, but not bright enough to cause back-glare.

Significantly, all of the above torches are around the same price. For the same money, fixed-beam torches deliver more light, in a more useful beam profile, have more features, and are more robust because they have fewer moving parts.

How far?

Most of us are not very good at estimating distances in metres so let's talk rugby or football fields, which are a hundred metres between the posts. Even in broad daylight it's hard to recognise a person at the far end of a stadium, so when some joker says a torch with a 1,000 metre beam will enable you to identify an animal a kilometre away in the middle of the night...? Nope.

Although I've never been to Ngwenya Lodge, quite a few of my customers have told me about the nightly competition among guests to see whose torch has the longest beam. Customers with torches rated at 1,000 metres say the limit of their range is the tree-line beyond the Crocodile River:

Thanks to the miracle of Google Maps, I can tell you this is a little over 300 metres – about a third of the rated distance of a 1,000 metre torch. Actually, I've found you can divide the official beam distance of most torches by three to get a "real-world" throw (for more on this, see my FAQ).

The ANSI FL1 formula used to calculate official beam distances was created many years ago, when torches didn't shine as far as they do now, so they didn't factor in the effect of dust and moisture in the air, which eat light in the much the same way that wind resistance eats the power of your car. Dividing ANSI metres by three gives you a much more realistic real-world throw.

However, most of us don't need a three-rugby-field beam – a shorter, fatter light is more suited to walking, cycling, camping, load-shedding, home security and even self defence. And because fatter beams don't need such big reflectors, a torch that delivers more light than a car's headlights can fit into your pocket!

What colour?

You probably know about the tint of white light already – when you buy light-bulbs for your home they are either "cool" or "warm" white. Scientists measure these tints in degrees Kelvin, with around 5,000K being considered neutral – neither cool nor warm – while bigger numbers mean cooler (more blue) light and smaller numbers are more yellow or brown in tint.

To our eyes, cooler tints look brighter than warm light, even if a light meter says they're the same, but warmer tints show up colours and textures better, and don't produce as much glare from mist and dust. LED flashlights used to have very cool (blue!) beams but today most decent torches are in the 5,000-6,500K range. 

To give you an idea of the difference, here are beam-shots from a 5,000K neutral-white version of my SC31 Pro Detective and a 6,500K cool-white version of my SC31T Sarge, which is essentially the same (pocket!!) torch:

Torch enthusiasts are increasingly turning to the warmer tints because they show up details better but the differences are marginal, as you can see, so it really boils down to personal taste.

How long will it run?

This is a typical label on a torch box:

The value that's printed in the square next to that wildly optimistic beam distance is "lumens", which is also pretty meaningless. Lumens have very little to do with how far a beam shines (which is a function of "candela") but lumens have a lot to do with how "fat" a beam is, how hot the torch becomes at full power, and how long it will run on a charge of the battery.

It's important to know that our perception of lumens is "logarithmic", which means we struggle to see any change in brightness unless the lumens are doubled or halved – so we can barely see the difference between 1,000 and 2,000 lumens! However, a 2,000 lumen torch uses more energy and generates more heat than a 1,000 lumen model, and this affects how big it is, how long it runs at maximum power, and how much it costs.

Most modern torches have a "turbo" setting that delivers lots of lumens (which looks good on the box!) but generates more heat than the torch can handle, so it reduces its output after a couple of minutes to avoid damaging the electronics – or your hand! The more lumens, the sooner the torch will step down (it can be in less than a minute!) and the more obvious that reduction in brightness will be. 

Unfortunately most manufacturers don't tell you how long their torch will run on turbo before stepping down (the time on their spec-sheet is obtained by adding a lot of short bursts together) or how bright it can go without having to step down. As a rule of thumb, a full-size torch that delivers more than 1,000 lumens will need to step down at some point, while smaller torches and headlamps that deliver more than 500 lumens will also overheat unless they step down, because their metal housings have less surface area to dissipate the heat. This is just physics, and is common to all brands of torch.

Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with turbo beams and stepping down – most of us use torches in short bursts anyway – but there are times when we want light for hours at a time, for example watching animals at a waterhole, searching a suburb for intruders or getting through a round of load-shedding – but I think it's very unfair to discover only after you've splurged on a ten-grand macho torch that it turns into a wimp in less than a minute!

The good news is that if you turn your torch down just enough to see a difference you will be halving the lumens (and the heat produced) and doubling the runtime – all with a barely noticeable change in brightness! In some situations it may be necessary to reduce power to a quarter (two barely visible steps down from max) to reach a sustainable output – air movement around the torch plays a key role in this. The big thing is to make sure your torch never gets too hot to hold comfortably.

Sweet spots

These days there's almost no limit to how bright a torch can be (just add more LEDs) or how far it can shine (just increase the size of the reflector) but both will cost you in terms of both price and practicality, so it's all about finding the sweet spot where you get the light you need, for as long as you need it, from a torch you can afford and carry easily.

The longest sustainable beam (i.e. that doesn't have to step down noticeably) that I know of comes from our new T217 Hunter Mk 4 which delivers a beam of 1,400 ANSI metres (490,000 candela) which is a real-world throw of nearly five rugby fields, end to end. Yep, half a kilometre!

The Hunter delivers "only" 1,400 lumens but this means it runs relatively cool, and if it needs to step down it won't be visible – a torch that delivers more lumens will step down sooner and more obviously.

If you need LOTS of light for security, to light up a big space during loadshedding, or just to end arguments about who has the brightest torch at the braai, check out my 11,000 lumen Q8 Pro Quad – it's a legend in its own time:

Yes, torches like this WILL step down from max after a couple of minutes, but they use sophisticated software and temperature sensors to manage heat and energy so the process is hard to see and you always get the best possible performance. 

Of course this kind of technology and performance doesn't come cheap – for one thing the Q8 Pro Quad holds four high-drain lithium ion batteries to give it the juice it needs – but not everyone needs that kind of grunt. Even though I own a Quad, it wouldn't be the torch I'd take on a neighbourhood watch patrol – I'd choose my biggest seller, the C8L Panga, which is less than half the price.

The Panga is a compact "tactical" torch with a two-rugby-field beam (about the same as the Quad, believe it or not) which is perfect for security use and serves very well for that annual pilgrimage to the game reserves. It's hugely popular with security companies and householders – check out their customer reviews! I don't yet have a beam-shot for the C8L but it's the upgraded version of the C8G which is pictured below:

So what's best?

I'm often asked this question, but I struggle to answer because I ONLY stock torches that I truly believe are the best in their respective categories... so getting the "best" light is ultimately a matter of identifying which category matches your needs most closely – and that's where the Torchguy difference kicks in.

I like nothing better than helping you pick the perfect torch, and my greatest joy is hearing that it's exceeded your expectations. Many of my customers will confirm that I often suggest torches that cost less than the one they asked about – you'll find their reviews linked on each of my product pages.

You can see all my torches here, just click on the pictures for details, prices and links to customer reviews. Note that I will give you a tasty discount if you pay by EFT into our account to avoid the commissions we're charged if you "check out" from our website – just let me know what you'd like and I'll send you an invoice with the discount and our bank details.

Unlike other torch distributors I don't offer special prices to retailers (which is why you won't find my torches at your local mall) – all of my customers get wholesale prices and deal direct with the boss – or me, if she's not available :-))

I have only one special request – if possible, please contact me by email or a WhatsApp text message. I love chatting but I find it easier to manage my time and avoid mistakes when I have everything in writing (I'm getting on in years!) But either way I'd love to hear from you – my email address is mark@torchguy.com and my Whatsapp/phone number is 084 537 4818.

Talk soon!