Buying advice for the light painting beginner
The most important tool of the Light Painter, besides matt black gaffa tape, is the torch. For most light painting pictures we use LED torches. As a light painting beginner, you are usually completely overwhelmed when it comes to choosing the right torch. At least I was in my early days. And 8 / 9 years ago the choice of different, suitable torches was not nearly as large as it is today. In the meantime, about 200 torches have accumulated in my warehouse, and I have been able to test a similar number more or less extensively in recent years. From the lamp from the 1€ shop to the 400€ price range, everything is there. However, this does not mean that I have overlooked one or the other lamp so far. So this cannot be a comprehensive test.
Before you transfer money to an online dealer, you should think about the needs that your new torchshould fulfil. Basically, apart from a few special cases, we distinguish between torches according to their purpose in light painting. These consist of the two tasks of illuminating a more or less large environment and illuminating the light painting tools. A few torches could be used for both purposes, but that would be like the all-season tyre on a car, neither really good in summer nor in winter.
To get started with light painting, you should first work with the material you already have at your disposal. Even if the torch in your cellar is already a few years old and didn’t cost a fortune back then. This way you have already gained some experience and can then choose the new lamp according to your needs much better.
WHAT FEATURES SHOULD THE NEW TORCH HAVE?
Regardless of whether you want to buy a torch for illumination or for working with the various light painting tools, you should always pay attention to a few points.
In the often tough everyday life of a light painter, the new torch should be as robust as possible and thus durable. You can’t necessarily put this down to the price, but if a well-known manufacturer specifies a degree of protection such as IPX8 or IP68 for its torch, the new piece of jewellery will also survive falls and immersion in water without damage and provide many years of reliable service. The bargain torch with the fantastic lumen specifications in the five-digit range will probably not work very reliably and for long. There is hardly anything worse in light painting than when, after the arduous journey to a location that is difficult to access, the working material fails and you have to leave without having achieved anything.
Power supply – Some torches that are very popular in light painting, such as the Led Lenser X21R or X21R2, have a built-in rechargeable battery. This can only be charged with the magnetic charger supplied. At first glance, this may seem quite sexy, but if the battery fails at the location, that’s it for light painting that night. Most locations don’t have a power socket and even if they did, the charging process would take far too long. And taking a second X21R (1.8kg weight, 280€) is not the best choice either. We already carry enough stuff and for the 280€ you can buy something else nice.
So it is advisable to work with torches where you can change the battery quickly and easily and this battery is not some expensive special battery. It is most convenient if all torches are operated with the same type of battery. The most common batteries are of the 18650 type. Even torches with the somewhat larger 21700 can usually be operated with 18650 cells using an adapter tube. It works in my Fenix PD36R, anyway. The Fenix can be charged via the integrated USB port, or on the road with a powerbank. With the power bank connected, the troch still shines at the “medium” level.
I recently wrote an article about batteries, you can find it here.
To connect the new torch comfortably to the Light Painting Tool, I use the adapters from Light Painting Paradise. To ensure that the new torch fits into the adapters, you should check the diameter of the lamp head before buying. Torches with a head diameter of 20 to 38.5 mm fit into the adapters.
The torch should also be easy to operate. A well-defined pressure point of the switch is just as important as a sensible programming of the different modes. When I look at the Walther Pro torches, for example, they are quite unsuitable.
These torches cannot be switched on and off briefly. After switching it on, I have to click through all the modes before it goes out again. I have a similar problem with some Led Lenser torches. If I use the X21R in medium or high mode, it switches briefly to turbo mode when I switch it off. You can quickly mess up your light painting if you’re not careful.
Since light painters are not the biggest target group of torch manufacturers, they do not pay attention to such things when developing torches. And usually there is no information about such peculiarities in the description.
The manufacturers, especially the not-so-good ones, are constantly outdoing themselves with ever greater figures for luminous flux. Then the man from the Far East sells a toch for 43€ with a fantastic 50000 lumens. Yes, you read fifty thousand correctly, I didn’t accidentally type in 0 too many. Common sense should immediately tell you: No, that’s not possible. But there are always light painters who fall for something like that. At such a low price, I’m sure I can get over the mistake, but I just don’t like being taken for a ride and taken for a fool by the manufacturer or seller. And since no one is likely to pay an expert to prove the fraud, such torches will continue to be sold with impunity.
But actually this lie can be unmasked immediately. The torch is supposed to contain 15 Cree XML T6. Let’s assume that is true. According to the Cree data sheet, the maximum current consumption of this LED is 3000mA. With this current, the LED delivers approx. 1200 lumens. Even if the manufacturer would manage to get these 1200 lumens out of the torch, we are still not at 50000 lumens – 15 x 1200 = 18000. Theoretically, not even half of the stated luminous flux is possible. The torch would then have a current consumption of at least 50 amps, and that only if drivers with really good efficiency were installed. At least 10% is converted into heat by the best driver, which would be 18.5 watts in this case. 18.5 watts of heat would have to be dissipated from the driver through the cabinet. If this were true, you could fry eggs on the head after one minute at the latest. After all, there is no forced cooling.
Even funnier are the specifications on the batteries supplied. The jewels are said to have 6800mAh. No manufacturer in the world makes something like that. Not for the simple reason that it is physically impossible. The maximum energy density is limited by the material used (lithium) and the size of the cell. With current production methods, it is possible to manufacture 18650 batteries with a maximum of 3500mAh. Such batteries currently cost about 5€ per piece as unprotected raw cells.
In the case of these batteries, a capacity of about 2000mAh would be realistic. In this case, the end-of-discharge voltage would be reached after 9 minutes at the latest, and the torch would no longer light up. The seller gives a running time of 8 to 10 hours.
Hands off such torches! If the specifications are so exaggerated, the manufacturer won’t give a damn about the lowest level of safety. It’s no fun when the 4 lithium cells in the torch explode like a firecracker. Apart from that, such torches will not last very long. There will hardly be a guarantee, and even if there is, it will be difficult to enforce. Well-known manufacturers like Fenix give a 5-year guarantee on their torches and 1 year on the batteries. My oldest Fenix torches have been in use for 8 years. So far, I have not had any problems with these torches.
WHAT LUMEN SPECIFICATIONS ARE REALISTIC?
With a single, widely used, quite inexpensive Cree XML, approx. 1200 lumens can be emitted. If you combine several of them, the output is correspondingly higher. Depending on the size and shape of the housing, the heat loss is dissipated more or less quickly. This has an influence on how quickly the lamp reduces its brightness.
It’s not much use if I have 3000 lumens immediately after switching on, but within a minute the brightness is reduced to 1200 lumens, as in the case of the Led Lenser MT18. Then I can just use a smaller, lighter and cheaper lamp with 1200 lumens.
With the larger Cree XHP50.2, a maximum luminous flux of 3200 lumens is possible. In a small housing with an 18650 battery, however, this can hardly be realised thermally. The XHP70.2 delivers a maximum of 4300 lumens.
In the Fenix PD36R shown in the picture, a Luminus SST-40 Led is installed. This LED can deliver the 1600 lumens specified by the manufacturer, and it does so in reality. Depending on the ambient temperature, the Fenix starts to slowly dim down after 3 to 4 minutes. After about 30 minutes, it shines with 800 lumens. It could hardly be better. Most lamps turn down much faster. At the middle level, the Fenix shines constantly with the specified 800 lumens for about 20 minutes.
How many lumens do I actually need in light painting?
Many people say to themselves that the torch cannot be bright enough. This is wrong. The torch can indeed be too bright for light painting. At some point I reach a point where I can’t or don’t want to stop down any further, and the ISO value can’t be reduced at will either. Most cameras stop at ISO 100. Some, like my Nikon D750, can still be set to ISO 50.
On the other hand, with most current cameras you can increase the ISO to 3200 or even higher without having to accept a significant loss of image quality. So I can achieve good results in light painting even with quite weak light sources. So don’t let the smarties tell you that you need a 50000 lumen lamp as a beginner.
In the example picture, I first illuminated Gunnar with a scanner. A 5-watt COB LED is installed in this scanner. I have not yet measured the luminous flux of the scanner, which will be about 400 lumens. More would not be very pleasant for the model. Then I shone the light from behind with a blue colour filter and some fog for about 10 seconds. Finally, I illuminated the scene from the front without a colour filter. That took about 5 seconds. The torch used here was the Fenix FD65 in the “high” setting. In this setting it delivers 1200 lumens. The lamp is focusable. The focus was in the widest position. The camera was set to ISO 50, the aperture on the Nikkor 17-35/2.8 was set to 11 and the distance between Gunnar and the camera was about 3.5 metres. So 3000 or more lumens would have been hard to control here. An appropriate lamp would therefore be too bright. The FD65 delivers 3800 lumens at the highest level. For larger rooms or larger areas outdoors, you can of course work with this level. But even if your lamp does not deliver 3800 lumens, this is usually not a problem. Then the illumination just takes a little longer.
For this picture, I had set ISO 100 and aperture 11. The two lamps for the Orb have a luminous flux of 320 lumens. Due to the colour filters, it is ultimately less, about 80%. The blue illumination was done with the Led Lenser X21R.2. The blue colour filter has a transmittance of 20%. This meant that only 600 lumens of the 3000 lumens arrived in the room. The illumination took about 2 seconds.
As you can see from these examples, you can almost always manage with quite low ISO values and relatively low brightness of the lamps in Light Painting. It is comfortable to always have some leeway “downwards” (smaller aperture, smaller ISO) than if I always had to work with ISO 50 and f16 because otherwise the lights would burn out.
So I don’t have to spend a lot of money to buy a lamp that actually delivers too much light. Besides, these lamps are expensive, big and heavy, like the X21R. In a pinch, you can just use several smaller torches at the same time. Two Fenix PD36Rs fit in a trouser pocket and together provide more light than the bulky X21.
Focus, Thrower or Flooder?
In light painting, lamps with a focus are popular and widely used. The only problem is that there are fewer and fewer of these lamps. The lamps that are available are often unsuitable for other reasons, as mentioned above. Outside of light painting, focusable lamps are not very popular. So it is not to be expected that there will be new models with a good focusing system.
Besides the Walther Pro and Led Lenser mentioned above, Fenix has some focusable lamps in its portfolio. Unfortunately, the really good FD65 is currently not available. It is very likely that no more will be produced. So if you find one somewhere, you should get it immediately.
For the price of 169€, you get a lamp that is clearly superior to the competing products from Led Lenser and Walther. 3800 lumens, and not only for a short time after switching on, good focus system, small size and weight as well as the operation with 4 18650 batteries make it the perfect companion for the light painter. Only the use of colour filter foils is somewhat difficult with this lamp. In the brightest setting, the foils give off smoke signals after a few seconds because the lamp immediately becomes very hot at the front. This can be remedied by using colour filters made of acrylic glass, which are somewhat more heat-resistant. When using normal colour filter foil, it is better not to operate the FD65 at full power.
With the FD30, Fenix has a torch with an 18650 battery in its range. It delivers a maximum of 900 lumens. The FD41 with a slightly larger head also has a maximum luminous flux of 900 lumens. Due to the larger head, the light cone is somewhat more homogeneous than with the smaller brother. The focussing system is somewhat different from that of the FD30 with its small two-part reflector.
With the LC90, Anker builds another torch with focus and 900 lumens. It can’t come close to the perfect quality of the Fenix lamps and the light cone is anything but homogeneous, but Amazon sends it to your home for a slim 30€. However, this lamp is quite large and heavy. It just fits into the Light Painting Paradise adapter. It doesn’t really sit firmly and securely in the adapter. I can’t think of any other torches with focus that are worth recommending at the moment.
With a focusable torch it is quite easy to get the light exactly where it should be in the light painting. For illumination, I can adjust the light cone exactly as I need it. For the even illumination of light painting tools, this is also an advantage because here, too, I can focus so that the lamp illuminates the 1 metre long tube completely evenly.
As an alternative to torches with focus, you can use lamps with different reflectors. One with a narrow beam (thrower) to illuminate smaller areas and light painting tools that are a little longer, and another with a wide beam (flooder) to evenly illuminate the surroundings.
Some lamps try to combine both, but in most cases they are not useful for light painting. If a larger area around the bright central light cone is also quite bright, it is usually difficult to control the light in Light Painting. Cleanly delineated, homogeneous beams make the work easier.
With my self-built Convoy S2, equipped with coloured LEDs, I have installed Orange Peel reflectors. With these, the lamps have a very uniform beam. Such reflectors are also available individually for a few euros for some other lamps. As the name suggests, the surface of these reflectors has a structure similar to the skin of citrus fruits. This makes the light emitted from the lamp head softer and more even. Ready-made torches with OP reflectors are hardly available.
A good way to get soft, homogeneous light for light painting with almost any torch is to use baking paper in front of the lamp head. However, you should only use baking paper and not parchment paper or similar. The latter is not heat-resistant and could burst into flames with powerful torches. The brown colour of the baking paper also gives the light a pleasant, warm colour, similar to sunlight. Of course, you can also use the baking paper in combination with colour filters.
Strobe and other flashing modes
Recently, more and more torches no longer have a normal strobe, but an alternating frequency strobe, sometimes called a bike strobe. Maybe you can use this alternating strobe creatively in light painting, but usually you prefer a normal strobe. Some lamps have multiple strobe modes plus SOS or other flashing modes. In most cases, only strobe is specified in the description. Unfortunately, even the otherwise very good Fenix PD36R does not have a homogeneous strobe. However, the strobe would not be useful with this lamp anyway, 1600 lumens strobe is simply much too bright.
We usually use torches with a homogeneous strobe with 300 to 600 lumens. This brightness is completely sufficient to display acrylic glass blades or similar light formers sufficiently brightly in Light Painting. With brighter lamps, there is a danger that the lights will be burnt out in the result if you move the tool too slowly. When turning an orb as in the example picture, you should always work slowly so that the orb is successful and does not look like an Easter egg.
Torches that allow you to change the brightness of the strobe would be desirable. This is not possible with all conventional torches, at least I don’t know of any where this is possible. The strobe is supposed to be used for self-defence, so it shines with the highest brightness of the lamp.
Some torches also have other modes such as slow flashing or SOS. However, these are unsuitable for the vast majority of light painting pictures. Other modes that are interesting for the light painter are not built into the lamps by any manufacturer. When developing their lamps, they do not have the Light Painter in mind at all.
The number of RGB torches available is very manageable. In most cases, these lamps are more of a toy for children’s birthday parties than a professional light painting tool. Apart from that, these lamps are usually quite weak, they cannot deliver more than 150 to 200 lumens.
For the light painter, however, such lamps open up completely new possibilities. A picture like this would not be possible with normal torches. The lamp used here changes colours at a previously selected frequency. I created the picture with a lamp from Ants On A Melon. Such lamps are intended for use with light pois, i.e. for artists.
This lamp has not been available for a long time. The only alternative I can think of is the Concentrate C5 Led Unit. This lamp costs about 23€, for a few Euros shipping costs it comes from the manufacturer in New Zealand to your home. Alternatively, you can order from a dealer in Europe. However, this will be more expensive. This lamp is actually quite cool, but it provides even less brightness than the Ants On A Melon lamp. For large light paintings in a large hall or outdoors, this lamp is hardly usable.
If you can wait a few more months, wait for the new lamp from Ants On A Melon. The RGB Critter was successfully funded via Kickstarter and is now in production. It should be available from summer 2020. You can pre-order the lamp here: https://antsonamelon.com/products/rgb-critter-flashlight#
Since some light painters have successfully intervened in the development, this lamp should be a very suitable tool for light painters. I am very excited about the RGB Critter and hope to have it in my hands soon. A number of adapters and light shapers such as glass fibres and lightsabres are available for the lamp.
One of the few RGB torches that is not meant for pois or other tools for artists is the Colorshine RGB lamp. Besides 10 fixed colours, the lamp can change colours and fade. However, this lamp is not really recommendable. The quality of workmanship is miserable. The runtime is very short. When the battery charge level decreases, the colours change by themselves. However, since there is a lack of alternatives, the Light Painter has little choice if you want to show colour changes or colour fading as in the example picture.
In the past, light painting artists used the Led Lenser V24 for these effects. Sometimes these lamps are still offered on ebay. So if you want the oldschool light painting tool, you should look for it there.
A headlamp is highly recommended so that you can move safely in the dark and still have both hands free. Since your life and physical safety may depend on the quality of the lamp, I wouldn’t just look at the price. A 10€ headlamp will let you down sooner or later.
I usually use the fairly new Fenix HM65R on my head. The lamp weighs less than 100g including the 18650 battery, is waterproof and very robust. I also like to use the Fenix HM51R. The actual lamp can be easily removed from the headband and used for light painting. The special shape of the lamp makes it easy to use for writing and painting figures because you can hold it like a spray can, so your hand remains in a natural position during the movements.
There is no such thing as the ultimate light painting torch and there certainly won’t be one any time soon. So you won’t get by with one lamp in the long run. To paint light traces in the picture, the RGB Critter could soon become the ultimate lamp, if it is actually available for purchase. As soon as the lamp arrives, I will test it extensively and write an article about it. Since this lamp does not have a classic torch head, it is most likely completely unsuitable for illumination and only gives good results directly on the light painting tools.
Basically, you should keep your hands off cheap lamps from unknown manufacturers or lamps that are sold under many different brand names. Such lamps are usually not a pleasure to use, especially not over a long period of time. If you buy cheap, you buy twice.
For the illumination of the light painting scene, I cannot currently give a clear recommendation for the best lamp because the really good Fenix FD65 is no longer available. Led Lenser X21R and Walther Pro XL7000 or 8000 fulfil their purpose, but are not recommendable for the reasons already mentioned above (no standard battery, large, heavy, high price). It is better to keep your hands off lamps like the Led Lenser MT18, which is also quite popular. A lamp that reduces the brightness to about a third of the stated 3000 lumens within one minute is hardly useful, regardless of the fact that I don’t like being taken for a ride by the manufacturer.
Those who really need a lot of light to illuminate large scenes should take a look at the Fenix TK75. The lamp is tried and tested and has been in production for a long time. You can find a review of the lamp in the torch forum.
If you are looking for a good all-round torch, I can definitely recommend the Fenix PD36R. Since I got this torch, I always wear it on my belt. Besides the perfect workmanship and the high brightness, I am impressed by the long runtime with the thick 21700 battery. The lamp is hardly bigger than the lamps of the competitors with the smaller 18650 batteries.
I use the torch in everyday life, to illuminate smaller areas and on various light painting tools. Only the fact that the lamp does not have a normal strobe restricts it somewhat in some situations, even if strobe with 1600 lumens would hardly be reasonable to use anyway.
If you don’t want to spend a lot of money for your first light painting attempts, I recommend the Convoy S2+. For the low price, the lamps are quite well made. If you install an OP reflector, it has a very good, even beam. The lamps are available with different colour temperatures. If something breaks, you can buy almost all parts separately and replace them. I have already had to do this with some of the lamps, which is where you notice the low price. Different diffusers are available for the lamp, with these you can start painting light directly. Between the white diffuser and the lamp, you can simply attach a piece of colour filter foil, and it becomes colourful.
I hope to have contributed to your enlightenment with this article and wish you always enough battery capacity and good light.