Terra Galleria Photography

Lights for Night Photography: What I Use and Why

5 Comments

Night photography requires the right tools, chief amongst them lights. After trying many, I’ve settled on a diverse arsenal of lights. The capabilities of some of them will surprise you. In this post, I will point out to a number of inexpensive high performance items that I use and can help enhance your long-exposure night photography.

Left to right (in order of brightness): Multi XM-L flashlight, Dual-battery XM-L flashlight, Single-battery XM-L flashlight, LED lantern, Headlamp, XP-G2 flashlight, Keychain quarter-size light.

Multi-purpose small lights

Before photographing at night, you have to get there in the dark, so I’ll begin with the lights that I use mostly to light up my way. They can also be used to illuminate subjects. I’ve lost track of the number of times when I started a trail mid-day, but found myself lingering until sunset. It was dark was the hike back! Regardless of the time of the day, I always carry two tiny lights in my backpack, part of the emergency kit. If I anticipate not returning until after dark, I add one or two headlamps to the kit. All weights include batteries.
  • Keychain quarter-size light (8 grams, 4 lumens) They are so tiny that there is no reason not to always carry one. Despite their size, they are definitively bright enough for hiking on the trail. They provide a broad and somehow dim light that can be useful for illuminating foregrounds. Besides the keychain, I stick them to zippers on camera bags and tents. The best of them is the Photon Freedom which features multiple modes, including brightness control. They are also available in red. I have owned a number of them. However, replacing the batteries was a chore and my kids tended to misplace them. Nowadays, I use cheap keychain lights that cost less than a battery purchased separately. Be sure that, like the linked model, they have a switch that does not require you to hold a button to keep the light on.
  • XP-G2 flashlight (15 grams, 135 lumens) This little-known light has an incredible brightness to weight ratio. Powered by a single AAA battery, it is small enough to carry on a keychain, yet it is brighter than most headlamps and flashlights, thanks to its Cree XP-G2 LED. There are three increasing light levels (with decreasing run times). At the maximum level, the light will run only about an hour, so I carry a spare AAA in the emergency kit. I own the original, the Titanium Innovations Illuminati, however other less expensive similar lights have become available.
  • Headlamp (75 grams, 125 lumens) For hiking, I prefer to hand-hold the light. I find that the cross-lighting gives me a better perception of the terrain. Wearing a headlamp on your head is like using on-camera flash: no shadows, no depth. However, headlamps are indispensable for situations when you need to free your hands, such as scrambling or operating equipment. Because bright light levels will drain the battery quickly, a headlamp with multiple light levels is preferable. Some of them offer a red light mode that is useful for photography. Red light preserves your night vision much better than white light. After using white light, you need to wait several minutes for your eyes to re-adjust to the dark. The Petzl Tikka+ meets all those requirements. It uses 3 AAA batteries. Three decades ago, Petzl was the first manufacturer to make headlamps reliable enough for mountaineering.

Multi XM-L flashlight, Dual-battery XM-L flashlight, Single-battery XM-L flashlight, Headlamp, Keychain quarter-size light, XP-G2 flashlight

Bright flashlights

To illuminate distant subjects, the general-purpose lights are not bright enough. Sometimes, you also want to get even light by bouncing the light on the ground or rocks behind you, rather than illuminating your subject directly. Bouncing requires a lot of power since most of the light is absorbed or reflected in the wrong directions. For those applications, you want a more powerful flashlight, usually designed for search/rescue or police/military use. Those flashlights are blinding, especially by night. If you’ve never used one of them, you’ll be surprised at how bright they are.

Many of them are powered either by the CREE XM-L T6 LED or the CREE SST-90 LED. The SST-90 is the brighter of the two (3,000 lumens), but its larger emitter surface area requires a larger reflector and, therefore, a bigger lamp. Its increased amperage creates a lot of heat and drain, requiring large batteries. The XM-L is more efficient but only capable of around 1000 lumens in practice. Because of the high power requirements of those LEDs, almost all of the flashlights built around them run on rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, rather than the common AA or AAA batteries.

The main differentiator amongst those lights is the quality of the heat sink. Chinese-made inexpensive lights, such as those I use, have less efficient heat sinks that reduce light output and sometimes cause the light to shut out. However, they cost only a small fraction of the price of high-end lights made by US brands such as Fenix, Nitecore, or Streamlight. The specifications are more important than particular models, as branding varies. Their advertised output is greatly exaggerated. Instead, I’ve indicated my estimate – still pretty bright for the size and price!

  • Single-battery XM-L flashlight (175 grams, estimated 500 lumens) The UltraFire E17 flashlight provides good output and excellent functionality, including 3 light levels, strobe, SOS, and a zooming reflector which let you narrow the beam to a very narrow spot for precise light-painting. This is the lightest and most compact bright light you’ll likely find. It uses the 18650 lithium-ion battery (with a provided spacer) and in a pinch, 3 AAAs power it with reduced output.
  • Dual-battery XM-L flashlight (265 grams, estimated 800 lumens) The Trustfire Z5 flashlight has identical functionality, but by using two 18650 batteries instead of one, it provides a slightly higher output, making it an excellent compromise between brightness and size/weight.
  • Multi XM-L flashlight (610 grams, estimated 2500 lumens) The TrustFire TR-J18 has 7 XM-L LEDs. The 8,500 lumens number written on the lamp is based on CREE’s maximum ratings multiplied by 7. It assumes maximum current of 3 amps. The batteries in the lamp simply cannot provide the current to run the 7 LEDs near 3 amps. The lamp runs at a lower (and more efficient amperage), which is why its actual output is much lower than the advertised output. Even though, this easily hand-held flashlight is brighter than many car headlights. However, it lacks a zooming reflector, which reduces its usefulness for distant subjects in spite of its brightness. Thanks to a removable extension, it takes 2 or 3 26650 lithium-ion batteries. 18650 batteries can be used with an adaptor that is provided, but will lower the performance.

Lanterns

When possible, rather than paint with light (moving a hand-held light source), I prefer to use a fixed light. The results are more repeatable than with light painting. It is also the only way to illuminate a scene for a time-lapse.
  • LED lantern (865 grams, 240 lumens) The Rayovac Sportsman lantern provides good brightness in a relatively small and lightweight camping lantern. It is powered by three D batteries that are quite heavy, but last up to 40 hours. You can use three rechargeable AA batteries with adaptors if you don’t need the long battery life.

Speedlites

This post has focussed on continuous lights, which are the most practical for long-exposure night photography. Speedlites (camera flash) are a totally different type of light from flashlights and lanterns. They generate an extremely powerful (maybe 100,000 lumens) and very brief burst of light (typically 1/1000s at full power). This short duration allows you to freeze motion, making them indispensable for photographing people or animals at night.

However, their total light output is much less than what is given by flashlights during a long exposure, because total output is a product of brightness by duration. A modest 100 lumens light projects as much light in one second. You cannot expect to light up a large scene with a single flash burst. You cannot light distant objects with them. The other drawback of speedlites is that you don’t see how the scene is lighted.

They can still be useful for light painting, provided that you walk around and flash your subject from a close distance using multiple angles while the camera is set for a long exposure. The speedlite needs to be used in manual exposure. If the exposure turns out too bright, you simply turn the flash down or step back.

  • Manual Speedlite: you probably already own a speedlite, but if you don’t, and intend to use the flash only in manual mode, I recommend the Youngnuo YN560 IV. Except for the TTL functionality (available in other Youngnuo models), it surpasses the speedlites made by Canon or Nikon that cost many times more.

Left to right: Nitecore IntelliCharger i4, 26650 Li-ion battery, 18650 Li-ion battery, AA Eneloop battery, AAA Eneloop battery

Batteries

Lights, especially bright ones, are power-hungry. Rechargeable batteries are much more friendly to the environment than single-use batteries. They also cost less to use in the long run.
  • Standard AA and AAA sizes Low-Discharge Nickel Metal Hybrid batteries (LD-NiMH) are rechargeable batteries which can be as “ready-to-use” as single-use batteries. The main drawback of rechargeable batteries has been self-discharge. They lose up to 10% of their charge during the first 24 hours, and up to 1% per day after that. LD-NiMH batteries are sold pre-charged, and hold up to 80% of their charge for a year after charging, so you don’t have to think about them until you want to use them. I’ve been using the Eneloop AAAs and Eneloop AAs. After you’ve recharged them only 4 times, they cost less than single-use batteries.
  • Cylindrical lithium-ion batteries The high power requirements of the bright flashlights make using AA batteries in them impractical. Lithium-ion batteries pack much more power and aren’t that bigger or heavier. The typical NiMH AA battery weights 25 grams and provides 2000mAh at 1.2 Volts, resulting in energy storage of 2.4 watt-hour. An 18650 lithium-ion battery weights 50 grams, and can provide 4000mAh at 3.7 Volts, for an energy storage of 14.8 watt-hour. That’s 6 times more energy for only double the weight. The batteries in this family are designated by five-digit numbers, where the first two digits are the diameter and the two following digits are the (approximate) height, both in millimeters. The “protected” batteries include an internal circuit to prevent over-discharge and short-circuit damage. For each form factor, several capacities are available. I use the highest capacity batteries available for each type: 26650 4000mAh and 26650 6000mAh. Their main drawback is that batteries and chargers are not readily available, and likely would be used only in your lights.
  • Battery charger A bad charger will shorten battery life. Many chargers apply the same charge to all the slots. Charging a mostly full battery on the same circuit as a mostly empty battery damages both. You want a charger that (a) monitors and displays the amount of charge left in the batteries (b) charges each battery independently, in the case of a multi-slot charger. In addition, Ni-Mh and Li-ion batteries have different chemistry, that require specific charging, so you want a charger that (c) can handle both types, (d) automatically identifies the battery type.

    The Nitecore IntelliCharger i4 meets all those requirements. It will charge anything from a small AAA to a fat 26650 (although only 1xxxx batteries are mentioned as compatible). You can even charge different types at the same time. In addition, the charger accepts multi-voltage inputs from AC 100 to 240V, as well as DC 12V, making it usable anywhere.

Flashlights with orange filters

Filters

The light from most white LEDs has a slightly blueish tint that looks artificial. CTO (Color Temperature Orange) convert from white LED sources (color temperatures 5000-7000K) to the equivalent of a 3200K Tungsten source. For my flashlights, I made warming filters that slide over my main light’s heads using orange gels and black gaffer tape. For the lanterns, I just wrapped the gel around the transparent part. The filtering material consists of both the following gels, depending on how much warming I want: I don’t use other colored gels, but I’ve seen interesting results obtained with red, blue, and purple gels. Filters will eat some light, so starting with a bright light is useful.

Close-up of home-made orange filters

Conclusion

As you’ve seen if you’ve clicked the links, excellent lights for night photography do not need to be expensive. I’ve found them very useful and hope they will be to you too. Since the proof is in the pudding, for some examples of my night photography, see: Southwest Tour Under Changing Moon Phases, Year 2013 in Review and Parks Night Favorites, as well as other posts tagged with “Night”. By the way, I’ve written this post after receiving questions by email about my previous redwoods light painting post.

If you have any questions, I’d be grateful if you ask them in comments instead so that I can share the answer with other readers. What are the lights you’ve found most useful for night photography?

5 Comments

  1. Daniel Leu says:

    Nice article! Thank you for sharing.

    Specially when I want to use different colors, I use the LED2 from protomachines.com. It is a bit expensive, but very flexible.

    Here is one example I did https://www.facebook.com/DanielLeuPhotography/photos/pb.119271318164472.-2207520000.1426279234./556466777778255/?type=3&theater

  2. Greg Vaughn says:

    Thanks for the very detailed information. Great idea to use gels on the LED lights. I keep wondering why the LED manufacturers don’t come up with some sort of coating to give the lamps a warmer color.

  3. An Vo says:

    Wow, very interesting, did not know there was that much to know about batteries. This info will help me better select battery choices for my electronic projects with weight to power properties. Good to know how to recharge batteries, or how not to recharge batteries together to get max life out of them. By the way, it isn’t often that you come across products like that at those prices often. Thanks for the info and tips.

Leave a Comment