Monday, April 11, 2011

Why the Lumens Arms Race is stupid

Like many of you I got the 4Sevens email a few days ago announcing the new Quark 123x2 light with the new CREE XM-L emitter and an output of 450 lumens. This email, or more specifically, the pace of new emitters as announced by 4sevens has got me thinking about the "lumens arms race." One company will announce a light and then another company will announce a similar light with more lumens. All of this happens at a breakneck speed and leaves people looking for new lights waiting for the merry go round to slow down before they jump on.

Don't wait.

I am not suggesting that you buy a flashlight immediately because right now things have peaked. Almost certainly they haven't. In two weeks or two months another new emitter or new light will be out and it will be better that what you can buy right now. But the reality is these so-called "upgrades" don't make that much of a difference in daily use. I am not suggesting that slow, painfully slow, upgrades are a good idea (see Surefire prior to about a year ago), but there is a happy medium between the 4sevens model and the Surefire model.

Here is why the upgrades don't really matter. More lumens is not necessarily a good thing or even helpful in an EDC light. If you are using your light for other purposes--tactical or search and rescue--then by all means upgrade your lights. Those are applications where more lumens and a nicer emitter will make a difference. But for the average joe, for the guy, like me, that uses his light to find lost things or illuminate the inside of case goods (like the TV stand I am working on), the boost in brightness is a waste.

OTF v. Emitter

First, lumens "upgrades" are a tricky thing. Most of the time they are using some slight of hand to give the appearance of an upgrade. Lumens at the emitter are higher, usually by about 20%, than the lumens out the front of the light. The reason is that the lens, even super transparent ones, absorb some of the output as the light passes from the emitter to the outside of the light. So just changing where you measure the output, inside or outside the light, can make it look like an upgrade. Be sure to look for OTF lumens (which 4sevens does use, this trick is not something they do). If the output is not labeled OTF, it is safe to assume that they are emitter lumens. Subtract about 20% for an accurate lumens rating if they aren't listed as OTF.

Lumens v. Beam Quality

I have owned a lot of flashlights. Not as many as some, but an embarrassing amount when asked by non-flashaholics how many lights I own. Over the years and lights I have realized that it is the quality of the beam that is most important. The fewer the artifacts, holes, and rings, the better and more accurate the image you will see when the light hits items in the dark, and that is the point, right? If the image is accurate and useful then the light has served its purpose (unless, again, it is being employed tactically). Again, to harp on what this means, you want a nice bright hotspot with an even, large, and useful spill. A smooth transition between the two is helpful. A perfect circle is nice as well, as the edges are predictable and limit distortion. Finally, if you have a choice, a higher CRI (less colored, more like sunlight) output is ideal. If you have all of these things, you can get more utility out of less lumens. The Haiku, with its absolutely PERFECT beam, proved this to me. I have brighter lights, but do not own a more USEFUL light. Chasing lumens at the sake of beam quality is like buying a car with leather seats, but no engine.

"Peak HP" analogy

Lots of power tools have power ratings according to something call peak horsepower. This measurement, common on things like routers, is absolutely a farce. Here is why. Peak horsepower means the highest horsepower achieved by a given device immediately prior to a complete failure. They rev up the router, push it beyond its safety limits, and keep going. Then, right before the thing melts down or explodes into a shower of sparks, they record how powerful the motor is and that is the number the slap on the box. This number gives you no real idea as to how powerful the tool is in normal use, as there is no predictable way to scale things back. Some devices may have a very high peak power rating but not be very good in normal use, and vice versa. Peak HP is a TERRIBLE way to compare tool power.

High output lumens, while not quite that silly, is very similar. Most of the lights out there actually have a peak lumen higher than their rating and then step down to their high output after about a minute or two. The difference is not usually enough to be seen (differences in lumens need to be significant to be visualize by the human eye, 10 lumen difference is not enough unless you are comparing 1 lumen and 11). But even at the high output levels most EDC lights run an hour or less. It is also not that useful to run at high output, more on that later. The bottom line is that SUPER high lumens, such as those on lights light the new Moddoolar Pocket, seen here:

is not all that useful because it doesn't last long enough. The Moddoolar, available at, is an AWESOME light, BTW, gets around this by having a very nice high output medium mode, but some lights don't. It all high or low and nothing in between.

Then there is heat issue. EDC lights tend to be small and small lights get hot, especially when they are run on high for a long time. It can damage components, it drains your batteries, and every once in a while, it might give you a little burn. Again, not that useful.


Ever try to find something in the dark, other than like a cow or person, with a car's headlight? Did you actually find it? Probably not, because that much light is not necessarily useful. In many of these EDC lights, small lights with no real reflector, all you get is flood. And that much light in all flood mode means you get a lot of brightness without really getting a lot of useful light. Your eyes, even with their fantastic ability to quickly switch from dark to light, cannot process going from 300 lumens to 2 lumens in a second. It just blinds you. Around 30-50 lumens is a useful amount for "lighting stuff up" but even lower amounts 5-.5 lumens are actually better for many night time tasks, as it does not steal your night vision.

Don't get me wrong, on occasion I like to play the "think I can hit that?" game with my lights. I love the lighthouse effect of cutting through fog or smoke on a dark night. But most of the time you really don't need more than 200 lumens. And even if you have it, 30 or 40 will likely do the job. So if you are in the market for light and you think about it rationally, avoiding the lumens arms race does you nothing but good. And you can get the last generation emitter lights on deep discount. Smart and saves you money.

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