Handheld spotlights have long been used for
- Boating or marine use (looking for navigational markers)
- Hunting (tracking blood trails)
- Farming (checking on livestock)
- General countryside use (looking out for wild animals)
- Cars (reading road signs, house numbers – good for deliverymen)
- Camping, prepping
LED spotlights are now starting to replace traditional types of spotlights, promising higher run times, higher brightness, longer bulb life and lighter weight. We look at brightness, battery issues, features the different types of bulbs (halogen, HID/Xenon) compared to LED.
Most are large, about the size of a loaf of bread, with a 3-inch or larger reflector and a pistol-grip and trigger. Weights range from 1 to 3 pounds. (See the comparison with tactical flashlights, below.)
Prices range from under $50 to over $100. Brands include Stanley, Black and Decker, Cyclops (Thor), Coleman, Brinkmann, and Energizer. Tactical LED flashlight makers such as Streamlight, are also starting to move into the spotlight market.
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Spotlight Brightness – Candlepower Versus Lumens Versus Watts
Spotlights used to be advertised as having brightness of 1 to 2 million candlepower or higher. While this might sound impressive (a million candles!), candlepower isn’t a useful measurement. This is because it measures the brightness at a single spot only. It doesn’t measure the total amount of light a spotlight outputs.
Lumens is a more useful measure of brightness. Today’s LED spotlights range from 200 to 1000 lumens. For comparison, a 100-watt incandescent light bulb gives out about 1000 lumens.
Surefire explains this in more detail:
Watts measures the power used by the spotlight, not the light output. A high efficiency spotlight can use fewer watts, yet output more lumens. Watts are a good indication of the running time of the spotlight. For the same battery capacity, more watts means less running time.
Spotlight Beam Spread
Related to brightness is how far a spotlight’s beam can reach. This depends on the brightness of the bulb and how much the beam spreads out. Spotlights have an advantage in this because their large reflectors make them better able to have a thin beam that reaches further, compared to flashlights.
While flashlights can have a thin spot beam too, they also have a large “spill” area of light around the main spot. This light leakage acts like a floodlight and can be useful for lighting up the surrounding area (such as backyard) but does reduce the range of the beam.
A thin, long range beam is is especially good for boating because navigational markers can be quite a distance away. You also don’t want to disturb nearby boats with a wide beam.
For general use, the beam’s color doesn’t matter much. Most LEDs are white or slightly blue.
The CRI (Color Rendering Index) measures how “full spectrum” a light is, how closely the light matches an incandescent bulb. The maximum CRI is 100, with 90 considered to be good.
One application where a high CRI is useful is hunting, where a spotlight is used for tracking an injured animal’s blood trail at night. A high CRI spotlight has more red in the beam, making the blood trail stand out more clearly.
The American Hunter website has more information on tracking blood trails:
Halogen Versus HID/Xenon Versus LED Spotlights
Halogen – basically tungsten filament/incandescent – bulbs are no match for today’s LEDs. LEDs are brighter, have longer battery life (hours for LED compared to 10 to 30 minutes for halogen) and last longer (tens of thousands of hours). There’s no reason to buy a halogen spotlight.
HID/Xenon bulbs are another matter. They do suck up more battery power but are also brighter, running into thousands of lumens. Most use 12 volt automobile bulbs, making them as bright as a car’s headlamp because that’s what they are. There are two main types of bulbs – 55 watt outputting 4500 lumens, and 35 watts outputting 3200 lumens.
Compare that with LED spotlights which max out at about 1000 lumens, but only draw 10 watts. And that’s not the whole story. HID/Xenon spotlights need more complex electronics that waste more power, which drains the battery faster than indicated by the bulb’s wattage. HID/Xenon spotlights therefore typically ast for 30 to 60 minutes on full power, compared to 60 to 120 minutes for LEDs.
If brightness is your priority, HID/Xenon is still a good choice. HIX/Xenon spotlights have a good reputation for tracking animal blood trails. However LED bulbs last longer (tens of thousands of hours compared to thousands of hours), have more flexible electronics (strobe flash modes, multiple brightness levels), and have a slight edge in battery life.
There’s more information at the links below:
Handheld Spotlights Versus Tactical Flashlights
Tactical flashlights are smaller than spotlights. Designed for military and police use, they also make good general purpose lights. For many applications, a tactical flashlight will work as well as a spotlight. The main issue is size and weight. For camping or survival use, a small and light tactical flashlight might be a better choice.
The main differences are that tactical flashlights:
- Are smaller and lighter, but also easier to lose
- Have shorter battery life because of smaller batteries
- Have more functions (strobe flash, multiple brightness levels)
- Won’t float in water
- Have a wider beam because their smaller reflector is less capable
Spotlight Batteries – Rechargeable, Batteryless
The batteries are a common weak spot in spotlights. Built-in rechargeable batteries, whether sealed lead-acid or lithium, often last not more than a year or two. Replacement batteries aren’t always available. If you do want a spotlight with built-in rechargeable batteries, make sure that replacements are available.
Another issue is the spotlight’s recharging circuit. The spotlight should automatically stop charging the battery when it is fully charged, to avoid damaging the battery. Some spotlights don’t stop charging automatically, requiring you to unplug the spotlight. In this case, the spotlight should at least have a “charged” indicator light. Some spotlights don’t even have this – avoid them.
If that’s not enough problems, spotlights with built-in batteries need to charged every month or so even when not used. This is because the battery will self-discharge and a fully discharged battery will become spoiled.
Some spotlights can be charged from a 12-volt DC supply through a car’s cigarette lighter socket, others need household mains AC power. For maximum flexibility, the spotlight should be able to accept more than one source of power.
Spotlights that use AA, C or D cell batteries (usually 4 batteries) avoid this problem. With high efficiency LEDs, the spotlight can run for tens of hours on a set of alkalines, especially for the larger C and D cell batteries. AA batteries are advantageous because it is easy to find rechargeable NiMH batteries (of course, you’ll need a separate AA charger). You can also use AA batteries in C or D cell spotlights by using a battery adapter.
One advantage of a built-in rechargeable battery is that some designs allow you to keep the spotlight plugged-in all the time, ensuring that the batteries are always fully charged. Some designs also allow you to use switch on the spotlight when it is plugged-in, which avoids running down the batteries (some manufacturers caution against this because depending on the design, this can damage the batteries).
Some spotlights don’t have any batteries at all. They are designed to be used plugged into a car’s cigarette lighter socket, running off the car’s battery. For maximum flexibility, you’ll want a power cord that is long enough to reach to the back seat (for a passenger to shine out the back window) as well as the engine and trunk (for emergency lighting during a breakdown). You don’t have to worry about battery charging issues but obviously you are tied down to the car.
One interesting design combines replaceable batteries (AA, C or D) with 12 Volt DC power. The spotlight runs off batteries but when plugged into the cigarette lighter socket, the batteries are cut out and the car’s battery is used. Unlike a built-in battery spotlight, the car battery is not used to recharge the batteries.
Be careful of the battery run time advertised. This is often the run time at the lowest brightness, not the highest brightness as most people would assume.
Spotlights are mainly about their brightness, beam width, weight and battery life. However some additional features can make a spotlight more usable:
- Trigger lock. Most spotlights have a trigger switch that needs to be pressed to keep the spotlight on Releasing the trigger switches off the light. (Less common are click-on, click-off trigger switches). A separate trigger lock keeps the trigger pressed without you needing to press the trigger.
- Heavy or light trigger pull. Some spotlights need a force of a few pounds to pull the trigger. This serves as a simple child safety to prevent children from blinding themselves and others with such a powerful beam. However a heavy trigger can be a problem for the elderly or others with compromised strength.
- Multiple light levels. A low or medium light level allows you to save the battery when a bright light is not needed. It also allows you to use the spotlight for close-up work without being blinded.
- Strobe emergency signaling mode. This automatically flashes the spotlight on and off, making it easier for people to find you in an emergency. This should be a slow strobe, about one flash per second. A fast strobe is used on tactical flashlights to disorientate an attacker.
- Floodlight mode. A floodlight mode lights up a wide area with a beam that is 90 degrees or wider. This is usually done with a separate set of LEDs.
- Red filter. A clip-on red filter allows you to use the spotlight without affecting your night vision. It also reduces the number of flying insects attracted to the light.
- Waterproofing. Look out for spotlights that are waterproofed to a certain standard, for example IPX8.
- Floating body. This is especially useful for boating and other uses near water. The spotlight should float with the beam pointing upwards, to make it easier to find.
- Impact resistance. One common standard is 1 meter (1 yard) impact resistance, meaning that the spotlight will survive a 1 meter drop onto a hard surface. Some spotlights are covered with a rubberized material to help with impact resistance.
- Folding handle. A folding handle allows the spotlight to be stored away in a smaller space. It does however make the handle weaker.
- Floor stand. A floor stand allows you to put the spotlight on the floor and let is shine without having to hold it. A common mechanism is a fold-out flap at the top of the spotlight that fixes the spotlight at a 45 degree angle when placed on its head. Outdoors, this does provide some illumination if reflected off a tree.
- Lanyard hole. A lanyard hole allows you to fix a wrist or shoulder strap, for easy carrying. If one is not available, the pistol grip is a convenient place to tie a strap.
- Bright color. A bright body makes it easy to find the spotlight when dropped into undergrowth.