The Ultimate Photographer’s Flashlight

As I find myself under dark skies quite often, I carry not one but two flashlights in my bag. One of them is a Petzl Zipka headlamp, used for close range work, such as setting up the camera or finding something in the bag. But there are several other usage scenarios that a headlamp won’t fit into: navigation while you are getting to a location or walking home, searching, warding off uninvited visitors (be they curious humans or hungry animals), and even light painting.

I used several different sized flashlights with different feature sets during the last decade (I’m using the Zipka for more than a decade and it’s still running off of the original batteries), but more than a year ago I found a light that is quite possibly the ultimate in features and durability.

Enter the Nitecore SRT7

The high-end of the flashlight business in dominated by Chinese companies. But these are not the usual low-quality knock-off products you might associate with China. They are top of the class both in design and in manufacturing (the SRT7 is so simple and elegant that it could even carry an Apple logo).

Nitecore is one of these manufacturers, with some unique features in their lights. First of all, the SRT7 is part of their tactical offerings. Nowadays I tend to gravitate towards tactical and military products because of their durability and well thought out features. Not that I would need pistol magazine stabilizers in my pants’s pockets or uninterrupted light during shotgun recoil for a flashlight… Well, actually those magazine holders are pretty darn useful for holding various items…

The Nitecore SRT7 flashlight

The Nitecore SRT7 flashlight

You can see the light above. It is waterproof, shock proof (I exercise both features regularly) and in all aspects built like a tank. It feels well balanced in my hand, and have enough grip on the surface even when wearing heavy gloves.

Along with a very powerful white LED (960 lumens – easily outshines my car’s headlights), you have three colored LEDs: a red, a green, and a blue one. I was interested in the red one when I bought the lamp, and use it heavily during astrophotography. Never used the blue or the green one. The white LED in on the cool side.

But it’s user interface is why I bought it in the first place. It consists of a switch, a rotating ring and a LED. The switch is on the tail of the lamp, and is used to cut power off completely, so that it won’t drain the battery while sitting in the bag. The red LED starts to flash when the battery is starting to run out of juice. The ring is the centerpiece of the user interface.

It is used to switch between the different modes, as well as to continuously adjust the light’s brightness. The continuous adjustment is smooth, with good perceptual uniformity. Turn the ring to the right to increase brightness. At the end of the scale is a “turbo” mode as well as a stroboscope mode (the latter can be useful in self-defense situations). Turn the ring to the left to access the red, green, blue, police-like red/blue flashing and beacon modes. It’s that simple.

Powering the flashlight

The SRT7 can be powered with two CR123 lithium batteries or with a rechargeable 18650 battery. The latter is a standard industrial battery type with added protection circuitry – and is a quite common flashlight power source among Chinese manufacturers. I bought two Nitecore NL189 3400mAh batteries along with the lamp.

18650 battery in an Xtar WP2 II charger

18650 battery in an Xtar WP2 II charger

I’m using an Xtar WP2 II charger for those, as it can provide 1A charging current (compared to the 0.5A of most other chargers). The 1A current is well within the battery’s specifications, and I don’t like to wait for batteries to charge…

This charger has another neat feature: you can turn it into a power source to charge any USB-connected device (such as emergency recharging your phone). The output is a standard 500mA USB port.


It’s hard to add anything else for a flashlight – it’s just a flashlight. Albeit a good one. Highly recommended.

Leica Monovid 8×20 Review

I have been using a small rubberized 10×25 Canon binocular since I began photographing birds. As part of my ongoing camera bag weight reduction project I wanted something to replace the Canon – something that’s smaller, lighter and optically better.

Why a monocular?

Well, for two reasons, which are the following three: weight, size and because there’s no need for constant diopter adjustment that drives me crazy with most binoculars. I can work much faster with a monocular than with a bino – and speed is important to me because I use these kind of instruments for quick glances. It is a bit trickier to hold monoculars steady, and you need to look through them perfectly on-axis (like a riflescope) to avoid “blacking out”.

Why Leica?

I spent an entire weekend on researching the subject of monoculars. Man, there are tons of cheap monos out there! But they were ruled out pretty fast as I wanted something that’s small, light and has great optics.


Leica Monovid with the optional neck strap

This left only two choices: Zeiss and Leica. I’m not a huge fan on push-pull focusing used on Zeiss monos, so I bought a Lecia Monovid three months ago. For about $500 it’s definitely not a cheap one, but lives up to my high expectations.

In use

Build quality is first class. The focusing ring is smooth but have enough resistance to allow precise and quick focusing. Unfortunately focusing ring rotation is just the opposite of my Canon lenses (have to turn counter-clockwise to focus closer). You can easily grip both the tube and the focusing ring.

While we are at focusing. My preferred holding method that provides both steady image and easy focusing is the following: hold the Monovid in my left hand, between the tips of my index/middle/ring fingers (above the tube) and thumb (below the tube), and rest my hand on my forehead and nose. And focus with my right hand.

It is waterproof, nitrogen filled to prevent fogging and lenses have dirt and water repellent coating. But you get only an eyepiece cup. I would like to have a front lens cover too (actually it’s not a big deal as it usually hangs from my neck). Well, another missing thing is a neck strap. You receive a hand strap in the package, but I found the neck strap to be invaluable.

Most importantly, it is very good optically. The image is bright and with high contrast. My Canon produces a bit hazy view, and the Leica is much better. Colors are rich and deep. On the negative side, it has pronounced pincushion distortion and slight chromatic aberration towards the edges. All in all, it is a pleasure to look through the Monovid.

Minimum focusing distance is 1.8m – which is more than enough for me. But there’s a close-up lens in the box which reduces the MFD to 25cm. This lens (along with the supplied leather case) usually sits in the drawer. For those interested, the case has a belt loop and you can screw in the close-up lens into the case’s lid.


The Monovid weighs about 1/3 of my former Canon bino, for 3x the price… But it definitely worth the steeper price. It’s compact, lightweight, has superb image quality, and built in a way that lasts generations. Highly recommended.

The Map is Not The Territory

I grew up in an era and place when and where publicly available maps were deliberately modified to confuse the “enemy”. Of course this also confused people and we developed an instinct to not trust maps completely. We treated them as guidelines, tools, but were always alert that they could surprise us.

Now, some 30 years later, that everyone bashing Apple about their maps (especially after the Australian incident), it is time to think about our reliance on GPS-based mapping solutions. My opinion is that people became overly dependent on electronic gadgets and tend to lose the ability to navigate the world (both literally and figuratively). So it’s time to ask yourself: Could I read a map? Do I have a paper based map and/or regular compass?

Let me tell you four stories that illustrate problems with map data accuracy – regardless of vendor.

  • In 2001 I escorted a small group to Microsoft’s developer conference held in Los Angeles. We rented three cars, one equipped with GPS navigation. We arrived a day earlier to have some fun in Universal Studios. On Sunday morning, all three cars departed at the same time from the hotel, but the GPS-using team arrived almost an hour after us. The reason: their GPS was unable to take account Sunday morning runners, which my human navigator easily worked around.
  • In 2003, during my first trip to the American Southwest we used Microsoft MapPoint for navigation. It was really great until we wanted to go to Goblin Valley. Instead of the state park, we found ourselves in the middle of nowhere, where – according to the map – we had to turn left. Across the desert… So we picked another map, and realized that the state park is some 80 miles away, as MapPoint cut some corners and thought that there is a road there.
  • Vienna, 2004. I had to go to a morning meeting, but the Garmin map I used at that time navigated me into a construction area, just two blocks away from my intended destination, but cut off by the construction. Asking the locals for directions allowed me to arrive at the meeting on time.
  • In 2008, we wanted to visit Mount Rainier for a quick morning shoot before we departed for Page, AZ. We used iGo on my Windows Mobile powered phone. We got lost – and by the time we recovered the light has gone. The app’s map had no idea about the national park’s entrances, so this attempt to catch morning light there was a failure.

I don’t want to defend Apple or other companies, but GPS based solutions (and even paper based maps to some degree) are just decision making aids. Trusting them to make decisions that WE should make is downright foolish and dangerous. Don’t confuse the map with the territory!

I developed some habits (besides the one I had since my early years: not trusting maps overly) that help me avoid most of the navigation related (and induced) problems:

  • I never-ever, under no circumstances use a mobile phone for navigation while driving. That damn phone call always comes at the worst moment… Of course I could use the phone in emergency situations, but not for regular navigation.
  • I prefer to see to big picture (where the GPS is taking me) before departing, and sometimes during the trip. This is why I prefer large screen GPSes – I like to see the entire map, nut just a tiny fragment up to the next turn. This way I can catch gross routing errors quickly.
  • Having a “mitfahrer” to handle route planning and tracking during photo trips on unknown territories is a big plus.
  • Out in the wild, I always have ample gas, water and food with me.
  • I take time to learn the territories where I shoot a lot. And this cannot be done from a map! You have to go out, wander the land and build a map in your head.
  • I always carry a good old magnetic compass in my photo backpack (next to the flashlight).
  • Route logging is always turned on on my GPS (this saved us once in Iceland).

The takeaway? Quite simple: do not trust your life to GPS maps. They are mostly helpful, but go wrong all the time.