ScubaLab tested new scuba diving lights in the following categories: Large, Compact, Video and Canister.
How We Test
Objective testing was conducted at Wilger Testing Co., an accredited, independent facility in Sarasota, Florida. Lights were tested using an integrating sphere, an industry-standard testing device that measures a light’s total output, in lumens, without regard to its beam angle.
To gauge both the output and burn time of lights, each light was tested twice; once with a fully charged (if rechargeable) or new (if disposable) battery, and again after discharging for a continuous 60 minutes.
Because dive lights are designed for use in water, many will electronically reduce their output after a brief period of burning out of water to avoid overheating and damaging circuitry. For this reason, measurements taken in the sphere were conducted immediately after turning on each light.
Following the first test with full batteries, all lights were recharged or batteries were replaced, then allowed to burn on full power underwater for one hour, then tested again. Canister lights, which are designed for extremely long burn times, were tested after one hour of discharging and after four hours.
Ergonomic testing was conducted at Devil’s Den Spring in Williston, Florida.
Test divers using underwater slates scored each dive light in the following categories:
Ease of Use Intuitiveness and ease of operation of switches and controls; ease of selecting various power levels or activating emergency flash
Comfort/Security of Grip or Mount Size, shape of grip; weight, balance and ergonomics; usefulness of lanyard or attachments
Beam Size and Shape Usefulness of the beam’s illumination underwater
Light Output Brightness, color, penetration and quality of the light’s beam
Power Levels The ability to regulate the beam’s brightness in useful increments
Power-Level Indicator Usefulness of power-level indicator or warning, if equipped
How We Score
The lumens graphic shows light output in lumens with a full battery and after 60 minutes’ discharge. The bar graphs show each light’s score for beam size and shape and light output, with scoring as follows:
Test-diver comments about the TL4800P ranged from “great beam” to “holy crap, is this bright,” and no wonder. Its quadruple-LED light head delivers a tight, 10-degree beam with more illumination in our lab test than any other dive light. In fact, high power can be a little too much; fortunately, you can step it down to 50 percent, 25 percent and even 10 percent (there’s also an SOS flash mode) with a press of the push-button switch.
With four rechargeable Li-ions and an aluminum body 6 inches long, it’s a little chunky. But it took very good ergo scores in our test using the lantern handle. (One gripe: The handle puts the lighted switch on the bottom, out of sight.) With oodles of well-controlled power and a terrific beam, the Bigblue TL4800P is our Testers Choice for large dive lights.
To be fair, testing the Nova 2100 solely as a dive light is like putting a Swiss Army knife into a string-cutting contest. With a powerful 15-degree spot/65-degree flood beam (and combinations of both) and equipped with a pistol grip and two video mounts, the Nova 2100 is practically a one-stop shop for dive and video lighting. The push-button switch (with lighted battery-level display) lets you choose from 100 percent or 50 percent flood, 100 percent spot, 50 percent flood plus 75 percent spot, 25 percent flood plus 50 percent spot, as well as strobe and SOS flash modes.
The many options left us sometimes toggling through the menu for the best selection — hence very good scores for beam shape and light output, but just a good score for ease of use. Pricey, rugged and versatile, it can handle dive, photo or video duties.
The R30’s profile reminds us of an old-fashioned night watchman’s light, or as one test diver wrote, “like a caveman’s club.” But in the water, divers had little but praise for the R30 and its functional beam that can be adjusted from 12 to 75 degrees by twisting the light head. The sliding magnetic switch was rated excellent, taking top score in its category for ease of operation. The R30 is powered by a rechargeable Li-ion that can be easily removed, as well as charged while in the light by removing the tail piece.
It’s a handy feature, but be sure you don’t accidentally loosen the tail while twisting the light head underwater. One gripe was its limited settings, with just two power levels plus a flash; it’s so bright, some divers wanted an extra step down. Powerful, versatile and affordable, the Seac R30 is our Best Buy.
Powered by four AAs, the Lumia has a beam that seems a little yellowy topside but surprised divers with its even, penetrating coverage underwater. The sliding switch operates easily, is placed just right and snaps locked, in both the on and off positions, helping to avoid accidentally discharging in a BC pocket. The Lumia technically has two power levels, but switching between them requires unscrewing the light head and sliding a switch.
On high power, it automatically switches off after three minutes to preserve batteries (after 60 minutes on low), so you need to slide the switch off and then on again; we kept it set on the lower power level. Test divers wished the Lumia had a choice of power levels and a flash mode but thought its size made it ideal as a backup light.
One of the brightest lights in its category, the GoBe earned very good scores across the board. The 12-degree cone evenly illuminates a wide area with a gentle falloff and was described by one diver as “diffuse, but with lots of light to go around.” Three primary power modes offer a useful range of increments and are easily controlled. An auxiliary mode, accessed by holding down the button for two seconds, offers a low-power beam and SOS flash.
A digital switch-lock prevents unwanted activation, and a colored light indicates the status of the factory-sealed rechargeable battery. The torch has just enough heft to give it a nice sense of quality, and the textured, rubber panels allow for a comfortable grip. It’s compatible with several interchangeable light heads and has a tripod mount.
Mares EOS 3RZ
Just over 5 inches long, the little 3RZ packs a lot of features into its aluminum body, including a magnetic switch with a sliding lock to prevent accidental activation and a charging port for its replaceable lithium battery (accessed by unscrewing the tail section to plug in a USB charger). But best is its zoom feature, which lets you adjust the beam angle anywhere from 12 to 75 degrees by rotating the light head. That helped it take the top score among compact lights for beam size and shape.
It has two well-spaced power levels, plus a flash mode. While this sounds like nitpicking for a compact light, some divers found it a bit too small to be handy, with its knurled handle (only about ¾ inch in diameter and less than 3 inches long) not that easy to grip by divers with bigger mitts.
The Genesis features all of the basics of a functional, reliable torch. Our test divers found it plenty bright in the water, rating it very good for beam size and shape and good for light output. “Bright with a nice color,” one diver noted about the light’s wide, evenly lit beam. Some divers felt that the two power levels were too similar and the light could have used some additional settings, but they appreciated having an SOS flash and the indicator light that encircles the push button.
Though some testers felt that the edges near the switch were sharper than they needed to be, the divers rated the light very good for comfort and security. “Good size and weight,” one tester noted. Princeton Tec’s Genesis also comes with a hand-mount, giving you the option for a different grip.
Dive lights don’t come much less expensive than the League. Its single power setting and four AA batteries feel a bit antiquated compared to some of the more-advanced lights in our test, but divers found it to be both capable and comfortable. “Liked much better than I expected,” was a comment typical of test divers’ reactions to the humble torch. The beam is diffuse with some visible halo but scored well for its reach. The on/off switch couldn’t be easier to operate and incorporates a handy, unobtrusive locking mechanism.
The injection-molded plastic body is surprisingly comfortable and provides an ergonomic one-handed grip. The lack of an emergency strobe would make us hesitant to take this as our primary, but the League makes a sturdy, inexpensive backup.
The compact R3 was chosen by many divers as a favorite and was second only to our Testers Choice. The beam measured slightly over its rated output in our objective test and was rated very good for its light output. One tester commented: “Good penetration. Lots of light. Like the beam color.” The two power levels and emergency strobe are activated by what testers described as a “solid, responsive” magnetic push-switch that tied the top score for ease of use.
The switch is stiff enough to make it unlikely — but not impossible — to turn on the light while in a pocket. The trumpetlike shape makes it a little awkward to hold on land but less so in water. Some divers wished the light had a coating on the grip instead of a metal surface but otherwise found it comfortable and secure.
SeaLife Sea Dragon Mini 900
Divers overwhelmingly chose the Mini 900 as their favorite compact, and it’s easy to see why; the light led the pack in nearly every category. “It has it all,” as one diver put it. The powerful beam was rated very good for color, brightness and penetration, and can step down to half- or quarter-power. Cycling through the power levels and two emergency strobes (one SOS) is a no-brainer. Testers also appreciated the colored battery indicator.
The light is small and straight, but its anodized-aluminum construction and textured grip helped it sit nicely in the hand. It might seem minor, but the chintzy lanyard felt at odds with the light’s overall quality. For its balance of size, ergonomics and performance, the Sea Dragon Mini 900 is our Testers Choice.
UK Mini-Q40 MK2
The reliable little Q40 has been around long enough to have gone through multiple redesigns and updates, but its latest makeover bumps up its light output and adds a push-button tail switch. Crisp, secure and simple to operate, the switch helped the MK2 tie the top score for ease of use. The new switch makes the MK2 a bit longer and somewhat less tidy for use with the included silicone mask strap.
But a big plus is it also allows simple one-handed operation rather than the two-handed process needed for the older twist-on models. The MK2’s tight, even beam was rated very good for size and shape, and for output, taking the top scores for AA-powered lights. But the MK2’s single power level and its lack of an emergency flash mode hurt its overall score.
Simple and intuitive, the LT350’s magnetic sliding dimmer-switch tied top score for ease of use. At its highest output, testers appreciated the far-reaching beam with its hot center and soft halo, but they also liked its lower settings — which can step all the way down to a mere 10 lumens so you can do things such as illuminate your test slate without blowing out your eyeballs. “Love how dim it will go,” one diver noted.
Between extremes, testers felt that the dimmer switch offered little variation and jumped between low and high too quickly. It also lacks an emergency flash. The aluminum body has a textured handle that scored very well for comfort and security. We tested the LT with its optional snap clip, a convenient feature for backup duty.
Aqualite Pro 100°
The Aqualite Pro is just 5 inches long but surprisingly powerful. In our objective test, it put out well over the manufacturer’s claimed output of 1,200 lumens — although it dropped off steeply after an hour’s discharge. The 100-degree beam doesn’t reach far, but it illuminates everything within its range with an even, white light. Moving between the four brightness levels is done by spinning the rotating switch on the back of the light. The knob can be a little stiff, but the design makes it easy to change settings from behind your camera rig. There is an included SOS flash for emergencies, but you’ll want to take a look at the manual and practice before you need it because the process for activating the strobe isn’t exactly intuitive. The light also comes with a collapsible camera mount capable of holding two lights and a compact camera.
Slightly smaller than a can of Red Bull, the VL4000P is full of energy thanks to the chunky Li-ion battery inside. Six LEDs output a wide, 120-degree-angle beam of even, white light. “Will light up the whole cavern,” one diver commented about its excellent illuminating abilities. The button to switch between the settings (100 percent, 50 percent, 25 percent and 10 percent power, as well as an emergency strobe) features a colored battery-indicator light. The light also has a red LED mode, a nice secondary function that can help you get close to skittish creatures or focus your camera. The light comes with a yellow filter and a ball joint for camera use. It also comes with a hand-mount glove, but divers found the aluminum body was comfortable and ergonomic even in their bare hands. “Wish Bigblue made a dive-light version,” one test diver wrote.
SeaLife Sea Dragon 4500
This hefty light packs a punch befitting its size. In our objective test, the Sea Dragon pumped out an insanely bright 4,742 lumens. In the water, its brilliance didn’t diminish. “For when you absolutely, positively, have to light up the entire ocean,” one test diver noted. This submarine sun has five brightness settings — including an auto mode — that are easily cycled through with a push of the button. Designed for photography as well as video use, this light features a flash-detection mode that dims the light when a strobe is detected; while not its intended use, we also found it handy for checking our gauges quickly without completely blowing out our eyeballs. The light head includes YS adapters for standard mounting systems and SeaLife’s Flex-Connect system. If you’re ever left at sea, the strobe function should help attract attention.
Dive Rite HP50
The two canisters in our test look outwardly similar and share characteristics (scads of light, rugged aluminum construction, and looong burn times), but they’re different in the details. The HP50 has a modular design, with a light head that can be used either with a canister or a wireless battery pack that creates a powerful, compact hand-mount light just 6 inches long (our combo test set included both).
The HP50’s rotary magnet switch — mounted on the light head in easy reach — gives a choice of three well-spaced power levels plus a strobe. The quick-release hand-mount was rated excellent, but best of all was the HP50’s brilliant 10-degree beam. “Best dive light I’ve ever used,” commented one test diver. Also available with canister only ($995) or handheld only ($699).
The LED 1200’s aluminum canister is 9 inches long and comes configured for standard or sidemount use. The switch is a toggle on the canister top that operates with a crisp, audible snap that divers found satisfying. The choices are on or off, and while that made its operation simple, some divers wished they could step down the power because it can be overwhelming with close objects.
Otherwise its beam and output were rated very good, drawing praise for deep penetration in clear water with just a bit of suspended material. As one tester noted, “You can see to the back of the cave with this baby.” The canister is rated for five hours of burn time; while we tested canisters only up to four hours, the LED 1200 was actually putting out slightly more light after four hours than with a full charge.
In a Flash
During our surface-signaling gear test (March/April 2017), we found that even well before sunset, a light is easier to spot at a distance than the most visible SMBs had been in broad daylight. That illustrated dramatically why it’s a smart idea to carry a torch not just on night dives but on all open-water dives (after all, there are many accounts of left-behind divers who never expected to spend the night at sea). And it also gave us a new appreciation for lights with strobe or SOS functions. While we found that flashing lights aren’t particularly more noticeable than nonflashing lights, the benefit is that flash modes dramatically increase battery life. For example, Light & Motion’s GoBe 800 Spot runs for three hours at medium power, but its SOS mode will last up to a day and a half. This feature can be a real lifesaver and is worth considering when choosing your backup as well as primary light.
The Same, but Different
Our experience has shown that batteries — even seemingly identical ones — aren’t necessarily the same.
In testing lights with rechargeable lithium-ions (like the one shown at right), we use the supplied batteries and charged them per instructions. For those using disposables, we use new, major-brand batteries just out of the box, purchased at the same place and time.
With Li-ions (which are more difficult to test than alkalines), we’ve found that burn times can vary noticeably, likely related to a battery’s use and charging history. And in this test, when the output of a AA light came out lower than expected, we tried another set of batteries — from the same package as the first. The result was nearly 40 percent more light output.
Bottom line: Use high-quality batteries that meet the light manufacturer’s requirements, and replace them at the first sign of trouble.