Are COAST Inspection Beam Flashlights the Ultimate Light-Painting Brush?


There is an adage that goes: “A good brush does not make a good painter.” But what if one particular brush were better for the task than others? When it comes to light painting, COAST’s “inspection beam” flashlights will certainly give the light painter a tactical advantage and, for those not painting the night, these COAST flashlights and headlamps are rugged, well made, and useful for finding your way in the dark after a power outage, or for working in dark places where you must see. Before we dive into the advantages of COAST’s inspection beam flashlights, let me wax poetic about the current state of the flashlight market.

A Brief and Incomplete History of the Modern Flashlight

While it may not be common knowledge, the tentacles of modern technology have extended to and enveloped the world of the flashlight. For those of us who are, um, older, the flashlight was a bit of an afterthought. You likely had a couple of D-cell metal cans knocking around the house for when the power went off; you might have one in the garage for finding that wing nut that fell to the floor; you may have even had a lantern battery light, like my grandfather had, to woo us with its (maybe 400 lumens?) power; and you know that your local constabulary carried them on their belts. As a Naval Aviator, my survival vest was equipped with the worst plastic D-cell flashlight money could buy. Legend has it that the military over-ordered these lights during World War II and then spent the next half-century-plus trying to burn through the stock by issuing them to every service member through today. If you want one of these military-grade beauties—because you need a door stop or paperweight or are doing a master’s thesis on substandard issued military equipment—you can find them online for less than $10. Just look for “G.I.-Style Angle-Head Flashlight” on your nearest Interweb. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT buy this military light for use as a flashlight—you’ll achieve a brighter and longer-lasting light buy burning your $10 bill. Anyway, I digress. What were we talking about? Oh yes, flashlight tech…

I’ll give Maglite due credit for changing the world of the flashlight with its bright and small AA-battery (and larger) powered classic hand torches. Many brands experimented with halogen lights and other types of bulbs. In the early 1990s, three Japanese professors—Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano, and Shuji Nakamura—developed the blue LED light and won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2014. This invention allowed the birth of the white LED and the flashlight market, and entire world of artificial lighting for that matter, was never the same. Now, brands like COAST have taken the LED technology to places that our parents, grandparents, and that WWII quartermaster who ordered 10 bazillion G.I.-Style Angle-Head flashlights could ever dream of. Today, consumers have an insane and dizzying number of reasonably priced, high-tech, and high-end flashlights, headlamps, and lanterns from which to choose.

So, back to the COAST…

Flashlights generally accomplish the same task—lighting stuff up—but several of the COAST lights that I tested project the “inspection beam” that I mentioned in the opening. The beams are tightly controlled circles of light that, on some models, can be focused to a bright central point, but still feature minimal beam spread.

The tightly controlled beam of a COAST inspection beam flashlight

Light Painting

What does this mean for the passionate crowd of nocturnal light painters? Basically, the COAST inspection beam flashlights give the light-painting photographer a precision “brush” with which to create their art. With most flashlights, even very expensive and very good military-grade tactical lights, you are projecting a fairly wide beam of light or a narrow, but undefined beam. Even true spotlight flashlights serve to narrow the spread of photons, but not control it cleanly. An inspection beam looks much like the beam that you’d see in a cartoon if a character shined a flashlight at a surface—a perfect circle hitting the wall. When light painting, this means that you can easily control the region of the scene that you are illuminating and you’ll have precision that you never thought possible before.

Fine beam control allowed me to light paint around this framed painting. Shown for illustration purposes only… definitely not as a beautiful example of light painting!

You can also take this control a step further by using the light to “write” on walls and objects—something that, in the past, you’d likely need a laser beam for.

The best graffiti is the graffiti that isn’t really there. Again, a tight beam allowed me to spell out this super-cool name for a certain boy.

COAST Options

COAST has a huge number of different models of hand torches, headlamps, and lanterns and, for this article, I was able to experience a small cross-section of the line.

The COAST TX14R full-sized flashlight is one of COAST’s flagship LED lights. None of the COAST products that I tested had an over-the-top military look to them, and the TX14R is no exception. This cleanly designed flashlight looks like it was made for law enforcement or for having around the home for emergencies. Solidly built, the flashlight has a good weight to it and a great tactile feel. I really love the fact that it comes with two rechargeable batteries so that, if you run low, you can just swap for a secondary battery. You can even recharge the batteries with the included car lighter adapter. Even better, and a rare feature among flashlights, the TX14R takes 4 AAA batteries, so if you burn through the two lithium-ion batteries you can still get light when out in the field. The 900-lumen wide flood will illuminate a room, even though the beam is controlled and, when shifted to spot, you have a long-range directional spotlight.

The rechargeable COAST HX5R is like a mini TX14R and also features a spot-to-flood inspection beam. Remove the tail cap and recharge the removable CR123 with the USB plug—built-in charging. The innovative COAST A8R Inspection Beam Rechargeable LED Penlight is perfect for the mechanic or handyman looking for a pocket-sized light with a controlled 340 lumen beam—a great everyday carry (EDC) tool for your messenger bag, backpack, or pocket protector! If you want to get something even smaller, the COAST G9 Inspection Beam LED flashlight is a great entry-level option on the COAST line with the same controlled-beam features as its bigger stablemates. I got mine at a National Parks at Night Workshop on light painting.

COAST vs. a “regular” flashlight. COAST HX5R’s inspection beam compared to a light from a similarly sized and featured flashlight.

The COAST HX4 Dual-Color Utility Beam LED Clip Light is larger than your everyday ball-cap clip-on light, but larger, in this case, means better. Powered by two AAA batteries, the HX4 has a white and red illumination option. Also, magnets on the back increase its versatility. I can see the magnetic HX4 happily illuminating my car’s trunk with soft red light when I am out on my astrophotography outings. (Here is where I tell COAST that I hope to see a rechargeable HX4R version in the future.)

The COAST HX4 illuminated by the COAST A8R penlight

The COAST FL75 Dual-Color Pure Beam Focusing LED Headlamp features optical tech similar to the inspection beam flashlights because a twist of the light’s bezel will move your illumination pattern from wide-angle to spot. While not as crisply controlled as the inspection beams, the headlamp still minimizes spill. A secondary mode illuminates two red LED lights for preserving night vision. The COAST FL68 does not have the focusing bezel, but has both red and green secondary LED modes available.

Other Uses

As a precision brush for light painters, the COAST inspection beam flashlights certainly enjoy a warm welcome among the light-painting night-photography crowd. Out of curiosity, I spoke to friends in different career fields and many agreed that having a tightly controlled flashlight beam is advantageous to their professional work. A shipyard and dry-dock engineering manager finds controlled beams excellent for inspecting features at the end of long shafts, whereas standard flashlights will flood the edges of the compartment and create light bounce back that prevents the end of the shaft from being illuminated. Zoom to wide-angle to illuminate an entire space, like a fuel or ballast tank. Friends in law enforcement also commented that there is a definite use for controlled flashlight beams.

And, of course, COAST’s well-built flashlights, keychain lights, headlamps, and lanterns can be a part of your EDC kit, stored in the home or car for emergencies, taken out on camping trips, or for generally finding your way in the dark.

Would a COAST flashlight enhance the efficiency of your profession or hobby? Tell us about it in the Comments section!