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Its not just about the lumens...

posted 8 Jun 2011, 23:38 by Brad Jackson   [ updated 18 Apr 2012, 05:41 ]
Sadly the bike lighting industry seems to be falling into the same pitfall that the digital camera industry suffered from a few years ago. Once the digital camera craze gained mass popularity and competition started to emerge among the various manufacturers, they had to come up with a "yardstick" to use as a marketing tool.
They settled on the infamous "megapixel". This became the single selling feature that was punted by nearly all digital camera manufacturers. They entered into a pointless race in an effort to lay claim to the highest megapixel title.
While this was going on very little attention was paid to far more important factors like the quality of the lens, image processing capabilities, useful camera functions, and basically just producing better photos.
Thankfully the megapixel trend seems to have died down in recent years and digital camera manufacturers are giving us those other features which really add value and create an overall better product at the end of the day.

So, what does this have to do with bike lights?

The LED bike lighting industry is still relatively new and, much like the digital camera trend a decade ago, is seeing a surge in popularity as more players enter the market. Along with competition comes the need to convince the consumer why their particular product is the best, and the flavour of the day for bike lights has become the Lumen. 
The lumen is a really bad unit to use to compare a bike light's output for a number of reasons:
  • Very few manufacturers measure the actual output of their lights. Instead they usually advertise the theoretical maximum output of the LED's (which is impossible to achieve in a real life application)
  • The lumen measurement does not take into account the way the light is focused. Imagine a very bright light bulb in a room. It may produce a whole lot of lumens, but its not going to be of much use mounting that to the front of your bike.
  • The physical factors which make up a bike light - configuration and efficiency of the driver circuit, length and quality of the cables, quality of the connectors, type and efficiency of the reflector/optics - these all have an effect on the amount of light that actually reaches the trail in front of you.
At Magiclight, we ride, and we test each new light model before deciding whether to include it in our range. If we release a new product, you can rest assured that we've evaluated it and that it really adds value to our product line up.

For cycling, you want some light concentrated in the centre, to light up the road or trail in the distance. You also need a portion of the available light spread around towards the edges of the beam. Many of the lights currently on the market produce a very "floody" beam, or one which is concentrated into a spot beam with a bright centre (a tight spot beam is only recommended for helmet-mounting)
A very bright light shining on the ground / trees close to you (known as a flood beam) is actually counter-productive as too much of this light gets reflected right back into your eyes and you lose the ability to see when you try to focus on something outside of the immediate pool of light. On the other hand, a tightly focused spot beam is also a bad thing, as you lose the ability to see whats going on right in front of you and towards the edges of the trail (exception being a helmet light, which is always focussed where you are looking anyway)

We recommend testing a bike light before you buy. Don't just make your decision because of high claimed lumen ratings.
Check with your Local Bike Shop / Bike Park, many of them will have a Magiclight available for you to test.