Flashlight Review: ThruNite Catapult V6 with Nitecore Red Filter for wildlife observation at night

Author: Ravi Kailas (ficustours@gmail.com)

ThruNite Catapult V6, supplied accessories (lanyard, usb charging cable, holster) plus Nitecore 60mm Red Filter

Introduction 

An oft arising ethical dilemma for any nature enthusiast is where to ‘draw the line’ in pursuit of appreciating our natural world. Without a doubt, any attempt at observing wildlife, has some impact on the natural system – indirectly, at the very least. Observation efforts at night, by flash-lighting, are obviously impactful activities, infringing upon a cover of darkness that nature’s beings have evolved to exist in over millions of years. The catch is that much of the splendours of the natural world occur under the cover of darkness – either in the deep depths of the ocean or at night, on land. This especially holds true in the case of mammals, where a plethora of this ilk show up only under cover of darkness.

Flash-lighting is the obvious solution for night-time viewing of mammals, with relatively inexpensive, widely available tools to facilitate the activity. An understanding of basic biology suggests that mammals that are active at night, are especially adapted to see in low light (they have more rods in their eyes that enhances this capability). White light from torches (since rods are sensitive to them) negatively affects, albeit temporarily, among other things, their night vision – critical for their survival, either prey or predator. This is where a red filter over the light helps, since a large part of mammalian vision sensitivity to low light is unaffected by red-light (rods that help see in low light, do not sense red light and hence their night vision remains intact). On the flip side, everything appears red with a red filter – not ideal for observation, where colour might be critical for animal id and photography. The filter also reduces brightness and throw of the light (both essential elements for night-spotting wildlife). Other technologies such as thermal sensing and Infrared based visual aids, are ideal for their low impact on the dark environment/animal behaviour, but high costs and limited availability are big drawbacks.

Having largely used light-weight, modestly powerful headlamps so far, I decided to invest in a brighter torch, given that I was spending more time looking for wildlife at night. I had specific needs though – bulk was a no no, since I do like to walk while looking, often carrying a DSLR/large lens and binoculars around my neck and adding a large unwieldy torch to this list, would knock the fun out the experience. I also entertained hopes that I could go as far as use my bulky camera, while holding the light on the other (more on that later).

Reading up a bit on the internet seemed to suggest that the rapidly evolving LED technology was miniaturising flashlights while retaining impressive brightness and throw capabilities –  all good signs for the upcoming pursuit of enlightenment ….

Hands on Review 

ProsCons
Compact and Light (great for one-handed use with binoculars)Underwhelming throw (field use vs specifications)
Well engineered feel
Beam not focussed as per typical thrower (also significant halo)
Very Bright for size Heats up fast at high output settings
Long-lasting (per charge), high-output Battery 
Reliability Issues (in-built charger failed)
Ergonomic DesignRare Battery (type 26650 – spares/replacements not easily available)
Supplied Lanyard and Holster, very useful for on-demand use of torch in the fieldUnintuitive operation (while switching between brightness modes)
Value for Money

An article (incidentally excellent for anyone researching) on a mammal watching forum, got me thinking along the lines of ThruNite. A glance through their product line and the Catapult V6 popped out for its compactness, impressive brightness and throw (specifications here) – all this under USD 80. Online reviews backed up the promise that the technical specifications suggested. Living in India (where the company does not sell), however, my order (through amazon.com) had to take a circuitous route (to save on hideous shipping charges and import duties), via a US resident friend, who then beast-of-burdened it to Chennai, past a sleepy customs, where I live.

Fast forward to arrival (on the cusp of my departure to a trip to the Eastern Himalayas), first impressions on hand was how perfect the size was – fitting easily into my large hands – with a grooved handle that is easy to hold and with adequate grip. The all metal construction gave it a ‘well engineered’ feel and comforting heft. You can hang the torch comfortably from your wrist with the supplied lanyard – a must, when you have multiple things going on and you need quick access to the torch, at your fingertips. The supplied holster is a much better way to transport the torch than in your pocket, where it will tend to feel heavy.

Fits easily into my large hands – compact, ergonomically designed and with a satisfying heft

The torch has 5 brightness settings, among a couple of other modes, of which I found mid-levels, at 180 lumens and 950 lumens especially useful for my needs.The torch is bright at 180 lumens, and impressively so at 950 lumens – ideal when you want to notice finer details in the animal or for photography. The other settings, except the brightest (which I rarely used, due to its marginal improvement only over the 950 lumens), are not necessarily useful for night-spotting of mammals. Please note though, that the torch heats up considerably, with continuous use at 950 lumens and above, and rather quickly.

I was expecting a lot from this model as a thrower (from online reviews), but have to say I was underwhelmed by its effectiveness as such, in the field. While I do not have actual measurements, I estimate that the light is only useful for observation within 200m, although the maximum beam distance is pegged at 750m. It would still be useful to reflect eye-shine though, at greater distances (for example I was able to make out the eye-shine of a Leopard, at dusk, relaxing on a rocky ridge, about 300m away). Another drawback is that the beam spread out more than expected for a thrower – I assume that this is a compromise that had to be made to keep the torch as elegantly compact as it is.

An unintuitive quirk is evident while changing brightness modes with continuous pressure on the on-off button. For example, if you wanted to change from 180 lumens (which I had on a lot of the time) to 950 lumens (often in a hurried effort to see more detail in an animal), this method will take you down to the lowest setting, then back to 180 lumens before reaching your desired brightness (instead of just going one level up). Of course, another option was to just ‘double click’ the button to get to 1700 lumens (the maximum output of the torch, which I rarely wanted to use), but this also, confusingly, led into a strobe or very low light mode, at times.

The torch uses a single 26650 (supplied) – a relatively rare, rechargeable Lithium Ion battery. My usage was a mix of mid-range settings for which a fully charged battery lasted about 4 hours until completely drained. I anticipated using the torch for longer hours per night, so decided to invest in a spare battery. Since the 26650 battery was unavailable from reliable manufacturers/sellers in India, I ordered the battery via BH Photo Video’s online store and had it shipped it to an US address, to sneak across borders, uncelebrated, in the luggage of a close confidant (or the like).

Red Filter Attachment
Nitecore 60mm Red Filter 

Thrunite does not offer ad-on colour filters for this model. Some online shopping around and I found a Nitecore 60mm red filter approximately matching the Bezel diameter of the torch – happily pre-imported into India by a flashlight specialist store (so none of that underhand, cross border nefariousness this time). While the filter diameter was 2mm larger than the bezel of the torch’s, it fit snugly enough, with the rubberised sides of the filter enhancing grip. The filter did come off though, once, when my hand brushed (atypically) hard against a protruding part of the filter. Please note that the bulk of the torch increases considerably with this filter attached, making it cumbersome to transport with the supplied holster or in your pocket (it is still perfectly fine to hang around the wrist with the supplied lanyard). The filter itself seemed to be made of high quality plastic, clear, flat and blemish free.

The filter does increase the overall size of the torch, making it unwieldy to carry in supplied holster

Brightness and throw are reduced considerably with the red filter attached. I found that the 950 lumens was the minimum workable setting, while searching for mammals/eye-shine, with the filter attached. This setting proved perfectly adequate for spotting in a rainforest environment (where effective viewing distance is shorter), but somewhat limiting still in a dusty, desert environment, where more throw would have been desirable. Eye-shine seemed almost enhanced (for my non-technical eye), with the red-filter attached, but of course we lose the ability to narrow down species identification based on the colour of the eye-shine (since all eye-shine appears red now). There is the problem of heat build-up as well, while using the torch continuously at this high setting – so that is something to consider, especially in warm environments.

Usage with binoculars

I have used binoculars (typically of 8x or 10x by 32/40/42, both roof and porro prisms) for nature observation, for decades now. However, until now, I had only ever used binoculars with both hands – even at night, where I had headlamps for illumination, and the hands free for oculars. While, in this case, it took some time to get used to holding the torch parallel to my binoculars with my left hand, and,  steady/focus the binoculars (Nikon Monarch 8×42 HG) with the right, it has started getting much easier with practise (a big challenge initially, was to focus the beam on the animal, while, simultaneously holding the binoculars to the eyes). Bottomline, the torch is compact enough to hold and control with one hand, if one is comfortable enough to control the binoculars with the other.

Usage with Camera

One of the uses I had envisaged for the torch was help aid photography of wildlife at night. Again, I was banking on its compactness to use with my photography set-up (hand held), without it becoming too unwieldy to use simultaneously. My photography set-up is a combination prosumer cameras (Canon 80D and Olympus OMD EM5 MKII) and pro lenses (Canon 300mm 2.8 II and M. Zuiko 40-150 2.8) – both set-ups with advanced autofocus mechanisms (very capable even in low light), excellent image stabilisation, and very good, out-of-camera, high ISO image quality.

One-handed operation of the large and heavy Canon set-up (my preferred choice at night) is virtually impossible and I improvised a system of fastening the torch with a high strength rubber band around the lens hood, as a potential solution. This was perfect ergonomically, but the light, as expected somewhat, was largely directed away from the centre of the image – making for awkward post-processing effort to set this imbalance right. Holding the camera with the righthand and torch/lens with the left, was possible, but only after several moments of adjustment every time – not ideal when you are trying to photograph shy, fast moving subjects, that most wildlife tend to be. A better set-up here would be to include monopod for the camera set-up, freeing up one hand for the torch, but then again this defeats the ideal of minimalism that the compactness of this model brings to the table. However, things worked out more elegantly, with the much more compact Olympus mirrorless setup, where I could easily operate the camera/lens with one hand (largely, and thanks also to Olympus’s superb in-camera image stabilisation) and hold the torch with the other (flush against the lens … still requires some practise though, as with binoculars).

Reliability issues

Within a month of buying the torch the in-built charging mechanism failed. I assume that this was due to the erratic voltage supply in the remote region I was travelling through at that time. Given that I could (and have) easily overcome this limitation with an external charger, I did not bother to have it repaired (which would have required me to ship to the US or China – cumbersome and expensive).

A few days ago, on the cusp of another travel, the light failed entirely. I got in touch with the prompt, but somewhat cryptic, ThruNite customer service (based out of China) and they suggested cleaning the contacts between the battery and the light head and around the LED. This, happily, has solved the problem – at least for the time being.

Example Images 

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