What Is The Real Difference Between Budget and Premium Lights?

One of the greatest things to happen in recent years for photography is the huge increase in incredibly well-designed budget lighting systems. Although most of them come from the same factories as the premium brands, offer similar specs on paper, and often have alarmingly similar looks, what is the real difference?

If, like me, you have had to spend wisely, budget well, and really keep tabs on your bottom line, then the new wave of high-specification lights that have flooded the market under various brand names may look like a very exciting prospect. And for a lot of photographers, this is certainly the perfect balance of performance to cost. In many situations, there is also no difference in terms of performance when looking at the final image. Nevertheless, for a professional like myself who works on major campaigns, there are certain things that these more affordable lights sadly let me down on.

In this video, I discuss my experiences of using brand new, top-of-the-line premium lighting kits on set, compared to 35-year-old premium kits and what the latest budget kits have to offer. Thankfully, in 2021, the vast majority of us can really benefit from the cheaper gear out there without giving up image quality, so certainly, you shouldn't feel that not having the budget to buy $2,000 lamps and $15,000 packs will hold you back, unless you shoot the specific things that I discuss here.

How have you used the more affordable lights in recent years? I am sure we can all agree that 10 years ago, they were pretty bad, but the last batch that I tested was surprisingly good and well made.

Scott Choucino's picture

Food Photographer from the UK. Not at all tech savvy and knows very little about gear news and rumours.

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There are differences in speed, color consistency, ergonomics, life span. Depending on a persons needs, those differences can justify the cost of premium lights. Simple as that.

At the same time as I understand some photographers require the best it kind of piss me off when some junk flashes becomes Godox and you need to get spare ones to replace what breaks, waisting you money on gear that fluctuates color balance and exposure. Really? I have both a exposure meter and a color meter, I never noticed that. With my Chinese pice of junk flashes who never failed me in any way.
When Bron finally gets down to releasing a HS trigger, it’s a rebranded Godox. Godox was producing Bowen’s strobes costing a grand. Only Bron knows how much of there electronics are made in China.

It's a Godox body, but I doubt it's anywhere the same inside. First, Bron doesn't do TTL, and two the Bron is HS while the Godox is HSS. One RFS 2.2 can also be set as transmitter or receiver where it looks like Godox has a transmitter module and a receiver one. From both the Bron and Godox menus and PDFs, working operation seem to be totally different as well.

Good comment. Elinchrom also recently released some rather expensive mono lights that might be good. Both Godox and Jinbei (Westcott) have pro series product with 1/10 stop increments now. I don’t need 100% accuracy myself, but it would be fun to see if there are any difference.
A week point with Godox is they will overheat with HSS, I wounder how premium products handle that. I would expect the ELB 500 from Elinchrom to be able to handle quite more. Never could find any numbers, only with Godox it’s in the manual how many times you can fire them in HSS mode.

Lee, for pure reliable power you don't have to buy brand new Bron. A 20-25 year old pack will do good and in recent years it seem many have discovered it as they have slightly gone up in price on ebay. I have 5 1600ws packs that are 15 years to 26 years old and I use them a all the time for silo furniture photography. It's great to get an entire open recliner sharp front to back or a long sofa turned at any angle. If I can take 1 pack per head and even if I have to split one shooting in a house (or a store) a small room scene, I will, so I always have extra power if needed. Right now I have a project of over one thousand fabric samples to copy which I dedicated 2 of my older packs for. They reload in no time because of the low power I use for this and I bracket 1/3 over and under for each image just because I'm old fashion. I'm already 1/3 in the project with plenty of confidence that they will not fail me. These packs will do ping pong, delay and 1/7000 durations and some sequences. GrafitA2 and PulsoA2 won't take HS, but with the RFS2.2 my Topas A2 will as well as my Mobil. I see Scott keeps buying more used Bron all the time, he got it right, he gets reliability for cheap and the rest of the money goes in his pocket. Seem he has two used 1600 primos now and for the cost he can use one head per pack if he wants and expect a few decades of use plus these are probably HS capable with the RFS2.2, so he has 1/8000s at his fingertips for any fluid. I think his math is pretty good.

Lee makes some great points. I was nodding in agreement as I read this. One of my Bron kits is currently in for its third service, each of these repairs has cost over $1000. So yes, I have been wondering about a cheaper replacement - but I have too much tied up in modifiers and other Broncolor heads, the cost of change would be ugly.
Service has been slow’ish, and zero sympathy for my run of bad luck - which irks me given the significant investment I have made.
Lee is all correct in noting the Bron modifier mount is a let down, it feels like lazy engineering. Too late for Bron to change now, but it’s a clumsy design (yes it works, just not as elegantly as some other designs).
On the upside, the modifiers have been fantastic, and yes the Paras are worth it for my needs.

I own a few of the new Godox AD600 Pro lights in my studio and I must say I am very pleased with them. I don’t have any colour or power changes. Mainly use them for product photography and an occasional time lapse. I also worked with the previous versions of Godox lights and it’s true, they were not as good as these new ones. Only rent very expensive lights when my client’s budget can afford it. I also admit I never used the Godox lights in HSS at full power for a longer time. I’m quite sure that’s when you will see the difference between them and the big budget gear.

Just one more thing, in the video Scott says that the really cheap Chinese speed lights are crap, and they are, but if you are a beginner, just learning and don’t have a budget for proper studio lights, just buy the Youngnue ones, or whatever they are called. They are what they are but you can still use them to create your starting portfolio and that will help you to get your first jobs. Those jobs will pay for better equipment, advance your portfolio and get even better jobs. Plus you will learn a ton in the meantime, just from using in cheap ones and dreaming about owning the top of the line ones