Can You Tell The Difference Between $10,000 and $425 Photography Lighting?

The lust for better photo gear is something every photographer struggles with. In our photography industry, many people swear by the quality of light of this brand verses that brand, but in the end isn't light just light? In this video I create a classic beauty lighting setup with $10,000 worth of lighting equipment and then replicate that same setup with only $425 worth of lighting equipment. Will they look the same? This is the Rich Photographer vs Poor Photographer lighting test. 

If you've ever been on a photography trade show floor or listened to some of the industry's best photographers talk about lighting, you are bound to hear all sorts of strange and unusual claims. They may say "Our strobes have the best quality of light on the market" or "My favorite light modifier gives off this amazing specular quality that I can't reproduce anywhere." While there are no doubt some differences between light modifiers and flash design, for the most part I believe 90% of these claims are simply marketing hype. Will a double diffused softbox look different than a single diffused softbox or will a silver beauty dish appear slightly harsher than a white beauty dish? Probably, but how big of a difference will these subtle nuances make in a real world shoot?  Today I will attempt to create a simple beauty photograph with both cheap and expensive lighting equipment. 

Rich Photographer's $10,000 Shoot

The first shoot was built around Profoto's B1 battery powered 500 watt lights. Each one of these lights is about $2000 and you can get a two light kit for around $4000. This kit does not include the Profoto Air Wireless Remote so you need to add an additional $320. To create soft beauty lighting, we decided to use a variety of softboxes to achieve the desired effect. The key light B1 strobe was modified with a Profoto HR 3' Octabox and the lower clam shell lighting fill strobe was modified with a Profoto 1' x 3' HR Stripbox. The final strobe used to light our model's hair and jawline was softened by using a Profoto 2.7' x 2.7' HR softbox but I can only find the 2.6' x 2.6' version online. Of course you also will need 3 Profoto Speed Rings to mount all of these softboxes to your B1 heads.

 

All in all, with 4 B1 strobes, 1 remote, 3 speed rings, and 3 softboxes, the cost of this setup is right around $10,000. Now, for most photographers this is an extreme amount of money for lighting gear, but buying Profoto does come with some big advantages over other less expensive options. I'm personally a huge fan of Profoto gear and for most of my commercial work and on location portrait work, these are the main lights I will grab when shooting a paid job. This post isn't about whether expensive lights like Profoto's B1s are or aren't for you, but having used these lights for about 5 years now, I have no issues with them whatsoever except the price. They are the most reliable, easy to use, modular, robust lights I have ever used, and for me, the added price for piece of mind during a shoot has made these my go to lights 90% of the time. 

The total price tag on this lighting setup came in right around $10,000

Poor Photographer's $425 Shoot

The second photo I took was crafted exactly the same way as the expensive setup only this time I tried to replace every element with a much more affordable version. For lighting, I opted to use Yongnuo YN560 III battery powered speedlights. These lights are only $57 and I own about 10 of them for wedding work, remote flashes, events, beach portraits, or anything else that doesn't require tons of power. They are so inexpensive that I also use these when I want to light something in rough conditions where water, wind, rain, or sand might destroy my more expensive flashes. Unlike the Profoto lights and other more expensive speedlights made by Canon and Nikon, these flashes aren't the best build quality, and you might get some variation in flash color and output, but the differences really aren't that big of a deal. I'd say at worst you are going to get 10-15% variations from time to time but honestly it's very, very subtle when it does happen. But again, these are $57 so just buy 8 of them and have backups.

For lighting, I used 3 Yongnuo flashes total and 2 of them were modified with white shoot through umbrellas. These umbrellas allowed me to get the top of the umbrella super close to my model which caused my light to be super soft but also have some highlights and shadows caused by the light fall off (if you aren't familiar with the inverse square law, check out this video here). The advantage of umbrellas is they are cheap and easy to use, but unlike the Profoto Softboxes, these lights do throw light around everywhere. This can make it much harder to control the color of your background, especially if you are in a small studio. You can also upgrade your umbrellas to something like the Photex Softlighter to get even softer lighting with additional shoot through vs bounce options. For this image though, I was using pretty cheap umbrellas to create the final photo.

Unlike the rich photographer's shoot which used Profoto's Air Remote to control every one of the 4 B1 strobes, for the poor photographer's shoot I simply used a set of Pocket Wizard Wireless Remotes to fire my key light. Instead of putting Pocket Wizards on all of the other strobes, I opted to set the 2 other Yongnuo flashes to Optical Slave Mode so they would fire when the key light was triggered with the Pocket Wizard. This allows you to still have reliable wireless control over your flash while only having to invest in a single set of Pocket Wizards. Of course you could remove the Pocket Wizards altogether by using a pop up flash or on camera bounced flash to trigger everything with optical slave. Add a few umbrella brackets to mount the speedlights to your lightstands and you are basically done building out this cheaper lighting setup. 

The total budget for this setup came in right around $425.

Final Results

I have posted two images below labeled as A and B. If you watch the video you will easily be able to see which image was shot with which set of lights, but I thought it might be fun for everyone who has read the post first to be able to guess which one is which. There are obviously a few tail tell signs that should give it away just by looking at the images, but I think the two photos look nearly identical for all practical purposes. Of course the model, my friend Shani Bachar, has a different expression on her face for both of these images, but I think the lighting from both setups is a great example of just what can be achieved if you take the time to place your lights in the correct position and dial them in perfectly. 

The big take away from all of this is I want photographers to understand that you can still get amazing photographs with cheap gear. The most important thing to learn is the physics of lighting such as how the apparent size of a light looks on your subject, where to place the light for flattering lighting, and how light fall off affects the highlights and shadows. Simply spending a ton of money and upgrading your lights to the most expensive strobes on the market will not make your photos suddenly go from mediocre to world class. The old saying "light is light" is very true, and nothing super magical is happening when you fire a strobe through a $700 light modifier compared to a $10 bed sheet. That is not to say that more expensive gear like Profoto's B1s are not amazing lights and that owning them won't make your life much easier. However, in many cases, the actual final product, the photography itself, may not be that significantly different between one system and another. 

If you take the gear you already own and really pay attention to the details in your photographs, I have no doubt that you can make incredibly professional looking photographs no matter how much your lighting setup costs. 

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71 Comments

steven tippett's picture

to me this is one of the best videos you have ever done, because of one simple thing, you included all the stuff in the price points, not just the lights themselves... most of the time its like oo here are 2 lights lets test them, and then they end up using all the crazy modifiers and triggers and im light welll yeah but what about the $1200 in other stuff, and you covered all that :) more like this :)

Love it. Sad thing is that there will still be those who are convinced that because something cost a lot, that it will work best. This is fine for those who do occasional work like this, but I love the recycle time on my strobe as compared to a speedlight. And lastly, Yongnuo and Godox make great 3rd party speedlights and strobes.

Patrick Hall's picture

For me, the main reason I love Profoto lights is the way their speed ring mounts to their strobes and the easy of use when building softboxes. Mounting most softboxes and modifiers to small speedlights is a pain and there is not one all encompassing system that makes it as easy as Profoto with dozens of light modifiers. For me that makes the Profotos the best system out there, but you do pay a lot for it.

Janaka Rodrigue's picture

I actually hate the profoto mounting system. The two bands of metal that tighten up get warped over time (I'm talking professional, day in day out use) and the result is usually that only one band tightens in it's groove while the other one slips out. This is a complaint of a lot of the big rental houses around here too, and the cause for replacement/repair on the speedring. Also something that is friction fit like the profoto system doesn't hold up as well in stronger winds, as compared to an interlocking system like Bowens with heavy duty metal lugs. As for mounting modifiers onto speedlights...yes I can see that would be a problem with the Profoto speed ring, however bowens mount is extremely easy to mount using a bowens to speedlight adapter on a lightstand (you can set it up without the speedlight in there easily, put more than one speedlight in the adapter if you need more power, etc.

Whilst I personally have owned and used Profoto B1's and 7a's - and think the lights are fantastic, I have since replaced them with Godox AD600's and I couldn't be happier. I still do use speedlights forf real estate/architectural photography, and have my 4 x Nikon Speedlights sitting in a box now because my Godox ones are all much easier to control/pair with the AD600 and adjust the power from the remote.

Patrick Hall's picture

Don't they have a new speed ring that gets rid of the two metal bands? We have the older ones and yes the bands do get off track and sometimes the metal that holds the clamps loosens but I'm pretty sure they have newer speed rings that are better designed. That being said, I've never had a light modifier fly off the head because of lack of friction.

Randy Nicholson's picture

As far as I know the "new system" is for the OCF line and is a single band - not as rugged feeling as the RFI rings. I could be wrong but just comparing being my D1 gear and the B2 gear. OCF is super simple to assemble (not as great at my SMDV Speedbox but quite nice).

I've done almost this exact same test a while ago (used my d1 instead of a B1) out of boredom while living away from home and it was great seeing you do it.

I continue to recommend Yongnuo to people who are curious about starting to add lighting. Great video.

Motti Bembaron's picture

Never used Profoto mounts however, the Bowens mounts are very easy. I have the S-bracket for my speed light and the AD200's.

In my humble opinion, it is the worst reason to pay two to three times more. Not to mention that the Profoto modifiers are a fortune.

Great video! Cheers

Felix Wu's picture

It depends on how you look at it. It's one off investment so once you bought it you could use them till you retire. Why not get the fun ones. Profoto mounts are fun and easy to use, the downside is price and relatively heavier weight. ; )

Motti Bembaron's picture

Yes, it is always how you look at things, of course.

About 8 years ago I worked with a colleague as a second shooter for events. I was at the beginning of my career and I did a few jobs with him.

He had the greatest and the latest. The D3, D700, about 10 lenses, the Bowens and Norman lights, the Metz "Potato Masher" etc. It was fun working with him and he produce some great work. I learned a ton from him. You would not catch him dead with "cheap stuff". Even his simple 50" umbrella was $100 Wescot.

A couple of years later I was asked by another photographer to assist him in a wedding. When he started the family shots i was about to set up his lights -as I was used to do with my colleague- when he said "no need" and pulled a couple of Nikon flashes. He instructed me to just keep shooting and have dun. He obviously had no need for help setting up two battery operated flashes.

He did the same at the ceremony and the reception. When he saw that I brought two huge strobes to light the reception (borrowed from my colleague) he told me to just put my second speedlight (SB600) on a stand and connect the radio receiver to it. I figured, it's his job but I wasn't too sure about it. I thought the speedlight was way too small and weak.

I had the D300 and he told me to up my ISO, open my aperture and lower the shutter to speeds I did not think anyone should shoot at (1/60 and lower). He instructed me to bounce my on-camera flash of the ceiling with the bounce card. All that was new to me. I could not believe how good the photos came out.

I was used to shoot huge bursts of flash at no lower than f/5.6 - f/8 at 1/160 of a second. Never below 1/125 and never over 400 ISO. Well, all that worked when you have two huge strobes to light up the venue. I realized that until then I was thought to light the venue as if it was a hockey rink. Photos were clear, sharp with very little noise but also boring as boring can be.

The slow shutter speed of course let ambient light in and creates a background motion blur while the speedlight froze what in front of me.

I realized then and there that I do not need to borrow and drool over other's equipment, I had enough to do the job. What was required is good technique and experience.

When you say a "one off investment" I can't help and think of those HGTV shows about young couples buying their "forever home". Homes that are twice what they could afford and three times what they needed.

We know what happened to many of them :-(

That is basically how I look at those expensive gear, it is usually twice what I am willing to spend and way more than I need. I did buy couple of good Einsteins a few years back for school photography, however, I sold them practically three weeks ago. I hardly used them in the past two years and someone else can put them to good use. I bought another Godox AD200 and another Godox manual flash. I own 2 AD200 and 7 spedlights, I doubt they will ever be used all at once.

I watch many tutorials taken place in a small studio and the session is done with two or three huge Profoto's and giant modifiers. I could light my neighborhood hockey rink with this equipment. Why the overkill?

And with all honest, how many times do you need to "overcome the sun"?

I get it, it's fun to buy and own expensive equipment. So many purchase way more than they need. Don't get me wrong, I am sometimes to blame for that behavior too but I buy "toys" that are withing a strict budget.

Cheers mate and keep up the good work!

Felix Wu's picture

Shall I just say you didn’t know what you were doing with flash back in the days? :)

Motti Bembaron's picture

That would be an understatement....For a long while I worked with natural light only or straight strobes for portraits (simple school photography). On-camera flash was a mystery and combining it with off-camera flash was practically voodoo to me.

If somebody is shelling out for a studio strobe over a speedlight for "light quality" I think they're missing the point (barring some niche exceptions). You don't get studio strobes for "light quality", you get them for power: faster recycle time, higher output in bright scenes (i.e. overpowering the sun), and being able to back them up to cover a wider space with less falloff in larger studios. And I'm not saying that as somebody who owns studio strobes; I'm able to get by with 3 speedlights or less in most situations.

Patrick Hall's picture

You'd be surprised how often I hear "the quality of light out of these strobes is amazing."

On its own, that could TECHNICALLY still be a true statement... since they're not comparing it to anything else. Haha.

This strobe produces such an amazing soft light...

Marius Pettersen's picture

But I guess you could say that when stating the 'quality of the light', one can refer to the output- and color consistency - and of course how the modifiers work. Profoto spends a lot of time perfecting their 'light-shaping tools'.
I use both Speedlites and Profoto - strength and weaknesses with both of them, but the D1 is easily the best strobe (as in monoblock) I've used. It has worked flawlessly the past 7 years.

I have practically no interest in flash photography of any kind but I still enjoyed the video. Well done.

Stas F's picture

I'd like to see profoto executives watching this on Monday meeting.

Patrick Hall's picture

I'm sure I'll see them in WPPI. They are awesome people and an awesome brand. Like I said, Profoto is the best lighting system in terms of quality and ease of use (with their modifiers).

Stas F's picture

I'd like to see yongnuo executives watching this on Monday meeting.

Motti Bembaron's picture

Swedes are usually very polite. Even when they are mad :-)

Rafal Wegiel's picture

All my headshot and beauty work is with Nikon SpeedLights with Rotalux Deep Octas... I am just wondering what else need to be said or shown to make people understand that its not about how expensive your gear is but it about understanding the light and how You can modify it to get specific results....
KUDOS to Patrick for this video... Well done!

Will someone please address the elephant in the room 😩 🤫 PHOTOSHOP!

Rex Larsen's picture

Joeyl.com did a similar comparison with three monolights. Of course with tests like Patrick’s it tends to be more about the modifiers. I suggest JoeyL, and Patrick do a follow up video without modifiers.
Most strobes aimed through a shoot through umbrella, bedsheet, or bounced off a wall will look about the same. Then the choice is about recycle time, power, and reliability.
The rich man who is also wise may not invest in a Profoto monolight with a recessed strobe tube. But I can’t argue with their popularity. Many people to my surprise don’t care. In many situations a speed light is at a disadvantage because the flash tube is tiny. In other situations some fancy studio strobes are too powerful for up close, wide aperture work. For years I used speedlights for newspaper work, now I own a half dozen Einstein’s and rent Profoto when on the road. Photography is mostly about ideas, access and great subjects. Some of my favorite photos were shot with a Canon flash and a $10 umbrella or cardboard snoot. The great Dustin Snipes used Alien Bees and Einstein’s for years and now uses super expensive Broncolor gear. You can’t tell the difference on his website. I will say a small, light bag with four speedlights and RadioPoppers that can be up and running in minutes is a thing of beauty and a real problem solver.

William Howell's picture

I remember hearing the name Dustin Snipes somewhere before and when you mentioned him, I looked him up. He has a promotional deal with Bronocolor, he’s part of the Next Gen campaign, so maybe that is the reason he uses Bron. I’m not saying anything bad just pointing out a sponsorship tie-in.

Rex Larsen's picture

Yep, Snipes is sponsored. I wish I was too. Looking at his portfolio you can't tell what pictures were lit by Paul C Buff and the super pricey Broncolor. He told me under certain conditions you can see a difference but I haven't noticed it. He said the Einsteins didn't travel well and would get damaged in flight. I rent when traveling by air.
The Einsteins are great but due for an upgrade. The competition is increasing. I would pay more for a few improvements. And I'd like to see better PCB reflectors.

william mitchell's picture

The real "problem" with speed lights is the power supply ( AA batteries ) Too slow recycle times and not enough "pops" If someone could make an American "B2" pack and head system would be ideal. Really would like to buy american flash equipment, Euro made is expensive and china made is use until it breaks and throw away. A Dynalight 400 pack and heads is a good alternative to a B2 if you buy an inverter. Yes i own mono lights starting with Balcar.

Tom Lew's picture

Decent demonstration for those starting out in photography but the real value of Profotos and the like come when you're doing bigger commercial work where consistency and reliability are what brings the clients back again and again. Sometimes the cheaper lights work great until one day they just don't.. then no amount of apologies to the client will deliver the images they were promised upon hiring you.

In that situation, any experienced pro will have backups.
I rarely use my Profoto 1200 pack, but I bring it along in case something the 2400 dies.
I bring along a monitor in case the projector dies for a photobooth.
And I always have a backup camera.

That's why you should own something like 6-8 Yongnuos! :) Plus, it's easy to strap 4 of them together to emit more light and overpower the sun!

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