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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74 Comments

Previous comments

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!

Christian Santiago's picture

That's why you have backups. If I am using cheap gear, i'll have at least 4-5 backups so that the client never even knows there was an issue.

I always have like 5 of these super cheap, completely manual speed lights (about 35$ on amazon) lying around and just keep them in slave mode. They come in super handy when i need to place light in a precarious situation that I would not be comfortable putting my larger strobes on. On several occasions the rigging was a big fail, the lights fell and crashed and broke, but because they're so cheap and easy to replace it provided more laughs than grief.

Tom Lew's picture

That's actually a pretty great idea... I like it a lot. What lights are those exactly?

Christian Santiago's picture

I always have a bunch of these lying around. Neewer TT560 Flash Speedlite for Canon Nikon Panasonic Olympus Pentax and Other DSLR Cameras,Digital Cameras with Standard Hot Shoe https://www.amazon.com/dp/B004LEAYXY/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_api_hdYBAbGPWMTN8

Anonymous's picture

Nicely done sir.

Sergio Tello's picture

Quality of light, like Smart Water, is just a marketing scheme.

Lee Christiansen's picture

Sorry Patrick, you've missed the point of Profoto or other "rich man's" lights.

I'm certainly not "rich" but I use Profoto. I came from Bowens and had a constant frustration with the inconsistency of exposure - particularly with complex sets of 5-6 lights.

I shoot a lot of headshots, and I can shoot incredibally fast with large numbers because of the Air system and its flexibility. If I was shooting 100 headshots in a 6hr day witha speedlight - well let's say I wouldn't be getting the same.

I use almost all Profoto modifiers. I use them because they're built like tanks. The strip boxes are beautifully taut, the material on all their softboxes inspire confidence and I love the speedring system. I like the tweaks I can afford with the sliding reflectors. My Deep brollies are probably over the top and I may try cheaper alternatives if they break.

And of course you're comparing shoot-through brollies with softboxes, and these two modifiers are designed for completely different looks. The shoot-throughs will give a more "spotted" quality to the very even softboxes and a little more modeled contrast which is fine if that's what you're after. But to ask which result we prefer by using two different lighting techniques...?

Plus of course the shoot-throughs just chuck light everywhere rather than the control of a good softbox. There is a reason why softboxes costs a little more - even the cheap ones and sometimes they control the liht more when we need them too.

And you've used an expensive stripbox for the lower light when this is overkill. Reflectors are better for this (and narrower reflectors give more control, so whilst it helps make your point of lots of £££, you could have saved about $2500 by popping in a better choice of a reflector.

For your shot, there was little need for a big softbox with the hairlight. But it did serve to add many $$$ to your point.

So make another video. Do a proper test by all means. But don't be condesending when you refer to "rich photograhers" as if we're all sheep, falling for the marketing hype. Some of us choose our tools after much testing, much research and many years experience of using stuff that doesn't cut it in the commercial world.

And yes, there are subtle differences between modifiers. It's why I have two different white beauty dishes, it's why I have brollies in silver and white or I use softboxes... It's why I use 3 different reflectors depending on what I need for clamshell lighting.

You can certainly get great lighting without a big budget. But nothing is for free and it's always a law of diminishing returns.

As the time honoured saying goes: Good / Fast / Cheap... choose any two.

I think you missed the point. We use Profoto too.

Lee Christiansen's picture

I know you do. But comparing two different techniques and modifier types and repeated references to "rich photographers" doesn't make a balanced piece. Watch again and yo'll get a theme, maybe not intended, but it is there. You've made enough great videos to show how cheaper lighting can still be effective, but this alas wasn't one of them.

Rex Larsen's picture

You make good and valid points but maybe over react to the term "rich photog" Profoto, especially accessories, is expensive. Patrick was having a little fun with words.

Rafal Wegiel's picture

I really don't understand why people are getting so upset when someone start comparing expensive gear with some cheap options... I have shot big headshot project for corporations with speed lights and I haven't feel that my speed lights can't keep up with the workflow... sometimes its not about taking thousands of frames per hour and feel happy that the lights kept going neither its about the speed and and having best quality of light its about understanding the light, the posing and all the other factors which make a great headshot or portrait.... and what matters its final results as that what will bring you next client.

Kind of a defensive response considering the final results were identical. Who cares where the light spilled so long as it did not affect the final result?
The client doesn't really care whether you use ProFotos or Wham-O. They want their pictures.
If a lower priced product delivers reliably then it wins.

Daris Fox's picture

I was a Strobist for a long time using Canon flash guns (and some Quantum lights to give an idea of how long ago this was). Yes, you can get a similar look but using pro gear isn't about getting a similar look. I switched to Elinchrom Quadra's for location work partially because it tied into my RX lights but more importantly it meant less time in set up/tear down on location (Elinchrom Speedrings are great for softboxes), it was simpler to use with less points of failure and it was more powerful. With the new Skyport HS trigger I can now visually see what each light is doing, something I had to use my laptop for before.

So yes, you can get by on poor man's gear but it will cost you more in time, and as we all know time is money. The quality of my work was also improved as a side effect as I spent less time worrying about if the lights was going to work and more time on the model/client. Another advantage is that I can save money by not having to buy adaptors or modifiers specifically for the flash guns and I can use larger octaboxes.

So there's lots of reasons for why you should invest in decent lights at the outset.

DU NGUYEN VIET's picture

I just started pro less than 2 years. The most luxurious lighting modifier i got is the Elinchrom Deep Octa. It has not failed me since, but others did.
I use all Chinese brand light, from speedlight to strobes. I'm no way rich. But with my little experience like a Pro, i'll go for what you call Rich man lighting if my saving is sufficient.
I just dont want to apology my clients in the middle of the photo shoot when the light is not firing, or dealing with inconsistent light color in post.
To be honest, videos like this tend to be fun, and only for fun.

Tomash Masojc's picture

Oh those yongnuo speedlights, when i see them selling used for very low price, never can't resist not to buy...now have 6 of them :D

Douglas Turney's picture

I have several of them too and what I have found is the person selling them usually didn't spend enough time learning them. The one complaint I have is their instruction manuals are horrible. But once you understand the poor translation and how they work these things work great. I don't care how much you spend on a flash, if it hits the floor you're done. With the low cost of the Yongnuo or other low cost strobes you can have multiple backups. Or you have more lights for multi flash setups.

To each their own.

Tomash Masojc's picture

True, about manuals - their are poor, but after some studyings i alwaus find that i need, any more hidden menu or option. About falling on the ground, my few had broken battery lock door, but this part you can find on the internet for ~5 euros. Even when i have bigger shoot with studio lights i always throw to my backpack few these strobes if i wanted to play with some more interesting lighting, true :))

Andy Squib's picture

First of all im soooo happy, that you guys returned to Youtube so actively. I love your YouTube channel, for a hobby photographer like me, this is an amazing and valuable source of knowledge :) I have always been interested in comparing pro equipment with low-end equipment. Mainly because as a hobbyist, I do not have access to pro stuff. You have already proven many times that knowledge means much more than equipment. In my collection I have two yongnuo flashlights and I cant complain about them. I am curious about your comparison of their lenses with pro lenses. E.g. Yongnuo 100mm f2 vs. some pro lens with similar specification :)

Adam T's picture

I love my cheap strobes, I just shot this last night with 2 yongnuo flashes, granted one was on a kayak:

https://fstoppers.com/photo/216167

that's a very nice video. there are lots of technical differences between the two system, but i think the main difference here is due to the different light modifies. personally, i would invest a little more in light modifiers. there are cheap off brands you can get - from soft boxes, to beauty dishes, strip boxes etc - it's easy to find very cheap alternatives.
the right modifiers will bridge the remaining gap between the two systems. i think that repeating the experiment with similar light modifiers might yield close to identical results.

Mohammed Alamin's picture

The yongnuo speedlights could be triggered from a $47 trigger (YN-560TX) hence eliminating the pocket wizards and reducing cost.

They could have saved even more by not using the Pocket Wizards and used a Godox Speedlight with their inexpensive but super reliable triggers.

John MacLean's picture

Where are you buying your Profoto modifiers and speedrings? Your prices are way high!

What I would’ve suggested for an incomparable rich man’s light would be one Bron Para. You probably would have a hard time even making a B1 do anything remotely close to that! See Karl Taylor’s beauty lighting comparison video.

Patrick Hall's picture

The speedrings we have are from BH Phoot which is the industry standard for pricing

John MacLean's picture

Yeah, that's where I was comparing them from too. But now I see upon closer inspection that you're using HR versions. Although for stills with strobes that's overkill.

Patrick Hall's picture

I'm honestly not even sure the difference. Maybe the HR are used for high heat applications and since we use them for video as well we went with those?

John MacLean's picture

Yes, Heat Resistant. They cost quite a bit more than the non-HR versions.

david tennant's picture

Nice Video, I think it proves that physics doesn't change, but workflow does change, and workflow is important to some and not to others.

The softest light I ever got was DIY. I just built a triangular box with a white sheet, in which I sat. The sheet was close to me, and flat behind me. I used a flash in the back for background, and a flash on either side of my face for a vertical clamshell. All flashes were shot through the sheet, which was big and close to my face. Boom. Super soft light.

Stefan Gonzalevski's picture

Great video ! As a poor man's light studio user, I use Yongnuo (writing it is not easier than saying it loud :-) flashes and cheap accessories. And i'm fine with that ! Especially when I have to move and carry the lights to shoot on locations (portraits or indoor)
As you say it, the important thing is how to use the light, where to place it.

But I think that the difference might be also in the long term reliability, maybe also the strength of the strobes, and the power they offer. Especially when shooting outdoor.

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