Do Different Strobe/Modifier Brands Create Distinct "Qualities Of Light?" I Don't Think So

Do Different Strobe/Modifier Brands Create Distinct "Qualities Of Light?" I Don't Think So

I remember meeting Peter Hurley for the first time. I walked into his studio and saw him shooting a client's headshot with 4 Kino Flo hot lights (normally used for video). I asked him why and he said "The quality of light is just better than strobe. It fills the pores on a human face differently." At the time I was intrigued, but I no longer believe it. 

As photographers we are always obsessed with our gear, constantly looking for the next best thing, that magic camera, lens, or light that will completely change our photographs and take our work to the "next level." I'm the first to admit that I enjoy having new toys but I must admit that I often find ways to justify buying things that I really don't need. 

A wedding photographer buddy of mine called me a few months ago excited that he had swapped all of his SB-910s for Lumidines. He first brought up the point that he thought they were twice as powerful as a speedlight. I argued that using 2 speedlights is still more convenient than using a Lumidine battery pack system. His argument then changed directions. "The quality of light is simply better than a speedlight," he said. 

What in the world do photographers mean when they say "quality of light?" In most cases we don't mean anything specifically. We just mean that we like the image that it produced. The more I prodded my friend to explain what he meant by "quality of light" the more we both realized he didn't have any idea. 

Let's first break down a 2 actual differences in the "quality of light" that comes out of strobes and then we will take a closer look at the biggest difference, light modifiers. 

 

Color

The color of light that a strobe or hot light produces is potentially the biggest difference in "quality of light." Strobes, and HMIs tend to produce a "white" light similar to daylight at around 5000-5600 kelvin. Peter's Kino Flos can change temperature based on the bulb but I believe he was using 5500k truematch bulbs which match the color of strobes. Incandescent blubs (like a standard light bulb) produce much warmer (red) color.

To complicate things a bit, there is also a green-magenta "shift" or "tint" which can be measured independently of the standard temperature rating. I personally am not very knowledgeable in this area, but normally these shifts can easily be fixed in camera or in post. I have only ever had an issue with this color cast from one strobe and that was the original AlienBee. When we used that strobe outside it seemed to cause a magenta/pink color shift on our subjects that was difficult (but not impossible) to remove in post. Neither the Einstein unit nor any other strobe I've ever used has caused that problem again for me. 

So other than the old AlienBee strobes, every other light I've used has been easy to for me to color balance. Some lights may require a manual white balance setting to produce "correct" colors and most photographers probably do not know this. On Nikon cameras you can take a "PRE" reading off of a white/grey card to get a perfect setting or you can set the kelvin temperature yourself and then go into the menu to add or remove a green/magenta to perfect the setting. Obviously if you shoot in raw, all of this can be fixed in post as well. 

If you correctly white balance your scene I would argue that the slight color shifts of different light brands aren't worth arguing about and certainly isn't worth switching lighting systems over. 

 

Flash Duration


Flash duration is a big deal for certain types of photography which require ultra sharp images of moving subjects. If you were photographing an ice cube being dropped into a drink, you would want every single drop of water to be perfectly defined. Flash duration is one major reason why some strobes cost significantly more than others. Luckily speedlights and Einsteins have extremely fast flash duration at a very reasonable price. 

Most photographers would never place "flash duration" under the heading of "quality of light;" they would specifically mention a slow or a fast flash duration, but it is certainly worth considering when purchasing a light. 

 

So that's it. Color and Flash Duration. So many photographers will argue that there is something else which is "changing the quality of light" but nobody can actually explain to me what it is. Even if there was some sort of magic flash tube that could make images look "better," wouldn't that "magic" be lost when you put it behind a modifier?  


Light Modifiers


I would argue that the light produced from slightly different bulbs or tubes don't have a "unique quality," but the lighting modifiers do, to an extent. The reason that Peter Hurley likes his Kino Flos so much is not because they do something that no other light can, I think he likes the quality of the images produced because the shape of the giant Kinos super close to a person's face produce a very unique image. I believe that any light that size would produce the exact same "look." Obviously a 4 foot florescent bulb will produce a completely different "quality of light" than a 1 inch strobe light. Luckily we have modifiers that we can add to our lights to change their size and shape. 

There's a lot of hocus pocus flying around the internet about flash modifiers and for the most part I think it's pretty silly. 

For the most part, quality of light can be effected in 2 ways: 
1. The size of the light source
2. The distance from the light source to your subject

The shape of a light source can help as well but it isn't as important as many people make it out to be. 

 

Softboxes


Softboxes are the standard modifier that I will compare everything else to. At it's core, a softbox is simply used to turn a small light source into a larger light source. You can buy totally different sizes of softboxes in a range of different shapes but I would argue that their size is the biggest defining feature. Most softboxes have inner baffles that "soften" the light even more. This simply means that your light will leave the front of the softbox more evenly from edge to edge. I've had photographers argue with me that softboxes need to have white interiors rather than silver or that they only use Softlighters because the light is "so much softer" and I'm not buying it. If you want "softer light" simply use a bigger light source. If you want more contrast in your lighting, move your light closer to your subject. 

The Fstoppers FlashDisc is simply a mini softbox for a speedlight. I've read reviews online of people saying that the "quality of light out of the FlashDisc is incredible." Although I appreciate the glowing reviews, there isn't any magic going on, it's simply making your light source slightly larger than a standard speedlight head. It's convenient, and helpful in certain situations, but it will produce an almost identical "quality of light" to any other flash modifier that is about that size. 

 

Umbrellas


Umbrellas come in 2 basic types, bounce and shoot through. In most cases shoot through umbrellas will produce "softer" light because the entire umbrella is lighting your subject and "bounce" umbrellas will produce slightly "harder" light because they have a tendency to light your subject with the center of the umbrella. White umbrellas will produce slightly softer light than silver umbrellas because white umbrellas will "fill" with light and then reflect it back at your subject while silver umbrellas have a tendency to "reflect" light directly, from the center of the umbrella, at your subject (like a mirror). 

The biggest difference between an umbrella and a softbox is that softboxes contain the light spill a bit better. Umbrellas tend to throw light all over the room but I would argue that it is possible to take an almost identical image with either a softbox or an umbrella of similar sizes. 

 

Beauty dishes and Molas


Dishes are a unique lighting modifier because they are changing the size of the light but they are also changing the edge of the light or the "light falloff." A standard beauty dish uses a center plate to reflect light back toward the dish. The light then reflects off of the sides of the dish and hits the subject. The sharp edge of a beauty dish can be used to produce unique shadows on your subject but the lighting itself is very similar to a medium softbox with the front diffusion panel removed.  Adding a "sock" to the front of a beauty dish makes it "softer" and even more similar to a standard softbox. 

Molas are very unique and expensive brand of beauty dishes. Many of them have very unique shapes which add to their intrigue. We put these units to the test with Peter Hurley in our "Illuminating The Face" tutorial and we found that these modifiers produced an almost identical result to similarly sized octabanks without front diffusion panels. They are certainly impressive to look at and they produce unique catch lights in your subjects eyes but other than that, there isn't any magic going on. 

 

Grids


Grids are used to change the "throw" or "spill" of light without effecting the size of a light source. You could put a grid on a flash directly for a very "small" and "hard" light source or you could put a grid on a 7 foot octabank which is "large" and "soft." The grid will help you direct which parts of your scene are being illuminated without changing the size of your light source. 


Reflectors


Reflectors could be considered light sources too. The size and distance of your reflector to your subject works exactly the same as a softbox. The shape of some reflectors allow you to craft the light in a way that would be difficult to do with softboxes, but in many cases could be replicated with a piece of white foam core

 

Where did this "light quality" crap come from? 

So then what is this "quality of light" that photographers like talking about? Perhaps one of the reasons that we are constantly confused by lighting equipment is that we are comparing our unedited work to highly edited images online. We see a picture and assume that it looks amazing because it was photographed with a Profoto Beauty Dish when in reality it has a unique "look" that was produced in Photoshop. If you tried to reproduce the original raw file you would find that any similarly sized light source would be capable of producing an almost identical shot. 

I remember years ago trying to reproduce the lighting in the StarTrek movie poster. I could not figure out how in the world the photographer was able to produce highlights on the side of his subjects face and then dark shadows on the cheek bones.  


We spent hours in the studio trying to reproduce this shot with lighting alone and finally gave up. I ended up creating a similar look in Photoshop by simply burning in the shadows on my forehead, nose, and cheek. I always felt like I had "cheated" but I was able to create a similar looking shot. 

A year later I ran across the original image of Chris Pine from this shoot. Guess what? It looked exactly like my attempt. Those shadows that seemed so impossible to reproduce were in fact impossible to reproduce in camera.  

I thought that the photographer knew something I didn't. I thought the photographer must have owned some type of specialized light to produce such unique shadows. He didn't. He used 2 lights in the back and a medium softbox or reflector from below. The "magic" was added in Photoshop. 

No matter how much we want to believe it, there really isn't any piece of gear that is going to automatically take your photography to the next level. You can take a horrible or incredible shot with almost any camera or lighting brand, new or old. Lighting is certainly still important, perhaps the most important thing, but the brand name isn't going to make a difference. I'm now using Profoto D1s and B1s. I absolutely love the convenience air remote system, the size and weight of the monolights, the simplicity of Profotos speedring, and the quality and range of their modifier line but I can't tell any difference in the "quality of light"  that comes out of Profoto flashtubes compared to my speedlights, or the old Dyna-Lites that I used to own. I believe that the "quality of light" argument is bullshit. I think we make stuff like this up to justify buying new gear that we don't necessarily need but I would love to be proven wrong. Feel free to let me know just how wrong I am in the comments below. 

Log in or register to post comments

135 Comments

Previous comments
Alexis Cuarezma's picture

If you know what you're doing with light what you use is almost irrelevant. I always say, look at my book/portfolio and tell me if you can see the difference btw an image I made using 50k worth of lights vs $200 worth of light. To take it further, can you tell what camera I used? Does the end viewer even care?? Don't think so. To take on the challenge above, I ask anyone to look at my site and try to guess which images where taken with a 20k MF camera vs an old 5D classic. There's even one there made w/ an old 1dmk2!! and can you also guess which was made w/ 60k+ of profoto lights, vs just 1 $200 speed light:

http://alexiscuarezma.com/

[*If you guess right, Lee will give you a free LIFETIME membership to ALL future FSTOPPERS workshops and DVD's ;) *obviously just kidding.]

With that being said, expensive lights and mods have their place and little things can go LONG way which can be HUGE on set. There is no perfect light. Use what fits your vision and your budget.

cheers!
-Alexis

Well said. You need to add some more pictures to your port on Fstoppers. You have some incredible stuff on your site.

Alexis Cuarezma's picture

Thanks Lee!! Wait, you couldn't guess which images were made w/ a $200 speed light vs 50k worth of Profoto???!! you didn't want the LIFETIME membership to ALL future FSTOPPERS workshops and DVD's ;) My Fstoppers port was maxed out already but I think I recently was awarded 2 more images. I'll look into it, thanks!

Dylan Patrick's picture

And Alexis for the win...well said!

Dan Howell's picture

Except that you don't measure the value or worth of a piece of lighting equipment based on a single exposure. Similarly you don't invest in a piece of lighting equipment for a single flash. The blustery statement sounds great at first, but in reality it carries no weight.

Alexis Cuarezma's picture

I never said or implied that any of the images made were done in a single exposure. Obviously the final image that ends up in your book is a result of a handful of images. I also said "expensive lights and mods have their place and little things can go a LONG way which can be HUGE on set." I also said that what you use is "almost irrelevant" if you know what your doing. Note the word ALMOST. I never said that you invest in a piece of lighting gear for a single flash.

Please explain how "The blustery statement [I made] sounds great at first, but in reality it carries no weight." Here's the reality of my statement. When I 1st started out, I used to work with a photographer. She was sponsored and had connection with the best companies. The latest Profoto Lighting, the latest Hassy Cameras. Ridiculous amount of $$$ in gear. And ALL the results were sub-par. Average at best. At the time, I had Canon 1Dmk2 and cheap Alien Bee strobes. And some of the work I produced with that is still in my book. In fact, I still have those Alien Bees today. And with those Alien Bees, I know for a fact I could produce better work then the average photographer who owns fancy Profoto/Bron Lights. In fact, with $500 worth of Home Depot lights I know I could produce better work than the average photographer who own expensive lights. It's NOT necessarily what you have but how you used it and your creativity.

With that being said, I would not show up to a paid job or an assignment for a magazine with Home Depot lights. But if it hit the fan and something went horribly wrong, I know I could (as a last resort).

There's lots of things that go into the "measure [of] value or worth of a piece of lighting equipment ". I've used $120K worth of lighting before on set. It had it's place.

Here's the best analogy in my opinion that I can come up for lights. Strobes are like cars. At the end of the day, a 1983 Honda Civic and a 2015 Rolls Royce will both do the same job and get you from point A to point B. However, the more expensive one will be a lot nicer to ride in and have a lot more bells & whistles. And depending on your destination, you choose the right car. Your going on a short commute w/ a lot of stop & go traffic, it's probably best to take the 83 Civic (Alien Bees, Speed lights, older used Profotos). Your going a LONG cross country trip where you need something reliable that wont break down, you're better off taking the 2015 Rolls Royce (Latest Profoto/Bron). You need to go off road, use a lot of power and want nice features, take a Range Rover (Profoto B4 or Bron Move Pack). Don't need a lot of power or nice features, then take an older Jeep (Alien Bees plus Vagabond, Speed Lights). Need a lot of speed and best of the best, take a 2015 Ferrari (Profoto 8a Packs). Need a lot of speed on a budget?? Take a 95 Nissan 300zx (Paul C Buff Lights/ used Profoto 6a/7a packs). Depending on your needs, ALL these cars (lights) will take you to your destination and all have their own expenses/user experience and results.

That's my view and personal opinion on lights. If you believe that my view carries no weight in reality then we have different points of view and I would love to hear your take. I'm always open to learning and see other peoples views.

cheers!
-Alexis

Alexis Cuarezma's picture

Are you going to actually respond and explain how what I said "carries no weight"? Or just vote down my response?

Dan Howell's picture

I'm going to skip all of your bragging and go straight to the analogy.

I believe that a more relevant and accurate analogy would be to compare a buying strobes to buying a firetruck. There is a reason that a city government would choose a Segrave purpose-built firetruck as opposed to a Ford F-350 truck with a water tank and pump.

Using your framework for the analogy, both could drive to a location and spray water and put out a brush fire or maybe even a house fire. The reason a municipality would choose to spend 10-20x the cost of the Ford is that the Segrave has the greater power, versatility and lifespan. In addition, a possibly a greater reason is the cost of failure.

The municipality is concerned with paying for equipment that can be relied on in challenging situations not just a single event. Plus there is a greater cost in terms of safety for not equipping their professionals with adequate vehicles. This is why your analogy fails miserably. It neither applies the lifespan of the equipment into comparing the costs nor does it factor in the cost of failure.

I am not implying that photography has the importance or severity of fire safety and protection, but frame work for allocating budget for professional equipment has demonstrable parallels.

Your analogy fails to adress lifespan of equipment and the potential cost that failure of entry level equipment. On some my shoots, my fees, model fees, and production expenses can nearly equal the cost of my equipment and it certainly exceeds the cost of entry level equipment. The potential cost of a lost shoot due to failed equipment, to me, is adequate justification for purchasing professional-grade strobe equipment. In addition, I selected equipment based on my frequent need for high-volume catalog production days and frequent transport and travel.

While no brand or item can guarantee freedom from failure, but there is a greater reliability to brands with more robust build quality. Personally if I am traveling on a location shoot where replacement equipment is hours away I select more rugged equipment that is designed for the demands I place on it. And even though any professional plans a certain amount of redundancy into packing for a demanding shoot, more professional systems generally have greater options in addition to reliability.

I'm not saying that ever photographer makes the same value-based decisions in regards to equipment purchase, but what I am saying is that your reductive analogy is neither on point nor accurate.

Alexis Cuarezma's picture

My initial comment, was about producing good images. Not about being in a high stakes situation or investing in gear to shoot high volume catalog work. And like I said before, I even said that expensive gear has it's time and place and I also said "Use what fits your vision and your budget." If you have a high end client that's willing to pay a lot money because the stakes are high, it goes without saying you should use the best that's available to you.

Further more, you're talking about purchasing lights, I'm talking about using lights. I'm not at all saying "Go buy cheap lights and shoot high end jobs with them".

I know A LOT of high end photographers who DO NOT own all the Profoto lights they use, they rent most them. Everyone's business is different, but it doesn't make business sense to invest 120k in Profoto lights when you can rent them for only 3k/day when you need 10-18 strobes to light 3-4 sets.

Dan, you're different from most photographers in that you're fortunate enough to have a high end studio, and high end clients where it makes sense for you to own all your high end Profoto or Bron gear and all the latest and greatest.

You don't need the latest and greatest for personal or test shoots or to build your book. Or even to produce great images if you're not under a high stakes situation or under a high volume level of shooting. Take away the high stakes situation, use the same exact number of lights/mods, one really expensive and one a lower end brand and you'll be hard press to visually see the difference.

I think most people got that I was saying that and that's why they liked my comment. And for some reason what I said upset you and you chose to be condescending from the start and belittling what I said by saying my statement was "blustery" and "in reality it carries no weight." Furthermore by saying things like "your analogy fails miserably" and "your reductive analogy". I just get that for whatever reason, you don't like me personally or you took what I said personally and no matter what I say, it's going to be wrong/inaccurate, "fail miserably" and "carry no weight".

You have a successful high end studio and own all your high end lights. That's admirable and inspiring and I wish you continued success.

cheers,
-Alexis

Kenn Tam's picture

Ballsy move putting yourself next to the likes of Chris Pine but you pulled it off. :P

Justin Haugen's picture

Most beginners are just arbitrarily blasting their subjects with lights and don't take the time to use the light in a purposeful manner and really understand the relationship between the distance from subject, size, and shape of the modifier.

I'm totally guilty of this and I wish I had understood sooner what all the different modifiers could do for me.

It's more about quality and durability of gear.

I can assure you a pack from Elinchrom is NOT as durable as a Profoto or Broncolor one. And there is a gigantic difference in build quality and materials used.

Patrick Hall's picture

I agree this is what makes a brand like Profoto worth the extra money....BUT, that's not what these companies and their sponsored photographers say to sell the products. I remember a softbox company pitching me on how their softboxes were SO much better than other brands based on quality of light as Lee is arguing. The reality is, when I got some of them in my hands, they were built almost identically as the softboxes I already owned. If I was to setup a test shoot with both boxes as comparison, they would produce identical results with the exception of maybe a slight slight color difference.

Felix Wu's picture

Other than size, one other important fact when it comes to light and modifiers - efficiency. Efficiency depends on shape of the modifiers and materials used.

A more parabolic and highly reflective coated reflector will give out more light and drains less battery, thus will pick up your recycle time.
A deep umbrella produces so much more focused light compared to shallow one. So shape matters a lot here.
A B1/D1 has much larger front glass than a speedlight thus acts like a modifier on its own and produces softer looking light.
Some flashtubes emit more UV than others so need to choose wisely in certain applications such as reproduction photography.

Patrick Hall's picture

Efficiency is definitely something to take into account when it comes to picking a strobe light for a shoot, but I'd argue that the actual light coming from that unit isn't any different than that from another brand.

I honestly do not believe the D1/B1 glass makes a difference in light quality filling a softbox or a beauty dish. Many have argued that the glass is actually a negative because it only pushes light forward instead of the traditional bulb or domes other companies use. In both a softbox and beauty dish application, you would want the light to fire in every direction within the softbox to help illuminate it as evenly as possible, not simply fire straight ahead.

Again, this glass is acting like a modifier as you said so you have to remove that from the equation if you are going to talk about strict Quality of light coming from the flash tube. In many cases, the tubes being used from different manufacturers is actually the exact same tube but you didn't hear that from me :)

Felix Wu's picture

I was just comparing B1/D1 vs speedlights bare head only. Essentially they are just the bigger version of speedlights agree? Bigger the light source softer the light. ;)

There's no arguing that when using a large softbox or a beauty dish the flat head style is definitely a minus. Even with dome on the B/D1 just dont give out as pleasing/even light as the prohead due to its recessed tube and shorter dome design.

Are the tubes the same? They may look the same but they are not. Some are designed for higher output and more durability. Some tubes certainly last longer than others, you can only tell from heavy use. Ask the rental studio guy and he may be able to tell you.

Dudley Didereaux's picture

Kudos! But now you will be vilified, and chased about by mobs of gear-enviers carrying torches and pitchforks. How dare you expose the truth that only physicists were supposed to know. ;)

Dan Thompson's picture

Lee, again you speak the truth as always. Its not the value of the equipment but the quality of the Photographer and his or her skill set. Know your equipment whether its 5K worth of camera and lights or 50K worth, a good photographer can shoot good images with either. And that coming from a guy who has a serious condition of GAS. Some of my best images were done with lower priced gear. I will will make one other point I know most photographers say get it right in camera and i also work hard at that but with the quality of post processing software its not as a big of concern as it was 10 years ago. Me and my IMAC with Photoshop can make a carp image and turn it around to one Im proud to display.

One final thing I have 6 of your flash disc's and want to thank you such a simple invention that proves you don't need to spend huge amounts of money to make good images. They are awesome.

6!? You have to be our biggest customer

I actually like yours better. The style of retouching that makes the pores more obvious, which I realize is "in" right now, is pretty unappealing to me. I don't want to see the pores on Chris Pine's nose. Call me crazy.

Eric Mazzone's picture

Wow, I'm totally surprised that there isn't a strong reaction against this article. And I'm so freaking glad that people aren't throwing fits.

Thank you SO much for this.

I keep expecting the haters to show up but they haven't yet.

Chris Adval's picture

Wow very nice lengthy article here Lee. You did fantastic job even beginners could understand but as well keep the advance light users interested, very nicely written :)

As for my comments about the contents lol... 1: I totally agree, it is bull. I've used impact (B&H store brand lighting on my strobe setup), while its no profoto or even other great lights for added conveniences or added bonus features to add different looks like the only reason I personally want to buy an Indra ($1100-$1500 strobe) is the HSS capabilities for a studio strobe. Of course in the future I'd want and may even need a profoto or equivalent that can handle and produce higher flash duration for action shots but that for me may be years after I buy an Indra.

"I've had photographers argue with me that softboxes need to have white interiors rather than silver or that they only use Softlighters because the light is "so much softer" and I'm not buying it. If you want "softer light" simply use a bigger light source. If you want more contrast in your lighting, move your light closer to your subject. "

This comment was the only thing that I slightly disagreed with honestly. As you may already know some people have size and logistical limitations as why they want super soft light from smaller sources, heck the modifier you mentioned softlighter from Photek is a great light source for "natural" looking soft light. While I personally haven't used it yet, but researched it as it is on the top of my buy list for modifiers, I think it is better than carrying a much bigger modifier, heck even more affordable option too.

As the more contrast comment, move the light closer option is an option yes, but not for everyone, what if I want to do a wide angle shot? Then I have the option to do composite with the light in the shot and remove it with the composite. Depends on the individual's style, some refuses to do any composting, some use it for last resort like myself.

If I could have a 5"x5" softbox that can create the same light as a 50"x50", (I know impossible currently, just hypothetical) which would you choose? The less heavy, quick setup, and less costly setup right? Right... ;-)

I would like to see an example of how much softer a soft lighter is than a similarly sized octabank. Remember that softness = the size of the light. If the octa wasn't filling the edges for some reason you could put a small piece of aluminum foil on the inner baffle and BOOM, more even and "softer" light.

Chris Adval's picture

I cant get that right now lol, but I'm sure Clay Cook would know or even have them possibly as he does have a softlighter and I'm sure has or had a normal octa.

Jon Wolding's picture

Said it already, but, yeah, Photek Softlighter II 60" is noticeably softer (not talking light power - obviously you have to compensate) than my 30"x60" softbox (even with the inner diffusion).

Alexis Cuarezma's picture

softness = the size of the light + distance relationship from light source to subject. The closer the light to the subject the softness goes up.

Tony Northrup's picture

Great article, Lee, and thanks for addressing this! I'm tired of seeing people spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on some gadget that has some magical "quality of light", when all it really does it bounce it around.

More comments