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. 

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135 Comments

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Patrick Hall's picture

I totally think we are going to have to do a post/video about this in the next few weeks. This could be fun :)

Alexis Cuarezma's picture

I just find this really heard to believe: "I can tell you even with the same size modifiers and distance from the subject their is a difference in the "quality of light"". If by "quality" they mean color temp yeah I buy it. But it looking significantly different/better, I find it hard to believe that you can say, I can tell that was shot with a Profoto vs a PCB light.

Charles Gaudreault's picture

i think yo can have quality of light from natural light but from stobes or speed flashes, the diffusers makes a change in the shaping opf the light but for the quality i think like you

Tom Lim's picture

Just like how lenses are more critical than the camera body, lighting modifiers are more critical than the strobe. Awesome article!

Jon Wolding's picture

I think the biggest difference between using continuous* vs. strobe lighting is that with strobe lighting, you can:
- shoot at ISO 100
- WHILE stopped down to F8
- WHILE at a shutter speed fast enough to freeze the subject in action

Honestly, I can open up with continuous lights and it still won't be enough to shoot at ISO100 and a fast shutter speed.

*Of course, if you use some high-powered lighting** (HMIs, 12K tungsten, arc lamps, etc.), you can easily match the output of a strobe. BUT... your human subject will be squinting and probably won't stand there very long. Also, those lights and their modifiers cost a sh%#load more!

**Everyone has a 600A drop in their studio, right? No? Got a 3-phase diesel generator?

Lee Christiansen's picture

Quick thought...

Maybe we should substitute the phrase "Quality of Light" with the phrase "Character of Light."

Rex Larsen's picture

An enjoyable variety of comments for Lee's article, and I like the idea of describing "character of light vs quality of light."
I'm still left wondering about comparisons of expensive modifiers to more moderately priced alternatives of the same size and shape.
Plume Wafer vs Paul C Buff, Rotalux vs Westcott, Profoto or Phottix ?
......and that lingering question about Mola vs everything else ?

The expensive stuff is more dependable (usually) and more durable (usually). Also gives massive bragging rights.

Wayne Du Bruyn's picture

Great article Lee , careful you may just be the next "Shadow Recruit "

Lee, Great article that confirmed my suspicions about lighting. Off subject here but curious if your Dad is still loving the Camaro you restored and gave him?

Yep he has started taking it to car shows.

Benn Raistrick's picture

This resonates strongly with me, I recently moved to profoto gear for the same reason Lee did the air remote and ttl are fantastic and 500ws, but their soft boxes are priced at say $235 but then to add grids is another $200. I paid $8 for a same size grid on eBay and got the exact results I was expecting. So where is the $192 dollors going?

I then decided to try and after market softbox vs the rfi I bet you can guess the result.

To add another example would be a scrim. For an entire rig you can pay silly money, yet a trip to Home Depot some tubing a white shower curtain and you can defuse the light for $20 it's crazy.

I fell victim of gear porn, but now realise that unless it saves time and helps convenience then it's not worth it.

I have never followed rules of light, used a light meter or set ratios for most of my work I go off what look I'm going for and balance by eye, I'm winging it at the same time I'm learning still, but how can I justify the quality of hard light over soft light on two images which look amazing it's subjective, the only way I would define quality of light is in relation to my subject. Did I use the light to make my subject flattering but even then it has nothing to do with gear, it's my approach to the use of light.

I will point out that justification is responsible for these terms. We're selling our services and though we would love people to hire us of the merits of our work, we have to play the shitty marketing game, which result in crappy buzz words to validate we know what we're talking about.

Seth Lowe's picture

You know, I don't totally disagree with the point of this article, but I don't think its entirely true. Ive owned everything form Alien Bees and Einsteins, and various Profoto models, and speed lights. I think the modifiers make a bigger difference than the actual lights do. For example, I owned a lot of the Paul Buff Octas/softboxes/beauty dishes, but I upgraded to Profoto soft boxes/octas, and the light looks way better on the same Einsteins. Since then I have added Profotos to my kit, and I didnt see nearly (very negligible) as much of a difference as the modifier upgrade, but I like the system. Ive used a several different combinations of Profoto modifiers on Einsteins, visa versa, and then the same brands together. I think the modifiers are a massive difference in the "quality of light" you are talking about. Ive also used some chimera soft boxes, and Elinchrom, and they are noticeably better than cheaper brands as well. PCB octas don't hold a candle to the Profoto or Elinchrom ones in terms of contrast and even-ness of light. I think post processing will allow anything to be manipulated to look really good, and most people won't know the difference, but why settle for fixing something post when I can have it rock solid out of camera?

Jeremie Montessuis's picture

Great article, thanks.

"Quality of Light" to me is a technical matter to me, but mostly it is about consistence. I work as a upper secondary grade photography teacher and we have beginner students who use cheap Visico-lights and more advanced students that use the latest Profoto-stuff. The only real difference when working with the different kits is the extreme consistency of the Profotos, they are simply more reliable and in 100 shots deliver the same color temperature, amount of light and duration with the same setting, whereas the VISICO's will change all those parameters, sometimes by a minute amount, but sometimes to a degree where you have to struggle in post to get images to look the same.

The modifiers are all about material durability with a few exceptions: I bought a Bowens beauty dish that took a hell of a beating without falling apart whereas a similar Profoto-dish was ruined after one drop on the asfalt. As for how they performed, both of them were good, none having an edge over the other except in terms of price. The bowens-dish was 1/6:th the price.

Brian Dowling's picture

I think we are all such gearheads(nerds) that we don't like to admit when we are the victims of good marketing. I know a few people that have bought the $900 Profoto Hardbox which looks so much cooler than $2 of matte black foil.

Tim Foster's picture

You failed to mention color rendition, which can be a big problem with LEDs, fluorescents, and metal halide lamps. Some lights will simply fail to render large chunks of the color spectrum.

This is a very good point. I was mostly talking about strobe light (which has a rating of 100) but since I did mention hot lights I should have touched on this.

Eric Lefebvre's picture

I only use small flash units (Godox V850s and v860s ... love the flashes and triggers .... batteries are another story, the batteries are great when they work but I have a 52% fail rate on them).

And I've rented a fully kitted studio on a few occasions as needed.

The thing I miss the most from the studio work are the absolutely massive light modifiers and the power output on the Bowens the studio has mounted a ceiling rails.

My biggest modifier is a medium sized umbrella type softbox. :(

I have been having this same argument for about a hundred years (gives you an idea how ancient I am). There are some good links out there that do a good job of comparing modifiers. to my knowledge no unbiased tests show any significant difference in the quality of light coming from the different light heads, other than those issues already agreed upon. Although there are some claims that the design and placement of the flashtube can make a slight difference.

What would be interesting would be a blind test, for those who swear they know whose light is best, where lights were placed 45deg by 45deg at 2.5x the diameter of the modifier from the subject. Now use the same exact modifier and change lights, and see if anybody can identify which light is being used. Any bets how this will turn out?.

It has been said by a number of people that "if you cannot tell the difference, then you are not a good enough photographer". I would love to see how those folks do at the test.

Now, same test and compare the different manufacturers of equivalent mods. Same basic design, shape and size. Compare the light, not the build. Ignore the colour as that is a legitimate difference between the very cheap and more expensive.
Can you tell the 'el cheapo' from the ProPhoto from the Bron?

Use a mannequin so everything is totally consistent. A minimal change in the expression of the model and it can change the feel of the result.

Now change the type of mods. And see where that goes. Yes the highlight in the eye will be a dead giveaway, and a legitimate reason to prefer one mod over another.

There is a good link that does something similar, and the best that they could come up with is shadow fall-off behind the subject. Light on the subject did not differ much, and not enough that you could identify the type of mod being used.

Now take it a step further and change the size of mods, but maintain the same relative size by moving the mode closer or further from the subject.

I will bet that any differences will be minimal, and only noticeable in side by side comparisons. I doubt that anybody will be able to identify the manufacturers. (as long as things are kept consistent between manufacturers).

Bet the big mouths and big egos will NOT play this game of put your money where your mouth is.
Sadly preparing this blind test is a lot of work, just to prove that a lot a people like to spout off myth.

A manufacturer could do this to prove that their stuff delivers the same light as the guy 10x more expensive.
"So if the light is the same, why pay 10x the price for only 2x the build quality". Could be interesting marketing?

And great article. Now instead of massive typing, I can simply refer to this article.

Love this read and I think it needs one more thing to shut the comments section down: a methodical test. Fstoppers, you guys have the pull - and finances - to get a dozen plus lights in a studio and do a side-by-side shoot with the only variable being the type of light used. Use the same camera, model (or inanimate object), filters, etc. Then let's see the results so the proof can be the proof. PLEASE :)

We kind of did this for peter Hurleys last tutorial: illuminating the face.

Umbrellas in reflective mode are different to softboxes as the light to subject distance is further as the light must travel first to the umbrella and back towards the subject. The light fall off from the umbrella will be less because of the inverse square law. Understanding this law really helps control your lighting and background brightness. Patrick , maybe you could do a piece devoted to this

Rex Larsen's picture

Joey L did a comparison on his blog between
Profoto, Broncolor, and Einstein all with an octobox. He got nearly identical results. He used a Rotalux octo, and a Buff octo on the Einstein. More of an informal comparison than a test. All shots looked about the same.

You do realize that this article contradicts various other articles on fstppers that claim that one manufactures BD, Octo or whatever gives a sweeter, or better, or whatever light than another manufacturer. And here you are claiming that given the same relative size and positioning there is little difference between the "quality" of light between modifiers, much less manufacturers.

Although I tend to agree with this article, it does seem to contradict various other articles.
Although it may simply be that different articles were written by different people.

So who is right? And is anybody right?

Carlos Teixeira's picture

Have to agree about all, except one point. But before that, your sticking point regarding Quality of Light (QoL?) is spot on. I do like the Character of light so much better, since that describes the type of result you can expect from a modifier with a particular kind of characteristics. That is a poor marketing sound bite, and has they say, they'll keep buying as long as they're confused. Or something like that.
What I can argue with you is that a poorly constructed soft box may not spread light as efficiently, creating a hotspot in the middle, turning a large surface in a smaller one, with an unexpected character for those characteristics.
But to my point, I do think there's a different character to a white and silver reflective medium. I find the silver gives a slightly specular light, in turn it gives the appearance of more volume to surfaces. White tends to be more diffused light, and lighted areas tend to be flatter. As for quality, I think that if I choose the silver BD and it gives me flat light and no volume, than trash with it. I would still be intrigued as to how they managed that, though.

Craig Marshall's picture

You're not wrong, though there are some points I'd like to make.

The problem I have with speedlights when compared to the profoto is they are not deigned with modifiers in mind. Then the problem we have is buying a light modifier that has light quality that looks like crap. An example: I purchased an inexpensive octobox for my speedlight. The problem wasn't so much the octobox but where on the octobox the light was striking, off to one side and not in the center. It didn't matter how many different ways I tried to reposition the light I got harsh hot spots. The second problem with this setup was the size on the speedlight in comparison to the octobox that was having an impact on the quality of light. I need to light to hit the modifier in the center, but I also need to diffuse the light before it hits the center of the modifier.

In the end, if we understand how to correctly use a speedlight we will get good light quality, but can get better light quality with studio lights without having as much knowledge.

I never thought I would be saying this, but I actually figured a Profoto B1 would be less expensive than attempting to produce same light quality and quantity from speedlights. It would take too many speedlights, battery packs, and batteries to get what Profoto gives.

I think people can easily misunderstand what we really mean when we talk about light quality. Because we own Profoto I can see what good light quality is. This takes a lot of testing and analysis to understand how to get something similar out of my speedlights. When I first used Profoto I was blown away by the image quality I was getting. With speedlights you have to either be the better photographer or you have to get lucky when buying adapters and modifiers.

Arnab Ghosal's picture

This is an awesome article and very well written. Just goes to show how big a role post processing takes. I have always wondered about how big a difference the light makes and even the modifiers and this clears it up a long way.

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