How China Changed the American Lighting Industry

How China Changed the American Lighting Industry

Why do brands matter to us? When at the grocery store, why do we pick out Heinz instead of Western Family, or Nike instead of Payless? We buy brands because they have earned our trust. Even if we don’t know of a brand, we begin to trust them simply because they have a logo, can afford advertising, and put out a product that seems to work well. For example, think about HTC. A year ago, they pushed for market share in the US because they were a much lesser known brand. In a matter of months they had a massive market share in the smartphone industry. Why? Branding. In the case of HTC, it was not only successful branding, but also a successful product. That is the way it should work.

But what if marketing and advertising aficionados realized they could manipulate the idea of a brand for the purposes of making money? What if what you were led to believe to be a truly original, hand-crafted, wonderfully engineered work of art was really just a gilded turd? Wouldn’t you want to know?

I am a marketing specialist. It’s no secret that I studied what makes someone want something, learned the psychological reasons for that desire, and then learned how to manipulate it. It’s actually not too complicated. However, I refuse to use my knowledge to further products in which I don’t truly believe. I would never willingly work for an organization that was deliberately deceiving its consumers.

I have worked in the photographic lighting industry and thus have insight into this segment of the photographic market, and it isn’t pretty. It’s a war out there. Every week it seemed like a new competitor product crawled out of the woodwork. What was extremely upsetting was that the competitors were making products that simply outclassed ours. What’s worse, they were cheaper.

The icing on the cake: it’s all our fault. Here’s why:

  

strobes [Opinion] How China Changed the Photographic Lighting Industry
Have you ever wondered why strobes look so similar? It’s no coincidence.

   

Let’s turn back the clock 25 years. On the West Coast, the soft box was a new creation, a wonder and an innovation in the lighting industry. Simultaneously in the Midwest United States, a golf umbrella was being repurposed into a compact lighting tool. In Germany, tungsten bulb technology created powerful, consistent and long-lasting light sources. Innovation in the lighting industry was booming. Inventor-photographers were crafting new light bulbs, faster hardware, and unique ways to craft light. As the years progressed, so did the technology. Hot lights powered by low wattage incandescent bulbs gave way to the monobloc strobe. Things were good for the lighting industry, and photographers the world over appreciated the handiwork of these lighting pioneers.

Then things started to change. Those same inventors started to realize that they liked money. Who doesn’t? Building and manufacturing was becoming more and more expensive in the United States, and engineering even more so. But China was cheap. They could cut costs by manufacturing overseas. So that’s exactly what they did. China was more than happy to take less than a quarter the price of what US citizens would take. They were happy, US companies were happy, and consumers were happy. If things stopped there, maybe the industry would still be okay.

But that was only the beginning.

China got a taste of the market, and that was all it took to get the ball rolling. By the late 90’s, Chinese businessmen could be seen stalking the halls of Photokina, the largest international photography trade show in the world. Every photography manufacturer attends and purveys their wares. Standing in the booth, you would see thousands of potential customers over the course of the weeklong event. But mixed in with those customers were smartly dressed, inquisitive Chinese men. They walked around in groups of three to five, with only one or two of them ever speaking to anyone outside their group. They looked closely at products, whispered to themselves, and took notes. They asked specific questions about what they saw and often asked to buy one or two products. At first, no one took notice as they were just customers, right? Wrong. They were scoping out the products and ascertaining what was selling well.

  

softbox [Opinion] How China Changed the Photographic Lighting Industry
On the left, a well-known soft box manufacturer’s product. On the right, the exact same soft box off one of JinHui’s websites.

   

They were tired of just making the products for others. They wanted a bigger piece of the pie.

As soon as a new lighting product was unveiled at Photokina, they would take that design back to China to see if they could reverse engineer it. At first it was slow going for them. The resulting products were cheap, rarely worked well, and sold poorly. But the Chinese are smart and hard-working. They continued to press on. It was only a matter of time before they could reverse engineer most any lighting product. Then they could make it faster and cheaper.

  

originallitepanel [Opinion] How China Changed the Photographic Lighting Industry
Above, a well-known lighting product from a respected brand.

   

  

jinhuilitepanel [Opinion] How China Changed the Photographic Lighting Industry
Here, a ripped off product that competes directly with the original, but at a fraction of the price.

   

This is where the snowball becomes an avalanche. About the time that the lighting industry in China was taking off, the .com bust of the early 2000’s hit. Companies not even directly in the tech boom suffered through the recession, and companies continued to look for ways to cut costs. They were already doing their manufacturing in China and now those same companies were offering to do engineering as well, for a fraction of what they paid in the United States. So, thinking logically, they moved their engineering overseas along with their manufacturing, and in doing so sealed their fate.

  

original [Opinion] How China Changed the Photographic Lighting Industry
What happens when you make a product at a Chinese OEM monster of a factory? Above is the original product.

   

stolen [Opinion] How China Changed the Photographic Lighting Industry
Above is a copy of the original, tweaked slightly and resold to another exported brand.

   

Suddenly almost no lighting equipment is being produced in the United States. It’s being designed, built, and mass produced overseas. But China works the same way that the United States works when it comes to business growth. A small group of businesses gets stronger than the rest. One business starts acquiring other businesses. Suddenly the 10 factories that built strobes become three. Then there are two. What was once just a group of factories overseas managed by US brands became an Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) monster with a monopoly of the engineering and manufacturing industry for photographic lighting equipment who held all the cards. The big names to come out of this were JinHui and Yongnuo. JinHui has their main factory and facility in Ningbo, which is a prominent manufacturing center south of Beijing. Yongnuo is based out of Hong Kong, but their factories may be located elsewhere. What is important to note is that JinHui has specifically targeted their website to western nations. Their site looks new, fancy, and shows images of clean workspaces and a mix of Chinese and European individuals. It is obvious that they know how to seduce western companies and bring them into their fold.

Suddenly the factory who was at one point dependent on the American brands became the behemoth whom the American brands couldn’t live without. It happened so quickly and quietly that the manufacturers didn’t pay much attention, until the economy bottomed out again in 2007. Companies in the United States had nowhere left to cut costs. And they were suffering because the factories they had help set up were suddenly their most daunting competition. In addition to building their brand’s products, they were building six other brands’ products as well as three lines of their own. They weren’t just selling in the United States, but in Canada, Europe, India, and Japan. They were growing while the US companies were shrinking.

And they had no shame. If they were building you a product based on your design and they liked it, they stole it (see the above example of the tri-light fixture that was knocked off and resold). They made a few modifications that they thought would make it less obvious, but it’s hard to not see that the products were basically the same. The Chinese developers were ruthless. They realized the ball was in their court, and they had no intention of giving it back.

   

oemvsjinhui [Opinion] How China Changed the Photographic Lighting Industry
On the left, a well-known lighting brand. On the right, the original JinHui strobe.

   

So here we sit, 25 years after the start of the industry, and the market is saturated with Chinese products. The stigma that their equipment is of lesser quality is fading, and quickly. Why buy a flash for $600 when there is one from Yongnuo that performs exactly the same for $150? Why buy a soft box from a US brand for $500 when you can get one for $50 from a reseller of JinHui? The consumers only feed the Chinese domination. Photographers spend all their money on cameras (which are more complicated and highly guarded and thus the reason why Chinese companies haven’t copied them yet) and try to spend as little as possible on lighting equipment. Why? Because consumers no longer see the value. The brands failed in their marketing because the product’s quality started to decline. We now know it’s because they are all made in the same factory (with the exception of a few high-end brands) and the material is all the same.

   

triggers [Opinion] How China Changed the Photographic Lighting Industry
On the left, a well-known lighting brand. On the right, the original Yongnuo product.

   

There is no way out of this cycle of depression for most United States companies. They can’t afford to move engineering back to the states because their budgets don’t allow for it. They can’t raise prices on their current product because they won’t be able to compete against the Chinese product. They can’t innovate new products because the engineers are all in China. Even if they do come up with something new, the costs are prohibitive, and the Chinese aren’t dumb. They will charge a lot to prep it for mass production. Even if things get that far, it will be a matter of weeks before a knockoff product is available for less from China. I have personally even witnessed patent infringements by China with products sold in the United States, but lawsuits are expensive and many companies simply can’t afford the cost to protect their own property anymore.

In the end, we are reaping what we sow and it is killing what was once a proud and flourishing domestic market. Germany has managed to stay afloat and stave off the Chinese headhunters, but for how long? Time will only tell.

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74 Comments

Nicholas Yong Cam-U's picture

Hi Jaron, thank you very much for the article, it was an interesting read.

I'd like to share my thoughts from 2 different perspectives if I may.

From the point of view of a designer;
Your point is absolutely true that it was the US who brought this upon themselves. They were greedy, wanting cheap labor for production, but surprise surprise, we're all human - China saw the strength they had and made good use of it too. I nonetheless feel that this situation should be faced positively - the current work ways or business patterns have been around for too long, it's due for a change.

It's time for the US brands to not only re-brand themselves with proper and just intentions but to live it too. I believe if they align their intentions properly, they still have a shot at this. China doesn't give a shit about customer experience as their selling point is the price, and the US brands should take advantage of that. Turn the tables by fostering good customer relationships, I personally believe the essence of a brand is in its brand's experiences. The difference in service (China vs US brands) that we consumers receive is so minute, and I feel that makes China's low price point of great value. The US brands need to seek a new USP to get back into the game; in which I feel in this case is customer service - the interactions.

From the point of view of a photographer with a low budget;
I find it as an amazing blessing to be able to have alternatives (Cheap ripoff brands.) like these to actually have a shot at using these tools to aid our photography. Particularly for me, I'm all in with light modifiers. I personally feel the big brands out there are way overcharging for those. Yes you may get a tad bit better of a material and build, but it is no where close in justifying the price tag. I'm a bit wary with studio strobes however, I'm with a cheap one now, and it has it ups and downs - light is a bit inconsistent at times and it heats up quite a little. It has however, lasted for about 3 years, which is pretty amazing despite the flaws it came with.

Very cool write-up again Jaron, cheers!

Nick.

★★★ Tam Nguyen ★★★'s picture

Wow, very good write-up there Jaron. I complete agree with both your points and Nick's. As much I hate saying this, Apple, on the other hand, has done a good job on keeping their products so top notch that the Chinese knock-offs just don't cut it. Other than that, we pretty brought it upon ourselves on expensive labor and material. But, like Nick said, I'm happy there are more affordable alternatives out there for those who can't afford gear that's made here in the US.

Apple products are manufactured in China. 

I think he knows that and is just saying that the product fit & finish (and integration) keep them a step ahead - and in reality their software integration has made them much harder to keep up with as well. If it's a pure hardware issue, it's easier to copy.

"We" definitely brought this on ourselves, or at least the political leaders making bad laws supporting the undermining of our industry and the business leaders looking to make a quick buck.  This demonstrates the long-term foolishness of hollowing out your manufacturing base and engineering base, but hey, someone had fatter margins for a bit. :/

Even today, there's essentially no reason to buy the domestic brand - you're paying the same workers in China, just in the one case paying a fat tax to the corporate geniuses who sold out the industry. Why would anyone do that?

Well written! As a semi-pro, i'm between a rock and a hard place here: A complete hi-end setup for my needs will run upwards $ 6000. A lesser brand one, around $2500. And a Chinese brand that's essentially the same as the previous one, abound $1500. 

doesnt really sound like youre in a difficult situation at all then. buy the cheap stuff, China has offered you an out

HTC has been selling phones in the US for over 5 years.

While the sentiments are understandable, what has happened had its inevitability. Apparently this was also how many Japanese companies got started between the 30s and 70s, and what we are seeing is just another iteration of the same history. Just look at them now - many are making real innovations and evening challenging our imaginations. Instead of trying to defend the indefensible, or blaming the copycats for spoiling the market, look at the more successful and less copied businesses in the industry.

Wonderful editorial! 

Also, God bless Paul C Buff. 

Merwen BA's picture

So god bless china then.

Paul Buff products.....  Made in China. 

 I thought White Lighting are made in US and Alien Bees in China.

anthony73's picture

made in USA...look at the back...it states USA

Ghislain Leduc's picture

all the accessories are made in China but the flash yes they are made in USA.

Paul China Buff? :D /mind blown.

Great article, nice to see such a thoughtful editorial on fstoppers.

Chip_Atl's picture

This is just an inevitable product of the global economy. This is not just limited to photographic gear, but all types of products and services.  Until there is less disperity in wages in countries around the world, this will continue to happen. Companies can fend it off by producing higher quality products and providing better service than their overseas counter parts.  I use Paul C. Buff lights and electronics because I can count on them to work and because they provide great service for a reasonable price. I have bought a lot of Chinese ebay products that were crap and a waste of my money, but I have also bought some products that have saved me hundreds of dollars and seem as good as their western counter parts.  Let the buyer beware.

Merwen BA's picture

P C Buff has really understood the interest to work with china but providing a good customer services and marketing to the american market..

Lee Morris's picture

But if what if some guy on eBay started selling alien bees without the alien bee logo for half the price. Alien Bee has spent so much money to build up their brand and someone could piggy back off that if they could get their hands on the same exact product. Some how Buff has managed to keep his design all to himself. The same cannot be said for other lighting companies. 

Jaron @ FStoppers's picture

Paul and brands like KinoFlo have managed to keep some industry secrets even though they are made in China. This is an example of the minority unfortunately. 

I'm sure they actually pay their workers more, so they aren't as tempted to sell their own knockoff version of the product... damn KinoFlo!!!!

Rese's picture

I totally understand your point, but I'm really not sure its stealing entirely. Companies that choose to get complacent and outsource more and more of their core design ideas to highly capable and innovative imitators, rather than just manufacturing non-critical components, are not in a strong moral or legal position to complain about copying after the fact.  Intellectual property laws protect specific expressions, not underlying ideas.
As far as the plethora of similar products noted in the article, my sense is that they are knock offs that copy the underlying idea, but they all seem just different enough in design and materials (to trim costs) that they are just that: knock offs but not counterfeits. I think the point of the article is that they don't have to counterfeit - mere imitation of the underlying design and functional concept manifested into a 'good enough' final product that is a fraction of the cost is all the consumer is looking for. Religious devotion to high concepts of precision engineering and subsequent trademarks ain't what they used to be.That last part I think is part of the broader cultural shift in our values that we just take for granted.  The trickle down popularization of digital photography technology (any technology, pretty much) that allows us to walk into a big box retailer and pick up a DSLR kit for $400 that shoots images and video and allows an amateur like me to point-and-shoot pics that a pro not too long ago would have had to put some real skill and judgement into. Yes, I know its not the same, but its close... or close enough. And that's the point: as you broaden access and appeal to technology, you move out of the realm of the professional aristocracy that prides itself on its specialized technical and composition skills. These new consumers have other professions and priorities and photography is a thinner slice of the existential pie and budget. I think most know they will never be pros and can live with that - they just want a better balance of image and cost than they had before. A friend of mine got her DSLR two years ago and was furtively asking me about the benefits of flash photography. She looked at the brand name units running $300-600 and it was beyond her realm of contemplation. But the Yongnuo unit was $43 delivered to her door. I looked at it - its nothing compared to my old Canon 550EX (which I got broken and dirt cheap - I'm an amateur too, so it took some uneasy bravado for me to order $20 Chinese parts for it off ebay and fix it) but it works well enough as an optical slave that she got the incremental improvement in baby and family pics she was looking for. If it dies in a couple of years, the loss is more bearable. Happy camper. Value is a flexible concept that travels along a constantly shifting continuum of quality and price. Most of us have been empowered by being able to do incrementally more with qualitatively less. Some people call it a cultural descent into mass mediocrity (like, say, reality tv as the main staple of networks... sorry, other story altogether) while others call it empowerment of the camera bearing masses.  Good enough is good.All that said, I'm looking for a small soft box for my 550EX to try some of that soft light stuff  I've seen people use on this site. Like my metal adapter rings, lens caps, and remote control - how much quality do I need? I think the first reply from Nicholas Yong Cam-U hits the point for creators/innovators. They really have to step up their game and work harder to their innovate products and branding. Firstly they need to really work harder to be in touch with the market and know what's in demand and what people are willing to pay for to concentrate more on products that are truly value-added and demand more skills and attention - this is the creative engine that we in the West (and immigrants like me who grew up here) are supposed to still be best at: use what you got while you still got it. That is, they need to both design and precision build new products whose capabilities and reliability depend on precision engineering, as well as empower their brand by convincing people why they need those capabilities and reliability. They have to work harder to position their products as both aspirational and empowering creative tools. I don't really think enough of them do that now - as the article shows, too many are content to OEM everything from the same functional design pools.  On top of all this, they need to know and care for the price sensitivity of the markets they intend to sell to and build a business model that caters to them - if you price your product 100x the cost of the good enough product, make sure you can make your margin on 1/100 of sales. Its basic Business 101.  I realize this is probably pretty simplistic, but I'm not sure the problem - or challenge - for western designers/manufacturers is a totally lost cause. Yet.

Interesting - images don't display in IE9.

This is the inevitable result of the deindustrialization of a nation... it crosses all products (and services that aren't localized). Whenever you ship manufacturing oversea to a point where the entire industry of manufacturing no longer resides in the country of origin, the country of origin must then focus on product development and innovative new ideas. To recoup R&D expenses and turn a profit means you must protect your investment through patents and copyrights, that's just the cost of doing business in today's market.

The fact remains however that products manufactured cheaply often cut corners and result in shoddy craftsmanship. The end cost to the consumer ends up being greater due to having to replace equipment more often and most people end up buying the brand name in the end because the build quality is higher and the product lasts longer.

We saw the same thing even with customer support. For a while we saw a massive influx in customer service being handled in India but because of the challenges of both language barrier and remote management we saw a big swing back to domestic and Canadian customer support...

This will never change unless the US decides to return to manufacturing however those jobs typically pay less and unless we're in a state of high unemployment and the federal and state governments decide to do away with minimum wage, it's not going to happen ...

Fear not!  China's day in the sun shall eventually fade.  Due to their 'one child' policy, they will/are running into labour issues.  One child must now provide/care for two parents and even grandparents as the population gets older and lives longer.

I see India surpassing China in the future. 

interesting take

Are you serious?  That has to be one of the most preposterous things I've ever read within the confines of a photography based website.

India won't surpass China because they don't have the same technical expertise China does (which is overwhelmingly mechanical, actually), and plenty of people can provide for their parents and grandparents without siblings... that is just such a ridiculous argument dude. Are you sure you don't want to take that back? ;P

That really remains to be seen. China certainly has the lead with "hard" products but India remains ahead in terms of education etc. China's schools do a woeful job of preparing their workforce for the "real" world. I live and work internationally (middle east) and you will be hard pressed to find Chinese white collar workers in business that are non-Chinese. Indians you will find in every business and from every country. Not to mention the number of professors from India you will find in the US for example vs Chinese professors.

I read an article not so long ago that discussed the education issue for china. If I recall correctly they mentioned that per capita china puts out more "engineers" than any other country. Per capita. Yet these "engineers" are not being hired by international firms because they lack the skills to do the job. This is not the case at all with India.

China will live and die by its one party state. One the one hand it gives them advantages over India in that decisions can be made quickly as it is top down and non-democratic. This we see with Chinas ability to develop "hard" products such as high speed trains. The disadvantage is that there is no need to develop the "soft" products such as the education of people because the education is tightly controlled.

India on the other hand is a democracy and for all the corruption and BS that happens that democracy allows a robust education system to flourish.

So will "hard" technology or "soft" education win in the end? That remains to be seen.

China is more likely to have social instability due to their female infanticide - a lot of testosterone looking for a way out. Maybe a nice war with India?

"One Child" Policy...dude...you are outdated...thumbs down for you...

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