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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Previous comments

Interesting Jaron. I just did a review on the Lite Panel MicroPro that you have shown above and had an experience I didn't expect. In my review the Lite Panel MicroPro that costs $390 preformed poorly to the must cheaper Ledgo that I tested against that only costs $130.

I really expected the Lite Panel to have this amazing design, but I found major rookie issues, such as designing it with the wrong type of potentiometer which to me is a major mistake.

For those interested here is my review I just release a few minutes ago:

I am not saying what China is doing by creating exact knock off is right, I am just saying in this case Lite Panel might not be as good as everyone thinks it is.

I've found the same thing to be true with light panels. I got this super cheap one off of eBay that I like way more than the one I bought in the store for way more. I don't think that is the issue though. If the Chinese can really make a better product for cheaper then that is great. The issue is when they simply steal another design and create the exact same thing and sell it for less. 

That means those things should cost less buy. period. 

Great article.
Some thoughts:

1) Western economy and western culture keep teaching us every day, every minute that cheap prices matter, that you're supposed to spend as less as possible. The U.S. created the concept of "discount everything"...but do not want this concept of "discount" to be applied to their own salaries.
When Taïwan and Hong-Kong became and more "westernized" and therefore less affordable, China appeared to the U.S and to the E.U as the perfect way to produce at a cheaper cost, and therefore to keep saving money.
After all, that's the way we've been educated right? Spend as less as possible, and make as much money as possible.

Guess what:
2) Demand creates supply! (not the other way around)

Conclusion: China brought us EXACTLY what we, Westerners were asking for: Really low production costs. The problem is that our short-term views and lack of judgement prevented us from realizing that by constantly seeking the cheapest products while leaving in first-world countries, we were necessarily creating long-term imbalances.

People need to understand that buying really cheap counterfeit products has consequences on the long term.

Blaming China now for this would be exactly like blaming a drug dealer for selling drugs:
They both act this way because there is a big demand for what they do.
No demand => No supply.

I know all about the 5 pack of Chinese. I was assigned a group to train on how to do my job.

I was also helping to train workers in a Mexican factory 2 years later shortly before it was downsized. Packs of Chinese there to. The Mexican workers complained all day about how these (insert bad words) were taking there jobs. After a 10 hour day I finally told one group "At least you don't have to go to their country to train them as they take your jobs"

Nice article.  Really liked the historical perspective on photo gear.

WildChildMedia's picture

Probably a stupid question, but where can you get JinHui products?

Never heard of them until this post - But I do have some of the Yongnuo products, and theyre awesome!
I sold 1 nikon SB600  and could get 2-3 YN560's - JUST as good if not better. Doesnt take a genius where to spend your money if your on a low budget

Jaron @ FStoppers's picture

JinHui doesn't usually sell direct. They sell to brands who then resell. 

Looking at all of my equipment, sadly I'm certainly doing this cause no good. Hot lights, LEDs, lenses, tripods, connection hardware, & color correction boards. I did think it was silly how they were all at least half the price, and all had no brand naming on them.

Then again, I bought most of it even before turning 18. I couldn't have afforded it otherwise.
Hopefully I can start to back off the imports.

Patrick Hall's picture

It's not the outsourcing of labor that I have a problem with. It is the lack of innovation or blatant patent infringements. It's one thing to make something better or outsource your labor to help you make a competetive product, but to outright copy a design completely really bothers me.

Daf's picture

Heard a term which describes the process : Buy once, copy many.

I agree that pir acy is bad, bnut that is just a different country.  They are of a different political standing than most countries in the world, and the big P can run rampant there, unfortunately.  Remember google?

Trevor Sherwin's picture

Hi Jaron, Great article and I couldn't agree more. I'm never one to shun innovation but when the innovation comes at the cost of ripping off others I think it's wrong. I'm sure there are a few folks who are going to get pissed at this comment but I think it holds true and I think it's a fairly accurate analogy.
I see Chinese ripoff manufacturers as that annoying wedding family member that follows you around at a wedding when you are shooting it. He's got comparable equipment to you but relies on your angles and mimics your shots. He looks at your camera settings and shoots over your shoulder. What's worse is when it's all done he gives or sells for a fraction of the cost the images to the couple leaving you high and dry for after event sales.Let me give you another example. Lets say you're pitching a concept to a client for an ad campaign and they say, "love it!". You respond by saying, "ok lets do up the contract." They respond buy saying no, we have a guy in back who has a camera and he'll shoot it for us for free cause he works for us. Thanks for your input.I read about photographers being hosed all the time through various blogs. And each time we look at the photographer being the victim. Now I think the question needs to be asked in the above examples: Is what's happening illegal? No. Is what's happening wrong? Yes. The only difference I can distinguish from my analogies and the lighting ripoff epidemic is that there is no respect for copyright or patents in China. I mean they can create fake Apple stores and only get a slap on the wrist for doing so. My last question I put out to all of you is: Would you stop buying product that was made by Chinese companies at Chinese factories but buy products that were designed by European/North American companies but manufactured in China? Essentially boycott the unscrupulous companies creating these fakes? And before someone plays the racist card on me, you can replace "chinese" with any other country you like that has these practices.

Nick Viton's picture

Would that product be many times more expensive than the Chinese version?  If so, by how much?  Also, in your theoretical, how would I distinguish between products; ie, how would I know which ones to boycott?

Maybe it's the one which is obviously significantly cheaper than the brand name product?  Just an idea Nick ;P. 

Jaron @ FStoppers's picture

Trevor! Good to hear from you again. Hope all is well in Canada! Thanks for the comment. You have just as much, if not more, insight into this market than I do and really have to deal with this problem on a daily basis. I do not envy you. 

But who's getting ripped off?

The company who outsources their designs to Chinese engineers who make more money selling it at 1/4th the price of the American company, or the Chinese workers themselves?  Sounds like a pretty cut and dry case to me.

Live by the inexpensive labor based sword, die by it.

"I see Chinese ripoff manufacturers as that annoying wedding family
member that follows you around at a wedding when you are shooting it."

Okay, nice argument, except here's the reality.

That annoying family member, is the person you pay $7 an hour to shoot with his own gear, while also keeping none of the rights to his own photos.

Through some act of magic you are incapable of understanding (fate!) he suddenly finds out that he can do exactly what he's been doing this past year, *BUT* he can actually make a living for himself, if he goes out on his own, with everything you've taught him.

Poor sap, he thinks it's a good idea making $100+ an hour instead of $7, AND having the RIGHTS to his own photography!  HAH!  What a sucker!!!!

Daf's picture

Always has and always will happen.

Today it may be Hi-Tech products, a fair few decades ago it was cotton/textiles etc.
The products may change, and the countries may change - but while there are still richer and poorer countries - such cycles will still happen.

lee & patrick i thing you guys should do a photo shoot with paul c buff products 

Comparing the results of those to the rip off products?  I agree. 

Let's do this asap Lee (us as in you guys- I wish I could help out with it though >.>).

I guess at the end of the day what matters to me as a photographer is whether a piece of kit works, and whether my pocket can handle it. Living in New Zealand, I'd much rather have gear made in the US or Europe, for their reputation for quality. But when I was starting out in strobing,  the chinese knockoffs were so cheap, I could take a risk and try them, and stand to very little if they fell over. A year later, I'm neck deep in Yongnuo radio triggers, and knockoff softboxes and umbrellas, and none of them has broken or failed yet. I can even buy spares in case something does break, and still have cash left over to spend on other things. 

I have so far stopped short of buying actual flashes and stuff from Yongnuo, but their speedlight knockoffs are so cheap, I'm sorely tempted - they're sometimes less than a quarter of what it costs to buy a Nikon original. 

I don't know if this really is the case or not, but it seems to me, that American/European goods have been trading on a reputation for quality, which Asian manufacturers are rapidly beginning to match, at a fraction of the cost. Euro-American manufacturers need to start lifting their game - make even better products - and keep the secrets this time. 

The whole point of this article was how they can't keep it a secret, because all the building expertise for their products exist solely in China.  And they couldn't pay for the expertise/factories in the USA if they wanted to.

Old business models will die, maybe people will find out you shouldn't be trying to push the bottom line so low.  It always ends up biting you in the ass, in the end.

Jaron @ FStoppers's picture

Thank you! You got the full point I was driving at. 

Glad I could help Jaron :P. 

Some people just can't see the forest through the (Chinese union-less labor) trees sometimes.

beware of color temperature variation in china-copys

Am just waiting for a cheaper version of California Sunbounce to come out :D

this is Mao effect...!!!!!

Kam Mistry's picture

Oil prices will be the great leveler:

Jeff Rubin:

As the price of the bunker fuel that transports those ice creams sticks
to customers around the world tracks soaring world oil prices, the
distance between your factory in Dalian and North American kids lining
up at their neighborhood ice cream store, becomes more expensive every

When the price and availability of energy start to dominate your
business plan, you say goodbye to your inexpensive Chinese labor force,
and pack up and leave.

As China’s power crisis worsens this summer look for more firms such as
Global Sticks to relocate production and come back home.

All manufacturers watch their competition and will offer their own versions of popular competitors lines. This has nothing to do with where the manufacturer is based.

Lol Leo... this has nothing to do with competition.


It's not corporate espionage as much as corporate durpship.  If you don't want your employees ripping off your designs, don't make it so much more worthwhile for them to do so. 

If they were paid well in the first place, this would never have begun.

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