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

anthony73's picture

I just looked at my Alien B800...IT says "Made in the USA"..Where are you all seeing otherwise?

Interesting article.

But as it was already mentioned in the post ... some stuff for photgs is reaaaally overpriced. I mean you can buy a chair for example for 10$, and almost the same chair for photographer costs 100$. Ok, it might be heavy duty etc etc ... but you can buy 10. If you are really a pro, you buy the best you can get for the peace of your mind and know that this will last long, won't give you any surprises.

And imagine quite opposite side, there are only profoto lights, costs 5k+, how many people especially in countries with lower economic could afford that?

Stealing is bad, everyone agrees with that, but I don't think that this situation is a surprise for anyone. Pro brands have their advantages and a real pro gets pro equipment so `china stole` thing is not an issue here. Sometimes it's even better, some people would not start in photography if they had to buy expensive gear just from the begging, they already buy expensive cameras and lenses. And in the end if they go pro, they go for the real thing.

First of all...what I don't understand why the Western labours have to get paid MORE than Asian labours or African labours in their country? That's RACISM. 

Second, if you start being greedy, you end up in the grave. That's all. 

Jaron

This is a wonderful and well thought out article.

I like that your focus isnt on the consumer ethics of buying or not buying foreign or knock offs but directly at those responsible.

Its only natural that the technology drift would happen. Whats surprising is how blinded some have been to this eventuality.

For me it will be interesting to see what happens to Western based oil companies vs chinese as many western based companies are getting things like drilling rigs built in china and its only a matter of time before that technological advantage is eroded and the cheap labour aspect starts to make Western based companies uncompetitive. Right now it the "quality" or ability of the people thats preventing this from happening. Time will tell if that changes.

China though is in a precarious position as they are almost completely reliant on their cheap export industry. Among other challenges stemming from the one party decision making process.

Excellent piece. I have studied marketing, like you, even down to the psychology behind it. funny thing is, i still am often persuaded by brand over price. for lighting, if my budget allows i go with the bigger brands. i was once burned by the purchase of a cheap hong kong ring light adapter. this thing was absolute junk. cardboard parts even! i have since treaded very lightly when it comes to saving a buck. i'm sure those chinese strobes are excellent and i've read nothing but good things about those manufacturers but can't help but put my trust in the bigger names.

No question studio strobes are WAY overpriced for what they do. 

Would it be ok if you would create a photo series that could be used as an ad campaign, but you wouldn't get the money because the company would find a cheaper photographer who would only have to copy the idea.

That what happened to me more than once and I can assure you - the feeling is not good.
The same is here... And why Chinese copies cost less? Because they don't need research facilities, they don't need to hire designers and engineers - the only thing that they need to do - copy one on one.

Kryn's picture

Just so people know, there is a difference between Chinese products and products made in China. They are not necessarily the same. Apple (made in China) is not a chinese product. Nokia (also made in China) is equally not a chinese product. Anything made in china by western companies, is tightly controlled by processes. If the products show production flaws, then all the developers have to do is modify the process. On the other hand, Chinese products usually do NOT follow such processes. Chinese products are usually copies. Sometimes heavily modified copies, but they remain copies. And without knowledge on development processes and manufacturing processes, the quality of chinese products remain below par. I've been in China 2,5 years now, and sure, they have some nice stuff, but not Bowens nice. There is a reason why western products are expensive even though they are made in China: because people with knowledge (Westerners) designed and developed the products, and processes. Hence the quality becomes good, because people who have spend decades perfecting their knowledge used that knowledge for a good product. China misses that development history, and although the country now thrives on cheap labour and copying copies of copies. At some point the economy turns around and consumers stop buying chinese products. And thats when the chinese manufacturing society will collapse. Simply because they don't know the "why". Sure they know the how and what, but without the why you cannot solve problems, be inventive. Their money grabbing culture has made them choose the route to the quickest buck (copy paste), but once there is no sales anymore they wil have to develop decent products and provide decent suport to compete with the rest of the world, and guess what... you need experience for that. Even if they copy processes, without knowing why they are the way they are, using a process only gets you so far.

Having said that, there are also companies that make an effort in China. Needless to say they are more expensive. Not western expensive, but more expensive nevertheless. Those products are the ones that will get China a TRUE position on the world map. But with those companies being few and thinly spread, that will take quite a while...

There's a very easy answer to this issue, and the responsibility rests solely with the American consumer. I flat out refuse to purchase anything from a company of reverse-engineering thieves. These Chinese companies don't do the R&D, they don't care anything about customer satisfaction or the durability/reliability of their stolen products (evidenced by the fact that Yongnuo triggers work about 30% of the time and break in approximately 14 seconds of use).

If the American consumer sticks to their guns and only buys from the legitimate first-teir companies, this wouldn't even be an issue. The problem, as the author eluded to, is that so many rookie wannabes spend all their money on the camera and glass, and cheap out on the lighting and other accessories.

We as an American community of photographers have no one to blame but ourselves.

If you like your American manufacturing job you can keep it...

This is the article that caused me to bookmark FStoppers back a few years ago. It's really well written and thought out and made a huge amount of sense. Here we are 2+ years later, and all of it still holds true.

Jaron Schneider's picture

Thanks John :)

Get real who in their right mind would pay thousands of dollars for one strobe when you can purchase many strobes for half the money and still get the job done. When I started in studio photography using strobes, triggers and light modifiers I could not afford one pocket wizard, just too overpriced for what just to trigger a strobe get real, why purchase one PW when I needed four crazy. Owning the equipment is just one part of photography know how to use the equipment is another thing. Paul C. Buff makes great strobes, modifiers, radio triggers and battery packs, I own Alien Bees great strobes no problems and they have some great features like being able to alter the power levels and modeling light via remote. I also have and use Neewer strobes which also have never let me down and which cost $89 for a 300 Watt strobe, I have use them for years and their soft boxes, cheap umbrellas from Amazon, triggers from Apenture triggers that does the very same thing that a PW does for far less the money, I recently purchased Radiopoppers Jrx kit, because they work well with the Alien Bees and purchased the Sekonic module for my Sekonic L358, now that's technology that I would pay for, it's makes my job much easier, just look attempting to get the same functions in a PW and you will pay in the thousands and that's crazy. I see nothing wrong with getting the most of the lease, after all everyone want's the most car for the lease amount of money, computer, house any product after look at Nike and Apple and just where are their product made. The bottom line in business is to make a profit and to often companies think less of customer service, the before mention products I have had great customer service when I've had to contact them and was very helpful. Stop ripping people off and we will purchase your product and look at what happen to Pocket Wizard horrible customer service, over priced product for just triggering your strobe and no innovation. I will continue purchase what I can afford and read many customer reviews to get the best for my setup and pocket.

Wow, you guys really hate the Chinese don't you. What a sad and slightly racist article.

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