The Real Difference Between Cheap and Expensive Light Modifiers

The Real Difference Between Cheap and Expensive Light Modifiers

I get a lot of commentary on using expensive photo equipment, most notably lighting. Fair enough, a $400 softbox is not for everyone, and most people find it ridiculous to use a modifier this expensive. However, there are good reasons to use such tools. Here is why.

One of the things I set out to do when I started my photography journey is to stick around for as long as it is viable. I am in this for the long marathon, not a short sprint. So, it always made sense to invest rather than buy something over and over again. I did this for a while with camera gear: I would get lenses that were cheap. Since then, I have amassed a collection of cheap lenses that no longer work. This led me to believe that it is better to own one lens but a good one. This, alongside other reasons, is why I own fewer but higher-quality light modifiers.

My first-ever light modifier, if we call it that, was an umbrella from Amazon for around $15. It was a great tool that worked and did exactly what it should: diffuse light, make it softer, and provide a result I was happy with. This, paired with a Yongnuo 200W light, was my setup for a while. I would show up with those two things and do work. The reason I went with Yongnuo, by the way, was that it was cheaper than Godox. The most budget setup did the job, and very well so. Except that is what I thought back then. My eye was not trained enough to see the flaws, and even if there were problems, I thought that they were normal. Then, I managed to find a used umbrella from an expensive brand, which you can guess the name of, and my work changed. I didn't take better images, I didn't instantly become rich and famous (still not), but my work changed in terms of spending. I still own and use that umbrella.


The first reason to invest rather than save on light modifiers is that an expensive light modifier is of much higher quality. It is made from higher-grade metal, the rods won't break, and the speedring won't get stuck the moment you try to take it off. Most, except for a few exceptions, are bought used. The single most used modifier that is also prone to breaking: my softbox, was bought used. By this point, I've used it hundreds of times, had it in the sun, overheated it with modeling lamps, thrown it, and had it fall from light stands. The softbox survived it all. The quality of the diffusion fabrics, Velcro, and reflective materials is just superior to anything a cheaper option would offer. Having handled a fair amount of both expensive and cheap softboxes, you just know this feeling when the material is thick and durable — when it sticks together perfectly every time and when you can throw it and not worry about it breaking. Fold it a thousand times, and it will be as good as it was the day you bought it. I say this, and I mean it. There are photographers using softboxes from the 90s that still hold up. In fact, I am looking at buying some myself.

The same can be said about hard modifiers such as reflectors. Back in the day, I owned a cheap reflector that got dents and scratches just from falling once or twice. At the same time, the more high-quality products are simply made from thicker metal, which is designed to withstand higher stress. You might ask why you should invest in a piece of metal that is designed to simply reflect light. I will answer. As soon as you get out of the studio and put it in a bag next to other modifiers, you will realize that it gets beat up really quickly. The shape of a reflector is really important, and if it looks nothing like before after a few on-location trips, you might need to repurchase the same thing. All this adds up to the cost of an expensive reflector very quickly.

Light Quality

The quality of light that you can achieve from expensive modifiers is second to none. First and foremost, they will be designed with efficiency in mind. Take two softboxes, one cheap and one expensive, and you will see for yourself that the reflective fabric is not as reflective in the cheaper one. Profoto does this really well with their softboxes, where the interior is reflective and textured to properly and efficiently bounce light around. It is more expensive to produce this, but the light output is far greater, which results in less power consumption.

The same can be said about reflectors. Depending on the individual reflector you pick, you can see that the surface inside of them is vastly different. Cheaper reflectors will simply not be as reflective and won't produce light as crisp as a pricier, high-quality option. I can bet you that you will start to care about efficiency when you go on location. The Profoto Clic Magnum excels at this. Designed for the Profoto Clic lights, this reflector is both highly reflective and also efficient in giving lights such as the Profoto A2 more output.


Lastly, the thing that makes expensive light modifiers worth it is the ecosystem. Brands design their modifiers to work primarily with their lights. Companies such as Briese take it a step further and make the technology so that it only works with their products. The same can be said about Profoto, Broncolor, and Elinchrom. While Profoto-Elinchrom is a great light combo I need to try out, I am honestly quite satisfied with how Profoto lights work with Profoto modifiers and Broncolor lights with Broncolor modifiers. The ecosystem goes further once you start talking about things such as hard reflectors. A softbox is a softbox, and it is designed to simply diffuse and soften light. A hard reflector is specifically for creating light patterns. As such, you can't use Profoto hard reflectors on flat-front lights if you want the exact result. To mitigate this, I purchased a dome for my B1X, which improved the outcome.

Closing Thoughts

As you can see, there are a number of valid reasons to invest in high-end light modifiers. Be it quality, durability, or light output, these are factors that are important to me as a professional working photographer. I simply can't afford to have a modifier break on set, as that would stop the shoot and slow down the creative process. At the end of the day, it is the creative process that matters, and good tools help to make that process faster and more enjoyable.

Illya Ovchar's picture

Illya aims to tell stories with clothes and light. Illya's work can be seen in magazines such as Vogue, Marie Claire, and InStyle.

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If you are in the studio 80% of the time, You don't need expensive lighting systems. If you and your assistants break gear in the studio, Fire your assistant, and Stop being unnecessarily rough with your gear. I don't use Profoto, (Way overpriced). I use Flashpoint, Same as Godox and way Cheaper, and I have had my gear for over 4 years now, Works flawlessly and I have never had a failure. In fact, I love my Godox OctoSoft boxes! They fold up real easy and are well-protected If I travel with them.

Wow. Tell us you're an amateur without telling us you're an amateur.

I've been in the game for 15 years, and only use Profoto. Why?

Everyone knows how to use it
It's more durable
On location or out of town, I can rent equipment to supplement my own
When something does break, me, or an asst can go to the local rental house and grab another head.

It's not always about cost, the speed and efficiency of your crew goes down the toilet when you're using cheap equipment that's sub-standard in rental houses and production studios.

I guess if you're doing BIG jobs, maybe that makes sense. But I've NEVER had a client ask me what gear I use or how much it costs, they just want their final product to look great and NO, it doesn't take expensive modifiers to do that. You can use all the reasons/excuses you want and if that's your preference, that's your preference, but I know plenty of photographers (Pros and non Pros) who don't use "top name brand" gear and do very well for themselves. So, I'm not throwing any shade b/c you choose to use the major brands, but not everyone want/s or needs to do that.

Sorry, I'll bet the greater majority are not doing big jobs on location with crews! LOL!

Wow! Tell us you're an elitist without telling us you're an elitist.

--- "Everyone knows how to use it"

Wut? If you know how to use one modifier, you literally know how to use them all (brands). C'mon man, it ain't rocket science.

--- "It's more durable"

No. It's called bias confirmation. Look it up, son.

--- "On location or out of town, I can rent equipment to supplement my own..."

Same with well known inexpensive modifiers; and then some. Even a neighbor may have 'em.

Wow... Tell us you're a douchebag without saying you're a douchebag. Nothing you said added any value to this article. You sound like you just wanted to say... Hey everybody! I like to spend a lot of money on Profoto gear.

It's fascinating how someone can effectively convey their disrespect without explicitly stating it. I have spent 15 years in this photography myself, I find Leon's comments far from amateurish. On the contrary, your statement stands out as the most amateurish remark I've encountered on this platform. Belittling another photographer simply because they don't share the same appreciation for Profoto reveals a lack of experience. It's worth noting that brands like Godox, Flashpoint, and even Neewer have made significant strides in improving the quality of their gear. While there may be occasional faulty products, the same can be said for any brand, including Profoto.

Ever worked on-location?

Yes, and with a helper, and if they were to abuse any equipment I would fire them!

I don't know how "cheap" you're talking, but there is no discernable difference in "light quality" between a Glow EZ lock and equivalent Profoto SB. I've used both. I have several Glow EZ locks and have used them both on location and in the studio. In the last several years I've not had a single one fail or break on me.

A 60 inch Glow is about $110. A 60 inch Profoto is about $460.

That's absurd. From a purely business perspective, one is hard pressed to justify the Profoto's cost.

I think we have a lot of people who either have more money than sense, or they're trying to self-justify spending obscene amounts of money on a product for which there are equally as good products for a fraction of the price.

I agree that good quality modifiers are important and tend to be expensive. I think your point about eco system is important and the ability to rent is very important, if you use a main brand and need more of the same for a bigger shoot, it helps to have the same brands as the renal house. I am a Profoto user with some Elinchrom stuff. My Elinchrom 2 meter indirect Octa blows any cheap modifier out the water for quality of light.

In a perfect world, people will pay us for our skill, time, effort and gear.
But this is not the case, tons of work for free people out there, and many of us struggle to make a living. I wish I could have all the top-end gears from Profoto or Broncolor, but I am using Godox and they serve their purpose.

For those like me who follow a lot of photograhers online we know great work is often done with modest equipment. Ive seen Vogue covers shot with a dslr and modest zoom. Photography is about ideas and problem solving. Profoto is really good stuff and purposely overpriced. If you travel and need to rent its smart to be familiar with the brand. If you can afford to own it, good for you. I rent when traveling but I've also used crinkled aluminum snoots on speedlights, and lit through bedsheets for cover shoots.
The low cost Photek Softlighter is used daily by top tier pros. Pay more if you like.

Professional is a relative term. I have seen poor quality photos taken with high end cameras as well as pro quality photos taken with what some would classify as entry level or beginner cameras as well as lighting equipment. Professional level equipment is nothing without proper education.

i find it disingenuous when you have studio queens think they abuse their equipment. And, instead of having real world comparisons, all we're given are anecdotal examples. "This one time, at band camp..." :D

While I agree with the author for most of the part, I must add that Godox no longer belongs in entry or even in mid-range class, and for some modifiers is really high-end. I bought two Godox para octagons two years ago, I bought them without much expectation (regardless they were not cheap) and still today I'm impressed how well built they are with high attention to details and durability. I unpacked them and packed again countless times, and they didn't even begin to be squeaky or anything similar. While I still do have more than a decade old elinchrom and lastolite softboxes, I belive that these godox para octagons are going to last just as much. Or maybe I care well about my equipment? No idea tbh.

"As soon as you get out of the studio and put it in a bag next to other modifiers, you will realize that it gets beat up really quickly. The shape of a reflector is really important, and if it looks nothing like before after a few on-location trips, you might need to repurchase the same thing."

No, you need to learn how to pack your gear. I have used milk crates for years, perfect size and the reflectors stack nicely in them.I have vintage Norman (mid price range) gear that is probably as old as you are Illya. The reflectors are still round and I don't see any dents, I also use other brands, and rent PF when out of town.

Profoto is a premium brand but are the modifiers better than Chimera?

...Chimera is also a premium brand.

Unfortunately I don't think this is quite so black and white.

Light quality, technically, can be better with higher end modifiers but not always. There are some brands that have put actual research into their products and mathematically derived certain shapes/distances for their modifiers. These can result in light which is more directional, or modifiers that more evenly light the diffusion surface, etc.

A lot of the cheaper brands will copy an expensive modifier without the actual R&D behind it. So you still get a modifier, it just doesn't function as intended.

That said, MANY of the premium brands are no longer putting R&D into their products. The market just isn't discerning like it used to be. Some of my favorite light modifiers are ones from years ago. A lot of the old broncolor modifiers that are currently discontinued had some great research behind them.

But these days, even softboxes, beauty dishes, strips, etc from premium brands don't generally do a better job than a cheaper brand.

The biggest difference is in the build quality, generally. Some premium brands do actually use thicker shells for their modifiers, or will re-enforce certain bits. Things a cheaper modifier will overlook or cost cut. So in that sense, they tend to last longer.

One note regarding the profoto interior surface, that is subjective. Just because their surface is more reflective, isn't necessarily what you want. A white interior can help prevent hot spots especially on modifiers that don't have an even surface like a hard reflector.

I use Phottix Parabolic Soft Boxes..the Phottix Indra...gorgeous light...use different lastolite reflextors,black reflextors,soft.etc and bought them during sale or mint seconds...profoto and broncolor for me does notjustify the return on investment...outdoors I use the Godox ad200 pros.. none complaines so far..

I really don't think there is any measurable difference in light quality between a high end or low end softbox. Yes, there is a slight difference in light efficiency. (aka if you have the same light on max power you may end up with slightly more light coming out of the whole setup but how often is that really relevant? I'd also argue that if you need more light power, then taking that extra money you would have spent on softboxes and just buying brighter lights will yield more than the slight improvement more reflective inner materials will ofter)

Personally, I've never really noticed a massive difference with the expensive softboxes in terms of longevity. I've been shooting with some cheap softboxes for a decade and they are still fine even after travelling or even being carried up mountains. The biggest factor I find in longevity is just how portable they are designed to be, an ultralight umbrella-style softbox is going to wear out no matter who makes it far faster than a more rigid classic designed with steel rods.

Finally, I HATE getting stuck in proprietary ecosystems for grip so for me, my entire set up is built around the Bowens mount. I never have issues with that mount getting stuck or breaking and it is a mount that countless companies build lighting modifiers for which means I never have to hope a specific brand is in stock if I need something right now.

I used to use Impact, these days I mostly lean to Neewer as I've never had a piece of Neewer gear fail even after being put through quite a lot of abuse. I just bought one of their new bigger (semi) deep octas and I'm really happy with it. The thing is built like a tank, I don't expect I will ever break it.

Meh. I can understand the durability issue but from what I've experienced all of the other points are pretty marginal. It's almost like pixel peeping. The average viewer and client isn't going to be able tell from a photo if you used a high end modifier or an amazon modifier. and 90% of photos end up degraded on the web anyways.

I do certainly agree with the durability issue though. I have many different modifiers from high end to low end and and the only significant difference I've noticed is the build quality. The low end modifiers usually arrive with loose stitching or stitching that eventually comes loose and opens up holes in the seams. I have a folding softbox that came in the mail bent out of shape. The shipping box was fine so it came from the factory like that. The low end modifiers also have weaker support rods. I don't have that issue on the higher end modifiers. Light quality is right about the same though.

Also proprietary eco systems suck ass. Apple and Sony made me hate that shit. Apple tries REAAAL hard to make their users use their products and accessories and makes it even harder to repair them so they can soak up as much money from the consumer as possible. If they could they prevent their users from installing ANY applications from the web and would 100% force all app installs through their shitty app store. Additionally Sony wouldn't get off that garbage ass, over priced magic gate memory card bullshit for a looong time and they are still trying to dominate the memory market, though failing to achieve their goals. Then you got Profoto who has designed their lights to only accept their over priced accessories. Yes I said it. They are grossly over priced. $400+ for an umbrella is stupid. They are better built sure, but not $400+ better built. Not only that but the only way to use a modifier other than a Profoto mount modifier is to buy an adapter which will mess with the light out put and cost another butt ton of money.

The rods still poke through my Profoto softboxes and the assistants don’t the strength to put them together, or take them apart.