What Is The Real Difference Between Budget and Premium Lights?

One of the greatest things to happen in recent years for photography is the huge increase in incredibly well-designed budget lighting systems. Although most of them come from the same factories as the premium brands, offer similar specs on paper, and often have alarmingly similar looks, what is the real difference?

If, like me, you have had to spend wisely, budget well, and really keep tabs on your bottom line, then the new wave of high-specification lights that have flooded the market under various brand names may look like a very exciting prospect. And for a lot of photographers, this is certainly the perfect balance of performance to cost. In many situations, there is also no difference in terms of performance when looking at the final image. Nevertheless, for a professional like myself who works on major campaigns, there are certain things that these more affordable lights sadly let me down on.

In this video, I discuss my experiences of using brand new, top-of-the-line premium lighting kits on set, compared to 35-year-old premium kits and what the latest budget kits have to offer. Thankfully, in 2021, the vast majority of us can really benefit from the cheaper gear out there without giving up image quality, so certainly, you shouldn't feel that not having the budget to buy $2,000 lamps and $15,000 packs will hold you back, unless you shoot the specific things that I discuss here.

How have you used the more affordable lights in recent years? I am sure we can all agree that 10 years ago, they were pretty bad, but the last batch that I tested was surprisingly good and well made.

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Peter House's picture

There are differences in speed, color consistency, ergonomics, life span. Depending on a persons needs, those differences can justify the cost of premium lights. Simple as that.

Bjarne Solvik's picture

At the same time as I understand some photographers require the best it kind of piss me off when some junk flashes becomes Godox and you need to get spare ones to replace what breaks, waisting you money on gear that fluctuates color balance and exposure. Really? I have both a exposure meter and a color meter, I never noticed that. With my Chinese pice of junk flashes who never failed me in any way.
When Bron finally gets down to releasing a HS trigger, it’s a rebranded Godox. Godox was producing Bowen’s strobes costing a grand. Only Bron knows how much of there electronics are made in China.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

It's a Godox body, but I doubt it's anywhere the same inside. First, Bron doesn't do TTL, and two the Bron is HS while the Godox is HSS. One RFS 2.2 can also be set as transmitter or receiver where it looks like Godox has a transmitter module and a receiver one. From both the Bron and Godox menus and PDFs, working operation seem to be totally different as well.

Lee Christiansen's picture

Aren't the Bron triggers just re-packaged Godox ones... so I thing Scott has got this one the wrong way around. :)

The point about consistency is well made though. I switched from Bowens to Profoto D1's / B1's several years ago because when I shoot headshots with up to 5 lights, it will drive me nuts when each strobe varies by 1/10 or 2/10 each flash when running at lower powers. Imagine that when you're trying to manage 5 lights on a portrait.

And I do product work, which demands consistency, or else I'll go stir crazy.

Now here's the thing... When I got my Profotos, cheaper ranges like Bowens couldn't match the consistency, and when Godox hit the scene they weren't serious contenders wit their 1/3 stop adjustments.

I've never tested a Godox studio strobe myself, but I dd see some figures that suggested they may be very consistent in terms of colour and exposure. But I'd be interested if anyone has done actual tests themselves. I got my Profotos because they give exactly the same exposure every single frame and that's a great thing to have.

So in his respect I think Godox may be catching up - but would like to hear others' experience with a meter - particularly at full and minimum powers.

I will say that although my beloved Profotos offer me amazing accuracy, that can all go away if I don't look after the flash tubes. I ensure that my B1's never have the battery left on when not used and I never have the little red standby light on my D1's for extended periods. I've found that both of these actions can impact the tubes' health. I'm guessing there is some sort of electrical leakage even when the lights are turned off.

(By the way - congrats to Godox for having a much more user friendly way of replacing a flash tube than anyone else. And what are Profoto thinking with the B10 range where we can't change te tube ourselves...?)

It is certainly true that my Profotos feel like they will last forever. Nothing is infallible of course and I did need a capacitor swap-out, which wasn't cheap. But the repair people gave me the old capacitors and I must say the whole thing felt very solid. The board and mounts were built to take some impact. That said, they told me that Bron caps have a better design for longevity with some sort of vent system in place to extend the life?

I must say that I've not liked the Bron solution to their modifier mounts. Feels cheap to me. In this respect the Profoto solution is by far the best.

Cheaper lights like the fine Godox range will inevitably have some corners cut with respect to build quality. Whether the cost difference between them and the Profoos / Bron lights is a worthy one, will be an argument that goes on forever. :)

Personally I have found the backup service from Profoto to be disappointing for such a premium light. Their turnaround times for repairs is crazy slow and no loaners on offer. They seem to have no local inhouse repair service of their own, (I'm in the UK). Fortunately in my city London, is an amazing Profoto / Bron repair company who turn things around very fast and have a great service.

Godox are universally awful with their customer service. But fortunately we now have re-badged options where dealers offer their own servicing and some Godox dealers now take on the responsibilities themselves. (I've got some Godox stuff so have a little personal experience of dealing directly with Godox).

When it comes to modifiers, I'm sure Scott is in love with that big ol' Bron reflector, and I'm sure it gives a great light effect. I'm not entirely sure that he's seeing the whole picture because there are many third party companies making great modifiers and the S-Mount is popular with more than one manufacturer. And either these or 3rd party companies are still making great options. (I have an expensive Profoto beauty dish, but my Wescott Rapid BD gives off an equally lovely, (but different), quality of light.

When it comes to softboxes etc, you get what you pay for. I think my Profoto boxes will last longer than I will, and although the reflector grids are expensive, they're things of beauty and built like tanks.

For pro use there's also the rapidity of flashing all day to consider. I can fire off my Profotos all day and be confident that they'll keep going. I'm not sure I'd trust a cheaper brand for that punishment. (That said, I always have a spare D1 or two in tow just in case - because swapping those tubes on location would not be fun, and nothing is ever 100% reliable)

Those big power pack systems look great, but I'd be wary of having just the one for a shoot - because again, nothing is 100% reliable. But at £15,000+ for a pack... maybe not for me.

With Scott often talking about £8000 per day or more, I'm surprised he can't "afford" the big packs, but I suspect he's not breaking those daily costs down to include other fees and people costs. It can sound at times that he is earning vast amounts over the course of his videos.

I think if I was doing this all again, I'd certainly be taking a close look at other options than just Profoto or Bron, (I settled on Profoto), because some of those cheaper brands have caught up considerably.

But before any purchase, I'd be taking my meter in and shooting some very stringent tests before parting with my money.

Bjarne Solvik's picture

Good comment. Elinchrom also recently released some rather expensive mono lights that might be good. Both Godox and Jinbei (Westcott) have pro series product with 1/10 stop increments now. I don’t need 100% accuracy myself, but it would be fun to see if there are any difference.
A week point with Godox is they will overheat with HSS, I wounder how premium products handle that. I would expect the ELB 500 from Elinchrom to be able to handle quite more. Never could find any numbers, only with Godox it’s in the manual how many times you can fire them in HSS mode.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Lee, for pure reliable power you don't have to buy brand new Bron. A 20-25 year old pack will do good and in recent years it seem many have discovered it as they have slightly gone up in price on ebay. I have 5 1600ws packs that are 15 years to 26 years old and I use them a all the time for silo furniture photography. It's great to get an entire open recliner sharp front to back or a long sofa turned at any angle. If I can take 1 pack per head and even if I have to split one shooting in a house (or a store) a small room scene, I will, so I always have extra power if needed. Right now I have a project of over one thousand fabric samples to copy which I dedicated 2 of my older packs for. They reload in no time because of the low power I use for this and I bracket 1/3 over and under for each image just because I'm old fashion. I'm already 1/3 in the project with plenty of confidence that they will not fail me. These packs will do ping pong, delay and 1/7000 durations and some sequences. GrafitA2 and PulsoA2 won't take HS, but with the RFS2.2 my Topas A2 will as well as my Mobil. I see Scott keeps buying more used Bron all the time, he got it right, he gets reliability for cheap and the rest of the money goes in his pocket. Seem he has two used 1600 primos now and for the cost he can use one head per pack if he wants and expect a few decades of use plus these are probably HS capable with the RFS2.2, so he has 1/8000s at his fingertips for any fluid. I think his math is pretty good.

Mark T's picture

Lee makes some great points. I was nodding in agreement as I read this. One of my Bron kits is currently in for its third service, each of these repairs has cost over $1000. So yes, I have been wondering about a cheaper replacement - but I have too much tied up in modifiers and other Broncolor heads, the cost of change would be ugly.
Service has been slow’ish, and zero sympathy for my run of bad luck - which irks me given the significant investment I have made.
Lee is all correct in noting the Bron modifier mount is a let down, it feels like lazy engineering. Too late for Bron to change now, but it’s a clumsy design (yes it works, just not as elegantly as some other designs).
On the upside, the modifiers have been fantastic, and yes the Paras are worth it for my needs.

Michal Podrucki's picture

I own a few of the new Godox AD600 Pro lights in my studio and I must say I am very pleased with them. I don’t have any colour or power changes. Mainly use them for product photography and an occasional time lapse. I also worked with the previous versions of Godox lights and it’s true, they were not as good as these new ones. Only rent very expensive lights when my client’s budget can afford it. I also admit I never used the Godox lights in HSS at full power for a longer time. I’m quite sure that’s when you will see the difference between them and the big budget gear.

Michal Podrucki's picture

Just one more thing, in the video Scott says that the really cheap Chinese speed lights are crap, and they are, but if you are a beginner, just learning and don’t have a budget for proper studio lights, just buy the Youngnue ones, or whatever they are called. They are what they are but you can still use them to create your starting portfolio and that will help you to get your first jobs. Those jobs will pay for better equipment, advance your portfolio and get even better jobs. Plus you will learn a ton in the meantime, just from using in cheap ones and dreaming about owning the top of the line ones