The Only Difference Between Cheap and Expensive Umbrellas

The Only Difference Between Cheap and Expensive Umbrellas

How do you know if an umbrella costing $100 is any better than the $5 one? It's quite hard to tell the difference in terms of light quality, especially if you're a beginner. But I assure you, expensive light modifiers are quite different from the regular cheap ones. That difference is noticeable only after you've used them for some time.

My first light modifier ever was a very cheap umbrella. I bought it from Amazon, and it did great things: for a few test shoots and for 1 job. After being used for a few projects, the umbrella disintegrated. Being quite upset, I was lucky enough to see a Profoto umbrella going for $30 used. Not being too much more expensive than a new one from Amazon, I decided to give the Profoto a go. The only difference, except for the coating (white as opposed to silver) that I found out was quality. Here’s why you should care about quality in your umbrellas and modifiers in general. 

I agree, there are a lot of photographers who claim that their latest third-party modifier can do everything an Elinchrom can at a quarter the cost, and it comes with a speed-ring, unlike the big brand modifiers. Perfect for a beginner? I fear not. 

When you’re a beginner, it’s particularly tragic to see your gear break. You thought that you did all the research and bought the best bang for the buck. But was it? It wasn’t and you’re back to square one. This applies to all gear, but to modifiers in particular. To save the frustration in modifier purchases, I suggest buying used big-brand modifiers. 

The biggest difference between a cheap and an expensive modifier is the quality and therefore longevity. A Profoto umbrella, or an Elinchrom softbox, even used, will last you a lot longer than a third-party knockoff modifier. Umbrellas in particular must be of top quality you can afford. 

The debate of quality versus price is ancient and everyone has their own opinion. I stand in the camp that believes quality outweighs the price. Let's calculate: say an umbrella will cost me $15 to buy and I’d have to buy a new one four times a year knowing how I use them, as the umbrella comes out on every shoot and travels everywhere. That’s already $60 and an expensive, quality umbrella is $120 new. But the trick is, used ones are often as good, but twice as cheap. My modifiers are used and they are wonderful. Professional equipment was made to be used and abused. My umbrella has been through rain, heat, humidity, and other wonders of on-location work. It’s the one modifier I take on every job. So, you can believe how much abuse it already has. Before me, it was in a rental house, so it was properly loved and abused. So far, it is perfect. The rod is a bit bent, but it works after years of professional use. 

Another significant part is the material out of which the modifier is made out of. With expensive modifiers, it’s probable that the material was optimized to reflect light in a certain way while being heat and tear-resistant. You wouldn’t believe the amount of thought that goes into creating a properly good modifier. 

Quality outweighs the price, especially with modifiers. If you enjoy on-location work that is particularly true. Gear gets smashed and battered, as you inevitably will find out. A cheap modifier will last you one or two shoots, while an expensive used one will last you quite a bit longer. A great modifier that I recommend to all photographers, is the Profoto Umbrella Shallow White M. If you're patient, a used one is often in stock. 

What do you think, are there cheap but surprisingly durable modifiers? Perhaps are there times you’d want to use a cheap modifier? 

Share this article with anyone who will find it useful, that way we all learn together! 

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Bjarne Solvik's picture

That particular Profoto umbrella is nice. I bought this with diffusor and it is practical on location.
I also have a larger Elinchdome, that is more bulky but quite solid to. I am convinced that deep umbrella concept is nonsense and an extension of the deep soft box concept that adds nothing then making them bulky.
I suppose in particular silver umbrellas can be a problem if quality is bad. Rods that break is the mantra for old style umbrellas, I have broken a few from Elinchrom.
Godox have a new collection of deep umbrellas, same as Profoto. I think those might hold up just fine.
I want the Protek softlighter umbrella. It shallow and larger and gives soft light. Not sold in Norway and quite expensive, but on my list.

Illya Ovchar's picture

I own a Profoto white deep XL and use it as a fill. It's great when there's no butterfly or when I need a huge source. If you need true parabolic light, rent a parabolic reflector Briese, Profoto and Broncolor make great ones. The Photek stuff is interesting, but Profoto with the diffusor does the same job.

Bjarne Solvik's picture

Yes I suppose the large white Profoto does a good job. But its rather bulky I Think the Godox versjon does the same job and will last as well. I rather would like the Softlighter as it is soft and large, but not deep. But noe the Godox is available in Norway so I might try that. In studio for what I do a huge transparent umbrella used as reflective gives me what I want. Not suitable for fashion but that’s not what I do. I like soft light without specular highlights in the skin :)

Bjarne Solvik's picture

So the Profoto xl umbrella with cover sets you back 500 usd while a Godox is a 100 usd. Of cause Profoto probably are the most profitable photographic company in the world, and both style and pricing contribute to that:)

Illya Ovchar's picture

I don't think I ever bought a new profoto. My XL came used for a much more modest $130. That said, I have searches set on a lot of platforms, including haha. I think by this point I researched all used marketplaces in Europe. Luckily shipping is quite cheap, and sometimes unbelievable bargains pop up.

Bjarne Solvik's picture is good :)

Illya Ovchar's picture

good and cheap haha ;-) There's also ebay-kleinanzeigen, and blocket if you ever need something haha,

Alessandro Biehl's picture

youre not missing much! i started off with a photek, then it broke, then got another one, then that broke, then i ponied up for a profoto when one of my mentors also said he moved from photek to the profoto for quality and 6 years later i still use that profoto ubrella as my main modifier in great shape thats not breaking down anytime soon.

Illya Ovchar's picture

I'm glad you're happy with the quality, Alessandro.

Bjarne Solvik's picture

I am sorry to hear that. I really would like one :(
Maybe there are some cheep copy version.
I have the largest shallow Profoto, but these deep umbrellas are so huge, specially on outside/location. I think the deep part adds nothing but bulk. ,

Matthew Kauffmann's picture

Wedding photographer here. Outdoors, windy days. I buy cheap umbrellas for those because invariably they are going to tip over. A $5 umbrella crumples like an expensive one.

I agree I probably sacrifice some light quality, and in the studio I use better stuff. But in the wind, I’ll take cheap.

Francisco Hernandez's picture

My favorite modifier is a $20 60x60cm softbox I bought back in 2014 and it does an excellent job when I travel. Get what works for you though.

Lee Christiansen's picture

I have about £1200 worth of Profoto Deep brollies and they're quite lovely.

But if another one breaks (my fault for the last one), I think I'll be trying a cheaper brand that's about £50-£60 and I'll see how that goes.

Certainly cheap stuff dies very fast and isn't worth it. But with the very big brollies, one of the danger points is the shaft and they're easily bent. It makes me nervous to see them bow slightly when on a light.

(Tip: I have lengths of aluminium tube cut to just the right length and with a couple of places with rolled gaffa tape to ensure the tube rests against the body of my D1's. Hopefully this will stop the shaft bending - although of course there's still a weak point where the tube ends.)

Jan Holler's picture

I went straight to Elinchrom and have never regretted it. The (bigger) softboxes come together with a nice bag to store them in safely (with the speed ring). - What you say Illya is true for most if not all things: quality costs, quality lasts (most of the time). And it's definitely better for the ecosystem not to replace cheap goods with new cheap ones on a regular basis.

Brad Trent's picture

I really hate to break it to you guys, but anyone paying $400+ for a Profoto Extra Large (65") Umbrella instead of the roughly $60 an Impact "7 Foot" Parabolic Umbrella goes for, doesn't have the brains God gave him! First things first...they're both the same size...I dunno where Impact came up with 7 feet, but it's exactly the same as the 65" Profoto. The Profoto is the tiniest bit deeper, but you'll never notice in real world shooting. And while the Profoto is certainly 'better' made, it ain't $340 better! I use Profoto all the time, they're in every studio and rental house in NYC...but I own Impacts...of varying sizes...and their light quality is 100% the same as the Profoto. But let's just say for the sake of argument that you get what you pay for and the Impact won't 'hold up' like the much more expensive would hafta break SIX Impacts before you'd come close to what you paid for the Profoto. Don't be a dummy.....

Paul Trantow's picture

👆🏼B.T. knows his shit. Observe.

Illya Ovchar's picture

There are different products for each price point, Brad. Each modifier is an investment into your business, and what works for you— works for you.

M L's picture

I completely agree with Brad, if you really like the Profoto deep umbrellas then I'll tell you a secret, the Interfit Parabolic Umbrellas are the same exact umbrella as the Profoto as they make the Profoto Deep.
Interfit 65" $59.99
Profoto deep 65" $409 !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Yin Ze's picture
Mike Ditz's picture

I have probably had the same mid priced umbrellas for 20 years, and one has a nice bit of patina as it turned a little bit yellow which was helpful in the film days as I didn't need at 81B on the lens.
If you find Profoto/Elichromes at the price of a cheap one by all means buy it.
IMO the size is what makes the difference, my current favorite is a 86' Buff umbrella I bought for $60, I sure don't use it outside!

Illya Ovchar's picture

Yes, buying the best you can afford is a good strategy with umbrellas. I had my 65' on location. It's a nightmare for the assistants but a great source for me haha.

Daniel Medley's picture

"If you enjoy on-location work that is particularly true. Gear gets smashed and battered, as you inevitably will find out. A cheap modifier will last you one or two shoots, while an expensive used one will last you quite a bit longer."

I know we're talking umbrellas, but good grief.

I have a a 60" Glow octa and a 38" Glow octa. Glow is the Adorama house brand. I've used both on many, many, many, location shoots; indoors, outdoors, windy, falling over, you name it, over the last 3 years. The 60 inch one is particularly heavily used.

I've never had a problem.

The 60 inch Glow can be had with a grid for $109.00.

The equivalent Profoto is $449.00. If you want a grid for it, you'll need to fork over another $599.00.

That's right, the rough equivalent Profoto octa with grid is nearly 10 times more cash than the Glow.

That's just silly.

I can almost understand why someone might pay the premium for a Profoto light--in some circumstances--but at this point, paying the premium for a Profoto modifier is having more money than sense. Really, from a purely business perspective, I can't imagine justifying it.

Andy Work's picture

I have the 60", 34" & 25" Glow octa softboxes. They work fine for me.

Lee Christiansen's picture

The Profoto softboxes are worth the extra - beautifully built to last. But I'd be buying the cheaper deep brollies if it came to replacements. (If memory serves, when I got my Profoto Deeps, they were the only game in town as that particular design - copied later).

Jared Wolfe's picture

Big fan of the Glow stuff. I have about 8 of their stripboxes and 4-5 of their deep umbrellas. Use them with my profoto lights.

Tammie Lam's picture

This is a straight Profoto PR. It should be a fine print somewhere saying "sponsored article" ;) I own their XL Deep Silver and also own Godox 165S and Glow (whatever no-name Adorama rebranded) 65" XL silver. Besides the weird spring at the top of the Profoto umbrella there is no difference. Oh, my bad! I forgot about $350+ price difference. That could be the spring! Maybe it's made of 24k gold and Profoto just don't advertise it?
All give exactly the same look, but opposite to a true parabolic: if the bulb is inside - it's "defocused"-ish. Not really defocused like you'd get from a Para but not bad. Also, you can't get this look with a recessed Profoto strobe. Need a real strobe or head. Same as the "cheap" counterparts the Profoto version lacks a proper tension and gives a bicycle pattern. So what's the point to pay $350 more? For the price of the Profoto XL silver you can buy 2x translucent, 2x white, 2x silver Godox 65", and have some change left! Unless you print money or got absolutely no math skills the Profoto umbrellas don't make any sense.

Michael Comeau's picture

Are you trolling for a Profoto sponsorship?

barry cash's picture

The biggest difference can be seen in the reflection of the light in the eyes. Paras have a perfectly symmetrical circle with the bars. Deep dish reflectors was a marketing ploy that I fell into having a small studio it caused issues and light was the same a shallow ones.
It really boils down to the usual issues 1/2 to 1 stop of light loss with the cheaper modifiers and not only ease of use but longevity.

Most guys I know love the Elinchrom 39" Rotalux Octabox Or larger ones.

Chris Rogers's picture

I use Impact and Godox light modifiers and they seems to get the jerb done for me. ALTHOUGH I did break one of my parabolic umbrellas during an outdoor shoot. Totally my fault for not taking the right precautions in my ridiculously windy state. It was pretty cheap though so it wasn't that big of a pain to replace. What I have learned is that cheapo depot umbrellas may not be the strongest light modifiers out there but boy they sure are useful and put out some decent light.

Reggie Hughey's picture

About 6 years ago, I discovered the Godox 47 inch Octobox for $25USD. 4 of the 6 have survived my torturously borderline abuse. The wind took out 2 of the 6, and at $25USD, I’ve gotten my money’s worth. A gear snob had his Profoto Octoboxes “catch the wind” and borrowed my Godox. He ordered 4 of them for himself. We compared images, we couldn’t discern any differences. Disclaimer: I’m hard on my gear, I haven’t the time nor desire to baby any of my gear.
These units fo from studio to location shoots, there’s a bent shaft in the 2 that caught wind but that’s it. Oh, the grids for each Octobox was $15USD. Outside of my Quantum Gear, I’ll buy a few more Godox in about 3 years.

Jaap Venhovens's picture

I will never forget when I was at the Elinchrom dealer and had my invoice made. Of course I made a precalculation for what I wanted and was aware of the prices of most lights and batteries. To my suprise the sum of my chosen set was about 2000 euro more then I had in my head. When checking the invoice I saw this money went mostly into the light modifiers I chose with the most remarkable being 435 euro for a grid. That's right, 435 euro for some nylon grid to put on your softbox! At that point I was pretty annoyed since I told the salesman I couldn't spend too much. I declined the whole deal and purchased Godox, using cheap modifiers and never looked back.

Jan Holler's picture

They have been so expensive (introduced in 2019)? On their website I see a reasonable pricing, I am quoting:
"Prices for the Rotagrids range from $79 USD / €69 EUR to $249 USD / €199 EUR Street price, excluding taxes."
I use ELB400s (portable). I very much like their portability and the fact that their flush heads are very light and small. The grid for the deep octalux 53" (135cm) is on my list. It is $189 / 149€ . That is not too expensive. A pair of jeans could cost more.

Jaap Venhovens's picture

They most definitely have good stuff. Back then they just released a new version of their ELB system which was still one of it's kind. These current prices seem more reasonable. Still , if you use multiple softboxes, it adds up.