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?
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