There have been thousands of articles written about cheap and expensive lights, cameras, and lenses. To me, the light is not as important as the modifier.
In simple terms, the thing that you put on your light determines the results you will get. Do more expensive modifiers really produce better light or is that just a marketing stunt? What edge do they have over their cheap counterparts?
If you’re in business, it’s generally a good idea to ask yourself if the purchase is worth the investment. Getting the best value for money is never a bad thing. When it comes to light modifiers, there is a huge range of price points: from cheap $5 umbrellas to $10,490 Profoto Giant reflectors. With the range being so vast, it is very easy to get lost and inevitably buy the wrong thing.
Photographers often believe that the cheap modifier is as good as the more expensive counterpart. But that isn’t always the case, in fact, cheap modifiers often end up more expensive if they break and you have to buy a new one. I believe that modifiers should be the most expensive item in your lighting kit. Buying the best you can afford is the right strategy when it comes to light shaping tools.
In this article, I’ll outline a few reasons why I save up for the best modifiers.
Lighting modifiers are paramount for giving out the correct light quality. There is a lot more thought that goes into making an expensive softbox than a cheap one. This mostly has to do with consistency. Materials used in a cheap modifier may warm up the light, or slightly cool it down. What is more, that can change as the softbox gets hotter.
I found that Profoto softboxes don’t change the light quality regardless of how long they are used throughout the day. For that reason, large-volume studios are equipped with them.
Another consideration regarding light quality is the way it interacts with the skin. This is a niche concept, however, it can become critical when you’re doing portrait work. The reflectiveness of the material may cause unwanted highlights on the skin, and the thickness of the diffusion fabric may be ineffective in diffusing the light enough. Often the silver interior of the softbox is poorly designed and leads to inefficient light output or unwanted results.
Durability and Longevity
The durability of expensive light modifiers is probably the biggest and most noticeable edge they have over their cheap counterparts. Most of my modifiers are used and for good reason. I don’t have doubts about the durability of a softbox if it’s made to last. In fact, my journey with buying used light modifiers(and other gear) has been nothing but positive.
I am, however, careful not to buy from rental studios, as they abuse their gear. My umbrella is an example of that, it works but clearly had a rental studio past. In all other cases, I find that big-brand softboxes are incredible even pre-owned. The materials used to make them are selected so that the modifier remains durable, and the quality of the modifier is good enough for daily professional use. So far I haven’t had a Profoto modifier break, nor do I know anyone with quality complaints.
This comes back to the return on investment. For me, it is important to have maximum bang for my buck. I found that cheaper modifiers tend to break more easily. While tear can be somewhat repaired with tape, broken rods are a pain in the neck. For most big-brand modifiers, there are replacement parts readily available, but for the cheaper brands, it usually makes more sense to just buy a new one.
5 years down the line, you will be surrounded by cheap broken modifiers. In this case, investing more beforehand in fact saves you money in the long run.
Ease Of Use
Remember the last time you had to assemble a softbox? I am almost 100% sure that it was difficult. That’s especially true when you have to bend the rods so much that they’re almost breaking. And then, how many times did we all have the problem of assembling it wrong? I’ve seen some funny shapes and I’m sure you have too.
While the more expensive softboxes don’t come with a trained assistant who will always do it for you, they do have a few handy features. The most useful one is color-coding. With an octabox, it is simple, all rods in all holes. But with a softbox, let alone a stripbox, it can be quite confusing. This is not a dealbreaker, but it does make my job a lot easier and more efficient, so it’s worth it for me.
Another point to make relating to ease of use is client confidence. While this mostly relates to private clients, it’s always nice to have confidence in your equipment. This confidence translates to client confidence, which in turn helps you capture great photographs. An octabox that looks like it’s about collapse on the client is never a good thing, I’ve had clients refuse a certain overhead setup for that reason.
Who Are Cheap Modifiers For?
There is a huge market for cheap modifiers. Not every photographer needs $10,000 worth of light shaping tools. Inexpensive umbrellas and softboxes are great for those starting out. Buying plenty of them for next to nothing can enable you to explore different light qualities. A 2×3 Profoto softbox is around $300, while a cheaper one is only $57. The price gap is huge, and that money can be spent on exploring light instead of being confined to one softbox. I’d recommend cheaper modifiers to photographers who are starting out with light and wish to explore it.
Don’t Worry If You Don’t Have Expensive Modifiers
If you can afford expensive modifiers, go for it, but don’t feel disadvantaged if your softbox doesn’t cost $300. The points I mention in this article may be relevant for some, but don’t feel stressed if your current equipment is not at this level. I am confident that most photographers who work with high-end equipment can take a similar picture.
Crucially, this article is centered around equipment, not how you use it. At the end of the day, it all comes down to your knowledge of light, your ability to understand it, and your skills in shaping it.
I know photographers that use bedsheets as diffusion and shoot only in natural light. They’re in business and their light kit is almost free.
About the author: Illya Ovchar is a commercial and editorial fashion photographer based in Budapest. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Ovchar’s work on his website and Instagram.