Can You Tell The Difference Between $10,000 and $425 Photography Lighting?


The lust for better photo gear is something every photographer struggles with. In our photography industry, many people swear by the quality of light of this brand verses that brand, but in the end isn’t light just light? In this video I create a classic beauty lighting setup with $10,000 worth of lighting equipment and then replicate that same setup with only $425 worth of lighting equipment. Will they look the same? This is the Rich Photographer vs Poor Photographer lighting test. 

If you’ve ever been on a photography trade show floor or listened to some of the industry’s best photographers talk about lighting, you are bound to hear all sorts of strange and unusual claims. They may say “Our strobes have the best quality of light on the market” or “My favorite light modifier gives off this amazing specular quality that I can’t reproduce anywhere.” While there are no doubt some differences between light modifiers and flash design, for the most part I believe 90% of these claims are simply marketing hype. Will a double diffused softbox look different than a single diffused softbox or will a silver beauty dish appear slightly harsher than a white beauty dish? Probably, but how big of a difference will these subtle nuances make in a real world shoot?  Today I will attempt to create a simple beauty photograph with both cheap and expensive lighting equipment. 

Rich Photographer’s $10,000 Shoot

The first shoot was built around Profoto’s B1 battery powered 500 watt lights. Each one of these lights is about $2000 and you can get a two light kit for around $4000. This kit does not include the Profoto Air Wireless Remote so you need to add an additional $320. To create soft beauty lighting, we decided to use a variety of softboxes to achieve the desired effect. The key light B1 strobe was modified with a Profoto HR 3′ Octabox and the lower clam shell lighting fill strobe was modified with a Profoto 1′ x 3′ HR Stripbox. The final strobe used to light our model’s hair and jawline was softened by using a Profoto 2.7′ x 2.7′ HR softbox but I can only find the 2.6′ x 2.6′ version online. Of course you also will need 3 Profoto Speed Rings to mount all of these softboxes to your B1 heads.

All in all, with 4 B1 strobes, 1 remote, 3 speed rings, and 3 softboxes, the cost of this setup is right around $10,000. Now, for most photographers this is an extreme amount of money for lighting gear, but buying Profoto does come with some big advantages over other less expensive options. I’m personally a huge fan of Profoto gear and for most of my commercial work and on location portrait work, these are the main lights I will grab when shooting a paid job. This post isn’t about whether expensive lights like Profoto’s B1s are or aren’t for you, but having used these lights for about 5 years now, I have no issues with them whatsoever except the price. They are the most reliable, easy to use, modular, robust lights I have ever used, and for me, the added price for piece of mind during a shoot has made these my go to lights 90% of the time. 

The total price tag on this lighting setup came in right around $10,000

Poor Photographer’s $425 Shoot

The second photo I took was crafted exactly the same way as the expensive setup only this time I tried to replace every element with a much more affordable version. For lighting, I opted to use Yongnuo YN560 III battery powered speedlights. These lights are only $57 and I own about 10 of them for wedding work, remote flashes, events, beach portraits, or anything else that doesn’t require tons of power. They are so inexpensive that I also use these when I want to light something in rough conditions where water, wind, rain, or sand might destroy my more expensive flashes. Unlike the Profoto lights and other more expensive speedlights made by Canon and Nikon, these flashes aren’t the best build quality, and you might get some variation in flash color and output, but the differences really aren’t that big of a deal. I’d say at worst you are going to get 10-15% variations from time to time but honestly it’s very, very subtle when it does happen. But again, these are $57 so just buy 8 of them and have backups.

For lighting, I used 3 Yongnuo flashes total and 2 of them were modified with white shoot through umbrellas. These umbrellas allowed me to get the top of the umbrella super close to my model which caused my light to be super soft but also have some highlights and shadows caused by the light fall off (if you aren’t familiar with the inverse square law, check out this video here). The advantage of umbrellas is they are cheap and easy to use, but unlike the Profoto Softboxes, these lights do throw light around everywhere. This can make it much harder to control the color of your background, especially if you are in a small studio. You can also upgrade your umbrellas to something like the Photex Softlighter to get even softer lighting with additional shoot through vs bounce options. For this image though, I was using pretty cheap umbrellas to create the final photo.

Unlike the rich photographer’s shoot which used Profoto’s Air Remote to control every one of the 4 B1 strobes, for the poor photographer’s shoot I simply used a set of Pocket Wizard Wireless Remotes to fire my key light. Instead of putting Pocket Wizards on all of the other strobes, I opted to set the 2 other Yongnuo flashes to Optical Slave Mode so they would fire when the key light was triggered with the Pocket Wizard. This allows you to still have reliable wireless control over your flash while only having to invest in a single set of Pocket Wizards. Of course you could remove the Pocket Wizards altogether by using a pop up flash or on camera bounced flash to trigger everything with optical slave. Add a few umbrella brackets to mount the speedlights to your lightstands and you are basically done building out this cheaper lighting setup. 

The total budget for this setup came in right around $425.

Final Results

I have posted two images below labeled as A and B. If you watch the video you will easily be able to see which image was shot with which set of lights, but I thought it might be fun for everyone who has read the post first to be able to guess which one is which. There are obviously a few tail tell signs that should give it away just by looking at the images, but I think the two photos look nearly identical for all practical purposes. Of course the model, my friend Shani Bachar, has a different expression on her face for both of these images, but I think the lighting from both setups is a great example of just what can be achieved if you take the time to place your lights in the correct position and dial them in perfectly. 

The big take away from all of this is I want photographers to understand that you can still get amazing photographs with cheap gear. The most important thing to learn is the physics of lighting such as how the apparent size of a light looks on your subject, where to place the light for flattering lighting, and how light fall off affects the highlights and shadows. Simply spending a ton of money and upgrading your lights to the most expensive strobes on the market will not make your photos suddenly go from mediocre to world class. The old saying “light is light” is very true, and nothing super magical is happening when you fire a strobe through a $700 light modifier compared to a $10 bed sheet. That is not to say that more expensive gear like Profoto’s B1s are not amazing lights and that owning them won’t make your life much easier. However, in many cases, the actual final product, the photography itself, may not be that significantly different between one system and another. 

If you take the gear you already own and really pay attention to the details in your photographs, I have no doubt that you can make incredibly professional looking photographs no matter how much your lighting setup costs. Posted In: DIYEducationFstoppers OriginalsLightingPortraitsStrobe lightStudio

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A Natural Light and Pro Light Photographer who enjoys Photography and the world around it.

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