What China Doesn't Understand
Earlier this week, Chinese manufacturer YongNuo announced a new flash: the YN-565EX.
It's got full manual mode, a built-in slave, a PC jack, a modeling light -- and is compatible with both Nikon and Canon's proprietary light-based TTL triggering systems.
It may well be a great flash -- or it could be a piece of crap. But it won't get any kind of a serious look here for one simple reason: China's manufacturing and distribution system is sufficiently borked to make product quality control and customer service damn near impossible.
Which is a shame, really, considering how well they could be doing…
To explain what I mean by that, let's start by looking at how a a manufacturing-to-retain ecosystem should work.
Generally, a manufacturer designs a product, fronts some R&D and then makes a few thousand copies of it. They sell it to distributors at a reasonable profit, who in turn wholesale it to retailers who sell it to you. All along the way, the price goes up.
Unpleasant tho this may sound, it is necessary. The manufacturers need to make a decent profit to survive to create the next generation of product. The distributors get the product out all over the world in sufficient diversity to ensure availability and fair pricing. That takes resources, and they need a profit, too.
And the retailers are at the front lines in this food chain, selling to you and at the same time standing behind the product in terms of returns, etc.
In some cases, manufacturers will also sell their products directly. But to preserve the profitability for the distributor/retailer system, any direct seller worth his or her salt will not undercut the end retailer when pricing their direct sales.
The Real Problem
Most Chinese flash manufacturers, who actually have the ability to create a pretty good product at an amazing price, do not understand this. They will frequently sell direct to the public at only a 2-3% profit margin on top of the actual manufacturing costs.
Obviously, no retailer can compete with this. Some will order the flashes and build in a small margin for themselves in hopes that people will buy from a more convenient source. But there is nowhere near the margin to stand behind the products, let alone test them thoroughly.
And since the whole system is built on as little margin as possible, quality control at the manufacturer is not what it could or should be, thus compounding the problem.
Who is left holding the bag? The customer, with a higher-than-necessary failure rate and poor return options. So every time you roll the dice buying direct from China, you may well have to send it all they way back to China if things do not work out well. Which is slow and expensive.
Trust me, I want to believe. But I have rolled the dice and lost -- every time. And this is such a shame, because if the manufacturers would not compete with their own retailers, it would be better for everyone.
Retailers would have enough margin to stand behind the products. Distributors would have enough margin to make them widely available on a geographic basis. And manufacturers could, by respecting retail pricing, make a substantial profit on each direct unit sold. That would fold back into more R&D and quality control.
Yes, we would pay more than the current too-good-to-be-true prices for flashes that never live up to their promise. But the manufacturers would be more profitable -- which would drive a positive vicious cycle toward better quality and faster innovation.
And I am just talking about flashes. Remotes are even more borked. They have all of the issues of the flash ecosystem, but also suffer from one of the worst pieces of manufacturing logic I have ever encountered.
Here it is: They change the frequency and coding year-to-year specifically to avoid backwards compatibility and to force you to re-buy entire systems rather than expand from year to year.
By contrast, my PocketWizard transmitters can fire receivers that are nearly 20 years old. Which is one reason they hold their value so well. Which makes them a very low economic risk.
Until a Chinese remote manufacturer shows a little respect for their long-term customer with generation-to-generation backwards compatibility, I would never consider (much less recommend) one of their remotes. It's just silly.
One day -- maybe -- the Chinese manufacturers will figure out that by respecting both their customers and their sellers' food chain they can completely turn this quality cycle around.
But I am not holding my breath.