Learn the Difference Between a Variety of Lighting Modifiers for Beauty, Fashion, and Portraiture

If you shoot a lot portraits or beauty work, you likely spend a lot of your time thinking about lighting, including what the right modifier for the look you're going for is. This very comprehensive and well-explained video will walk you through the standard octabox and beauty dish, as well as the more exotic adjustable parabolic reflector and Satellite Staro. 

Coming to you from Karl Taylor, this truly awesome video will show you how four types (with many variations) of lighting modifiers work and the results they give. In it, he tests the following modifiers:

I've shot with the Para 222 and can tell you it is indeed a spectacularly unique and wonderful modifier. In particular, the focusing rod that allows you to vastly reshape the light output makes it both highly versatile and a ton of fun to shoot with. Nonetheless, it's all about picking the modifier that most resonates with your creative vision. By the way, if you're wondering why Taylor mentions that the Para 88 functions well as a beauty dish, it's because a beauty dish is actually a parabolic reflector, though its light properties are not identical to those of the parabolic umbrella. 

Alex Cooke's picture

Alex Cooke is a Cleveland-based portrait, events, and landscape photographer. He holds an M.S. in Applied Mathematics and a doctorate in Music Composition. He is also an avid equestrian.

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I do like Karl Taylor's style of conversing with his audience. Not a studio photographer myself, but useful just the same to understand different studio light sources. Thank you.

Yeah, I'm a big fan. He has complete control of complex lighting setups and teaches them so well.

God, this makes me feel like I really need to work on my use of artificial light... Continuous lights are one thing, but strobes are pure voodoo to me. :(

"it's because a beauty dish is actually a parabolic reflector". Not really. I've never seen a single beauty dish that's shaped like a paraboloid or where the light source can be positioned at the focal point - and that's without even taking into consideration that there can't be such a thing as a white parabolic reflector. 95% of the modifiers labelled "parabolic" just aren't and aren't even trying to be. Not that it should matter that much, people tend to be obsessed with parabolic reflectors for the wrong reasons. Some of the effects Broncolor's paras are known to produce, such as the ring light effect, aren't the result of them being shaped like a paraboloid (or at least as close as it gets to it from a fabric reflector). Not that paras are useless, in fact I love them.

A true beauty dish is a parabolic reflector, generally with a low quadratic coefficient. Yes, a lot of manufacturers essentially lie about things being parabolic, and correct, you can’t position the light at the focus (thus my comment about the varying properties).

Broncolor are if not the most, one of the most expensive brands out there for studio lights. I'm sure this is really useful for those advanced pros that have the chance to get work for really high fees that then allows them to buy really expensive gear.
But maybe those pros already know how to use this lights?
I don't get much whats the point of this tutorial, besides advertising Broncolor, of course.

Elinchrom has parabolic reflectors and their lights tend to be on the more affordable end (compared to Broncolor).

I am not aware of any modifier in Elinchrom's range that's shaped like a paraboloid. There's plenty of terrific modifiers, but a parabolic one ? I don't think so. The good news is that a parabolic modifier, as desirable as it may be, isn't strictly required in a lot of situations.

Elinchrom Litemotiv 190cm Octa Parabolic

None of the Litemotiv conform to the definition of a parabola and the material they use scatters light a little too much to get the right effect. And if you're talking about the octa and not the 16 sided one, it doesn't have enough sides.
That's not saying that they're bad modifier, far from it. Just not parabolic.

Well, you get what you pay for, I guess. I guess they just refer to it as "parabolic" because most photographers aren't mathematicians and they're not going to sit there measuring whether their parabolic light modifier is going to conform to the graph of y=x^2...

As for the octa vs. 16-sided, on Amazon, the item listed as 190cm Octa is 16-sided even though it's called "octa". Go figure.

You can always buy the Broncolor modifier and adapt it to cheaper lights.

I guess that "Parabolic" is a very convenient marketing mumbo jumbo that's thrown around because it sounds important. But most of the time it's just BS. Which is too bad because I think that it detracts from marketing non parabolic soft boxes like the Litemotiv or others on their real strengths.
BTW : even Broncolor is to blame. They call their Focus 110 "parabolic" despite it being as far from a paraboloid as a 12 sided umbrella can go :D.

The arc shape looks fine (which is already quite a feat for a fabric modifier), and they definitely are trying real hard (contrary to most others who aren't even bothering to try to get the proper shape and nonetheless stick the "parabolic" moniker on their products). But there are more elements to take into consideration (for example the type of silver material) and I haven't manipulated them ever (unlike the Bron, or Elinchrom's boxes), so I have no particular opinion on them. The focusing rod and the use of Profoto's mount, though, looks brilliant and possibly better designed than Broncolor's own focusing rods.

If you send a light beam on a mirror, it will bounce back the beam at the opposite angle that struck it, a bit like a ping pong ball. If you move the light beam source relative to that surface, it will change the direction of the reflected beam. Conversely, a mate white material will bounce back light in all directions, regardless of the angle of the light beam that struck it. If you move the light beam source relative to that surface, it will NOT change the direction of the reflected beam (or rather : beamS).

Silver materials fall in between, some closer to the behaviour of a mirror (exemple : what Paul Buff used to call "extreme silver"), some closer to white materials (exemple : Impact beaded silver umbrella), and some in the middle (exemple : Paul buff soft silver).

Theoretically, a parabolic reflector is only truly parabolic when its surface is as close to a mirror as possible. Since its main characteristic is to project light rays in parallel, any material that scatters light would deviate from that quality. Broncolor's Satellite is a hard reflector that's got such an "extreme" surface.

BUT all fabric parabolic reflectors, even the really good ones such as Broncolor's or Briese, are imperfectly shaped since the fabric is tensioned straight between the ribs. IMO with these a truly "extreme" silver material can produce a whole raft of problems such as uneven illumination (when looking into the modifier, it can look like a bicycle wheel), multiple stepped shadows, etc. Wisely, Broncolor chose for the 88 and 133 a material that isn't quite as "extreme" as they could find, but still remains quite directional. The less well shaped the modifier is (the less sides, for example 16 or even 12 instead of 24, or the less well designed in terms of arc shape), the more scattering the silver material needs to be to avoid these problems.

To be frank, a truly perfect parabolic reflector can project a light that's very harsh (think : sunlight), and probably not most people's cup of tea. I think that it's a good thing for these modifiers to use a material that scatters light a little bit. IMO a good fabric parabolic reflector is shaped as close as possible to a paraboloid, and then intentionally uses a silver material that scatters light a little bit. You retain a good deal of its parabolic qualities, but without some of the ugliness that could derive from more extreme silver materials. Basically, it's a question of balance between how well shaped the modifier is, and how scattering the silver material is. Therefore it's difficult to pinpoint exactly what makes a good silver material for a parabolic modifier, since what's important is how the shape and the material interact.

But I can illustrate how two roughly similarly shaped modifiers, using two slightly different silver materials, can behave. The photo below compares a 105cm Cactus silver umbrella, which is a (poor) copy of Paul Buff's extreme silver PLM (no longer produced), and a 51inch Paul Buff soft silver PLM (no longer produced unfortunately). Despite the PCB PLM being by far the closest there's ever been to a paraboloid for a regular umbrella mechanism, they're both still imperfectly shaped. The result with the Cactus is that its illumination pattern is uneven and looks like a bicycle wheel. This will increase specularity and produce multiple, stepped shadows (it behaves a bit like 16 smaller elongated modifiers instead of just one). To overcome this, the PCB soft silver has to use a silver material that's quite scattering. In exchange for the more even illumination, the lower specularity, and the prettier shadows, you loose a bit of directionality (but you can still set it up, if you want to, so that it sends a hotspot that's roughly the size of the area lit by the more directional Cactus, just like in the photo, a remnant of its pseudo-parabolic shape).

Since Broncolor's paras are better shaped, Broncolor did not need to use a silver material that's as scattering as the one on the PCB soft silver to retain a pretty light quality.

Regarding whether a parabolic modifier is worth it or not, that's quite subjective. As far as I'm concerned, the Broncolor 88 and 133 are by far my favourite modifiers ever, and yet... I absolutely do not need them and most likely never will :D. If I ever buy one, it's only after a long list of more important priorities are accomplished. What they're great at, beyond being as close to a paraboloid as it gets for a fabric modifier, is that they're superbly versatile overall and can replace a whole lot of modifiers with just one. I don't need such a perfect parabolic-ness, and such a versatility. For my needs a Paul Buff PLM soft silver is fine (and it's already quite a lot more versatile than what many people think). BTW, I'd be delighted if instead of stupidly copying Profoto's deep silver umbrellas (I'm looking at you, Elinchrom and Broncolor), which have a multitude of design problems and which are bought 90% of the time for the wrong reasons on the basis of misleading marketing, umbrella manufacturers made (good) copies of Paul Buff's soft silver PLM.

My feeling though is that if you aren't quite sure that it's what you want, then I guess that it means that you can't exactly pinpoint the features that you find interesting with them and therefore may not strictly need it.

Hope that helps.

Check out Parabolix: https://www.parabolixlight.com.
Quite affordable, work with almost any brand of strobes and are good quality (from what I've heard).

Beauty dishes and octaboxes especially aren't particularly expensive, and I think it's great to understand all one can about how light works.

They can also be rented. Or rent a studio that already has them.

Hi Guys, for those who would like to see my fashion and beauty work much of it shot with Paras then please visit this site www.karltaylorportfolio.com

BTW Karl, thanks for the How To series. It's of course in part promotional material, but sometimes genuinely insightful and I've learnt a few tricks thanks to them. This IMO is promotion done right (or at least a lot better than some other brands).

This is from a Broncolor Para 133. It’s gorgeous. Everything about that modifier is just right. I love it.