I have always preferred simplicity when it comes to lighting portraits. When connecting with a model or subject, especially when working without assistants, I hate having to deal with several lights or various flags, cutters, and bounce cards. This way I can work the camera and move around without having to worry about tripping over my whole setup, and my subject feels more comfortable without obtrusive equipment crowding them. Also, if the model can move around a little, I feel that I can get far more natural poses when they aren't confined by specific lighting. My favorite lighting tool to "keep it simple" with is the Westcott 7-foot Parabolic Umbrella.
Size and Quality of Light
The 7 foot part of the title might be a shock initially as there aren't many modifiers with this sort of size. As far as I can tell though, it's likely to be 7 feet around the curve. This still makes it a massive source of light but not as absurd as you might have imagined. Size is the whole selling point of this modifier, however. With this sort of size and a hefty strobe like the Alien Bee 800 or Profoto B1, it can almost light an entire cyc wall on its own. If you need room to play around with a lot of motion, this is perfect. For close up portraits, the 7 foot will provide a softness like no other modifier because of its relative size. Big modifiers aren't just for soft light, they're also great for light large objects. If you shoot cars, products, furniture, or even interiors, the 7 foot provides wide, even coverage.
This light isn't very directional. The 7 foot isn't what I would call a deep modifier, meaning there is a lot of spill. If you need fine control of the light, either bring flags or buy a different modifier. Think of the 7 foot as a portable, fake window light.
The Westcott 7 foot is an umbrella, not a softbox. To me, this is a major bonus as not all manufacturers have great speedring systems, and I don't always have multiple speedrings in my studio to have two or three different modifiers set up. Using a standard umbrella shaft, it fits into everything from speedlight umbrella brackets to monolight umbrella holders. Having a modifier that can fit onto virtually any light is awesome, as I never have to worry about not being able to get my hands on something compatible. The umbrella itself is comprised of the usual nylon material found on Westcott's other umbrellas and lined with the usual white or silver. Also like the other Westcott umbrellas, the rods are fiber glass. Even though the 7 foot is a huge modifier, it hardly weights anything. If you boom your light often like I do, you'll love this. Fiberglass is also less likely to snap like the metal rods are, giving the product more longevity.
You might be thinking about how unattainable the 7-foot Parabolic should be considering that it's a 7-foot modifier. You may be surprised to find that it's only $100. It even comes with a shoulder bag for easy transportation. For an extra $30, you can (and absolutely should) get the diffusion cover that turns the umbrella into a massive softbox. The diffusion cover softens the light even further, creating an extremely unique look for next to nothing.
For the money, I don't think there's a better modifier out there. And while it certainly isn't for every shot, I use it almost anytime I'm in my studio. Have you used the Westcott 7-foot Parabolic Umbrella? If so what are your thoughts?