As the old adage goes, it’s not the gear, it’s the photographer that takes a good photo. While this is generally true, is there something to be said about $20,000 worth of Broncolor lighting gear? I mean a flash of light is a flash of light, right? Or is it?
Thanks to the good folks at B3K Digital in Toronto, I got to spend a few days experimenting with a Broncolor Move pack, Para 88, and Para 222. Although I used the Paras while filming my fashion photography and retouching course, this was my first chance to play around and get some real-world exposure with them. My goal in trying these out isn’t to write a review per se, as this gear has been around for a while now, but more so I wanted to see how it performs on a practical level and to see if the high price tag is really justifiable.
First off let’s talk about the kit itself a bit. If you’re not familiar with what a Broncolor Para looks like, you can imagine it as a deep umbrella (although it’s not) with 24 panels along with a central focusing rod to mount the strobe head on (as pictured above). The focusing rod is telescopic, allowing you focus and defocus the light inside the modifier. This focusing system coupled with the shape and inner finish of the parabolic come together to produce the unique light output that you pay handsomely for. In addition to Broncolor heads, the Paras can have Profoto heads mounted to them, although some heads won’t work with the larger size Paras. You can also DIY other lights to the mount, but I would consult a local dealer about whether the light output from the head will work for your desired Para size. The Para 177 and larger are ideally paired with a ringlight, as opposed to a traditional head, in order to get a wide enough spread. The Para 88 with the focusing rod costs around $5,000, while the Para 222 goes for about $7,500. Broncolor also makes a Para 133, Para 177, and the ridiculously large Para 333. The Move pack is a 1200W/s battery powered pack with outputs for two MobiLED flash heads. The pack can be purchased as a kit with one head and a Para 88 for about $10,000 or separately with one head and a softbox for around $7,000.
At a superficial glance, the build quality of the Paras and Move kit are extremely high. Everything is well thought out from transport, to setup, to actual use. Both the Paras and the Move kit come with very functional, durable, and well-designed carrying cases. The Move is packed in a roller backpack that also fits two heads, an extra battery, charger, and umbrella. The Para 88 is housed in a hard-shell rectangular roller case that easily accommodates the Para itself, the focusing rod, and the mounting hardware with room to spare. The Para 222 comes in a soft, semi-reinforced roller bag with ample extra room once everything is packed in it. From a transportation standpoint, none of these pieces are what I would call small or light, but they’re also not huge for what they deliver. The functional carrying cases made transporting the Move and Para 88 quite simple and painless. By virtue of its size, the Para 222 is best to have as a stationary unit in the studio but can be taken on location if you have a few assistants. Setup and takedown of both the Move kit and Para 88 is a breeze. The Para 88 can be set up and mounted in less than two minutes thanks to four levers at the back that open it up and lock it in place. The Para 222 is about as easy to set up as a massive parabolic can be, but that’s not to say it’s easy. I highly recommend having a second pair of hands as the high-quality construction is quite heavy, and due to its size, quite awkward to carry on your own. The 222 has to first be unfolded since it’s a two stage operation — unlike the 88 or 133 — and then a central crank gradually, and easily, expands it and locks it into place. The 222 can be paired with a tilt adjustment crank that makes angle changes much easier if you're working on your own.
Before we get into actually shooting with these, let’s talk about mounting and positioning them. Because the strobe head is mounted on the front of the modifier, they are quite front heavy. While the MobiLED head that comes with the Move is relatively light, it still weighs it down considerably. This problem is compounded if you attach a Profoto B1/D1 or other self-contained unit such as the new Broncolor Siros. In general, these Paras are best paired with a head and pack system rather than an all-in-one head. I mounted the Para 88 on a C-Stand and Mini-Boom along with a counterweight and it was perfectly sturdy and easy to manipulate. The Para 222 is not boom mountable and does require a more heavy-duty C-Stand for comfortable operation. I mounted it on a regular C-Stand and once raised up, the C-Stand had a significant bow to it. With three sandbags it felt secure, but for day-to-day operation I would recommend a heavy-duty stand with casters and a strong assistant.
I was able to test out these modifiers across a few different lighting scenarios, from full-length fashion, to portraiture and beauty; Essentially all the cases that a fashion photographer would encounter regularly.
For portraits I put both the Para 88 and 222 through their paces and tried them not only with strobe output, but also with the MobiLED head’s LED modeling light. Thanks to the 9-stop output range of the Move pack I was able to shoot wide open at f/1.4 without the need for ND filters or other trickery. The LED modeling light was also a good option if you’re looking to achieve a shallow DOF. These first few shots were taken with the subject around 2–4 feet from the modifier on a Nikon D800. Only the one light source was used.
These next two shots were taken with the Para 88 at the same angle but backed off around 8 feet from the subject to achieve a higher contrast look, and taken with a Phase One IQ140. As with the previous images, only the one light source was used.
Finally I tried a portrait look using the Para 222 at a feathered angle. Notice the shape of the catchlight created when the Para is placed at an indirect angle (more on this later).
I then put the Para 88 to the test for some beauty looks in more of an overhead clamshell configuration. While you can shoot beauty in either a focused and defocused configuration, defocused proved to be more flattering and unique. The defocused light proved to be so flattering that no additional fill was needed on the subject.
Finally, I put the Para 222 to the test for a few fashion images. While at first I found the light to be someone unexciting as it provided almost too much fill for my taste, I soon discovered that the 222 begins to shine once you move it into a feathered position (as shown in the portrait above). With a bit of rotation of the head, the Para 222’s unique shape delivers the light from only one side while the other provides only a minimal amount of fill. This creates an incredibly flattering and forgiving light but also one that sculpts the subject and creates a bit of drama. What’s interesting is that even minor changes in the angle of the light make a drastic difference in the final result, allowing you to get a wide variety of lighting looks in little time.
Thoughts on the Broncolor Move and MobiLED
Beginning with the Move Pack and MobiLED head, I have to say that it’s an incredibly impressive kit. The build quality of both the pack and head are very high and they're certainly made to last. The large display on the Move pack makes it intuitive and easy to use without ever reaching for a manual, and Broncolor’s RFS 2.1 triggering system was consistent and never missed a beat. The pack’s flash duration and recycling time were both comparable to what you get in a high-end studio pack, all in a compact and portable unit. Battery life was fantastic and lasted through a whole day’s worth of shooting at 1/2 to 2/3 power and still had half a charge left. When shooting in the studio, the Move pack can also be trickle charged as you use it, although this will degrade the life of the battery over time. The pack’s broad 9-stop range allowed me to shoot from wide open to closed down, with room to spare at both ends of the power range, which is incredibly useful for on-location work. The daylight balanced LED modeling light adds to its versatility and can be run for two hours on a single charge while providing a high level of light output for photography or video. The LED head can also be attached directly to the battery via an optional adapter for an ultra-compact continuous lighting solution. With 1200W/s of power it offers enough pop for just about any indoor or outdoor use you may have. Best of all, the pack can run two heads with power distributed either symmetrically or asymmetrically. In a nutshell, unless you’re doing something incredibly specialized, this pack should satisfy just about any lighting need you may have. Although expensive, this pack is a long-term investment that you’re not going to be replacing for years.
Thoughts on the Broncolor Para 222
As far as the Para 222 is concerned, it’s an excellent light modifier that delivers a gorgeous, sculpting light quality, but its value and use are however more taste specific. To make full use of this modifier you’ll want a large studio space in order to take advantage of optimal modifier-to-subject distances as well as being able to experiment with various angles to shape the light. Its size makes it a bit of a challenge to transport and set up, so if you intend to travel often you may want to look at a smaller size like the 177 or 133. That being said, the light from this modifier is best described as effortless. You almost feel as though you’re cheating because you simply can’t take a bad shot with it. If your specialty is shooting portraits or model tests, you can knock out a ton of looks in little time, all of which look incredible straight out of camera and require a minimal amount of post-processing. For my taste and use, I feel as though the Para 177 would be a more practical solution and would produce a slightly higher contrast light that works better for fashion photography.
Thoughts on the Broncolor Para 88
Compared to the Para 222 the Para 88 feels like an absolute baby, but that doesn’t make it any less capable. I like a fair bit of contrast and drama in my images and the Para 88 delivers just that. When fully defocused, the light it produces is an interesting mix of sharpness and soft fill that looks both unique and incredible. Much like the 222, it’s difficult to take a bad photo with this modifier. I find it equally usable for portraiture, beauty, or full-length fashion, but if the majority of your work is full-length then you may be better off looking at the Para 133. The 88 can also be fitted with an optional fabric grid to control light spill, or a diffusion cloth (three available densities) to further soften the light. While the grid is a nice addition for beauty or portrait work, the diffusion cloth is less useful in my opinion, as it somewhat defeats the purpose of using the Para. Where a bare Para delivers 24 points of hard light producing its unique light quality, the diffusion cloth will flatten out the light to a more singular diffused point. All in all, the Para 88 can fulfill the duties of so many different modifiers that it easily becomes the most versatile piece of gear that I’ve used and one that I'd use for the majority of my work.
Paras in General
By using 24 hard light sources you get the benefit of pronounced skin texture and clothing detail coupled with a contouring fill. Straight-out-of-camera images look as though they've had some contouring dodge and burn already applied to them and deliver an incredible amount of detail. It's a light quality that is unique to a parabolic and is ultimately what you're paying for. In addition to the beautiful light they produce, these modifiers are extremely versatile and allow you to change the look of your image by either feathering the light or focusing/defocusing it. When working in tight time frames such as a celebrity shoot, this sort of flexibility and ease can be extremely important.
So is it Worth the Money?
Sadly there's no clear answer here as the answer is different for each person that uses it. If you're able to extract the value from the lights then it most certainly is as there is plenty of value there to be had. A kit like this will not only speed up your work, but also broaden your capabilities and produce better results. When I moved back to my existing Elinchrom modifiers following this test, I can say that the results didn't feel as good as with the Paras and more time was spent on getting the shots. The two days I spent shooting with the Paras felt incredibly effortless and every shot looked like a winner. Each one had a look that felt unique and different from anything I'd seen before, and I would be lying if I said I that didn't miss them. I recommend not renting one of these unless you plan on buying them, or you'll experience the same sense of longing that I, to this day, am still trying to recover from.