Is $20,000 in Broncolor Lighting Really Worth It?

Is $20,000 in Broncolor Lighting Really Worth It?

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.

Nikon D800 + Broncolor Para 222 and Move pack at low power

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.

Portraiture

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.

Using the MobiLED head's modeling light only

Unretouched image exported out of Capture One Pro, Move pack at low power

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).

Beauty

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.

Blur achieved by zooming out the lens during the 1 second exposure

Unretouched image exported out of Capture One Pro

Fashion

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.

Directly lit using the entire Para surface

Feathered by turning the Para away from the subject

Unretouched image exported from Capture One Pro

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.

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51 Comments

Jason Ranalli's picture

Great article with good examples. I feel I can almost see this: "Straight-out-of-camera images look as though they've had some contouring dodge and burn already applied to them".

You also mentioned use of an ND filter in the studio - how often with your normal gear do you have to employ that and by how many stops are you trying to cut?

BTW your Youtube retouching stuff is top notch as well. Both yours and Julia's game is a few steps above most!!

With some of my Elinchrom lights the output becomes an issue and I have to cut 2-3 stops and use ISO50 if I want to open up my aperture in the studio. These went so low that I could use ISO 100-200 and still shoot at f1.4. Thanks for the kind words Jason!

Linus Pettersson's picture

this is exactly the reason i love my Quadras!! =) i often shoot at around F1.8-2.2 and it's never an issue as the Quadras also go down so low in output =)

Michael, is it possible to use Para88 with ELB-400? Thanks.

Great job explaining how to use the edge of the paras (highlighted in red)!! Most people unfamiliar with these modifiers don't realize how insanely versatile they are by simply rotating them back and forth. I know it shocked me the first time I used the Para 222 as well :)

Thanks Erik, it surprised me how much the light can change with very little adjustments. So different from what you get in a large Octa.

"...the light from this modifier is best described as effortless."

Finally someone says something that I understand about why anyone would value these. I have ranted and raved about these $5k+ modifiers. Looking at the final images, I have yet to see them do anything that couldn't be closely reproduced using other methods, but if it makes it significantly easier/effortless to get the results... well, it might actually be valuable. And, you are right, the value is in how you would use them.

Thank you for your considered, thoughtful, and tempered review.

Yeah you can definitely get there with a good amount of post processing but if you're shooting 5 test shoots a day or 10 portrait sessions, that time can get very expensive. When you're working on a commercial job, getting SOOC results that look great is incredibly important in the face of the team, art directors, etc. It all depends on your situation and whether there is value there for you.

Tom Lew's picture

In this image:

https://d1w5usc88actyi.cloudfront.net/media/2015/01/fstoppers-michael-wo...

Is the RED part lighting the subject or the silver part? I'm confused here.

The red portion of the silver para is what is lighting the subject. By angling the modifier off center you can adjust which portion vs the entire modifier that will hit the subject.

Tom Lew's picture

I always thought the silver part would be the feathered light hitting the subject in this example. I guess I'm wrong? So the light is actually bouncing from the flash tube, hitting the left side and bouncing right and vise versa?

Clay Cook's picture

Awesome article!

Thanks a lot Clay!

Chris Adval's picture

If I'm earning 6+ figures in revenue for my photography business hell yea! ;-)

Michael Kormos's picture

I don't know... Is a $25,000 Swiss watch worth it? You can get a reasonably nice watch for 1/100th of that price. It'll do the job that a watch was designed for: Tell time.

The difference is:

Is a $25,000 watch as stylish as a $250 one?
Is it as reliable?
Are the details all the same?
Does it turn as many heads?
Will it last a year, a decade, or a lifetime?
Is it a status symbol that says "I've made it!"

Broncolor is, in many ways, a fine Swiss watch (they are in fact, based in Switzerland). No-fuss industrial design, efficient, great emphasis put on all the details, and only the finest materials used.

Top-end studios use them...
Successful fashion photographers flaunt them...
The smart ones rent them...
and Hobbyists simply lust after them...

Yeah, it's a bit of all those things Michael, a fair comparison. But the results are ultimately what I'd buy it for whereas I wouldn't buy a Hublot because it tells the time much better than a Seiko :)

Anonymous's picture

And like photography and telling time: you can do both with your phone if you want.
Coming from a motion background I still use my Lowel Riva 88 & 55, also pretty cheap :)

Edgar Maivel's picture

...while all the above is true it's like comparing apples to oranges, watches is whole different discussion, but bron is the tool to work with to make money...and a good versatile tools is always good to work with...

Mr Hogwallop's picture

All watches tell time, an expensive watch tells time and is jewelry. A more expensive, jewelry type watch doesn;t tell different time or make telling time easier. It's just a way to tell the world you have money to spend on stuff.
Higher end lighting gear does make a difference in control and set up and results, compared to low end gear.

Anonymous's picture

My Rolex used to require a service every couple years or it couldn't tell time for shit. I've had a Tag Heuer with a Japanese movement that doesn't require services to keep working, costs substantially less, has more features and turns just as many heads.

Some times stuff costs more because of the name on box when you bought it.

Lee Christiansen's picture

True... but sometimes stuff costs more because it is simply better. These Paras offer quality of build and amazing flexibility of use. Now if I had the £££ and enough space to put them in - ahhh, they'd be mine...!

Adam T's picture

Fine watches use platinum and gold for oscillation period.
Cheap watches use quartz.
Here is a video of a making my favorite high end watch

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UDx_d2Xln3M

Karl Taylor's picture

This is a very good article by Michael. It draws on many of the things I've explained in the past and in previous articles of mine that have appeared on fstoppers. The first of those is a video I made with Urs Recher from broncolor (who is also involved with the 'physics' and design of the paras) you can see that video here https://fstoppers.com/education/photographers-karl-taylor-and-urs-recher...

In my own independent tests I provided a comparison of a number of different modifiers including the paras and you can see that here: https://fstoppers.com/studio/what-difference-between-parabolic-reflector...

My latest shoot with a hawk in flight I also used several Paras to reveal and enhance the texture of the birds feathers: https://fstoppers.com/animal/studio-photographs-hawk-flight-karl-taylor-...

I firmly believe that these modifiers are worth every penny because, as Mike pointed out, they are extremely versatile and can take the place of several modifiers combined into one. Another thing worth mentioning however is that they can also double as very effective soft boxes with the front diffuser attachments. If you are interested in the results from Paras then you can view many examples of my work with Paras in the studio and on location http://karltaylorportfolio.com/people/

Thanks Karl. Yeah they're definitely great softboxes too but I avoided mentioning that since it makes it a very expensive softbox. That being said that with the grid or diffuser added along with the angle and focusing rod you get so many possibilities from one modifier, it's crazy. Thanks for the additional links!

Rex Larsen's picture

With the illustrations showing red shading on the para I find it difficult to understand how the section of the modifier closest to the subject is not providing illumination.

Chris Ingram's picture

That's quite simple...angle of incidence. Think how the light from the strobe would hit the para and more importantly, how it would be reflected. With the para feathered away from the subject, the side closer to the subject bounces light even further to the left away from the subject. Only the left side of the para (when looking at the lighting diagram) will bounce very directional light back at the subject. Probably not too dissimilar to a gridded softbox throwing light from a strong angle directly at the subject, except this is indirect light, so maybe a bit more like a gridded BD, but bigger. The parabolic design is key to the physics here, this would not work (to the same degree) with a normal umbrella. The steeper sides of the para design and the focusing functionality make it possible to use (essentially) only one side to light a subject. The other side throws light away from the subject. A normal umbrella is more flat in the way it throws light.

Great explanation Chris, thanks for chiming in!

Aaron Geller's picture

Great article! I jumped the Broncolor bandwagon in 2012 after working under Sarah Silver in NYC.

I use a Move 1200L with the 150cm and 75cm octaboxes and looking to get a para in the next month. I shoot a lot of location work so I figured the 88 is a bit small and the 177 might be a bit too unwieldy on location. What do you think of the 133?

I was talking to Von Wong about it and he loves his 133. I think it's the most versatile of all of the Paras. He originally had an 88 and then swapped it out for the 133.

Aaron Geller's picture

I do a bit of "everything" but either lifestyle and fitness with some fashion and beauty. I had the Paul C Buff parabolic umbrellas but I feel with (de)focusing and depth, that this light will be most versatile - up to now, I've been using a 47" octabox for 90% of what I do. Thanks for the input!

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