The magic of parabolic lighting

As a professional photographer, one of the most common questions I get asked is “If you could have just one lighting modifier, what would you choose?” And my answer is always the same — “The Para 133”.

When it comes to lighting modifiers, there’s no shortage of options. However, I find that few offer the quality and versatility of parabolic lighting.

Parabolic lighting is most popular when it comes to beauty and fashion work, and not without good reason.

But what is parabolic lighting and what is it that makes these modifiers so special?

Parabolic lighting
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Para studio light
Paras are versatile lighting modifiers suitable for a wide range of subjects, both indoor and on location.

What is a parabolic light?

While there are a number of convoluted and lengthy definitions of the term parabola, in it’s most basic form it simply refers to a u-shaped line that is symmetrical across the line of symmetry.

The shape of the umbrella means you can change the focus or strength of the light, depending on where you position the lamp head inside the reflector. When the light is further out a softer, less focussed beam of light is produced. By moving the light closer to the centre of the umbrella one can achieve a more focused beam of light with much greater contrast.

True parabolic lights, such as the Broncolor system I use, produce a beautiful, sparkly light which is very flattering when it comes to skin tone and ideal for bringing out the detail in textures. The shape and reflective properties of the modifier allow for great control over the focus and contrast produced by the light — one of the main advantages of these modifiers.

I explain and demonstrate all of this in my ‘Understanding parabolic lighting’ live show, where you can see each of these concepts clearly demonstrated. I also put this theory into practice in my Beauty lighting comparison video, where I demonstrate the results of the different size para’s.

Parabolic lighting modifiers
Paras are available in a range of sizes, the smallest of which are portable enough to use on location.

The myth of ‘parabolic umbrellas’

There are many modifiers on the market that claim to be ‘parabolic’ in shape, but very few of them actually are!

For any modifiers to be truly parabolic, it has to be a very specific shape: that of a parabola. A parabola can simply be defined as a curve where any point (P) is at an equal distance from a fixed point (the focus) and a fixed straight line (the directrix).

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This specific shape results in a very particular output of light. Any light that originates from a point source at the focus point will reflect outward parallel to the central axis of symmetry, which is what allows parabolic reflectors to produce their characteristic light.

It’s worth noting here that it’s essential that the light can escape from its source sideways as well as forward. This is why flat-fronted lights such as speedlites can’t work in parabolic modifiers, because the light is unable to emanate perpendicular to its forward-facing direction.

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If you see a ‘parabolic’ modifier, make sure to check that it truly is what it says it is. I use the broncolor paras, which I know truly conform to the parabolic shape. The quality of light they produce is fantastic, and, as I’ve already explained, I use them for a lot of my work.

A ‘parabolic’ modifier that is not a true parabola means that the physics of reflectance just don’t work as well.

Parabolic modifier shape

The other type of modifier which can produce a similar light to a parabolic reflector is a Fresnel lens, we do use these in photography and studio lighting but they as they need to be constructed from glass they would be far too heavy, cumbersome and expensive to use at the same scale as the larger paras. In fact the only place you will see fresnel lenses that big are in lighthouses where the light can be focused from it’s point light source very precisely forwards and projected many miles.

Advantages of parabolic studio lights

The versatility mentioned previously is one of the main advantages of parabolic lighting modifiers. The ability to adjust the light means you can achieve a level of control that isn’t really possible with any other modifier.

The relatively narrow beam of light that can be produced by paras is a further advantage. The ability to focus the beam means you can safely light a subject using a para without influencing the entire shot and create illumination that is concentrated to a defined area with a very attractive fall off.

When the light source is further from the centre of the para we arrive at a very interesting lighting effect, where the centre of the para is no longer illuminated and only the outer rim of the para is reflecting the light source. The 24 individual hard reflections in a perfect circle means we are able to surround the subject with a crisp but soft three-dimensional light. By moving the light source slightly back into the parabola we can partly illuminate the centre too or fully illuminate only the centre by moving the light much closer in.

The larger the para relative to the subject means even more interesting results can be achieved as we can have a hard light effect combined with the softness dictated by the larger size — somewhat of an interesting paradox in lighting terms. The largest paras are often used directly behind the photographer so that the light wraps evenly towards and onto the subject, creating effective sculpting of cheek bones, jaw line or any area of the body that falls rapidly away from the camera position.

Even greater control over the output is possible simply by adjusting the angle of the reflector or the distance from the subject. There is also the option to attach diffusers or grids to further influence the light output. These vary, offering anything from a slightly diffused but focused light to that of a totally diffused softbox.

The symmetry of the parabolic shape means the energy from the light is reflected very specifically. The light from the point of focus comes out parallel to the axis of symmetry and is therefore a very efficient way of reflecting light. Because it is so efficient, the para allows for light to be cast over great distances. This makes them well suited to working on location, as you’ll be able to see in our Fashionscape course and our ‘Seascape fashion photography’ class.

This precise control allows you to achieve a number of different results using just one light; essentially you have a complete lighting system neatly bundled into one modifier. As explained earlier the only other modifier to work in a similar way are fresnel lenses, but these would be far too big and expensive to use at the same scale as paras.

Fashion photography on location
© Karl Taylor

Disadvantages of parabolic studio lights

I mentioned earlier that parabolic lighting is a popular choice for beauty and fashion work, but if that isn’t your area of interest I’m sure you’ve been asking how they fare for other types of photography.

The fact they are my favourite modifier and that I, a commercial photographer, have three different sizes in my studio should answer that for you. That said, I do find that they can become problematic when shooting reflective or glossy products due to the reflection captured in the object and they are not really suitable for shooting glossy items where the reflection of the light source will be visible.

Quite simply, there is only really one main drawback to paras — the price. Although there are various sizes to choose from, Broncolor’s range of paras still cost a fair sum. However, the use and results you’ll get from each makes it an investment worthy of some serious consideration (especially considering their ability to transform into three types of light source from one modifier).

Studio portrait using parabolic lights
© Karl Taylor
Studio portrait using paras
© Karl Taylor

Alternatives to parabolic modifiers

As great as paras are, realistically, not every photographer can afford one, so what are the alternatives if your budget doesn’t stretch as far as a para?

The first option is to hire. I know many great photographers who don’t own their equipment — they simply rent what they need for a particular job. For example, you can rent even the big para 222 for a day for around £70. This will allow you to test the equipment before fully committing to it or just rent when you need one. But be careful, I rented and tested a 222 in a studio with a model for half a day and then decided I had to buy one!

On the other hand, if you rent one and find it isn’t quite suited to your needs or you’d be better with a different size then you’ve simply learnt a lesson without completely emptying your wallet.

If you’re determined to own your own kit, then deep umbrellas are able to produce a similar but not as precisely focused light. While they don’t allow for the same amount of control over the light as paras do, they do provide good light for those on a budget. You can see the effect of a deep focus umbrella in my ‘Legs Eleven’ live show, where I demonstrate just how effective a deep focus umbrella can be. I also show you a technique that even makes the eep focus umbrella comparable to a large ring flash.

Other favourites for beauty and fashion work are the beauty dish (take a look at the video below, where I compare a 70cm silver beauty dish with a similar size silver umbrella to see the results). The beauty dish was my favourite beauty modifier before I discovered the para 133 and of course is a lot less expensive.

This article covers only a small portion of my information and techniques relating to parabolic modifiers and other types of studio lighting. If you’d like to take that next step into a more advanced understanding of lighting then sign up to Karl Taylor Education, where you you can access everything for one low price.

Recommended Content

To learn more about parabolic lights and how to use these versatile modifiers, we have a selection of relevant classes throughout the site. Below is a selection of recommended content that you may find useful.

Comments

  1. I can recommend the Briese system which is slightly less expensive, and their bulb–only design prevails over Broncolors unpractical mounts for the entire flash heads. Howevery, they are still great lights to work with.

  2. Today I have used my Profoto Zenith parabolic for the second time and am in love with it. Remarkable that my client, the models and the make-up artist really noticed the beautiful light created by the parabolic. After I bought it I had some doubts but they have all gone. You can’t beat the 3 dimensional, soft yet specular light it gives. You have definitely put me on the right track with your info on, and examples made with the para!

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