The Magic of Parabolic Lighting

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.
Two Parabolic Lights in Iceland (broncolor para 88s)

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?

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.

“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.

The huge para 222 parabolic light
para 222 in the photography studio

You can see this theory put into practice in my Beauty lighting comparison video, where I demonstrate the results of the different size para’s.

The relatively narrow beam of light 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.

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.

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 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.

Parabolic Lighting (broncolor para 222) next to Karl Taylor at lake in Iceland

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 of them in my studio should answer that for you. That said, however, I do find that they can become problematic when shooting reflective or glossy products due to the reflection captured in the object.

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.

So what are the alternatives if you can’t afford 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. This will allow you to test the equipment before fully committing to it. That way, if you find it isn’t quite suited to your needs or you could do with a different size para, for example, you’ve simply learnt a lesson without completely emptying your wallet.

If you’re determined to own your own kit, deep umbrellas are able to produce a similar, if not as specular, 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. The added bonus of these is that you can use them with speedlites to further minimalise costs.

To find out more about alternative lighting modifiers, make sure to watch my Lighting modifiers and their effects video.

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  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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