Environmental Report #3

Comparing similar size light modifiers in light and dark environments

In a recent video I compared 7 modifiers in 9 configurations to show how they compare with each other and how much the environment affects the look of the modifiers. The modifiers in the comparison are the Photek 46-inch Softlighter II, the Interfit 48-inch folding octa, a Photoflex 45-inch reflective umbrella, a Westcott 43-inch white shoot-through umbrella, a 48-inch Parasail umbrella in both horizontal and vertical orientation, and an Interfit 32x48-inch folding softbox in both horizontal and vertical orientations.

The photos pass by quickly in the video, so I am including them in this blog post to make them easier to see.

Modifiers in a dark environment (click to enlarge)

Modifiers in a light environment (click to enlarge)

The dark environment has black v-flats on each side of the subject to reduce environmental bounce and make the shadows darker. The light environment is the same, but with white v-flats on each side to fill in and lighten the shadows. Note that the shadow edge quality is about the same in all the photos because the light sources are all about the same size. The shadow edge transition is controlled by the size of the light in relation to the subject and the contrast is controlled by how diffuse the light is and the tone of the environment.

You will also notice that all of these modifiers look pretty similar on the subject. The main difference will be in the shape of the catchlights in the eyes or on reflective objects in a still life.

Parabolic Umbrellas

Getting the most from your parabolic umbrella

It has been a few years now since Paul Buff (Alien Bees) introduced their 86-inch PLM (Parabolic Light Modifier) umbrella, which was quickly followed up by similar umbrellas from other companies. Some call them a 7-foot umbrella (measured across the arc of the back of the umbrella), some call then 65-inch umbrellas (measured across the opening of the umbrella). They come in a variety of styles—white reflective, dull silver, shiny silver, and translucent (shoot through). They have 16 ribs/panels (most photo umbrellas have 8, while the Photek GoodLighter and Softlighter have 10). The more ribs, the closer the shape comes to being round.

But it is not just about the shape (mostly noticed in the catchlights of people). Before all of these inexpensive parabolic umbrellas there were others at much greater price from companies like Broncolor and Briese. I believe it was all started by Briese, but their market is mostly in the film industry. More photographers around the world are familiar with the Broncolor Para modifiers that come in a variety sizes from their Para 88 (about 3-feet across the front) to the Para 330 (almost 11-feet across the front opening). Prices range from $3,000 to $7,000 or more just for the umbrella system.

These original parabolic reflectors provide a wide range of looks by having a mechanism to move the lamp head within the umbrella to focus or defocus the light. With the lamp placed deep into the umbrella you can find the focus spot that turns it into a gigantic spotlight that collimates the light rays emerging from it. But many people feel that the real beauty from the para comes when it is defocused. To do that bring the lamp head all the way out to the edge of the umbrella. With its 24 shiny silver panels the center of the umbrella goes dark and you wind up with 24 small bright spotlights around the edge, making it into a gigantic ring light.

It is this soft, yet hard, ring light quality that I have found to be lacking in the 7-foot class parabolic umbrellas. For most of the time that I have owned these big umbrellas I have basically used them as umbrellas for fill light or with a heavy diffusion fabric across the front turning them into big round softboxes. That is fine for the white reflective and the translucent umbrellas. But that silver umbrella. There had to be more to it.

For the photos in this article I will be using the shiny silver version of the Interfit Photographic 65-inch Parabolic Umbrella with their Honey Badger studio flash. You can slide your lamp all the way in on the shaft of these umbrellas to create a strong spotlight like effect. But drawing the head out to the end of the shaft doesn’t get to the ring light look. Take a look at the first two photos of the silver umbrella with the head all the way in making for a concentrated light and then with the head pulled out to the very end of the shaft. The center is still the hot spot in the umbrella. Where are those spotlights around the edge of the umbrella?

Flash head mounted far down the shaft of the umbrella

Flash head mounted far down the shaft of the umbrella

Flash head mounted as far out on the umbrella shaft as possible

Flash head mounted as far out on the umbrella shaft as possible

Flash head mounted on a separate stand 5-feet out from the umbrella

Flash head mounted on a separate stand 5-feet out from the umbrella


For a while I’ve been thinking about ways to make these umbrellas act a bit more like the Para. I don’t expect to match it exactly, but I was sure that I could do better than what I’ve been getting. It finally dawned on me to take the lamp head off of the umbrella shaft and mount it on a separate light stand so I could pull it even further out of the umbrella. Take a look at the light pattern in the umbrella in the third photo where I have placed the lamp 5-feet (60-inches) from the center of the umbrella instead of at the 31-inches when mounted on the umbrella shaft. This is starting to look more like what I’ve been trying to achieve. The edge lights are not quite as small as I would like, but I think that comes from the overall shape of the umbrella. The true paras are deeper and more of a cone shape than the 7-footers.

What does all that translate to on the other side of the camera? Here are three self portraits made with the lamp head in the three positions. The modifier and camera remained stationary between these photos with the umbrella about 8-feet away from the subject and white seamless paper about 2-feet behind the subject.

Flash head mounted far up the umbrella shaft

Flash head mounted far up the umbrella shaft

Flash head pulled back to the end of the umbrella shaft

Flash head pulled back to the end of the umbrella shaft

Flash head mounted outside the umbrella

Flash head mounted outside the umbrella


The first image feels a bit harsh and contrasty for my taste. The second is a little nicer with a bit more of a feeling of the light wrapping. Third image is my choice for contrast and quality. Notice the color change in the third photo. In the first two images the light is pretty well contained within the modifier and doesn’t bounce all around the room (what I call environmental bounce). In the third image the flash head is well outside the modifier, as shown on the right, bouncing light around the room which has a golden colored wood floor, which becomes a secondary light source, which warms up the image considerably.

Here are closeups of the catchlights in each of the above. Some might find the ring light look in the third image distracting. Other people might not ever notice it.

With the lamp head way out in front of the modifier you need to be careful about the light striking the front of the lens causing flare. The lens hood might not be enough. You might need to set up a flag between the light and the lens depending on how close you are trying to get the light to your subject.

You can stop reading here if you like. But if you want to geek out a bit about parabolas, I’ve added the following section.

Going more into the geek…

Let’s look at what makes a parabola. First the standard definition: a symmetrical open plane curve formed by the intersection of a cone with a plane parallel to its side. 



Basically, it is a U-shaped curve. You can read tons more on Wikipedia. Here we are concerned less with what a parabola is or how it is formed, but more about what it does to light. Within the parabola is a focus point on the axis of symmetry and outside is a line called the directix. The parabola is the shape defined when all the points on a line are equidistant from both the focus point and the directix. Visually, it goes something like this on the right.

When talking about light, a (theoretical) point source placed at the focus point is reflected into a parallel beam, leaving the parabola in parallel rays. In actual practice let’s just say that the light is deep (falls off slower than inverse square would predict) and contained or directional. Various factors prevent the light rays from being truly parallel. There is little environmental bounce, so the light is contrasty, but it is also large, so it fills in some shadows. You will need to experiment with having the light at different distances from the subject to find the look that you like.

If the lamp is moved further out of the parabola—defocused—the light rays are scattered (diffused) and exit in a diverging pattern, but the center goes dark and you get a ring of bright spotlight-like lights around the edge of the reflector. The overall exposure will be less as more of the light is spread out and bypassing the subject. Again, experiment with different light-to-subject distances, erring towards having the light closer in the smaller the parabolic umbrella you are using.

Umbrellas andSoftboxes and Dishes, oh my!

Choosing the lighting modifier to use for portraits

You have probably grown as tired of looking at me as I have. So this morning I hired my friend, Ny, to come over to help with more comparisons of light modifiers. For this series I used an Interfit S1 battery powered studio light and a variety of modifiers in different shapes and sizes. I photographed Ny with each modifier and with and without a white fill card on the shadow side of her face. The camera (Canon EOS 6D) was set to the Daylight color balance preset. You can see that some of the modifiers are very different in color temperature than others. The flash power output was adjusted for each modifier to give the same f/5.6 meter reading. Ny was seated about 4-feet in front of a white seamless paper backdrop. The lens was the Canon 85mm f.1.8 set to f/5.6 and ISO 100.

And without further ado, here are the test results.

Comparing the look of the 46-inch Photek Softlighter II with no diffusion (umbrella only), with a single diffusion panel, and with two diffusion panels attached. The softlighter is mounted on an Interfit S1 studio flash.

And for good measure, some full-length photos on the white seamless paper with the light at camera-left and no fill light or bounce cards.

Not the most exciting hour of photography for myself or for Ny. But very useful. If you find these comparisons helpful please consider helping to support this blog by purchasing my book Anatomy of a Studio Portrait or by purchasing lighting gear directly from Interfit Photographic where you get a 10% discount and I get a small commission if you use the code CORNICELLO10 (in all caps) during the checkout process.

Battle of the Round Modifiers

Does the shape really matter? Does diffusion help?

When you think of modifiers for your photo studio lights, what comes to mind first? Softboxes? Octaboxes? What about umbrellas? I will be at WPPI 2018 next week presenting about keeping it simple in the Interfit Photographic booth. I will be there on Monday afternoon at 1:30 and will primarily be talking about working with umbrellas. Think simple and inexpensive.

Yes, softboxes and octaboxes are everybody's favorites. But back in the "good old days" when I got started umbrellas were the go-to modifier. Some photographers were starting to build their own softboxes out of wood or foamcore, but there weren't any commercially mass produced boxes. Over the years it seems that umbrellas have fallen out of favor or have become 2nd class or even 3rd class options for modifying lights.

Like most everyone else, I've been using rectangular and roundish boxes for the past few years. But I have also maintained my relationship with one set of umbrellas, the Photek Softlighters in three sizes, 36-inch, 46-inch, and 60-inch. If I could only have one modifier, it would be the 60-inch Photek Softlighter. But having only one modifier is a scary fantasy notion, so let's not think of that any more.

How different are they from each other?

While preparing for my presentation I started thinking of the differences between the various modifiers. Do they really make that big a difference in comparison to their prices and their ease of set up and use? So I set up my tripod, and a remote shutter release this morning then started a series of selfies with a variety of round(ish) light modifiers. I grabbed these seven items and got to work: Westcott Apollo Orb, 36-inch Photek Softlighter, 41-inch silver metallic umbrella, 46-inch Photek Softlighter, 41-inch white satin umbrella, a 43-inch white shoot-through umbrella, and a 36-inch Paul C. Buff folding octabox (modified with a Bowens S-mount speedring). I mounted each of these in succession on an Interfit Honey Badger and you can see the results below. Use the slider over on the right side of the photos to drag left to reveal which modifier was used for each image. Each row is different modifier or different arrangement of the modifier with the full frame on the left and a close in crop on the face on the right to better see the catchlights in the eyes. Can you identify each modifier before dragging the slider?

I metered each modifier setup to read f/7.1 and kept the camera (Canon EOS 6D with Canon 100mm f/2 lens) on the "Daylight" white balance. As you can see, some of the modifiers have a strong influence on the color. The shoot-through umbrella was quite blue--maybe it doesn't have a UV coating? The Buff 36-inch octa was quite warm. The rest of the modifiers were much closer in color to each other.

Comparing the Photek Softlighter with and without diffusion

I was especially interested in seeing the comparison between the 46-inch Photek Softlighter on its own (without the diffusion panel), with the diffusion panel, and with 2 layers of diffusion panel. So here is that comparison. What do you think?

The image on the left below is the Softlighter with one layer of diffusion. The image on the right has two diffusion panels layered over each other.

So, how did you do on identifying each of the modifiers? Let me know in the comments here or join my lighting group on Facebook.