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?