Why a parabolic reflector is the best photographic light
You have probably heard about this legendary type of light shaper before: the parabolic reflector. They are among the most expensive pieces of lighting equipment in any high-end professional studio, and it is said there is no better light. To let you know upfront: It's true. But let's take at a closer look at why that is.
The most common type of parabolic reflector you have encountered many times before without even noticing it is the satellite dish on your rooftop. It's used to focus the television radio waves into the receiver unit in front of it. And this is exactly what a paraboloid umbrella or light shaper does, just the other way round. Light from a point source (light bulb or flash tube) is spread evenly over the entire surface of the reflector without the use of diffuser material. This not only enables a higher output over a longer distance but gives the light its unique properties that make it so outstandingly flattering for fashion and portraiture. Expensive systems enable adjustment of the focus point to either spotlight or flood which provides maximum versatility.
When used as a light modifier, the inner surface of the paraboloid often is rough or slightly wrinkled to, unlike idealistically depicted in the graphic above, provide a natural diffusion of the light rays and produce soft shadows and pleasant gradients of luminosity on the lit subject. Some systems like the new Briese focus.2 models even provide multiple surfaces with soft and hard reflective areas to take professional versatility to the max.
The two best-known brands of high-end flash equipment offering parabolic reflector systems are Briese Lichttechnik from Hamburg Germany and Broncolor Switzerland. Both companies offer a wide range of different pararabolic reflector sizes with adjustable focus depth. Whereas Broncolor mainly specializes in flash photography, Briese lights are also widely common in cinematography, with the company providing either flash, tungsten or HMI fixtures that easily interchange in the same modifier. Hence Briese lights can often be seen in top-notch movie productions, fashion shows, and venues, where they are considered the top of its class by lighting professionals. The unique and patented bulb-only design of the Briese system makes it superior to all other brands. A hassle with Broncolor are the somewhat unpractical mounts which require the entire flash heads to sit inside the reflector and the complicated setup, whereas a Briese reflector has a simple patented pop-up mechanism and is meticulously manufactured with german engineering excellence. In general all Alternatives often are just an approximation of the Briese's performance and produce unwanted shadows and uneven light in closeup portraiture or product photography. As of 2020 Briese offers high speed capable flash generators with up to 88 flashes per second which make them sensational for commercial freeze frame photography.
COST & Compatibility
Parabolic lighting systems are well patented and known to only work with their own light fixtures. However, upon request Broncolor provides mounts for different lights, whereas Briese supplies adaptations of their flash heads for most common power packs like Hensel, Broncolor and Profoto. If you fear the cost please be advised that there is a good market for second hand Briese equipment which is known to last for ages and will get your started at low cost. Also all of their products are available from their rental service. Photographers are used to spend thousands on new camera equipment each year, but tend to save as much as they can when it comes to lighting equipment. It's light, however, what your camera sees. And hence it is the most important thing you should invest in first. A perfect light on set can also save you hundreds of hours of retouch and costly post production.
Over the past few years many cheap alternatives have spawned onto the market, however, the quality of the light does not match the market leaders'. This can still be suitable for you. A thing to look out for is the ability to change the focus via an adjustable rod. Many companies now provide cheap parabolics with an adjustable rod. Beware of companies offering nonadjustable "para" softboxes, as they are nothing more than a simple softbox and do not at all offer the quality of light that you would expect from a real para. Especially if diffusion material is put to the front, any parabolic reflector is nothing more than a round softbox and loses its light wrapping capabilities that make it so unique.
If you are interested in working with Briese Lighting schedule a session at our studio in Heilbronn, Germany. Visit http://www.marcoribbe.de for details and workshops.
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