What Are Parabolic Light Modifiers and Are They Worth It?

Parabolic light has become increasingly popular among fashion and portrait photographers. With so many options to choose from, a photographer may get lost or not understand the modifiers at all. Parabolic softboxes, umbrellas, reflectors, and so more. Which ones make sense and which are just phony? In this article, we’ll explore what parabolic lighting is […]

What Are Parabolic Light Modifiers and Are They Worth It?

Parabolic light has become increasingly popular among fashion and portrait photographers. With so many options to choose from, a photographer may get lost or not understand the modifiers at all.

Parabolic softboxes, umbrellas, reflectors, and so more. Which ones make sense and which are just phony? In this article, we’ll explore what parabolic lighting is and why it’s awesome.

These are expensive modifiers commonly produced by Broncolor and Briese. They are renowned for their unique light quality. I took Broncolor’s Para light shapers for a spin to see what the fuss is all about and see for myself if this modifier is with you.

In short, true parabolic modifiers are incredibly versatile light shaping tools. I recommend renting them and trying them out, but make sure they are true parabolic. Read further to see what I mean by this.

What Is a Parabola?

In simple terms, a parabola is a curve at any point on which is the same distance from a focus point and a fixed line. This is a shape that is defined mathematically and a modifier can only truly be called parabolic if it follows this exact shape.

If it does, the light produced will be very crisp and, depending on where you set the focus, will either have great contrast or be very broad. Moreover, this shape is hard to replicate accurately as it required precise manufacturing and extensive R&D to get precisely what is needed.

It is much easier to make a parabolic-looking modifier. Those are commonly softboxes or umbrellas that claim to do the exact same thing as more expensive truly parabolic modifiers.

Faux Parabolas

Before I explain the magic of real parabolic light, I must warn and slightly upset anyone who is looking at parabolic umbrellas or softboxes. Unfortunately, those aren’t real parabolas.

A parabolic light modifier is one that follows the principle of a parabola for the whole length.

For example, let’s plot a parabola in Desmos and try to fit an image of a softbox that claims to be parabolic.

As you can see, we can’t fit the shape of this softbox to a parabola. Although they visually look similar, they will work in a completely different way and the laws of light won’t be the same as with true inverse parabolic modifiers.

I would stay away from buying parabolic-looking softboxes and umbrellas as they are a mere waste of money. Although they claim to produce deep light that is parabolic, all they do is take up valuable space and work inefficiently. Moreover, octa boxes of the same size will be more efficient and cost a lot cheaper. Just compare the amount of material needed to make a useless parabolic softbox and a simple octa.

True Parabolic Light — It’s Awesome!

Let’s discuss why parabolic light is a must to try or even buy. There are many advantages to it, but the biggest one if of course versatility that comes with the sliding focusing rod system that Briese and Broncolor offer. This control allows to completely change the light quality with a simple slide.

Importantly, parabolic light modifiers won’t work with flat front lights such as Profoto D or B series or Speedlite. As the whole modifier has to be illuminated at once, a flat front will become inefficient and probably won’t produce the same high-end result as a flash head with an exposed tube.

Para Positions Bit by Bit

Fully Zoomed In

Starting at the most zoomed-in position, the huge Para 222 is able to provide a focused beam of light that has a size similar to that of a small hard reflector. However, unlike a hard reflector, the Para still being a large light source the light coming out of it is incredibly soft. Soft but with dimension.

HMUA: @karinajemelyjanova
Styling: @bertabagi
Model: @aliz.lehrner @facemodelmanagementhungary
Post-Production: @justlike_magic

The vision for this first image was to capture a mysterious look that would be quite harsh and dramatic. Drama naturally implies contrast and uneven illumination. The stylist chose looks that were dark which added to the mood.

Using the Para 222 zoomed in, I was able to achieve this while keeping the skin tones flattering. This is best seen through the textured canvas backdrop as well as the model’s clothes that have volume. Lastly, the belt and earring detail is brought out efficiently by using parabolic light focused completely.

3/4 Zoomed Out

While not completely focused, the beam is already wider. Here, the light has a fairly rapid falloff which is great for the image I had in mind. Although I used a grey background in a studio with black walls and ceilings, it is not visible at all due to dramatic falloff.

I imagined this image to have just that: dramatic falloff where the cheekbones are clearly visible with major shadow/highlight contrast. Playing around with the positions on the Para, I noticed that this is the best focus position for the result in mind.

HMUA: @karinajemelyjanova
Styling: @bertabagi
Model: @aliz.lehrner @facemodelmanagementhungary
Post-Production: @justlike_magic

Half-Way Zoomed Out

In situations where even background illumination is required, a half-zoomed-out para is a great choice. In this image, my goal was to have an even image, while still retaining much of the contrast in the clothes. At the same time, the light had to be soft.

Due to the large size of the Para, the softness was taken care of, while the contrast was provided by the rapid falloff characteristic of all true parabolic modifiers. As the light was so even, I wanted to add some fuzziness to introduce drama and really give the image even more dimension.

Despite me putting gels in front of the lens to create flare, there is still clearly visible detail due to the very crisp light that is produced by the Para at all positions.

HMUA: @karinajemelyjanova
Styling: @bertabagi
Model: @aliz.lehrner @facemodelmanagementhungary
Post-Production: @justlike_magic
HMUA: @karinajemelyjanova
Styling: @bertabagi
Model: @aliz.lehrner @facemodelmanagementhungary
Post-Production: @justlike_magic

Fully Zoomed Out

This position is also unique to parabolic modifiers as it lights up only the edges of the modifier creating a soft three-dimensional light with contrast. This is best used when you want to photograph shiny surfaces or metal.

HMUA: @karinajemelyjanova
Styling: @bertabagi
Model: @aliz.lehrner @facemodelmanagementhungary
Post-Production: @justlike_magic

In this image, the goal was to create a light that would accentuate the models’ garments. Those being largely reflective metal or plain black demanded that I get light that would reflect from the metal surfaces from a wide family of angles.

As said previously, a fully zoomed-out parabolic modifier acts like a series of hard reflectors, because the light comes from so many directions, I don’t have to worry about camera placement to capture the reflections. You can clearly notice how every detail is reflecting in its own way. This same effect would be a lot more challenging with modifiers such as hard reflectors or octa boxes.

Closing Thoughts

I love light, and the Para is my newly found love that I am ready to propose to. What it offers is incredible versatility and efficiency in delivering a wide range of results. The joy of using a Para is that you can play around with the light in order to get the precise result.

These modifiers offer room to play and really get the light you’re looking for. There isn’t really a wrong way to use a Para as long as it’s producing what you want. Being able to change the light completely with a simple slide is already enough to seriously consider renting a Para. The only drawback my newly found love has is of course the price.

Three major manufacturers of true parabolic modifiers, Briese, Broncolor, Parabolix, all price them very highly. I know for a fact that I will be renting Paras a lot, but I will probably not buy one until I find myself renting it for every single job. But by all means, I strongly suggest organizing a test shoot and renting out a Para from your local rental house. They’re some of the best modifiers I’ve gotten my hands on!

About the author: Illya Ovchar is a commercial and editorial fashion photographer based in Budapest. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Ovchar’s work on his website and Instagram.

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How Blaine Harrington Makes a Full-Time Living as a Travel Photographer

Blaine Harrington began his career in photography in the 1970s after a brief stint racing motocross. His connections to the racing world led to assignments covering races around the country and in Europe – piquing his curiosity about travel. After studying at the now-defunct Brooks Institute of Photography, Harrington spent a few years working in […]

How Blaine Harrington Makes a Full-Time Living as a Travel Photographer

Blaine Harrington began his career in photography in the 1970s after a brief stint racing motocross. His connections to the racing world led to assignments covering races around the country and in Europe – piquing his curiosity about travel.

After studying at the now-defunct Brooks Institute of Photography, Harrington spent a few years working in fashion photography but eventually pivoted to travel photography to sate his desire for more authentic subject matter. His network and skill as a photographer allowed him to live a peripatetic life working for publications like National Geographic, Travel + Leisure, Delta Sky, and many more.

He has competed regularly in the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW) Bill Muster Photo Awards, and recently won its Photographer of the Year award. We spoke to him about the business of travel photography, changes in the landscape, and the role of contests in his marketing.

Note: This interview has been edited.

Allen Murabayashi: The contest ecosystem has been subject to a fair amount of criticism in the past few years for a variety of reasons (e.g. rights grabs, exorbitant entry fees, controversial winners). What is the value of contests like SATW in 2022?

Blaine Harrington: The SATW Muster photo competition has changed in importance as the travel industry itself has undergone major changes. The industry has been hard hit by the 2001 World Trade Center disaster, the 2008-2009 World financial meltdown, and COVID. Two of these three things are “Black Swans,” things you could never have predicted.

The industry has never fully recovered from these events. And as well the general photography business has suffered what I consider a “perfect storm” of changes: the internet, the disappearance of much of print, digital photography and the overabundance of imagery, and the major stock agencies taking over smaller “mom and pop” stocks agencies. Then the price war, mostly started by Getty, drastically lowered prices and led Corbis to go out of business.

One of the reasons that the SATW competition has been important is that its membership is made up of travel writers, travel photographers, travel editors (primarily for major newspapers), other travel journalists, and a large number of public relations professionals who represent tourist boards of various countries, various U.S. states and cities, and for major hotel chains, cruise lines, etc.

The idea, I thought, was there would be a certain amount of business to be had from these various travel companies that these PR people represented. Honestly though winning Muster awards in all but two years out of the last twenty, did not bring me that much business. I was, however, often invited to destinations to do my work, sometimes on press trips, but most often on individual trips. Until recent years this meant everything was covered, including international airfare.

I do not at all agree with rights grabs and would never enter a competition that wanted me to transfer my copyright. Also, I have not entered any [contests] where the entry fees seemed exorbitant.

Kara tribe boys with body chalk paintings on their bodies jump in the air, with the Omo River behind. Dus village, Omo Valley, Ethiopia. Omo Valley, Ethiopia.

You’re living the dream of a lot of photographers, namely, making a living from travel photography. But you also have 40 years of experience and an extensive archive. What are the realities of being a travel photographer in a highly competitive environment?

I have been fascinated by travel since I was a kid. I wanted to do it long before I ever had any opportunities. My huge amount of time learning all kinds of photography and doing different parts of photography, helped me become who I am.

A travel photographer has to be able to shoot in cities, in the countryside, photograph people, both documentary style and posed, light things, shoot events and action, and shoot aerials from a helicopter. So that, and my knowledge of the world from first-hand experience and photographing people in all walks of life (everyone from a poor shoeshine boy in India to a Fortune 500 CEO) – treating them all with the respect they deserve –it’s all part of the photographer that you become.

Photography is a hard game. Doesn’t matter if you just started or you’ve been doing it forever like me. Few people have the temperament to be a freelancer. Yes, you can set your own hours, but if you decide to take a bike ride during the workday, that means you may be working in the evening. You have to be thick-skinned enough to take criticism (even when it’s not accurate). You have to always believe in yourself.

And yes, post-production takes up a good amount of time for a travel photographer and most of that is unpaid. If I travel for a month, for example, I may sit in front of a computer for three months (all day long) adjusting photos in Lightroom, doing keywords and captions, rating and selecting photos. It’s one thing when you are dealing with 100 photos, quite another when you come back with 10,000 keepers.

I really cannot paint a rosy picture for anyone who wants to do this “dream job.” I think that boat has sailed, unfortunately.

If you look at my website, the quality of my work is consistent from one end to the other. I have been prolific. I have 35,000 photos on my website. This year I left both Alamy and Getty because I simply cannot stand seeing my work sold for next to nothing.

In stock photography, there is this one-size-fits-all approach to pricing. A photo taken with an $8,000 super-telephoto lens is priced the same as an iPhone photo. One photo is absolutely much better than another. Doesn’t matter. Same price. One photo was taken from a helicopter that I paid $600 for the flight. Doesn’t matter.

An Ethiopian Orthodox priest pour a cup of holy water in the cave monastery of Neakuto Leab, near Lalibela, northern Ethiopia. The holy water drips from the ceiling of the cave and is collected in a cistern.

In the past few years, we’ve seen the rise of social media influencers who create travel-related content (some of it very high production quality), but instead of making money from photography, they monetize the size of their following. Do you consider them to be competition? Or something entirely different?

Five or ten years ago I would have said influencers who have a completely different business model don’t have much effect on us and cannot take away business from us. Now I think that is no longer true. No matter who is taking business, whether it is part-time photographers, advanced amateurs, or influencers, the vast numbers of people taking away business has hurt.

I always compare it to a pie. I had what I thought was my piece of the pie. No single person could take that away. But instead there are thousands and thousands of little bites taken that are taking away that piece of the pie that I thought was mine. It’s ironic though because none of those little bites is enough to make a business out of.

One of my greatest pet peeves is what has happened to stock photo prices in the last ten years especially. The way I see it, we had well-established pricing for print uses: for ads, brochures, magazine covers, you name it. When internet use came along, clients told photographers or agents “oh, this new internet thing, we don’t know if it’ll really take off, so just sell us rights for that for a little extra along with print rights”. So guess what? Internet and digital use was not only successful, but it pretty much killed print. But rights for those new technologies were never adjusted to reflect the reality that we were no longer making money (or not as much) from print, and therefore these new rights were set below the cost of doing business.

Now we are left with an untenable situation where the more photographers produce, the less they make.

How do your clients find you? Newsletters? In-person visits with editors? SEO?

For many years I was able to rely on a number of different users of travel photography: travel magazines and major newspapers; adventure tour companies for their catalogs and brochures; travel guide books for inside use and covers; calendars. Most of these are gone now.

I no longer do much to find new clients. Primarily I rely on SEO and people doing google searches to find me. I had already started to rely a lot on stock photography earlier in my career and found time and money spent shooting were more valuable (for me) than marketing efforts. This worked ok until prices went downhill.

I would add that as I added sidelines to my core business, such as selling custom prints, photo books that I have self-published, leading photo tours (for other people who hired me to lead the tours), that all of these are a lot of work! They may just be a side line to create a new revenue stream, but they are not passive. They are hard to dabble in.

A great portion of my income in the last five years has come from enforcing my copyrights. The digital age has made it easy for people to copy and steal photography, music, writing, etc. I am thankful that I registered much of my work with the U.S. Copyright Office before I started to find infringements.

I worked with Pixsy in the beginning and still do somewhat. Through their site, which helps you reverse search your entire website, I found something like 100,000 infringements! Most were in places where there is nothing I can do about it: China, India, or safari companies in Africa. But in the US, UK, Germany, and a handful of other countries, pursuing copyright infringement works.

Other infringers have included some of the most well-known textbook publishers. These companies did not “steal” the work, they licensed it from stock agencies, but they acquired licenses and then ignored the terms.

[Infringement] is a huge problem and I urge all photographers to both register their work with the Copyright Office and be diligent about protecting their rights. I have a disclaimer on every page of my website warning people not to infringe my work.

A baby mountain gorilla plays in the trees of the rain forest, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, southern Uganda, near the border of Rwanda and Congo. Bwindi Impenetrable Forest contains 400 Mountain Gorillas, half the world’s population of Mountain Gorillas. It is a World Heritage Site. The Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is a large primeval forest located in southwestern Uganda in the Kanungu District. The forest is on the edge of the Albertine Rift, the western branch of the East African Rift, at elevations ranging from 1,160 to 2,607 meters (3,806 to 8,553 ft).

COVID-19 restricted travel for many people. How did you spend your time in the past 18 months?

Somehow I stayed busy, but I have been on the road forever – either planning new trips, traveling, or processing the results of those trips. So it was strange. But I have traveled so much and have accomplished so much of what I set out to do that I am actually not chomping at the bit. I certainly want to get there and have more adventures, but I am waiting patiently (for now, anyway).

My last trip was to Brazil for Carnaval. I got back early March 2020. At the time I was leaving Brazil, they had only one confirmed case of COVID (someone who traveled there from Italy). Within a month, Brazil had blown up to be one of the biggest hot spots in the world.

And for the gearheads (myself included), what do you typically carry in your kit?

I do not consider myself a gearhead (although that’s not entirely true), but I do very much believe in learning anything, photography included, until you are completely comfortable with the technical aspects and then being more about ideas than gear.

Having said that, I started shooting with Nikons when I was still in high school and I have remained with that brand for fifty years. Other photographers have moved into mirrorless, I stick with my DSLRs. I have Nikon D810s (I’d like to have D850s but unless I break a camera I stick with the ones I have).

I primarily use four Nikon lenses, as well as a couple of Nikon SB900 speedlights. I use the Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8, the latest version of the 70-200 f/2.8, and the 16mm fisheye. I also have the 200-400mm f4 zoom, but I can’t bring that along everywhere. I use it on safaris and things like that. That lens, if you use a DX format like the D300 (which I still use occasionally), along with a 1.4 teleconverter, can become an 840mm lens that I’ve used with wildlife a lot. Then I use a flash extender on the SB900 and it works quite well.

You can follow Blaine on Instagram @blaineharringtonphoto.

About the author: Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter, which regularly publishes resources for photographers. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. This article was also published here.

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