Parabolic reflector comparison and budget modifier hack

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Parabolic reflectors are one of my favourite modifiers, but due to the price of them many photographers often try to find more economic solutions compared to some of the top brands.

But how do the more budget options actually perform compared to the high-end options? I did a direct comparison between two different brands of parabolic modifiers and also tried a hack to try and make a cheap parabolic softbox modifier work more effectively.

Parabolic modifier comparisons

As you’ll see in my parabolic lighting live show, paras offer a beautiful sparkly light that is incredibly flattering for skin tones and great for revealing textures.

Inside of parabolic reflector

Understanding Parabolic Lighting

Now available to watch on replay

In this information-packed workshop Karl sheds some light on the mystery surrounding parabolic reflectors.

Watch Replay

Watch Replay

I’ve discussed the reasons why I love parabolic reflectors, how they work and why they are so effective in a previous Youtube video, and you’ll see plenty of classes that demonstrate how these versatile modifiers work throughout our site.

One thing that’s important to mention here is the distinct differences between parabolic reflectors and parabolic softboxes. The latter is a marketing gimmick used by manufacturers to sell cheaper ‘parabolic’ modifiers that, essentially, are little more than bulky softboxes.

If you are considering buying one of these, I’d recommend watching the video below before making your purchase.

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Parabolic reflectors are completely different from softboxes and have a very different purpose; they are used mostly in beauty and fashion photography for their ability to collimate light and focus it to an area.

With an adjustable inner rod that the light attaches to, true parabolic reflectors can be used in focused or defocused positions, with the defocused position creating a ring of multiple hard lights with an angle of incidence on the subject that creates a unique and attractive three-dimensionality.

Unfortunately, parabolic reflectors can be very expensive, with top brands costing thousands of dollars, so I wanted to find out how effective a budget one could be when compared to a top brand or if I could come up with a hack one to be more effective.

Here are the results from the broncolor para 133:

And here are the results from the Pixapro parabolic reflector:

You can see the side-by-side comparison of the results in the video, but as you can also see here, the Pixapro in its soft position, for me, is not doing what a well designed parabolic reflector should do.

It’s not creating a ring of light on the periphery of the reflector to give you the three-dimensional quality we see from the broncolor para 133. The image looks softer, less sculpted and you can see the more generalised spread of light is also affecting the background to a greater degree.

Part of the problem, I think, with the Pixapro in its soft position is that it has a more diffused internal reflector which is scattering the light in all directions and losing the ability to form a harder ring light on the periphery of the reflector.

If we then move it to its mid position it does harden up the light slightly, but it still doesn’t achieve the same type of three-dimensionality or sculpting.

In the video, I then move it into its hard position, and you can see that while it does get slightly better it still doesn’t provide the quality of the broncolor para 133 (even when that is still in its soft position).

To be completely fair I also compared the broncolor light and the Pixapro light in their mid position and hard position for a more direct comparison. Again, you can see in the video the side-by-side results for each of those in the video.

So you can clearly see that the budget para doesn’t offer the same level of light quality, but what about the hack I mentioned earlier?

I purchased a cheap parabolic reflector off Amazon some time ago, and while it had a more silver inner lining than the Pixapro para, it didn’t have a central rod for the light to attach to (which meant it wasn’t really a true parabolic light).

Using the rod from the Pixapro light, I was able to create a hack version of a parabolic light, turning what was a useless parabolic softbox into a converted parabolic reflector.

Creating a DIY parabolic reflector from a parabolic softbox

Lighting using the parabolic reflector hack

The results of this were quite surprising. The hacked light in the soft position was actually quite effective — for me, it was better than the Pixapro modifiers, but it is still lacking in the quality of sculpting.

In its mid-position, it did something very strange and actually became softer — this is likely because it’s not actually conforming to a true parabolic shape, meaning that the light is not collimating but instead bouncing out more like a standard silver umbrella. This is also evident from the background exposure level.

In the hard position it improves slightly, but still suffers an imbalance in the spread of light.

Here you can see the results:


So in conclusion, in this case, the more expensive modifier undoubtedly provides a higher quality of light.

The explanation as to why comes down to the physics — the internal reflection material is perfect for its size, providing the right level of specularity, and it has a very accurate parabolic shape to ensure the light is collimating correctly.

The Pixapro, in my mind, is most useful in its hard position but otherwise, it seems to provide a look not too different from an Octabox.

My hack only really worked in its soft position, which did provide a sculpting quality of light that I felt was better than the Pixapro in all positions, but the hack was let down by the quality of construction and its inability to keep its shape.

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To learn more about studio lighting, how different modifiers work and when and how to use them, make sure to browse our extensive range of photography classes. Below are just a few of the classes we have that use parabolic reflectors as well as some further articles you may be interested in.

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