Are There Any Benefits to a Parabolic Softbox, or Are They a Marketing Gimmick?

There are many light modifiers available and the selection can become confusing at times. Some areas, in fact, are confusing even when you understand them. The primary suspect is the parabolic softbox.

Whenever I teach newer photographers there is a truth I emphasize early and often: light is light. Though it's a tautology, it's a useful one insofar as it reminds you that it doesn't matter whether you have spent $10,000 on the best studio strobes, or you're using LED lamps you found in Costco, the light will behave in the same way. The only real dictators of outcome are the power, the temperature, and the modifiers of the light.

In this video, Karl Taylor airs his grievance with a particular offender that he classifies as a marketing gimmick: the parabolic softbox. For the uninitiated, a softbox's purpose is generally to diffuse the light into an even, soft spread, rather than the direct and harsh results of undiffused lights. Conversely, parabolic umbrellas focus the light into a strong column. So what is a parabolic softbox? Well, on the face of it, it's the contradiction it seems; it wants to scatter and focus light.

While there are a few perks, I'm with Taylor on this subject: they're cumbersome, awkward, and unnecessary. If you've never tried one, they truly do weigh an enormous amount.

Do you use a parabolic softbox? 

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13 Comments

Miha Me's picture

Looks like the answer is No!
He is using extremely large ones though. 🤔 Would be interesting to see how smaller ones differentiate.

Lee Christiansen's picture

Deeper softboxes (ideally para types), tend to through the light forward in a more parallel direction so when they hit the diffuser, they light should come out in a more focussed beam, whereas a shallower softbox will tend to give a more spreader quality.

But another advantage of para-type boxes is when we can take off the diffuser panels and get varying results. My Elinchrom Deep Octa 100 is a lovely light with full twin diffusers, but also when just the inner baffle is used.

I take Karl's videos with a pinch of salt these days. (He also tells us that light meters are old fashioned and have no place in photography... bless him...)

Michael Comeau's picture

I have Plume wafer softboxes that are incredibly shallow and the light is very even.

John Rowland's picture

I think he is missing the point. It's like a swiss army knife sometimes you want to use the screwdriver sometimes the knife. So you have a softbox and when you take off the diffusion you have a para. I've also seen him do a video about cleaning your sensor in which he advises using a can of dust off sprayed directly on the sensor... so take what he says with a grain of salt.

Billy Paul's picture

If the diffuser really is a diffuser any directional quality of the light hitting it from behind has almost no effect on the light it emits from the front. If you have a strong focused flashlight try shining it through a diffuser. There won't be any beam on the other side and the angle you shine on the diffuser makes little difference. At most you may see a little lens flare like effect from the weave in the diffuser material.

Parabolic softboxes are stupid as softboxes and OK as not very good parabolic reflectors when diffusers are removed. People have a similar strange idea that a beauty dish is still somehow a beauty dish when you stick a sock on the front of it.

William Faucher's picture

I love my parabolic! One thing he doesn't seem to cover, though, and one of the reasons I like mine so much is not so much the difference in lighting, but because it has much less spillage than a regular softbox. (At least that's how it feels to me, I could be wrong). I like it for interior, slightly environmental portraits as it doesn't seem to light up the entire surrounding room quite as much. It's bit more directional, and keeps the light focused on the subject.

Another reason why I love it over my octagon softbox is the shape of the catchlights in the eyes. My parabolic has near-perfect round catchlights, whereas a regular octagon, and especially the square/rectangular softboxes, the catchlights aren't as circular, they're, well, octagonal, or square. It's nitpicky, but it does make a difference with the closeup portraits. I just love the look of it.

Of course it's all personal preference. Deep parabolic softboxes aren't that much more expensive either.

Bjarne Solvik's picture

I belive his point is that only Broncolor Para modifiers are any good. Those are kind of built on the design of an umbrella, which stick so you can choose to make the light more contrasty. I don’t think there magic, but some do, and pay a lot. I know he have som Para, I would love to see a fair comparison. At this point I tend to think that these true parabolic reflectors, Para and a few others, are just as much marketing tricks. But ripping you off by potentially thousands of dollar. Broncolor is like 4x anything else, except maybe Profoto. Profoto makes great umbrellas by the way:)

Dana Goldstein's picture

I love my Fotodiox Deep Paras. The 28” and 36” get the most use, with and without grid. I feel like the light has a nice snap and sparkle to it, while covering what’s needed. Very polished look both in studio and location.

Daniel Medley's picture

I've done some similar tests, and he's right. Some people claim that they have "less light spillage" with a deep box as they do with a standard box of the same circumference, but that is not how physics work. If you have the same circumference and both are diffused similarly, the way the light emits is the same.

Photons don't travel like a blast of water from a hose. They scatter in all directions to points that can view the surface of the source. For example, if you set up a SB pointing straight down, a model can stand way off to the side of it, and any place from which you can see the surface of the SB, it will get light on it. Not at the same intensity, though. It has everything to do with the size of the light source and little if any with the depth of the box.

William Faucher's picture

I think that's what people mean by less spillage, though? The falloff will be narrower/tighter with a deep softbox, than a regular one. Tighter falloff = less light bleeding into the rest of the room.

Billy Paul's picture

There seems to be no point trying to educate some people. How many times do you need to be told that how deep something is behind a diffuser makes no difference to the light emitted by that diffuser?

Daniel Medley's picture

Photons don't work that way. Really. The depth of a SB simply cannot impact "spillage" or falloff while adhering to the laws of physics.

William Faucher's picture

Fair enough! Today I learned.

Billy Paul You don't need to be a jerk, that's not how you make friends.