Many photographers have heard great things about the Broncolor Para modifiers. But many of us have never actually used one on a shoot. Many people extol the virtues of this expensive modifier. Photographer Karl Taylor did a video comparing all the different sized Paras and their qualities which you can see here. About a week ago, I got the opportunity to test out the Para 88.
The word "para" is short for parabola. At first glance, it may look like a strangely shaped umbrella, but the benefits of this modifier come from that shape we all learned about (and maybe forgot by now) in algebra.
One of the nicer things about Paras is their ability to focus the light. This effectively gives you multiple modifiers in one. This may help justify the cost in your mind (or at least give you an explanation for how you'll explain this purchase to your significant other). Of course, the ability to focus also comes at a steep price as Broncolor makes you buy the focusing rod separately or in a kit.
You can use the light all the way in (fully focused), in the middle, all the way out (fully defocused) or any other distance as the focusing rod is telescopic.
The Para 88 is the smallest modifier in the series. But I like it precisely for that reason. In my personal work, I tend to favor extremes in modifiers. They should either be as small as they get (for that range of modifier) or as large as they get (or that I can comfortably fit into the studio).
I absolutely loved the results from this modifier. To my eyes, it gives a strong pop to the images as a harsher light would, but has diffused shadows as a softer light would. Compared to my Mola Demi 22" beauty dish, images also seem more 3D. You can see some examples from my shoot with Nicole from Scout Model Management below.
Should You Buy One?
At some point in their career, a lot of photographers (myself included) think that some piece of equipment they don't currently own will make them a better photographer. I think that theory has been proven incorrect time and time again. The same goes for this modifier. Is it better that others? No. Is it different than others? Yes. Can you get similar results by using something else (probably much cheaper)? Definitely.
As is the case with a Leica, it's not that they're better than other cameras. But they do have a certain look to them. You can get close to that look by using other cameras (and possibly spending time in Photoshop). You'll be 90% of the way there and most viewers wouldn't be able to tell the difference. But if you need that last 10%, if it's important to you, or possibly your client, then you have to pay up. I believe that's the best way to sum up the value of these modifiers. Sure, you can get close to the results, but if you love the look these can create, you just have to save your pennies and buy one.
Ok I'm Convinced, Should I Buy a Knockoff?
That's a very personal decision. Let's get this out in the open, when you buy brands like Briese, Broncolor, or Profoto, you're definitely buying well made products but you're also helping pay for their big marketing budgets. These pieces of equipment do not need to be this expensive, but the companies will charge what the market will bear.
With that in mind, buying knockoffs may seem like a better investment in the short term, but they're usually finicky, have annoying set up/break down procedures (most knockoffs are set up like softboxes, so you'll be wasting time with a speedring. Not so bad if you'll just leave it set up in a studio, but not great if you need to be mobile), and sometimes are just not built to take a beating.
So in the long run, the question you have to ask yourself while you're dealing with all the above issues and you could instead be photographing is, how much is your time worth?