What Is The Difference Between a Parabolic Reflector, a Beauty Dish, and an Octobox?

When it comes to shaping the light sources photographers use, there are a lot of modifiers available. Each lighting modifier has it's own characteristics which can make it difficult to determine the best light for your project. Karl Taylor has produced one of the best videos I've ever seen showing exactly how the light fall off, contrast, and specularity differs between the parabolic reflectors, beauty dish, and large octabox softbox.

Most photographers are pretty well versed in the softbox and even the large octabox. If you have ever shot beauty or fashion you have probably used the beauty dish modifier. The one light modifier that you might not be as familiar with is the parabolic reflector (and we need to note that this is not quite the same thing as the PLM made by Paul C Buff). The specific system Karl is using here is the Broncolor Para 88, Para 133, and the mighty large Broncolor Para 222. What makes these light modifiers so unique is the contrast and softness of the light changes greatly when you vary the distance of the flash head to the back of the reflector.

difference between softbox, octobox, parabolic reflector, beauty dish large

Karl's video shows these differences better than I ever could explain with words. Of course, no one light is necessarily better than another but it is pretty clear that the parabolic light modifier does look considerably different than either the octabox or beauty dish. As we found out for ourselves with the most expensive photobooth ever created, the ridiculously large Broncolor Para 330 produces gorgeous light that has both harsh and soft qualities at the same time.

So after watching Karl Taylor's super helpful video, which light source do you prefer and why? For more training material from Karl, head over to his website at http://www.karltaylorphotography.com/ where you can find all sorts of tutorials on different photography topics.

If you're passionate about taking your photography to the next level but aren't sure where to dive in, check out the Well-Rounded Photographer tutorial where you can learn eight different genres of photography in one place. If you purchase it now, or any of our other tutorials, you can save a 15% by using "ARTICLE" at checkout. 

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Patrick Hall is a founder of Fstoppers.com and a photographer based out of Charleston, South Carolina.

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Very informative. Great post.

Great post, good explanation!

It's a bit out of context, but I think it's important to add this to it.

The most important thing is not the light, but the the people (model) and their expression.

Think about your favourite photograph (does not apply to product photography).
Why do you like it? What's the most important thing in it?
Why do I like some Newton images, or Testino work?

Most of the time it's because of the model and her/his expression and the location, at the end comes light.

I think: IF you think you need the piece of gear, wait 1 month before you buy it.
If after 1 month, your thoughts are the same, buy it.
If not: Good, pay me a 10% of the money you didn't spend ;)

Hi Julien, your absolutely right. The content of the picture is obviously important. No amount of great lighting is going to make a poorly composed shot look good. We have a saying here in the UK....' You can't polish a turd'... However when the content is great and the lighting suited to the content then that's when the magic happens.

Totally agree!

But isn't capturing a good expression from someone an absolute given in photography?

nice post..but i have a question, if i'm shooting outdoors which is the best light modifiers to use especially in beach areas.i like the result of parabolic modifiers but i think its not suitable in windy places not unless you have an assistant to hold it for you..

Hi Chester, all modifiers with a significant size are going to catch the wind. This is a common problem and inevitably means assistants are holding the lights and they are heavily sandbagged when we are shooting on location.

assistant is a must, they are big sails otherwise... also, if you really want to see the power of the para 222. Have the sun reflect into it... i got a burn within seconds.

If you're talking the beach, the best modifier is someone holding a reflector. Umbrellas are begging for trouble, especially with the wind. You'd be better off with a beauty dish, which is heavier and less likely to catch the wind than an umbrella. (though you'd want to sandbag it and have an assistant hold the light stand just in case)

The problem with Reflectors is that they are usually impossible to place high up in the air and instead only really work with bouncing sunlight from below (less flattering angle) and from the side opposite the sun (fill light).

Your best bet is usually a decent sided softbox because they do not catch wind very well. Another option I learned from Joey Wright is using a shoot through umbrella. The trick here with a shoot through you can use it both as a bounce or as a shoot through. What you want to do is always have the wind blowing towards the outside of the umbrella so that it wraps around the modifier like head on wind wraps around the nose of an airplane. Depending on the direction you decide to light your subject, you might be firing your strobe directly into the umbrella and using it as bounce OR firing it through the umbrella as a diffuser.

If you can afford a slightly harder light, then the beauty dish is the absolute best modifier for windy environments but it will never be as soft as an umbrella or huge softbox.

There is absolutely nothing about this video I don't like. The production, Karl's explanation, the lights themselves, and of course Jessica!

In the end however, it reminds me of looking at all the TV's lined up in the big box stores. Next to each other you can easily see the difference but take any home and you'll never remember what the others looked like. Note: with the obvious exceptions, of course.

Further, in the end an image shot for a client will undergo the usual full retouching and become it's own "look"and totally change the original as to what the interpretation of the photographer has in mind (and the client).

So, with that in mind, just about any will do and in the end it comes down to the skill of the photographer in using a given light source and his (her) abilities (not to mention the budget). Isn't that always the case?

Hi Chet, thanks for your comments. I agree to a point however I do believe that even subtle differences can be important and I am very much more interested in what I can achieve in camera and on location with out compositing, shooting plates or over using photoshop. Generally my work uses only a limited amount of burn & dodge and colouration if possible. As such these subtle differences are important to me. The other problem with a test like this is that it doesn't unfortunately demonstrate the reach or effect of the different modifiers in a variety of other shooting situations as we had to keep this video to a reasonable runtime.

Karl, thanks for the reply. And I agree with you. The more you can do properly in camera the better the end result. No doubt the differences are important, no argument there at all. But I'll bet using one of these and learning its capabilities fully will probably yield the best results.

BTY, I watch all your videos and find them all highly informative and appreciate you doing them.

And sadly, even further... a paying client might in the end prefer an Instagram or Hipstamtic image shot in natural light.

hmm! He is sooo far away with the beauty dish. What i have seen and heard is that the beauty dish should be used much closer the subject. or?

Hi Guest, or if you watch the whole video you will see that I conduct two tests. The first from a distance of about 12ft and the second from about 4ft. The purpose was to demonstrate the differences between these lights at different distances and with varying amounts of fall off due to the inverse square law. Even with this fairly comprehensive test it is still fairly restrictive compared to the many different scenarios I have worked with Para, soft boxes or even beauty dishes. Due to the Parabolic shape of the Para and its capacity to efficiently conduct the light energy in a comparatively focused direction, it is one of the most effective lights for location shoots where you need to place the lights further away. This is often the case if you are shooting wide angle fashion images that include a significant proportion of landscape and you don't want your lights to invade your composition. I believe I used this technique to particularly good effect in my Iceland fashion series of images which if you are interested you can view here http://karltaylorportfolio.com hopefully these images will demonstrate to you that there is no 'given' scenario for a modifier, only the one that works best for your shooting scenario based on experience. My team and I conducted this test to better help give photographers of all levels an experience and comparison of these lights. Many photographers may not have the opportunity to own this sort of kit but they do have the opportunity to rent it and surely a knowledge of their performance in different distances is useful.

Personally I think Karl is actually the best in terms of how everything is being explained. The formula of his videos or courses is easy to digest. The information just gets into my memory automatically. There are not so many good videos of such standard, therefore I am happy that this one was presented here. In the past I bought some courses from Karl's website in a DVD form and they were brilliant too.

I also like the fact that he isn't closing himself in just one genre of photography which is a common practice nowadays. I find his work and teaching skills exceptional and wish I could meet him one day and simply have a chat about photography. Great work Karl and thank you fstoppers for bringing this video to us.

Thank you for your kind words Aksela. If you're in the UK I will be running some guest talks and demos at the Hasselblad stand at the Photography Show at the Birmingham NEC March 1st-4th. I will also be at Photokina in Germany in September. Hope to see you there.

I will definitely be there and I am looking forward to see you speaking at this event.

I personally like the 150cm soft, Para 88 at mid position, and Para 133 at full extension.

I have both the Para 88 and the Para 177, and love the combo... if i could change things i would get the para 222 and the para 133 as well. I can tell you they are very versatile and i can shoot with them outdoors. Need serious stand and weight and they all come with hooks to clamp into the ground as well. But if it is super winder, without an assistant i would be nervous. We are talking about a $7,000 modifier.

What's a 'loit'?

It's like a light but better. :)

One of the best and most informative videos I've seen on Fstoppers. Thanks Karl!

Great and informative post. Thank you for sharing. Do you use a grid? I think softbox with grid in second position could be near Para 133 extended and mid as a big, but directional light source. Diversity and quick change of Para light is amazing and very useful.

The fact that just about all of the kit demo'd is way out of my budget doesn't stop this from being one of the most interesting & useful instructional videos I've seen on fstoppers to date. Great pull for a potential new follower Karl :)

Wonderfully informative and so well communicated. Karl is always a delight to listen to. Thank you.

Karl Taylor's videos have helped me so much in learning and improving in my photography. Great post.

Another great video Karl. Keep up the great work, it's very informative and inspiring.

I wonder how the broncolor compares to the Elinchrom Rotalux Deep? I just started to use a beauty dish and it has been hard to get the correct image color that I've been looking for. I watched that entire video and found it super informative. No one has been able to really explain any of these modifiers well enough to grasp the understanding of light contrast. Thanks for the incite.

Could we get a slightly larger comparison photo? I feel like some of the subtleties are being lost on the tiny version.

Hi Ian, the comparison photos appear in detail in the video (both sets of tests) and all the side by side shots. If you watch the video in HD full screen you get a pretty clear view.

Fantastic video and great for those of us getting into studio lighting. I've been using speed lights mainly on location for corporate/head shots but this is going to help when I get up and running in a more studio setting. Of course, I just need to save up enough for a used car or two Para umbrellas!

This is a great video that explains the different light modifiers in an easy to undertsand way, Great job Karl!

(and we need to note that this is not quite the same thing as the PLM made by Paul C Buff) Now this brings up the question what IS the difference?

Hi Karl,
Thank you so much for a great video. This is the first time I've seen a video from you and it definitely won't be the last:) You are very informative, sticking to the subject and explaining it so it's easy to understand.
Kind regards,

This is exactly what I needed. Finally a clear comparison between high-end light modifiers, thanks Karl!


This app has good demonstration of light with inapp purchase, you can test different reflectors with different positions. Quite informative.

I'd also like to know the difference between these and a Paul C Buff light. Seems to have the same effect. Maybe not quite as lovely but there is a rather distinct price difference...

9:49 "kindly agree" sounds like "working for free" jajajajaja

The significant color balance difference between the 150cm softbox and the 133cm parabolic umbrella is more noticeable to me than the difference in light quality. Correct it and we'll have a better comparison. I think it's also worth noting that one can by a 150cm Chinese softbox of decent quality for about $60 and the 133cm Broncolor umbrella is about $5,000.

You think the WB looks different? Her lips look the same red in every photo to me

Look at the gray background.

Really great info and examples. We did a comparison and tutorial on the Profoto Beauty Dish vs 3' Octa Softbox. If you'd like to check it out: https://youtu.be/V78USHtZUm8