Review: Paul C. Buff Extreme Silver Parabolic Umbrella (PLM)

Posted on November 20, 2011

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This past weekend, I was able to use the version 2 of the Paul C. Buff 86 inch parabolic umbrella that they call an “Extreme Silver PLM”. I used it with and without the diffusion fabric attached. What follows is what is it and how did it perform. My usage was outside and for something similar to those of you who would be doing senior portraits. The following abreviations will be used in this review:

AB 1600         Alien Bee 1600 WS

PLM                  Paul C. Buff’s 84 inch Extreme Silver PLM

A parabolic umbrella is usually a very expensive piece of lighting equipment, and I have only found them at really ritzy photo studios when I have worked in them. Lately, there appears to be an influx of low cost parabolic umbrellas that aren’t 100% parabolic umbrellas but are fairly close for a significant reduction in their cost and making them affordable to most photographers. So, what makes a parabolic umbrella worth more? A parabolic umbrella focuses the light to be fairly evenly lit over its wide area with very little spread in the light it casts, and quick fall off outside the perimeter of the umbrella. They are very efficient at light transfer. Within the umbrella light, it should be even and soft. Using a diffusion material should increase the softness of the light with little or no change in color cast. Frequently, I have heard that soft boxes are a poor man’s parabolic umbrella with diffusion material.

Setup is easy, but cumbersome to do. The umbrella is huge and you have about a foot and a half to work – the hardest part is putting the screw in the speed ring assembly. Once you have the screw in, the rest is fairly easy and adjusting the flash with the PLM attached is fairly easy. I personally recommend that if you have the speed ring version, you keep the two inserts mounted in the umbrella and the Allen screw tightened so they don’t come out.

The results were very good: with the PLM about 10 feet from the model, ISO 100, and the AB 1600 set at 1/16th power, the F stop was set to F16. That is incredible with a single AB 1600. When you add the diffusion material, you loose almost a half stop of light, but the light is very soft and diffused well – the shadows have a soft fall off. Just as a test, I shot a sample of the AB 1600 attached. There is very little flare except at the bottom where the diffusion material doesn’t seal well around the AB 1600.  Using the PLM, the light is very directional and controllable.  Unlike the Westscott version of a parabolic umbrella, the light is very even on the model and there are no dead or bright spots in the middle. Probably the worst thing about PLM is seeing your image in your model’s catch lights if you move in front of the PLM.

One caution: I would discourage using the PLM (extreme silver) in the studio unless you absolutely need efficient lighting with your lights because it is very efficient and directional. The PLM takes up a lot of space and you need to have the room for something this large (a small garage studio or ceilings less than 12 feet is too small). When trying to use the light as a wrap around light on a small model in the studio, there were still fairly hard shadows even with the diffusion material. I do have to admit that the model was well lit and with the exception of the shadows, was an excellent lighting attachment. I do not know if this applies to the other silver PLM or the white PLM.

I give this product a thumbs up and would recommend it moderately to most people who are familiar with studio lighting equipment and need to shoot outside. Once you get familiar with the PLM’s behavior with the contrasty fall off in light, it is very controllable and an excellent lighting modifier to have in your toolbox. For those who aren’t experienced, I would recommend starting with lower cost umbrellas and learning some techniques before moving to the PLM type umbrella where feathering and adjustment needs to be more precise. I would love to see how this compares to the white and soft silver PLM.

I will update this review with some images, and with other findings as I use the PLM a little more.

Edit: Here are some images taken underneath a park pavilion using the PLM. The power setting was set to 1/16th or lower. It is the only light source for the image. The day was overcast/raining from 1PM to 4 PM during the day. The model was posed on the edge of the pavilion with the outside park behind the model.

One year later: I wanted to update this and add that it is really hard to go back to soft boxes once you get used to using the PLMs. There is just so much more light to work with when you use the PLM compared to the softbox, and you don’t have to grid a light to add fill in spots with the PLM because of the size of it. Going back to a regular soft box for a few shoots has been a real re-learning experience.
Carnival, Anyone?
Remembrance of Service
Playing with a pal

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