Parabolic softbox vs octabox lighting comparison

Photography can be an expensive hobby, and the last thing you want is to waste your money on something that’s little more than a marketing gimmick.

One of the greatest marketing gimmicks we see at the moment is parabolic softboxes, and in a recent Youtube video I did a side-by-side comparison with a popular portrait lighting modifier — a large octabox — to test the results for myself. Read on to see the results and also discover how you could potentially save yourself hundreds of dollars!

What does a parabolic softbox do

When you look at the physics, the concept of a parabolic softbox just doesn’t make sense. This is a product that has hijacked the word ‘parabolic’ from parabolic reflectors and merged it with the word softbox to make a mockery of the laws of physics.

To better understand this, one has to understand how softboxes work and how parabolic reflectors work.

The purpose of a softbox is to create a large and as homogenous light source as possible (meaning that the entire front surface of the softbox should be as evenly illuminated as possible).

To do this the light needs to be diffused and scattered around inside the softbox as best as possible so that by the time it reaches the final diffuser it is homogenous, creating a broad soft light. The light that is then emitted from the front of a softbox will travel in multiple directions from multiple angles without any point being brighter than another.

Softbox lighting effect

Parabolic reflectors work very differently. Based on a parabolic shape (which I explain more about here and in our parabolic lighting live show), these modifiers produce a very focussed light that is generally quite bright and sparkly.

Parabolic lighting effect

So how does one combine two seemingly opposite lighting effects? Quite simply, you don’t. And the results from my comparison show this.

Parabolic softbox vs octabox — The results

I decided to do three different comparisons between the parabolic softbox and octabox. The first would be with the front and inner diffusion, the second with only the inner diffusion, and the third with no diffusion.

I didn’t really expect to see much difference between the first two tests, but I thought maybe the parabolic softbox would, with the front diffuser removed, perhaps provide a giant ‘beauty dish’ look instead, and therefore justify some of the hype.

I discuss the effects of each in more detail in the video, but here are the results:

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With diffusion

Parabolic softbox lighting example
Parabolic softbox - Diffused
Octabox lighting example
Octabox - Diffused

Inner diffusion only

Parabolic softbox lighting with inner diffusion only

Parabolic softbox - Inner diffusion only

Octabox lighting with inner diffusion only

Octabox - Inner diffusion only

No diffusion

Parabolic softbox lighting with no diffusion

Parabolic softbox - No diffusion

Octabox lighting with no diffusion

Octabox - No diffusion

As you can see, the difference only really started to show when neither modifier had any diffusion, which was surprising as I thought that might have been where the parabolic softbox had the edge. But it was only with both diffusers removed that the parabolic softbox became a parabolic reflector, but with a forward-facing light — much like a giant P70 or standard reflector.

With no diffusion, the result was a pleasant, crisp light with good texture, but I was actually able to replicate that lighting effect fairly easily by using a bare bulb studio light facing the wrong way in a deep focus umbrella! You can see exactly how I did this in the video. This solution is a smaller and more lightweight alternative, which makes one question whether these parabolic softboxes are actually really worth it.

The best softbox for photography

The results show that there really isn’t much benefit to the parabolic softbox, compared to an octabox or regular softbox. They’re also a lot bigger, heavier and more cumbersome, making them somewhat difficult and unpleasant to work with.

If you’re looking for the best softbox for portrait photography, the octabox 150cm is a great option. It’s a versatile light that can be used for portraiture and even beauty work. Its size also means it’s very versatile and can be used for close up portraits as well as three-quarter images, as you can see in the examples below (you can find out how I shot these images in our portrait photography course).

Two light portrait lighting example
One light portrait lighting example

In summary, using the word ‘parabolic’ and ‘softbox’ together just doesn’t make any sense as it’s completely paradoxical. Any claims by manufacturers that you can somehow benefit from collimating the light and then diffusing it in all directions just goes against the laws of physics. Yes, you can make a parabolic reflector into a softbox, which is useful, but don’t market a softbox as being parabolic just for it to sound cool.

For more comparisons between different lighting modifiers, take a look at my ‘Lighting modifiers and their effects’ portrait photography class.

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  1. You’ve spent the few years promoting the exact, horribly overpriced, marketing propaganda that you just referred to as bullshit and a marketing gimmick. In fact, as recently as October 6th, you published a video declaring that it was your first choice lighting system.

    I’ve been saving towards a parabolic light based on your previous recommendations and reviews. So which is it?

    1. Hi, I’m afraid you’re getting a little mixed up! Please watch this video and the previous one you refer to, they are both about completely different things. One is about Parabolic Reflectors and the Other is about Parabolic Softboxes, it’s important to understand the differences which these videos explain.

  2. You are certainly right once you put the diffuser on it’s still a softbox.
    As a dance photographer where I can’t get the light as close to the subject as a portrait photographer, the parabolic without the diffuser is useful in two ways. I can focus the light since the parabolic shape is very directional when it’s open. I can achieve that with a reflector but I need a broader bigger light for someone moving. I get an extra stop of light from the design and that helps me use lower power settings to keep the flash duration short. I can keep the background darker without flags too.

    One thing I noticed in your example above is more spill behind the model (on the seamless) when the diffusion is off. It almost looks like there is a second light behind the model since there is a gradation. Definately some great points you made.

    1. Hi, yes don’t get me wrong I love parabolic reflectors but not one’s that are marketed solely as softboxes. As I discovered there wasn’t a huge difference even with the front diff removed and I was able to replicate similar lighting with much less weight with a deep umbrella.

  3. Interesting comparison Karl, thank you.

    I do, however, wonder if the test you ran might have a usage variation that you didn’t try. If you fixed a boom arm/pole through the back of the parabolic softbox you could clamp a strobe and bounce it back into the reflector at different distances and angles, making use of the modifier’s depth. Then when you fix the diffusion material over the front, the light would be scattered from the inside foil, but not evenly, thus the diffused light would have a soft, but slight gradient on exiting. At least I think it would. Perhaps this might offer options? This effect may well be small and easier done with more standard kit, in all likelihood.

    I’d never considered this type of modifier before, but as I was watching your video, I wondered if the depth of the modifier might offer other options. Possibly, I’m off the mark. Just wondered …

    1. Hi Barry, if it only had a front diffuser and it was thinner and the light was at the focus position facing inwards then yes it would be similar to a Para with very weak diffusion but that’s unfortunately not how this and many other ‘Deep or Parabolic Softboxes’ are marketed, they are often marketed as being some sort of special softbox with special softbox properties but that’s just not the case because of the double diffusion. I’ve got some more tests coming soon with other brands of actual parabolic reflectors with rods. Cheers Karl.

      1. Thanks Karl, for your explanation. It’s good to have access to this platform as I’ve gone from knowing nothing about studio lighting to a smidgeon more than nothing. It’s entertaining too …

      2. Hi Karl!
        I am looking forward to your new test of parabolic reflectors with a rod, allowing you to reflect light from a reflector and change the distance of the lamp by analogy with broncolor. I have an Ambitful parabolic reflector and a rod of the same brand. In my tests I realized that the light is not focused as well as on the para, but nevertheless the light is different from the so-box with diffusers and reflections from diffusers.
        I really appreciate your lessons. For me, you are number one in photography!

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