Broncolor is a well respected name in professional studios around the world. The Swiss manufactured products have earned their reputation for quality and consistency. They tend to be priced accordingly but this doesn't mean that Broncolor gear is for high end pros only. Photographers seeking top line equipment that is reliable, highly usable and robust should always take Broncolor into consideration. I want to thank Canadian distributor Amplis Foto for making the unit available for this review.
The Para 133 seems like a simple concept. Take a highly reflective umbrella design, and make it a perfect parabola for focused output. You get the softness and sweep of a professional grade umbrella, but with the focused nature of deep parabolic light shaper. All good so far.
Now add a focus shaft in place of a centre shaft that holds the strobe, and make that shaft position adjustable, so you can change the focus and span of the parabolic light return on the fly. The beauty of a parabola is that it doesn't care where the source is on the axis, it focuses the light based on the incident position. This is high school physics. In their Para lineup, Broncolor harnesses this principle of physics to creative advantage. This is the idea behind the Para. I did my evaluation on the Para 133, but Broncolor also makes this light shaping tool available as the Para 88, Para 177, Para 222 and Para 330. The numbers reference centimeter measurement diameter so it's easy to figure out which one is which.
When you mention an umbrella styled softbox to many photographers, the thought of inserting, flexing and managing rods to set a unit up will drive a person to drink. The Para 133 has to be the easiest light shaper to set up that I have ever encountered. You fold over two levers to open the device and two more to make it circular. The back of the unit is fitted with a standard Broncolor bayonet receiver. Into this you can insert a holder or the adjustable focus shaft mechanism. You can use a Para without a focus shaft and it can become a giant beauty dish, but I would buy mine with a focus shaft and use it that way. My evaluation unit came with a very tough and solid Manfrotto clamp to hold the focus shaft adapter, and I did have to pop out to get a 22mm post capable stand. I was able to find an excellent Kupo Heavy High Stand on wheels and it does a superb job of holding the Para and makes movement and repositioning extremely easy.
Broncolor make a series of diffusers and softgrids for the Para lineup. I did not have any of these for the evaluation, and while it may have been nice to test them at the same time, I wasn't disappointed because I had some very specific test cases that I wanted to complete, none of which would require front diffusion or grids.
When you look into the Para, you will note that there is an area towards the centre post that is a shinier and heavier fabric. One might wonder why this is so. I discovered that my unit was one of the ones that is capable of being used with HMI lights and that this heavier fabric is a heatshield. Any concerns of hotspotting were a waste of time. The wash of light produced is smooth.
My first real test of the Para 133 was an outdoors shoot. Outdoors means wind, and wind usually equates with disaster for a modifier this large that effectively becomes a sail. I used a couple of sand bags on the big Kupo and had no issues. I very much like that the Para has rings mounted on the outside of some of the struts, specifically so you can use tiedowns to keep it in place. It is serious thinking like this that makes the Para special.
What makes the Para lineup so awesome is the ability to focus and defocus the light via the focusing shaft. The Para has 24 individual panels and that means that you have the effect of 24 hard lights all combined together. The look is both hard and soft at the same time, and by using the focusing shaft in different positions, you get a lot of different looks from a single set up. Moreover, I found the Para to be really parabolic, which means you get a completely different look just by changing the angle of the light relative to your subject. Aim it past the subject and you get an incredible feathering, that is the best that I confess that I have seen.
I am always learning and that means making mistakes. That said, you have to really work hard to make a bad image using a Para. As an educator, I fully understand that the image is made a couple of inches behind the viewfinder, but using the best tools absolutely makes a tangible contribution.
For light sources, I had the Broncolor Siros L Kit at the same time. The kit consisted of two Broncolor Siros L monoblock heads that run off a rechargeable battery and that are triggered by the Broncolor RFS 2.1 radio. I have a separate review of the Siros L kit, but I will say that using the 800ws head at about 15 feet outdoors on a bright day, the Para was able to overpower the ambient light and deliver the look I wanted. The combination worked beautifully. I also used the Para with Elinchrom Quadras, with a single head driving 400ws and that combination worked well. I also shot with the Para equipped with a Profoto B2 head which can deliver 250ws. Based on my indoor tests, I would suggest that with the Para 133 you will be best served by at least a 400ws head for a reasonable power range and not having to have your light maxed out for f/8 or f/11 at about eight feet away. The smaller Para 88 would not have the same demands I don't think, but I probably wouldn't want to run a Para 222 or Para 330 without a lot of output capability from the flash head. Please note that I did not have the proper adapter for the Profoto lights and at the time of this writing, there is no adapter for Elinchrom. Thus both the Profoto and the Elinchrom lights were mounted directly to the focus shaft and were thus slightly off centre.
The Para 133 does not qualify as lightweight. Despite this, I consider it very transportable and a breeze to set up. The rest of the kit, specifically the stand will be much more cumbersome than the Para 133 itself. I should note that you can mount the Para 133 to a standard bracket and 5/8 mount stand but I would not, purely because it is a large unit and I wouldn't want it tip, risking the strobe or the talent.
Since Broncolor developed and released the Para, others have jumped on the focusable parabolic design. I own the Westcott Zeppelin, which is quite good, but having used both, you can see that why the Para costs more and is worth it. Ease of setup, ease of teardown, solidity of focus shaft, and a far superior tilting mechanism all contribute to a more robust unit. I did a side by side comparison using grey sheets to measure focusability and light control. It may be unfair to compare the two products given the difference in cost, but I guess I will be unfair. The Para 133 kicks the Zeppelin to the curb in every way, which is pretty incredible because the Zeppelin is a very very nice light shaping tool and a superb value for the money. Sadly, it now means I want to replace it with a Para. How about it Broncolor? Straight trade?
Yeah I didn't think so. My shooting partner Isabel has never ever called me after a shoot to say that she had never gotten such incredible light from a light shaping tool. She did this time, and I agree. I've read a number of reviews (after I did my own work) and for what I do, I think that the 133 is the right one. The 88 might be a bit on the small side, and the larger units while awesome by all accounts would simply be intrusive in the space that I have to work with. Since I do both photography and videography, the studio is constantly in a state of teardown and setup and space is at a premium so while I would really love a 177, I have to be rational (hahaha - be the first time).
I give the Broncolor Para 133 my top rating, 5 stars. I have never used a light shaper with the flexibility, ease of use and utter brilliance of the Para. I could chop a star due to the cost of the Para 133 kit as it costs just over $3500 USD. I won't. Given the quality of construction and the amount of use any pro could get from this single light shaper, it would pay for itself very quickly.