Saturday, December 19, 2009

Paul C. Buff PLM

I generally avoid mentioning particular brands of equipment, believing that skilled lighters can produce great results from all kinds and grades of equipment. Sometimes, however, a particular manufacturer brings a new and unique product to market, and I have to make an exception. This is certainly the case with the relatively new PLM (Parabolic Light Modifier) from Paul C. Buff.

I had stumbled upon a discussion of this umbrella-like modifier on a forum and did a bit of research on it. It sounded like a great product for a bunch of upcoming assignments, so I dropped a few bucks (it costs little more than a quality umbrella of equivalent size) and ordered one. It comes in different sizes, in silver and satin versions, and with a variety of optional covers and diffusers. I'm not going to go into a detailed review of the entire line or the accessories, as I've only worked with the plain 64" silver version, but I will show a few of my first images with it and share a few of my findings.

If the claims for this modifier were true, I could get a large source, with a smooth punchy light, graded shadows, and an efficiency nearly on par with a standard reflector. I have to admit I was skeptical, as I have never been a big fan of silver umbrellas, many of which exhibit wickedly uneven light. Besides, if this was just a tweaked umbrella with a few more panels and bent into a proper parabola, why hadn't a genius at one of those prestigious lighting manufacturers come up with it years ago? Did it really take a red-haired oddball from Nashville to do it? The answer I found is, apparently, yes.

Before taking the PLM out to do some real work, I did a quick output benchmark in the studio. The output of my Quantum X-series bare-bulb flash with the PLM with was just one quarter f-stop less than with its regular reflector in the wide-angle position. That is surprisingly good considering that the PLM provides about 150 times the surface area of the standard reflector. Admittedly, it would have been a better comparison to have done that check with the Quantum reflector in its regular coverage position, but you get the picture. I also played around with the positioning of the flash tube, moving it fore and aft along the "umbrella" shaft checking the light distribution within the modifier's bowl and how that related to output. Positioning the flash tube as recommended by the manufacturer appeared to optimize both. I did little more testing and packed it up to accompany me for a shoot of a musical group.

I rarely use an untested product on paying customers, but we were doing a lot of our shooting without prior scouting or, as it turned out, much planning at all. The guys and I were just going with the flow, so incorporating the PLM seemed just fine. My customer had submitted several sample photos, each using strong on-camera flash. I hoped to duplicate this look, but with a smoother-looking light and softer shadows. In all the photos shown in this post, the PLM was positioned on axis, just behind, and slightly above the camera. In essence, the PLM became a giant on-camera flash.

The photos shown below were among the last taken that day. The sun had already set and we still wanted to catch a few pictures next to a graffiti-decorated overpass pier. The first image shows our subject leaning against the pier. The PLM was approximately 8 feet from the subject. The resulting light has a fairly smooth quality with some snap, and the shadows are distinct, yet have a pleasantly smooth gradation. A view of the entire group shot at the same distance from the PLM is included to show the fall-off in illumination of this modifier. Keep in mind that this was shot at an 18mm focal length with an APS-C sensor (27mm @ 35mm), so the light and camera were in quite close. The darkness in the lower portion of this frame can be attributed, at least in part, to light blocked by my body. One thing became quickly clear during this shoot: the PLM produces a distinct lighting pattern and must be aimed with care.

Earlier in the day I had used the PLM for a few shots with the group in an ambulance. That portion of the shoot was particularly unplanned. I bungled my lighting, and hadn't noticed that a slave flash in the ambulance had failed to trigger. To make matters worse, the image concept and the busy scene with busy clothing just didn't work for me. I had all but written off the shots when I decided to use some high-radius sharpening and a few other tweaks to salvage an image. The resulting image (below), while not exactly what I had intended, does show how the PLM might be a good choice for an edgy, sharpened look.

The silver 64" PLM is not an all-purpose modifier, but it sure has great potential for a variety of applications. I'm looking forward to doing more work with it, especially using it in close for portraiture, and taking advantage of its graded illumination for feathering.

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