Product Review: Paul C. Buff Parabolic Light Modifier – PLM


Ladies and gentlemen I’ve been working my butt off! Recently I acquired the Paul C. Buff Parabolic Light Modifier (PLM) as well as an Alien Bees B800. Lets start from the top. Why would one purchase this? Five reasons:

  1. it works!,
  2. its CHEAP!,
  3. it could potentially reduce your need for a soft box!,
  4. it creates both hard and soft light making, it INCREDIBLY VERSATILE!, and
  5. most importantly, after just one use I can say that its reached the top of my cheap list! I cant resist the chance to be able to get even more out of low power strobes!!!

Here’s a snippet of the write-up directly from Paul C. Buffs Alien Bees website where they talk about the PLM:

The PLM™ System is a modular light modifier system that can quickly be configured as a large, HIGH-OUTPUT, VIRTUALLY ROUND PARABOLIC REFLECTOR, as a WIDE OR NARROW BEAM SOFT BOX, or as a BOUNCE OR SHOOT-THROUGH UMBRELLA, with or without spill control…

Here it is unboxed:

Unbox it and you’ll see a photographic shipping tube (a welcome travel case till you get a real one and a sleeve. Since its designed from an umbrella with fiberglass ribs instead of metallic rods its got more flex too it which should keep it from snapping super easily. Complete with with instructions by the way! The largest PLM is the 86″ which when retracted is only 43 inches long! Great! 7ft to under 4ft!

PLM 42" Open

The 42″ PLM has a 39″ lighting surface. Useful size when you’d like to replace a soft box for 1 & 2 people portraits! Notice its width compared to the door.

42" PLM Light Pattern

Above is an example of the light pattern from the 42″ PLM. It’s the same for all versions… only difference is how large the pattern will be from a given distance.

86" PLM - Open

Now traveling to the 86″ PLM you’ll see an amazing size difference between the 42″ and the 86″! The 86″ is the HULK of the system but just to o remind you there is another size PLM in the system – just between the smaller 42″ and the larger 86″ is the 64″ inch. For my review I chose the smallest and the largest because of the way I shoot.

Here’s Paul C. Buff explaining how it works:

Parabolic reflectors are often misunderstood by photographers. A common response to the PLM™ system is: “That looks like an umbrella – it can’t possibly perform the function of those gigantic deep parabolic reflectors offered by other manufacturers.” In a conventional deep parabolic reflector only a portion of the available light is directed to the parabola and is directed as a focused beam toward the subject. The remainder escapes as unfocused spill light. In the PLM™ system the special 7″ reflector directs all of the light onto the 16 segment parabolic surface in an exact 180° field. 100% of the light is focused by the parabola and none escapes as direct spill light. The result is higher output than a deep parabolic system, virtually no spill light, extremely even coverage and a lightweight, portable system that can be mounted on standard light stands and easily transported and set up.

By positioning the light unit at the exact focal point, the silver PLM™ light modifiers produce an extremely high-output narrow shaft of light with smooth coverage and feathered edges. This results in very large, virtually round light sources that produce intense yet soft lighting due to the vast f-stop increase in subject illumination over soft boxes or conventional umbrellas. Moving the light unit into the parabola slightly defocuses the beam to produce a wider pattern at slightly lower output.

After using the system for 2 weeks it is absolutely safe to say that Paul C Buff’s claims are spot on! The PLM is incredible. For example, the system is so good at redirection Bill Schutt of Smash Photo in Long Beach, CA discovered that the PLM is so efficient that it even collects sound waves! Absolutely true! While during a session for an upcoming online magazine he discovered an echo every-time he spoke while checking out the B800 while it was mounted with the 86″ silver PLM. The PLM was actually bouncing back the sound of his voice like a fan would!!! Incredible! (If its this efficient with sound then how bout light?)

In a metering test at approx 10ft away with the B800 bare bulb lined up with the outer edge of the fabric the 86″ PLM produced a massive F16 at 1/2 power! Try that with a 7ft photoflex octodome using 1/2 on an alien bee B800 (totaling 160 watts!)! You probably wont get such a high output light. This my friends is where the PLM excels and what its really for: high output, rounded light source, low spill light! In testing the evenness I noticed a 1 F-Stop drop off in light output when we traveled from the center of the umbrella shaft down to the lower edge of the shaft. (Which was expected and no different that any other large light modifier.)

Back at home before I went to the studio for an official test/shoot, I tested the 7ft ring light PLM 7ft away and felt as though I didn’t need my ABR-800 ring light anymore because of the IDENTICAL lighting pattern when used directly behind me! Indoors I shot at 1/16th power from the B800 at F8.0 (Here its overexposed by 1.5 f-stops because I forgot I was on ISO 200!) What I’ve found is that the larger the PLM  the more efficient it is at gathering and redirecting the light (and sound). In fact, Bill Schutt attest to even feeling the heat from the flash burst about 4ft away from the flash unit when fired at 1/4 power or more. The PLM simply is efficient at redirecting each and every beam of light captured by the outer and edges of the umbrella! Its the best tool I’ve seen at this.

In my Smash Photo Studio setup decided to skip the soft box and use the PLM 86″ as a replacement. Here’s the amazing part… not only did it work… I was still in total control of the background light… so much in fact that I decided to add a back light! Why? Because the PLM is so good at “Laserbeam-ing” the light you give it – almost none of it hit the background… like a gridded soft box or gridded reflector!

As of these two images… its safe to disregard the rumors of weak shafts, and Alien Bees breaking under the PLM’s weight. Mine, (if there made like the rest) did just fine. In fact, I’ve even tested the PLM out on my old trusty Britek (What? You didn’t think I’d just throw those babies in the garbage did you?) flashes. Its absolutely strong and its effective*.

Back at home I couldn’t resist testing it on my son… one of my usual suspects! :)

PLM Portrait

Obviously the PLM is the PERFECT solution for beauty?

The light pattern and quality created by the PLM is nothing short of incredible. Paul C. Buff has created something that’s amazingly CHEAP, versatile, and even practical! From the smaller 42″ PLM to the larger 86″ PLM this is THE light mod to own. Imagine this, go out on a non-windy summer day under 12 o’clock devil light… you need to overpower the sun but don’t have a flash over 160 watts. Pull out a sandbagged PLM 42″ or larger and Get Ta Shootin! In my test I could pretty much overpower the sun with F16, ISO100 at 1/250th with a 100 watt bare bulb flash from about 4.5 feet away or closer! Its safe to say that this is my new favorite light modifier. I’m shocked that its not being hailed all over the net. But that’s okay I’m a trailblazer anyway – you’ll see what I’ve done with it in my next magazine spread!

The PLM is by far the most revolutionary light modifier I have seen. I without a doubt or restraint challenge everyone to find a more versatile 7ft light modifier for $112.91 or less!!! If you do, send it too me so I can A) review it and B) start using it! As this item quickly goes to the top of my cheap list… I say hey… GET THIS tool… and you know what… GET TA SHOOTIN!

If this is what Paul C. Buff has in store for us then I am afraid to see what kind of functionality and ability that the upcoming AB-Max and the P.C.B. Einstein system will provide. I just can’t wait to test them!

*NOTE: The PLM relies on a completely bare bulb structure for the light to be properly redirected. Using a reflector wont create the correct light entry. My recommended SL-400 cheapo ebay flash wont work because the flashtube is recessed – however my less expensive Britek lights work fine because the bulb is completely exposed as it sits atop an ceramic base. The PLM will work properly on all Alien Bees, White Lightning, Zeus and any other flash system that incorporates a fullyexposed flash tube and has a standard size umbrella hole. Sorry Elinchrom users, your just S.O.L. with that non-standard umbrella hole.

For more info about the Paul C. Buff Parabolic Light Modifier System visit

Published by David Griffin

The Prince of Cheap I am a "Jesus Freak" and a DIY photography junkie! I'm also the *second* cheapest man alive... but only 'cause my Dad is the first!