Q&A: Photek Softlighter II or Paul Buff PLM?

Sydney, Australia-based photo assistant Diego asks:

You seem to use the Photek Softlighter a lot. How would this compare to the Paul Buff PML Soft-Silver with the White Diffuser?

While they are similar (both sub-$100 Octa killers) they are pretty different under the skin, So which model you'll prefer depends on how you'll use it…

First off, they both offer amazing value for dollar and I own and use both. They are both similar in that they are umbrellas with front diffusers, and they are both available in the very versatile ~60" size.

Both will give you a flat-plane light source (as opposed to an umbrella's hemispherical shape) that you can feather to work the edges of the light. This is super useful as compared to the spill-it-everywhere qualities of an umbrella.

64" PLM

The PLM is Paul Buff's "Parabolic Light Modifier." And while it is not exactly parabolic, it is damn close. In fact, you shouldn't think of it as an umbrella, but as a parabolic dish that collapses.

Buff PLMs come in three fabrics (soft silver, extreme silver and white) and three sizes (86-, 64- and 51-inch). For comparison purposes, we'll consider the (most versatile) soft silver 64" with white diffuser panel.

It is a testament to his original design and subsequent iterations that everyone and his brother is trying to knock the PLM off. But at $49.95 or $59.95 (for 64", depending on the mount) the real PLM is IMO better made, better functioning, cheaper and, ahem, original. The white diffusion fabric for the 64" model adds another $16 to the price. Still, crazy cheap.

So if you are leaning toward a PLM and have access to US markets, go with the Buff model as opposed to the "homage" competitor products.

Back to the parabolic part. Because of the reflective nature of parabolas, a PLM wants the light source to reside (a) in the focal point of the umbrella and (b) to be omnidirectional.

Because of this, the PLM can give you much more efficiency in terms of your final light output, whether using the diffuser or not. And without the diffuser, this thing is a super-efficient umbrella. No, actually more of a gigantic para reflector. Especially in the "extreme silver" fabric.

But for the same reason, it is also specifically designed for big lights. In fact, the optional on-axis speedring mount (available in PCB and Elinchrom mount) puts your flash head right in the focal point, making the combo crazy efficient.

With the diffuser or not, it's a pretty amazing light source. That said, I use my Photeks far more often. Here's why.

Photek 60" Softlighter

The 60" Softlighter is a little more expensive at $95 with diffuser, and is not parabolic. It is also lighter, but still well-made. It is my go-to big mod whether using speedlights or big flashes.

Why? Several reasons.

First, it travels great. Very light, very thin in the stand bag and it comes with a slip case that includes a pocket for the front diffuser. And even though it is lightweight, the things just hold up. The weight-to-durability is off the charts.

The PLMs are heavier and bigger in diameter when packed. And I have had some trouble with stripped screws on the mount hardware. It's replaceable, but that's a pain in the ass when you count on a light mod every day.

Second, the Photek is not parabolic. So it is better suited for speedlights, meaning it takes a flat-front light source better. (It works fine with any light source, but is not as efficient with the bare-bulb of a big light as compared to the PLM.)

Third, it is so versatile. As shipped, it can be used as a black-backed reflector umbrella, a shoot-through umbrella or a contained, diffused front panel light. That's a lot of versatility for one small, light piece of gear.

The 60" Photek Softlighter is my desert Island soft light. I would feel naked on location without it, and usually carry two with me. I have a couple of 60" versions, and a 46". If you just get one, I'd say go with the 60".

I use them as standard key lights, or on-axis for gorgeous fill. (Example of both of these, here.) I "table-top" the 60" version to make a soft-but-moody downlight (example here). Suffice to say I use them a lot.

Being so light, Photeks are ideal for being hand-held over a subject by an assistant. Annie Leibovitz famously uses the crap out of them this way.

They can be frustratingly hard to find in stock. Finding them at the mega-photo-stores (Amazon, Adorama, B&H) can be hit or miss. I have tried for over a year to get MPEX to stock them, but apparently it is not an easy thing to make happen.

I get the impression that Photek is a mom-and-pop that makes an amazing light mod but in fairly small quantity. Nothing wrong with that. Just don't wait till the last minute before a shoot if you want one.


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