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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Blogger doe said...

Can anyone recommend a similar product in the german market?

May 17, 2013 7:41 AM  
Blogger Diego Lorenzo Jose said...

Thanks for this Dave. A follow-up Q:

Which of the two provide the more even light across the face of the modifier? I mostly work with Profoto and Bron gear, so speedlight use wouldn't really be a factor for me.

Do you think they'd compare to the Elinchrom Rotalux or Profoto Octa in terms even-ness of light?

Thanks man, looking forward to your response.


May 17, 2013 9:58 AM  
Blogger dave d said...

Thanks David for this side by side comparison. Reminds me of the Ray Flash verses the Orbis Ring Flash smack down. Thanks for having the the guts to have an opinion about a product. I'm sure that can be difficult with the advertisers to the right -->.

May 17, 2013 10:04 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Actually, I am not sure about that. I don't really use a flash meter and you'd need that to determine which is more even.

But remember, the flash head is going to be in the middle of the front surface of either, so the true Octas would win in that regard.

May 17, 2013 10:33 AM  
Blogger Paul S said...

I use the Westcott 7 foot para with front diffuser... Basically the same thing. It's extremely well made, very efficient and easy to use with speedlites or studio lights. I often use it to light large groups at weddings with just one speedlight.

May 17, 2013 1:47 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

David, I am considering to purchase Photek Softlighter and I am wondering, its possible to use it only with one speedlight?

May 17, 2013 2:00 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Absolutely, I do it all the time. But as with any umbrella/speedlight combo, it will be for indoors or low-light outdoors.

May 17, 2013 2:33 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


They tried to make it the same thing (which, ugh) but they did not succeed.

May 17, 2013 2:35 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

David, how do you mount Photek Softlighter on a speedlight. Can you give me some tip? Thanks!

May 17, 2013 4:08 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


It's essentially an umbrella. You mount it the same way, with an umbrella swivel adapter.

May 17, 2013 5:11 PM  
Blogger Colin Smith said...

Hi David. Just to let your readers know that the PLM is available outside the US via the PCB International Sites. They not as cheap as we buy at the same price as a US customer and have to cover all of the costs with getting them to the UK and Australia but we are authorised to sell them and keep stock.

May 17, 2013 5:32 PM  
Blogger RexGRP said...

I appreciate the comparison of the PLM and the softlighter since I own the soft silver PLM. I am concerned about using either one straight on as fill for people wearing glasses. It seems like reflections would be hard to control.

May 17, 2013 6:50 PM  
Blogger Cliff Etzel said...

David - I had been debating whether to go PLM's or Photek and having been using the 64" White PLM with silver back and front diffusion with my AB's, I elected to get the smallest PLM in soft silver with front diffusion for my strobist kit. I've got a Quantum Qflash T2 used manually that's become my primary key light and a couple of old school Vivitar strobes converted back in my newspaper days to bare bulb for secondary fill & all strobes are powered by Quantum Turbo or Bantam Batteries (Like I said - Old School). Needless to say, my Chimera Super Pro softboxes go unused these days.

May 17, 2013 7:13 PM  
Blogger Michael David Fisher said...

David, I mainly use Qflashes like Cliff. They have have bare bulb capability. Would they work well in a PLM?

May 17, 2013 7:59 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

@Michael and Cliff-

Yep, QFlashes (barebulb) would work fine in a PLM. In fact, with their parabolic shape (I'd suggest soft silver) you'd get more power out of your light both with diffusor and without by using the PLM as compared to other mods.

May 17, 2013 8:11 PM  
Blogger Paul S said...

David, the Westcott 7ft Para is definitely not a cheap knock off of the PLM, just an alternative. I have owned and used both and the Westcott is definitely a superior product made with more robust materials. The PLM does have the advantage that its a bit lighter and packs down a bit smaller, but on the whole I prefer the Westcott for the quality of the light I can get out of it. Here in the UK the Westcott products are much easier to get hold of and are comparatively priced.

May 18, 2013 5:58 AM  
Blogger Jonathan B said...

Thank you so much for this informative comparison! I was wondering what your opinion would be on westcott's Halo versus the soft lighter? I currently use halos on my AB's and speedlights but really like what you're showing about the soft lighter. Do you think the soft lighter is more focused or what not?

May 18, 2013 12:19 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


I *strongly* prefer the Softlighter over the Halo. The Halo is just a shoot-thru umbrella with a skirt on the back to control back spill. Thus, no control over the front light, i.e., no edge of the light to work with.

May 18, 2013 3:00 PM  
Blogger Jonathan B said...

Thank you so much David! I appreciate it!

May 18, 2013 4:34 PM  
Blogger Scott Gant said...

Great article David.

The thing is, I'm still not sure I'm attaching my speedlight correctly to my Softlighter. The standard umbrella stands don't really work with the diffusing "sock". The flash sticks awkwardly into the sock. How exactly do you mount it with yours? I've never been clear about that or what you use as your mount. I've tried getting close-ups of you using it to see if I can do some forensic analysis of the photos to determine exactly what mount you're using! :)

Thanks again!

May 18, 2013 6:23 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Yep, just assemble the umbrella and diffusion panel first, then mount it in the umbrella swivel. Then pull the sock over the whole flash (or in my case here, all three flashes.)

Any slaves will easily pick up light through the diffuser, or you can run a sync cord through the sock hole. Radio, obviously, is no problem, too.

May 18, 2013 7:32 PM  
Blogger Brad_Matthews said...

@DavidHobby Just a fair handshake to the Westcott Halo. It's not just a shoot-thru umbrella with a rear skirt. The rear skirt is actually lined with a reflective finish to allow the user to fire their strobe into the umbrella and avoid a hotspot, so it does more than control spill. You definitely don't get the hard edge though, but that's why we have our 43" Apollo Orb or you can use the 7' Parabolic Umbrella with the 7' front diffusion panel. The 7' Parabolic Umbrella and front diffusion panel combo gives a nice hard edge and sized bigger than the Softlighter. The good news is the Westcott Halo, Apollo & 7' Parabolic are all built on a fiberglass frame now without an increase in price. Great read. Tons of great products out there. -Brad @WestcottCo

May 19, 2013 6:45 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Good to hear the Halo has the reflective coating on the black skirt. That will make it more even if you point the flash backwards, and allow you the option of staying as efficient as possible when shooting directly through it.

I am not a fan of the bulbous front surface tho, as the control of the edge is a big thing for me. I will give Westcott credit for an original design, though.

But I could never support or recommend the 7' para. It's such a blatant, er, "reaction" to what was a groundbreaking product that essentially reduced the price of large paras by a factor of ten.

It saddens me to watch the photo industry essentially creatively consume itself. The "we need something just like that in our product line" mentality may make business (if not ethical) sense in the short term. But in the long term everyone will be a commodity and no one will have any incentive to go to the time and expense to innovate.

Everything will come down to cost of labor and national tax law. And Westcott won't win that race to the bottom.

FWIW, I think the Apollo is a neat product and an interesting innovation. I don't use it personally, but Zack Arias swears by it.

But I applaud the *idea* of unique innovation and would love to see more of that from Westcott rather than iterating PLM clones.

Don't be seduced by the Dark Side...

May 20, 2013 12:07 PM  
Blogger Andrey Popov said...

I bought a huge hard silver PLM couple months ago along with my AlienBees and until last week only used it once in a studio as on-axis fill light for beauty type work and loved it - great specular highlights, not too much but enough to make a photo pop.

And then last week happened when I needed to overpower the sun, preferably underexpose everything by 2-3 stops. So I tried my go to tool - silver beauty dish and it barely evened out the exposure (i use AB1600). Then I tried that huge hard silver PLM and, boy, what a difference it made. I needed to turn down the power on a strobe (I think I went half power) to make it as I wanted it. Think of it this way - standard 7" reflectors on two others AB1600 on full power as rim lights weren't even noticeable on the photo (i.e. effect from them).
That's the photo (I ended up moving those two other AB1600s to light up the speakers): http://www.flickr.com/photos/andreyapopov/8748912313/

So, if you need to get the most power then hard silver PLM is the way to go. But you sure as hell need an assistant as it turns into a pretty sweet sail when even the slightest wind picks up :)

May 20, 2013 4:38 PM  
Blogger David Beecher said...

David, I have a Photek Softlighter II and have no issues using it with my small flashes. You mentioned that you use your's with "big lights". Do you have them completely inside the diffuser or do you use the sock and stretch it around? You probably don't have an size reference, but I'm using Flashpoint II M320 mono lights and the neck by the flash tube is about 5 inches and I don't want to ruin my diffuser.

May 20, 2013 9:31 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

Put the tube/front (barebulb) inside the diffuser and stretch the sock around the body of the mono. Works great. Use the velcro if needed.

May 21, 2013 1:59 AM  
Blogger victor said...

Hi! How do you mount your hot shoe flashes on this?

Thanks a lot!

May 21, 2013 9:44 AM  
Blogger Steve Fett said...

I have had the softlighter for a year now and the quality of the skintones are exceptionel.

May 21, 2013 8:56 PM  
Blogger Paul Dobson said...

Being in the UK, both the Softlighter and PLM are difficult to come by. Yes, it is possible to get hold of the PLM, but at around x3 the price of buying it in the US. I ended up buying a 60" Phottix ParaPro with diffuser (and I am aware that Phottix where in dispute with PCB over cloning of his product). Gives off a great, soft light, and is extremely well put together for the price and nice and light for the size of it! Yes, it comes from Hong Kong, but shipping is free and only takes a week or so!

May 23, 2013 6:21 PM  
Blogger Leo said...

Thought Australian readers might be interested to know the Photek Softlighter II and Westcott Parabolic + front diffuser panels are available here in Australia @ www.imagemelbourne.com.au

We also stock a selection of Strobist sponsor Lumopro gear :)


May 23, 2013 9:27 PM  
OpenID 9abbf34a-c71f-11e2-aebe-000bcdcb471e said...

I know I'm a little late to the party, but I've wondered about this exact thing for some time now. I use the qflash most often too, mainly with the reflector to increase throw power and have been wondering which would be best - which would you suggest? And do you have any thoughts on the white with black cover to get the increased flexibility? Thanks for everything!

May 27, 2013 6:48 PM  
Blogger Jonathan Ridgely said...

Great Review David,

I'm getting into fitness photography but also shoot fashion and shoot on location indoors and out. I know some fitness photographers that use the profoto Parabolic's. I'll be shooting with White Lightning X1600's. Would the PLM be better for Athletes or the soft lighter II? which one do you think has the right flexibility I need?

September 02, 2013 12:25 PM  
Blogger RicD said...

Jonathan Ridgely
Either one will do quite well. After a photo is taken no one will be able to differentiate which product you used; no one.

Remember, sometimes it is the equipment, however 99.99% it is the photographer. Being as you have the WL1600, mine is the AB1600, I would go with the PCB PLM. My PLM is soft silver with diffuser.

Either one will do, the PLM is designed to work with mono lights. Chose the product you personally feel most comfortable with. Either product is a good choice.

October 21, 2013 7:51 PM  

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