Photogenic PL5R-Fresnel: A Special Purpose Light Modifier

Fresnel lenses are used to focus light. Many of the Hollywood glamour photographers of the 1930s and ’40s used them, most notably George Hurrell for his portraits of many of the screen legends of that era. Hurrell used 8x10 cameras, uncoated lenses, and bulky Mole-Richardson hot lights. You don’t have to go that route, but you can now replicate some of the lighting effects with this new offering from Photogenic.

The PL5R-Fresnel mounted to a Photogenic light.
Courtesy of Photogenic

The earliest use of Fresnel lenses was in lighthouses, and the name of the lens comes from the French inventor (thus the capitalization of the name). The design of the lens eventually found its way into photo studios because photographers liked the quality of the light it produced, namely a sharp, focused beam of light that somehow tapers smoothly at the edge of the field. In practice, Fresnel lights are most commonly used as a dramatic key light or to light a background.

Left: This image shows the sharp, well-defined shadows produced when using the PL5R-Fresnel as the main light with no fill to soften shadows. Technical info: Nikon D3, Nikkor 80-200mm lens at 165mm, ISO 200, 1/80 sec at f/10. Model: Michaela Moran. Right: Here a fill light was used. You can still see the same nose shadow, but it’s diffused because of the fill. Same exposure as the non-fill shot.
Photos © Steve Bedell

To test their Fresnel light modifier, Photogenic loaned me their PowerLight 1250DR, a 500 ws monolight with a digital display. I own an older PowerLight so I was quite familiar with the controls, which are pretty straightforward. To use the PL5R-Fresnel modifier, you mount the conical reflector on the light using a simple and effective system—you slip the lip under one stationary prong while pressing down to hide two others, then releasing to securely fasten the modifier. It’s one of the better mounting systems out there. The barn doors and lens itself then fit onto the mount, although I did have to wrestle that attachment a bit the first time through, but you’ll get the hang of it. The barn doors, by the way, can be used to narrow down the light beam if you so desire and also to block any stray light that may strike your lens if used behind the subject.

Left: This photo shows how the light falls off and is very much like the “Hurrell Hollywood” effect. I didn’t do any vignetting in Photoshop after the image was taken. The light being used as the main just about 4 feet away from Michaela’s face created a sharp light on her face and dropped off rather dramatically. Technical info: Nikon D3, Nikkor 80-200mm lens at 80mm, ISO 200, 1/80 sec at f/9. Right: Distinct lighting can also be useful for showing off features. The light is not only a good fit for his face but also defines his abs. Technical info: Nikon D3, Nikkor 80-200mm lens at 100mm, ISO 200, 1/100 sec at f/5.6. Model: Garrett Finn.
Photos © Steve Bedell

To see how the modifier worked I made a series of three images onto a plain background: first with no modifier, then with the cone, and finally with the Fresnel lens. I find this extremely helpful with any new modifier, and highly recommend this procedure to everyone.

I always test a modifier against a plain background to get a feel for its effects. Here’s the light pattern with just the cone attached to the light.

Here’s the light pattern with the Fresnel lens and barn doors wide open. Note the much hotter center and tighter pattern of the light.

To test the lighting effect I worked with a couple of models to see how I could use the PL5R-Fresnel as a main or key light and also as a background light. Since the Fresnel lens also focuses light I used it to create a shadow in the background by placing something between the light and the background.

After my tests I decided that the PL5R-Fresnel is something I could routinely use in my work. It can serve as a handy background light with just the cone or the Fresnel lens attached, or as a main light for a unique look and a change of pace.

This photo of Garrett (above) was made with window light only. It’s OK but the background wall is really boring. Technical info: Nikon D3, Nikkor 50mm lens, ISO 200, 1/60 sec at f/2.8. This time (below) I added a background design by aiming the modified light through some artificial flowers. A reflector was used for fill. Technical info: Nikon D3, Nikkor 80-200mm lens at 105mm, ISO 200, 1/80 sec at f/3.2.

The Photogenic PL5R-Fresnel is $185 (street price). For more information, contact Photogenic at:

Steve Bedell has been a portrait photographer for over 25 years. To subscribe to EPhoto, a free e-mail newsletter with tips for photographers, contact Bedell via e-mail at: Also ask about his lighting DVDs.

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