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beauty dishes for speedlights

Allan Armstrong , Dec 10, 2011; 08:42 p.m.

I've recently heard about two products which claim to be beauty dishes for speedlights. Prior to this, I had only seen beauty dishes for studio strobes -- monoblocs and powerpack-based light heads. So I've got a bunch of questions...

The products I've seen are:

I understand that a beauty dish works a bit like a small round softbox and many claim it is the preferred light for fashion and beauty. Apparently the light is more specular and gives a nice (less soft) rendition of skin tone, maybe a bit like the "skin pop" we tried to get with 7" reflectors 20 years ago. I've heard it is great for "perfect" models but maybe a softbox is better for normal people.

Thinking about how a beauty dish is constructed and how it must work... The construction is a bit like a mirror lens, meaning the light cast is a bit like a life saver, so the lighting might look a bit like a ring flash. The other difference is that the light is focused unlike a softbox where the light is diffused.

So, some questions:

  1. how close can these speedlight beauty dishes come to the studio strobe version? -- obvious difference is how the speedlight casts its light -- is this a big deal?
  2. the advantage of a speedlight over studio strobes is portability and ease of use. This lets you work more quickly on location. Is it sensible to use a speedlight with a beauty dish? Most beauty dish setups I've seen are fixed where the photographer sets up the lights in advantage and controls everything about the shot -- the lighting, the background, the set. Does it only make sense to use a beauty dish when you have this degree of control?
  3. are these speedlight beauty dish products new or have I just not seen them before? how do they work in practice?
  4. is a diffusion sock necessary? why? when? -- I guess this softens things a bit... maybe necessary on the 12" dish
  5. is a grid necessary? why? when? -- This would seem to collimate the light more, which might make it harsher... maybe this is why it's only offered on the 20" dish?
  6. what size beauty dish makes best sense?
  7. does it make better sense to just go get a monobloc (maybe one with a portable power pack) and use a conventional beauty dish?

Responses

Howard M , Dec 10, 2011; 09:38 p.m.

Joseph Wisniewski , Dec 10, 2011; 11:37 p.m.

Well, my favorite "beauty dish" is a 16 inch Photogenic parabolic reflector modified for Paul Buff flashes and with the addition of a beauty dish 4 inch round "deflector" in the middle, so the sizes 12-20 inches, are in the right range. But...

I have never found it easy to work with smaller, more directional and specular light sources without modeling lights. I find I can visualize the light pattern of a couple of 3 foot umbrellas or 4 foot soft boxes well enough to set up common portrait lighting and be confident I'm going to get OK results. But throw in a beauty dish, which you use high and has a lot of modeling, or a hair light, or any type of rim lighting, and I'm stuck without a modelling light. It's more than my brain can handle, trying to visualize the light.

OK, for your questions, in order...

  1. If the beauty dish has a deflector that gets the speedlight covering the entire interior of the beauty dish well, the light pattern will be essentially identical to a conventional beauty dish fed by a monolight.
  2. no, speedlights don't let you work "more quickly" on location, unless you visualize light better than I do. Nothing personal, but I'd bet real money that you're not better at that than I am.
  3. Yes, they're pretty new. I don't recall seeing a speedlight based beauty dish, or a softbox larger than 24 inches, until about 3 years ago. Then there was this "explosion" of "strobists" and opportunistic people quickly started churning out product for them.
  4. Almost never. The sock makes a beauty dish into just another diffused light source, indistinguishable from a soft box or a small umbrella. And definitely never on a 12 inch dish. That's such a small, thing, working so close, that the only reason to put up with them is for the quality of light you get from the undiffused dish.
  5. Do a little math, and you'll see that the 40 degree grid that's typically used with a beauty dish will deliver soft light to the subject at any distance more than 1.5x the dish diameter from the subject. The grid makes the light feather off quickly so that it doesn't light as much of the subject's body, giving you that 1920s style "angelic" light on an upturned face.
  6. 16 inch, because it's what I use. That's obvious.
  7. Yes! (read what I wrote earlier about monolights and visualizing the light.

Vincent Bester , Dec 11, 2011; 06:02 a.m.

I have used a 16" beauty dish from the Sambesi Group
http://www.sambesigroup.com/product_info.php?info=p551_Beauty-Dish-40cm.html&XTCsid=3c13557b668504a742004a11293e58f2
to great effect. I prefer this design as the dish is supported by a seperate bracket.
Let's not get into the debate of studio lights vs speedlites. I have both...each serves it's own purpose.

Marc Batters , Dec 12, 2011; 10:18 a.m.

Allan,
Both of the shoe mount beauty dishes in the links supplied, the Lumodi and the Sambesi, look like quality units. The unit from Sambesi has a major engineering advantage, in that the beauty dish is supported separately, on it's own support stub, rather then attached/hanging on the flash head.

One of the weakest mechanical points of a shoe mount flash, is the shoe mount.

With similar pricing between just these two examples, my preference would go towards a Sambesi unit,
or one with separate supports for dish and flash.

R Smith , Dec 20, 2011; 05:11 p.m.

The "Flashpoint Q" beauty dishes and accessories, from Adorama, are much better than the Interfit or Calumet ones for use with Speedlites. I currently own all three of these manufacturers Speedlite accessory kits and hands down the Flashpoints are the best. The Interfit and Calumet beauty dishes throw an uneven light pattern with a halo where as the Flashpoint is a very even lighting pattern. The Flashpoint Q series of flash accessories are better built and fit the Speedlites better as well. I do like the Interfit barn door accessory (they make both plastic and metal versions) but the rest of the accessories and the mounting system is a joke. I feel like I am going to break my flash heads off every time I install one of the Interfit mounts as they go on very hard. The Calumet Speedlite kits, at first glance, look very similar to the Flashpoint kits but when you put them side by side they are much cheaper built (much cheaper). The velcro is not sewed well to the straps and they pull apart very easily while the beauty dish deflectors are very cheesey and mainly to blame for the uneven halo lighting pattern they throw.

Marc Williams , Dec 21, 2011; 06:05 a.m.

IMO ...

1) They don't come close, because there are a couple of aspects to this question. Speed-lights have a small rectangle source, where a strobe bulb is generally a bit larger light source, and is round or has a dome glass cover that disperses light more efficiently and evenly ... especially into a round modifier. Speed-lights are lower output than strobes which typically offer 2, 3 or 4 times the output. What this means is that you can use a lower ISO, or greater f/stop, etc., and achieve a better image quality in many situations. Many speed-lights cannot be fired repeatedly at full power ... especially in hot conditions, without shutting down to protect their capacitors. Strobes aren't prone to this.

2) A beauty Dish can be used on a light stand, or used mobile on a painter's stick (which requires an assistant). In either case, the difference in ease of use, set-up/tear-down, or convenience between a small studio strobe and a speed-light is minor, with the nod going to the speed-light for carrying size of the unit itself. However, I think using a speed-light for this type task is like bringing a rubber knife to a gun fight.

For multiple locations at weddings, I personally use an 18" Elinchrom beauty dish on a painter's stick for mobile applications using a Quadra 400 w/s strobe w/Quadra battery as key directional light, with a TTL speed-light in the hot-shoe for fill. It's all very self-contained and highly mobile, where one person becomes a mobile light-stand. So, again, this is an application requiring an assistant ... but it is a very fluid and creative way of working and you can recruit friends to help out from time-to-time.

However, I do not favor small beauty dishes on a set unless it's used for isolated subject shots fairly close to the subject ... the further away a light source is to increase coverage, the more specular it becomes ... so for many shots size matters. My most used studio Beauty Dish is a 33".

3) The Strobist/Speed-light craze has led to mimicking real studio type strobe light modification in many cases. Of course, this is promoted by the camera manufacturers for obvious reasons. They basically are exploiting many photographer's lack of ability to determine what better light can actually look like, and new off-camera light users unfounded fear of losing TTL control to a manual strobe ... or an obsession with making everything easier, no matter what the cost in image quality may be. There is big money in ignorance. Things like the Interfit "beauty dish" are a joke and produce an abominably terrible quality of light in almost every respect.

4) A sock on a 12' light source makes it ... a 12" light source. It does alter the general quality of light to be a bit more diffused looking ... but the tiny pin light reflections in the eyes remain tiny pin lights.

5) Some beauty dishes offer the option of altering the degree of spread of light by using full grids ... usually indicated by a degree of coverage ... like 20º or 45º. The better Beauty dishes also offer the option of replacing that center round reflector with a standard 7" grid that concentrates light in the center with a more dramatic fall off out to the edges of the coverage. A sort of natural vignetting "Hollywood" effect. These grids come in units of 3º, 5º, 10º, 20º offering very versatile options.

6) Size depends on use, and how much coverage you'd like. I use a smaller one outdoors for mobile use, and don't worry as much about the specular quality from a 16" or 18" beauty dish in bright sunlit situations. In studio, I use a much more versatile, larger Beauty Dish as a key light with and without grids, center grids, or diffussers, and may use a smaller 18" or 20" with a grid for accent lighting. You have to figure out how you plan using one to make an informed decision.

7) Yes, a strobe will open up a whole new world of possibilities well beyond just a Beauty Dish. Get as much output as you can afford ... but I think you may be surprised how affordable it is given all the things you will be able to do with it. Paul C. Buff is a great starting out point, and their new mini battery for location applications is simply amazing.

Lastly, I'll offer up this consideration ... IMO, nothing you could do in terms of buying gear like a new camera or lens, can equal improving your lighting quality and versatility. Good lighting can make any camera/lens look better than it actually is. Plus, it's fun, and you can play with it even if it is crappy weather outdoors : -) I spend a good deal of time during the gloomy winter months in Michigan tinkering with lighting effects and tweaking my lighting skills.

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