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Thursday, March 31, 2011

What to Expect When You're Expecting... an eBay Beauty Dish

I'm a mod slut.

Which is not to say that I am both promiscuous and a snazzy dresser, because I am neither. But rather, I am a sucker for new and different light modifiers. Lots of 'em. Just like Imelda Marcos and shoes.

And especially when they are cheap…
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One of the reasons I went with Profoto a ways back was because their reflectors are "zoomable," due to the design of the mount. And thankfully, there are enough other Profoto users so that the 3rd-party eBay folks offer a large number of "unofficial" modifiers.

Don't get me wrong, I love my Profoto reflectors and I even have one of their beauty dishes. But the prices are such that a mod is not exactly an impulse purchase. (That's one reason I modded my AB softboxes to use with the Profoto lights.)

By comparison, the prospect of getting all of this for $150 (shipped) was intriguing:



So that's exactly what I did, from eBayer "onecamera," who sells these 16" beauty dish kits for a variety of flash mounts.

Granted, a 3rd-party, multi-brand beauty dish is gonna be a compromise in the light shaping department. This is because the different flashes will place their bulbs at slightly different depths, with possibly none being at the focal point of the parabolic reflector.

And the mounting system itself may have issues, as it has to be designed to be (a) convertible and (b) inexpensive enough to provide a tempting discount relative to the name brand. More on that later.

But a 16" dish, with two full grids, a diffusor and a donut diffusor with central grid spot for $150 shipped? Sure, I'm game.


The Good

First of all, it is not a true "big light" beauty dish, which is to say it is not very soft at the distances you are likely to use big lights. It needs to be pretty close-in, which makes it better as a key for, say, speedlights. More on that later, too.

It is not a typical beauty dish. It is a different light source, with a unique look. The interior is crinkle finish, which is the only thing that keeps it from behaving like a super-efficient Profoto tele-reflector. (Boy, that would have been nice.)

But the light is very even, and has that not-hard-not-soft quality that I like about the LumiQuest SB-III. You need fill with it, but it can be very cool, when used appropriately.

The grids are a nice touch, and add a nice "edge" to the hard/soft light. You can work right at the fall-off of that edge for cool portraits.

The addition of the diffusor make for a smooth, patternless light source and also bleeds some power. Which allows you to work in close with big lights. And you can combine the diffusor (on the inside) with the grid (outside) for a gridded, soft, even light. Schwing.

There is a direct light blocker disc that is both moveable and removable -- another win. Lots of different combos here, with internal indentations for two different positions. Good design.

So far, so good. And even with the downsides I am about to hit, it's a lot of versatility for $150.


The Bad

Let's talk about the mount. And remember -- it is designed to be both interchangeable and cheap.

How shall I put this?

The all-metal mount is a steaming pile of excrement. I consider it to be useless. It has two positions that I can tell, for the Profoto version:

1. Loose enough to fall off, or
2. Tight enough to scratch your flash head.

And -- quelle surprise! -- sometimes it can be both too loose and still scuff your flash head. Talk about your versatility! Plus, as a free bonus, the knurled finger screw excels at removing any pesky, unwanted flesh from your hand.

But this is not a deal-breaker. First, it is mostly a function of the dish being the Profoto variety and them not going with the rubberized mount that Profoto wisely choose. If you are getting the AB version, for instance (or any other, I would wager) no worries.

Second, this can be easily and cheaply fixed by swapping the mount. I happened to have a genuine Profoto speedring that I was able to mount to it. This was economic overkill, but it was lying around. So what the hey. You could do this too, with a sub-$20 SP Studio Systems Profoto speed ring.

But these 3rd party rings are all of different sizes (no sense in standardizing, right?) so you have to be a little creative. Here's how to do it.

Take off the stock, crappy mount. Throw it as far as you can, making sure not to have it land on someone else's Profoto head where it could do some damage. You'll have four protruding bolts remaining. Put the new mount in the center. If it is too big, drill four holes in the mount plate, screw it down and you are done.

If it is too small, you'll need 8 washers: four to center the too-small mount, and four bigger ones to clamp it with the thumbscrews, thusly:



We are talking about a trip to Home Depot and $2. No sweat. Just take both pieces with you so you can size the washers correctly.


The Ugly

Sigh. The donut reflector does not, in fact, fit the dish it ships with. There is a slight disclaimer in the eBay listing:

"Please note grid #3 is slightly larger than the dish and is 
not a perfect fit. It is still very functional."

Alas, this is compete bullshit. It is functional as a frisbee, maybe. But not as a donut diffusor. I tried every way I could to snap it in there and -- nope.

So the donut/grid look is out, which is a shame. But my guardian angel was watching over me nonetheless.

I have been trying to DIY a good diffusor for my Profoto ring soft reflector. It is just a little too specular for my liking, which is sometimes good, sometimes not. This diffusor ring fits in as shown below -- not perfect but pretty good, actually:


Ah, sweet mystery of life at last I found thee. This new layer of diffusion gets my Profoto ring soft reflector into AB Moon Unit territory -- the gold standard for ring flashes. But with the consistency of a Profoto flash. DIY FTW.

Note to Profoto: You should make a plexi disc pre-drilled for this and offer it as an accessory. You could wax nostalgic about the absolute color correctness of it and charge the GNP of a small country…


Final Tally

Not a perfect beauty dish. But overall, versatility and serendipity combined for a good value. I am very happy with the net result and the different ways in which I can use it. And to be honest, I have been using it with speedlights in close much more than with the big lights.

Mounting it securely to my speedlights was pretty easy, too. But that comes in Part Two...


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6 Comments:

Blogger Wesley Hort said...

Interesting to get your thought on this. I have had one of these for a while which I got from ebay in the UK to use on my Lumedyne kit. I love my lumey kit but there are no real modifiers for it which is a pain, just some third party stuff which is hard to get here. Easy to mod with other speedrings and I love the grid on this. Makes a good key light. After this one, I got the larger one and made up a bracket which bolts on the back and attaches the dish straight to a light stand, as the lumey wouldn't take the weight of the dish. I've been very happy with it so far and it costs next to nothing

March 31, 2011 4:37 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

Another good Profoto mod: buy a Speedotron dish for $140 and replace the speedo mount with a Profoto ring you have lying around or the $20 SP Systems Profoto Speedring. And use Alien Bee or any other inexpensive 22" grid.

March 31, 2011 10:10 AM  
Blogger Johnandrew said...

Great commentary, David. I think many of us chronic speedlight users are a little intimidated by the big (and big-budget) studio gear; this breaks it down in a logical way. Looking forward to your stop in Pittsburgh.

March 31, 2011 11:27 AM  
Blogger Texan Mama @ Who Put Me In Charge said...

Thanks for the info, David. I came to the FlashBus Tour knowing next to nothing about strobes but I'm on my way now.

I think it's really cool that you try out and review some 3rd party items. I have a very limited budget and always consider 3rd party merchandise but feel like I'm just "faking it". I appreciate you keeping it real.

April 04, 2011 1:42 AM  
Blogger Ken said...

One correction, the ebay retailer is "oeccamera". As a photo enthusiast without deep pockets, I've found the light modifiers on his site a very good value in comparison tot he big names at a fraction of the cost. I buy the Bowens compatible and have not experienced any "knuckle busting" as you describe.
For $40, I picked up a Speedlight Flash Strobe to Bowens Adapter from his site and now can use any of the modifiers with my SB800s and quickly change between them.

April 04, 2011 12:44 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

I picked up a pack of the Profoto compatible speedrings from OEC camera and initially they did not fit securely enough to be able to be used with my 4' x 3' Chimera softbox. What I did was go and grab a role of aerotape, a roughly 2" wide pipe insulation tape. I put a layer on the inside of the speedring and after a bit of wiggling it fits quite well now.

I don't know how long it will last and it will probably be better with lighter modifiers, but it works for now, and five speedrings cost less than one Chimera speedring.

April 06, 2011 10:38 PM  

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