Essential Photo, a UK-based retailer, recently introduced a new line of collapsible S-fit beauty dishes. When they offered me a sample to try, I was eager to give one a go.
Beauty dishes have traditionally been considered bulky, heavy things, too cumbersome for most photographers to take on location, mount on smaller lights or store in home studios. The first collapsible beauty dishes were introduced back in 2012 by Falcon Eyes and Chimera, who aimed to combine the portability of a fabric softbox with the light characteristics of a metal beauty dish.
I was sent the 60cm collapsible beauty dish with a white interior. You can also get these in silver and in 100cm and 120cm diameter versions. The box contains:
- Collapsible beauty dish
- Metal deflector and supporting rod
- White front diffuser
- 4cm fabric grid
- Soft carrying case
The entire kit in its case weighs slightly more than the larger SMDV Diffuser-70, thanks to the metal S-type speedring. But at 1024 grams, it is still a featherweight. The case is less than 40cm long. Pixapro weren’t wrong when they put “portable” in the title of their product. Unlike my LumoPro LP955, which obstinately consumes half a wardrobe, the collapsed Pixapro dish takes up hardly any space. There is room to spare in the case for an S-fit bracket if you want to use one of these with speedlights.
This “collapsible beauty dish” could be considered essentially an octagonal softbox with a removable metal deflector dish in place of an inner fabric diffuser. But the differences are subtler than that. The rods are angled at the front, producing a shape with more curvature. The leading top and bottom edges are parallel with the ground (unlike the shallower Falcon Eyes-style models) yielding a recessed edge able to fit grids.
You have your choice of configurations with this modifier. The deflector dish is reversible, so you can use it convex side facing inwards or outwards. Your mileage may vary with different studio lights — my N-Flash more evenly filled the softbox with the convex side in (concave out). Remove the dish and the modifier becomes a giant reflector. Add the outer diffuser to get something more like a conventional softbox. Attach the grid for better spill control.
The lining feels unusually high quality for a modifier in this price range. The opening mechanism is solid metal and feels extremely sturdy. Unlike a standard softbox you don’t assemble this by threading rods through fabric then poking them into the speedring: everything stays attached and you pull the rods outwards until they lock into place. Thanks to this “unique inner locking ring design”, set-up takes less than a minute.
Outer diffuser and grid, if used, mount via hook-and-loop around the rim. These are easy to fit and to fold away. The deflector dish screws in on a single supporting rod. This can be a little fiddly to get aligned properly and is made of thinner metal than everything else. With just one attachment point, sometimes the deflector can twist out of place slightly, but it is not a big problem.
I have no trouble mounting the beauty dish to the Bowens S-type bayonet of my N-Flash, which can sometimes struggle with heavier accessories. The size and weight make it a kind of ‘Goldilocks’ for location lighting: large enough to produce an interesting output while not so big that the setup is cumbersome or catches the wind.
Unusually for Edinburgh, it wasn’t very windy when we did our outdoor tests, so even with light stands at full extension there was no need for ballast. With the larger models, especially the 120cm version, you might have to be more careful.
I like the look that this collapsible beauty dish produces. Purists might say that it will never be the same as the real thing, but I have a real beauty dish in my cupboard and don’t use it. With the deflector and without the diffuser, you get a nice light that is soft and fairly forgiving, but contrastier and more directional than a softbox. For indoor setups (in my flat with white walls) it was challenging to control spill, until we added the grid at which point it was trivial.
As you can see from these examples, the output from this modifier is pretty nice. The dish is not truly round but an octagon seems to be good enough. Catchlights in eyes have that beauty dish-style shape to them, which appears pleasing (see below). Shadows are strong and light is even on the subject, with a soft transition, which is what I would expect from a white-lined beauty dish. Silver dishes generally have a less gradual shadow-to-light transition for a more dramatic effect (hopefully the silver Pixapro collapsible dishes emulate this, but I don’t know).
With this beauty dish, if your studio light has a fairly recessed flash tube, like mine does, and you are not using the grid then some light will spill directly onto the scene from the flash, avoiding the deflector. This is not really a problem except for some wider shots and if you are trying to light a large scene evenly. (Notice the hotspot on the ground at the bottom of the frame below.) The position of the deflector is fixed so you just have to be careful. For many portrait-style setups this is not a problem and sometimes it can be used for effect. You could also add Velcro flags to the side of the dish using its recessed edge.
With the diffuser fitted, the collapsible beauty dish becomes a softbox. It gives a nice natural effect that is well suited for environmental portraits and still life. For the most even illumination I would keep the deflector mounted inside, but you can use it without — just note that you will get a very pronounced centre hotspot.
Throughout shooting I did not spot a noticeable colour cast in any configuration. That is not to say that this will be as perfectly white-balanced as a high-end modifier costing hundreds of pounds more, but you will not have to correct for a massive pink tint, unlike some eBay softboxes.
The Pixapro 60cm collapsible white beauty dish is a versatile lighting accessory that is just the right size for location use. Assembly is trivial and there are a range of lighting configurations possible thanks to the various accessories and features. Output in beauty dish mode, with the deflector, is a good approximation to that “beauty dish look” many of us seek, without the weight and bulk of a rigid metal modifier. It also works well as a portable softbox. Build quality is good, though the deflector is the weakest point of the product; as well as being a little imprecise to align, it cannot be moved further inwards or outwards, which could be desirable for some users.
Overall, this is an excellent modifier for photographers using portable flash. It is a steal at £64.40. The larger versions cost a little bit more, but not by much: it is still under £100 for the 120cm model. As a grid, carrying case and front diffuser are all included in the box, this can easily become your go-to location modifier. I will certainly be putting mine to good use.
Get one for yourself from Essential Photo. They ship within the UK and EU.