A rather recent phenomenon, the beauty dish has made quite a large name for itself in glamour, fashion, and portraiture photography. This simple modifier can create complex lighting effects that tend to be harsher than softboxes yet softer than direct flash.
I've become something of a lighting modifier junkie so luckily for me there exist stores located in China who sell all manner of modifiers, in decent quality at exceptional prices. This last bit is key - there are countless types of light modifiers which all do very specific things to light and playing with them all could cost a Scrooge McDuck-type fortune. The Chinese vendor, Studio-98, offers a large selection of mid-quality photography accessories at prices that can't be much more than material cost.
Studio-98's Beauty Dish kit is comprehensive. While many sellers offer beauty dishes and beauty dish accessories, the Studio-98 kit includes just about everything you'd want in one economical package. It contains a 22" stamped aluminum beauty dish (in either white or silver), 3 center deflectors (in white, silver, and gold), 3 white diffusion socks, 30 degree honeycomb grid, and a mount of your choice (extra charge may apply). At the point of checkout you have the option to include, for $19, a handy carry and storage bag. Consider picking up the bag now since apparently Studio-98 does not sell it separately. It's also well made and offers a slot to store and protect the delicate honeycomb grid. The bag will allow you to conveniently manage all the little bits in this kit. It won't be easy to find another storage solution as capable as this for less than $20!
As mentioned, there are 2 flavors of beauty dish available (4 if you count the 16" model), white and silver. I chose the silver version as I wanted maximum specularity. White beauty dishes tend to create a softer light, where the shadows fall off in a smoother way. Besides, you'll always have the option to sock the dish which can go a long way in softening the shadow transitions.
You can choose a mounting style from a long list of supported standards, like Elinchrom and Profoto speedrings or flash shoe mount bracket, to name some. Since I shoot Canon 600EX-RT's I opted for the shoe bracket. It's nice to know that my investment will not become obsolete if I choose to migrate to a Profoto kit - I would just pick up the available Profoto mount and keep on rocking this beauty dish. The shoe mount bracket has a shoe to hold the flash and another to mount a trigger, like a PocketWizard. Since moving to 600EX-RT with their integrated radios, I have nothing to populate the second shoe, but those of you still living in the stone age will appreciate this thoughtful inclusion. (Okay, admittedly, it's more like the bronze age.)
I'm not overly impressed with the fit and finish of the bracket. The dish mounting ring is secured to the bracket by two small screws and there is just not enough surface area at the meeting point. When you mount the dish and its substantial weight comes to rest, it will bend slightly at this point. I can only imagine that over time, with bustling about a shoot or outside in the wind, this could become a real problem. I'll be looking into ways to fortify the bracket there. Also, the whole assembly isn't centered. My bracket sits off to the left of center and I see no easy way of bending back in line. However, apart from what was mentioned earlier, the rest of the bracket is robust and solid. Oversized knobs allow for making adjustments and retightening a breeze.
Notice the down rail that raises and lowers the beauty dish relative to the bracket? It sticks down pretty low in the picture above, which is sized up for a 600EX-RT Speedlite. The rail will bottom out on the bracket before the dish would bottom out on the flash stand, so soft box solutions like the Manfrotto 042 Extension Arm, Paul C. Buff Baby Boomer, and the like might not allow for any more downward movement. Still, you do get a decent range of motion, but if you want more perhaps you could shave off the excess. With a flash stand boom I don't think this would be a concern, and without a boom only rarely.
Above is the output of some of the configurations you can do with this, or any, beauty dish. I included a Westcott Apollo Orb 43" soft box for comparison. Those are quite varied output profiles from essentially one modifier in your bag.
I find the Studio-98 Beauty Dish easy to setup and use. The included socks won't win any awards but you get 3 of them in case one blows up on you. They are, after all, single stitched and made of thin material. But they work and work well.
If you are looking to get a well-made, aluminum beauty dish on the cheap, I recommend the one sold by Studio-98. Compared to other 3rd party solutions, like the Kacey Beauty Reflector, the Studio-98 is of comparable quality, yet much more economical. Compared to first party solutions, like the ProFoto Softlight Beauty Dish, the dish itself may not be as robust or last as long, but you could buy 3 sets of the Studio-98 Beauty Dishes for the price of the ProFoto and that's before you accessorize with grids and socks!
Compared to a traditional soft box the beauty dish can be more of a pain to lug around (consider again getting the optional bag!) as soft boxes, especially umbrella-styled, are far more packable and portable...
...But the quality of their light is, ahem, beautiful. And you can't beat perfectly round catchlights!