A beauty dish is a wonderful light shaping tool. Using one well takes a fair bit of practice from a positioning perspective, but once you build the skill, there is no other light shaper like a good beauty dish. Some manufacturers such as Profoto refer to these light shapers as soft lights.
Which brings me to the Mola lineup from Mola Inc. found at mola-light.com. I first encountered a Mola while in a rental studio where another photographer was working with a larger Mola softlight. I found the idea of the undulating surface very interesting from a light physics perspective, as I thought it would provide a different quality of light than a traditional beauty dish, while maintaining the directionality, tighter focus and lack of hot spots. The photographer I spoke to, was happy with the unit. She had rented it as it was what was available, not specifically by choice. She did not seem particularly moved, one way or the other. On the other hand, what few images that I saw come from the Mola, were like what I had seen from my own bowl shaped dish, and at the same time exhibited better sculpting and nicer softness. I put this down to her talent being greater than my own and promptly forgot about it.
About eight months later, I found myself looking for a larger modifier as I needed something to light a piece of furniture, that had a lot of intricate carving in it. A large soft box did a lovely job, but in my tests I would need to do a fair bit of dodge and burn in post, to really show the elegance and talent of the craftsperson. So I was poking around on the internet and saw a short clip of a Mola softlight used for full length fashion. I checked around and discovered that a client of a large store had ordered a Mola Mantti and then never picked it up. The store wanted to move it as it took up a lot of space and had not had anyone ask about it in a long time, mostly because it was buried and the selling team did not encounter a lot of folks looking for big modifiers, or didn't have the needed product knowledge to ask the right questions. Good for me because I bought it and carted it home after getting some help loading it into the back of the truck.
I quickly discovered that none of the stands I had were suitable, so I ended up buying a Manfrotto Super Boom and fitting the Mantti to it. The big Mola is mounted there right now because the Super Boom lets me position and angle the Mola using a versatile crank system and the boom gives me lots of reach. While it may seem a bit odd to dedicate a stand to a modifier, the Mantti is absolutely incredible and the big Manfrotto stand makes positioning such a large modifier extremely easy.
I completed my shoot and it was immediately apparent that the purchase was well worthwhile. I got the kind of lighting I wanted in camera, minimizing the post production needs and most importantly, the client was very happy. This is when I started referring to the Mantti as my velvet hammer. The Mantti is very large, but is also very usable for a variety of subjects. I changed the PAD (perforated aluminum diffuser) reflector for an OPAL and I just love the quality of the light that gets produced. This is very easy to do, so while I use the OPAL for people, I will use the PAD for fixtures and such.
When I got a job to shoot pseudo-glamour headshots for some cosmetic sales professionals, they wanted the shoot at their location so their people would be in one place. I was ok with the idea, but that meant that the Mantti was not going to do the job as the available space would not accommodate it. I ordered a Demi because I wanted the same quality of light as the Mantti but in a smaller and more portable light shaper. I had been using a 22" dish, and the Demi is the same diameter and takes up about the same space. I ordered this one with an OPAL as well as a grid. The Mola dishes come with diffusion covers that are very nice and impart no colour shift. I wanted flexibility because different skin and different face shapes benefit from different tools.
I used the grid to increase the sculpting on some faces and left it off for others. I liked the look of the Demi so much that I never used the diffusion cover at that shoot at all. I did place a small soft box below the Demi to fill shadows a bit. I prefer this route to using a reflector because it gives me more control, although it does mean another strobe head.
I shot the job using my Profoto B1 heads. These are great heads that run on batteries. I found that the light efficiency of the Mola Demi was so good that I never needed to change batteries in the key B1. The Demi, once positioned never let me down, and I was able to be on position for each different person in one or two tests. The client was happy because the shooting was fast, and they liked the images showing up on the computer where I was tethered right out of camera. I did do some retouching of the finals before delivery, but I didn't need to do a lot because the light from the Demi was so ideal.
I had been using high quality bowl style beauty dishes for some time. They were all well made as I eschewed cheap offshore knock-offs for the OEM products. I sold everything I had when I got the Demi because it simply is the best there is at what it does. I've had no regrets from that decision.
Anyone can show you images that can make any light shaper look terrific with enough setup time and post processing. My needs are for consistency, speed and to minimize post processing because that kind of time is money. I have made commitments to my clients not to share images that I made for them while on a commission and that's why you do not see examples posted.
We all have different needs and wants. For me, Mola softlights are perfect. I've shot them as well as traditional beauty dishes. I have not encountered a scenario where I would choose a basic beauty dish over a Mola, regardless of the skin quality and tenure of my subject. When you put your money where your mouth is, you want the best that you can do, and I will always choose Mola. If you've never shot with a Mola, contact the top rental house in your area, or check on line at mola-light.com to find out who rents them. I don't expect you to just accept my word. Rent a Mola and try one out. I find that they are more forgiving up front, but small adjustments give you more options, than a bowl with a continuous radius equation.
There are three dishes in the undulating shallow design. The largest is the Mantti at 43.5". As you've seen already, I own this one and love it. Next is the Euro, the same design as the Mantti but in a slightly deeper bowl with a diameter of 33.5". The final in this grouping is the aforementioned Demi at 22" in diameter. I love the light from the Demi, it delivers punch and softness.
The folks at Mola do more than just these advanced beauty dishes. They also make a pair of deep hard reflectors called the Rayo that have the same PAD reflector internally. I really want to try one of those out to see what it can do. They come in 15" and 16" diameters but the real difference is the parabolic angle with the 16" Rayo delivering 50 degrees and the 15" Rayo delivering 75 degrees.
They've also got a pair of deep bowl dishes called the Setti and the Sollo. Both have a 28" diameter but a much deeper bowl pattern. The Setti is white inside and the Sollo is silver for more contrast and punch. I have not shot either one, but I suspect that the concept is the same as a deep parabolic softbox like the Elinchrom Deep Throat (although in North America it is called the Deep Octa). I think that this shaper could be very interesting for glamour work. I do use a Broncolor Para 170 in the studio and absolutely love what it can do, but it is large and it is a reverse firing design. The Setti and Sollo would be more transportable and be much punchier I expect.
A special piece is the Beamm. I've never seen one live. It is a 33.5" dish in the same configuration as the Euro, but instead of the soft white interior, it has a highly polished silver interior. I would expect that it is super efficient in terms of light delivery and could be used to fight the sun in scenarios where you need a lot of punch and a larger source.
The other thing that I really appreciate about Mola softlights is their mounts. The designers understand that these are large devices and you might need a mount tougher than that built into your strobe. The Mola mounts are robust and tough. I've noticed that the Mantti mount has changed since mine was built and I credit Mola for what I see as design improvements.
I've written about Mola softlights exclusively in the context of studio strobe light shapers. I find it interesting that Mola also make mounting arms to convert the dishes to speedlight use. I have not tried this or even considered it, because in about the same space, I can use Profoto B2 heads that have a lot more flexibility and power at hand than even a top end speedlight.
I was recently putting together a tutorial for headshot lighting and in building the demo setup, I put a Profoto D2 1000ws in the Demi as my key light. The Demi is so light efficient that even at the lowest output setting on the D2, I still had to close down a stop from my initial setup and increase the power on the lower front soft box and the backlight soft box. I used a mannequin to get the lights set up for the demo and while she doesn't have much in the way of expression variety, the Demi makes even Darla's plastic visage look good.
In summary, if you are looking at a beauty dish light shaper, it is absolutely worth your while to look into a Mola product. I would not recommend them if I didn't think that they are the best, but I also have a bit of a soft spot because Mola Inc. is a Canadian company. I can tell you that when I bought my Demi, it cost less than what a similar sized Profoto softlight would have cost me, and as nice as the Profoto softlight is, I personally prefer the light from the Demi. If you are shooting the kind of subject matter than benefits from a beauty dish, you are cheating yourself if you do not at least try a Mola softlight.