The irony of a beauty dish is that it makes harsh light that is not really that beautiful… unless, of course, you use it properly. I’ll break it down for you and even show you how to make your own very portable DIY Beauty dish for less than $7.
Go figure – a beauty dish doesn’t really produce beautiful light. It’s kind of like the fact that an expensive camera doesn’t automatically take great pictures. So don’t run out and buy a beauty dish thinking that it is going to make your portraits or modeling shots better. The best time to buy a beauty dish is when you feel that you have mastered the basics of lighting and you are able to create consistently good lighting. Only then can you add the beauty dish to your lighting arsenal as a tool that will give you the ability to create more dramatic lighting.
What is a Beauty Dish?
A beauty dish doesn’t diffuse or soften light like a softbox or umbrella. Instead, it reflects light and helps you focus light towards a specific point. A beauty dish is a parabolic reflector with a flash mounted in the middle and a plate covering the flash head. This way when the flash is fired, the light hits the plate, bounces back into the parabolic dish, and out the sides. Because of the size and curvature of the dish, most of the light is directed forward. But remember – all light spreads – so generally beauty dishes are used fairly close to the subject to create a semi-hard light without a hot spot in the center.
With a flash placed 3 feet from a wall, there is a bright spot in the middle and an almost continual falloff. With the same flash and same distance with a medium softbox, the center light is more even but there is still a gradual falloff. The beauty dish with the same flash and at the same distance provides a focused light with a very rapid fall-off.
Why Use a Beauty Dish?
Beauty dishes are a favored modifier for both portrait and fashion photographers. When looking at photos, you can tell if an undiffused beauty dish was used by looking for a catchlight with a black center spot in the subject’s eyes, like in the left frame below. By comparison, a softbox makes a larger rectangular catchlight, as seen in the center image below. An octodome creates a catchlight like the one in the right, etc.
Beauty Dishes come in a range of sizes usually from 12 in to 30 in in diameter. My favorite is in the 21- 22 in range depending on the brand. They can be found with a silver finish, which definitely is brighter, but also more harsh, or a white finish, which is a bit softer and definitely my preferred finish for a beauty dish. These modifiers average 3-4lbs in weight and are priced anywhere from $35.00 to over $300, depending on the brand and size. Many companies are now making portable/ collapsible beauty dishes, which make it a lot easier to travel and work on location, since these big metal parabolic reflectors need fairly big cases to travel.
Beauty Dishes, Portrait Lighting, and Shadows
In portrait lighting, there are four key elements: Color, Direction, Quantity and Quality. A beauty dish is a great tool to allow you to control Direction and Quality. As I mentioned before, a beauty dish doesn’t diffuse light – it reflects light. So what you wind up with is a person’s face being illuminated from all angles because of the parabolic shape. This also allows the light to wrap around your subject and create good contrast.
There is a downside though… this type of light is not forgiving. It will accentuate skin flaws much more than a softbox or umbrella. It does create shadows. Not that shadows are bad, but you do have to pay attention to them because they can ruin an otherwise great shot.
Beauty Dish Modifiers
Put a Sock on it!
One option for softening the shadows created by the focused light of the beauty dish is to use a sock. A sock is simply a white diffuser that is designed to stretch over the front of the dish.
In the event that you want your light to be even more directional, focused and dramatic, you can also add a honeycomb grid to the front of the beauty dish. Keep in mind that a grid will take away some light so you will need to increase your exposure slightly.
These modifiers for the modifier allow you to create a range of lighting moods with just one light source.
Beauty Dish Placement
I frequently place my beauty dish just above my subject and aimed downward to accentuate cheekbones. Since the light is somewhat harsh it is great at sculpting your subject’s bone structure, lips, nose and chin.
Determining the proper angle of a beauty dish is fairly easy. Aim the center plate directly at your subject. While you can create a lot of nice light by feathering a softbox… that’s not the case with a beauty dish. I rarely have my dish placed more than 3 to 3.5 feet from my subject’s face; but remember – there are no rules – experiment and build your own visual database of beauty dish options!
If you have a silver beauty dish, they also make great reflectors for rim lighting on location in bright sunlight. Remove the center plate and your beauty dish is now a big, bright reflector!
Important Note: Studio strobes vs Speedlights
Beauty Dishes were originally designed as modifiers for studio strobes. In other words, they were designed to be used on a strobe head with a flash tube that sends light in all directions. The job of the beauty dish was to shape the light.
You can also use a beauty dish on a speedlight – BUT – a speedlight has a contained flash tube that is designed to push the light forward! So in a beauty dish almost all of the light is hitting the reflector plate and then bouncing into the dish and being redirected out the front. It creates a different result.
It’s not a matter of better or worse – it’s a matter of different, and which you prefer. So experiment!
The DIY Beauty Dish
Of course there are lots of videos that have already been made where people have created a DIY beauty dish with everything from salad bowls to plastic buckets. The thing is, most of the shots that new and young photographers use a beauty dish for, don’t really need a beauty dish. They want the quick and dramatic light fall off; they want a focused light; and you don’t need a beauty dish to do that! You can create light that is almost identical to a beauty dish with a $6.00 shoot-through umbrella from Photoflex.
Full disclosure: at the time I made this video, Photoflex was selling these 30” umbrellas for $6.00 on their website. I have a feeling that price won’t last forever. Click here to check it out. If they are sold out by the time you see this, you can go to Amazon.com and get a 30” off-brand umbrella for $18.00 which is still a TON cheaper than a beauty dish. The off-brand umbrella isn’t going to be as sturdy and durable as the Photoflex, but it will work fine for occasional use.
So by now a lot of you are thinking that I‘ve lost my mind. I am using an umbrella – a *gasp* modifier – to create the same kind of light that we get from a beauty dish, which is a reflector. Well, I haven’t lost my mind. Instead I am embracing the Inverse Square Law that I talked about in this blog post. Remember, if you want to master lighting, you need to understand the Inverse Square Law.
Here is my lovely mannequin, who by the way is named Lola. I am using two speedlights here: one is on the background to keep it bright white and the other is in my 21” Lumopro Beauty Dish.
In this first setup I have my beauty dish set 30” from Lola’s face and the center of the dish is about 15” above her nose. The center of the dish is aimed right at her eyes. I have my speedlight zoomed to 24mm which is its widest setting.
Now I am going to remove the beauty dish and swap it with my 30” Photoflex shoot-through umbrella.
I am going keep it at the same distance but because of the fact that the umbrella sits closer, the front of the umbrella is about 20 in from Lola’s face and about 12 in above her eyes. Because the umbrella is 30 in and the beauty dish was only 21 in, I am going to move the stand with the umbrella about 10 in to the left. This will lessen the amount of extra wrap-around caused from the bigger umbrella. I am also going to zoom my speedlight out to 105mm, which is its most powerful setting. This will help cut down on the spread of the light.
I am also going to take a piece of black foam core – you know, the same stuff that I make the Walmart reflectors from (You can get this at Walmart or any dollar store for a buck or less) – and I am going to cut a 12 inch circle. I’m then going to take that circle, poke a hole in the middle, and slide it over the center of the umbrella. This is going to prevent a center hot spot and give me the little dot in the middle of the catchlight… just like we see with a beauty dish.
Here are the results. On the left: the beauty dish. On the right: the shoot-through umbrella.
If you look closely, you can see that with the beauty dish the face has just a tiny bit more contrast and the shadow under her jaw is a bit more crisp than the shot on the left with the shoot-through umbrella.
Here is the same comparison on a black background… beauty dish on the left and shoot-through umbrella on the right:
How about a real life comparison? On the left is the lovely Monae with a beauty dish, the same distance and height as I used in the shots of Lola. On the right is Monae with the shoot-through umbrella.
And if we take this setup with the shoot-through umbrella, add a rim light on camera right with an orange gel and some blue tulle material, two fans, and another strobe with a blue gel on the floor behind Monae and aim it up at the material, we can create a three light, one gel beauty shot with a $6.00 umbrella!
So for those of you just starting out or for those of you that need an easy-to-transport and lightweight solution, that’s how you create a beauty dish look with a simple shoot-through umbrella! If you’re familiar with my blog posts, you’ve probably noticed that I talk about the shoot-through umbrella a lot! They are without a doubt the most versatile lighting modifier you can own.
And remember, gang, no matter how cheap or expensive your lighting gear is, get out there and shoot with it! Because your BEST shot – is your NEXT shot!