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The Versatility of the Humble Beauty Dish

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Unless you're very new to modifiers, you've likely heard of a beauty dish, but do you know what it is, what it does, and how it can help your portraiture? In this tutorial, I'm going to cover all the usual aspects of beauty dishes and how their versatile nature can help in a number of scenarios.


What is a Beauty Dish?

Beauty dishes are essentially large metal bowls, usually around 16", 22" or 28" in diameter. They have a hole cut in the back for the strobe (or bare bulb speedlight) to project through, and speedring fittings around the hole.

Inside is the most important part of the beauty dish: the internal reflector. This is a disc of metal, spaced a few inches in from the strobe fixture. It blocks all direct light from the subject, so there are no hard shadows like a speedlight. It deflects all incoming light towards the outside of the dish, ensuring that the only light hitting the subject has been reflected.

A 22" beauty dish, white interior.
A 22" beauty dish, white interior.

How Does it Work?

The Paraboloid

This internal reflector concept is easy to overlook, but it's critical to the look of a beauty dish. Unlike softboxes, which must use multiple reflective/diffusive surfaces to achieve a good, even spread of light, the beauty dish has a smooth parabolic surface for optimum light focusing and a convex plate reflector at the focal point of the parabola.

Shaping the Light

This creates a very smooth, even light from a fairly large surface area. The angle of light projected is usually around 120 degrees. Due to the shape of the reflectors, the emitted light tends to be a series of concentric rings rather than the single, doughnut-like beam of a ringflash. Some dishes stray from the paraboloid shape and have steps in the main reflector in order to accentuate these rings.

I boosted the contrast on this one a little to accentuate the rings, which are a little less overt with white interiors.
I boosted the contrast on this one a little to accentuate the rings, which are a little less overt with white interiors.

Effect on the Subject

This structure of light emission helps when pointing the dish directly at someone's head, since the part nearest the dish is in "shadow" due to the internal reflector. This, of course, prevents foreheads from blowing out when using a beauty dish close in to the subject, since the closer the light source is, the more the inverse square law comes into play.

The few inches from brow to chin can be a stop or two apart when using a softbox, but the indirect illumination a beauty dish provides mitigates this.

The Interior

The severity of the ringing depends on the interior of the reflector. Silver linings are very specular and produce harder, more defined rings. They're usually used with diffusion, the silver just increasing the available power of the strobe source.

White dishes like mine are softer and more even as the light inside gets more scattered before leaving the dish, reducing the shading but also dimming the specular reflections. If you're looking for the hard, edgy look that beauty dishes can provide, silver is better. For the "beauty" part of beauty dish, white is generally the way to go.

This is more what my white interior looks like when exposed for the dish.
This is more what my white interior looks like when exposed for the dish.

Let's look at the effects you can achieve with this flexibility.


Hard Lighting

By design, beauty dishes can't really do true hard lighting, but they can create deep shadows with a small transition zone. This is generally more attractive than traditional hard lighting like that from bare lights.

This is easier with silver linings, but it's possible with white interiors too. The trick to this is simply to move the beauty dish further from the subject in order for it to become a relatively smaller source. 4-7 feet should work.

This look works for showing off musculature, such as sports portraits, or bone structure, as in some fashion-style beauty shots.


Soft Lighting

Conversely, moving the dish closer to the subject (1-3 foot range) naturally creates a softer source, and each of the rings of light acts like an individual ringflash, reducing shadows and softening up subject features.

With no hotspot, a ring-shaped catchlight, and that characteristic hard-but-soft look, it's little wonder beauty dishes find themselves in the studios of a wide variety of people-shooters everywhere.


Examples

Let's try an example from each.  A couple of quick five-second portraits, of the same model, same camera position, just moving the beauty dish back and forth to move between styles. Here's the general setup:

The beauty dish is boomed over or up to the subject.
The beauty dish is boomed over or up to the subject.

First up, a low key, high contrast look for the hard light:

Shadows a little deeper. Facial features and skin texture much more defined. But still slightly soft transition zones.
Shadows a little deeper. Facial features and skin texture much more defined. But still slightly soft transition zones.

Fairly straightforward, really. Let's bring the light in to soften it up:

Move it in closer and the shadows fill in a little, though the parabolic reflector means that the transition zones don't widen by much.
Move it in closer and the shadows fill in a little, though the parabolic reflector means that the transition zones don't widen by much.

Much softer with a lot more wrapping!

Now that we're seen the basics of what a dish does, let's move on to the accessories we can use with the dish.


Modifying the Modifier

Diffusion

The main accessory used with beauty dishes is a diffusion panel. This is a circle of normal diffusion fabric, usually elasticated around the outside so that it can be fitted over the rim of the dish. These panels are usually called "socks."

It takes the rings of light and evens them out into a nice flat circle of soft, directional light. It makes for more of a 2-foot softbox effect, but with a prettier catchlight in the eyes, and a more even diffusion due to the reflected-only light.

Here's an example:

The sock spreads that light right out, creating a punchier but more diffuse 24" softbox.
The sock spreads that light right out, creating a punchier but more diffuse 24" softbox.

It creates a beautiful, natural light almost like window light.

Gridding

The honeycomb grid is a powerful tool in the arsenal of artificial lighting shooters. It allows for complete control of a light source's beam, and feathers even hard light for a more attractive throw.

On a beauty dish, the grid is generally used to create a soft pool of light on the face, eliminating spill from the rest of the body and the background. It creates a glamourous, very "lit" look, a little like the spotlights of Old Hollywood.

This strong directionality can be used to add noir value to images, too, and increase the power of the bare dish on images like the aforementioned gritty sports portraits and strong facial structures.

Stick a grid on and you have instant atmosphere! I love that thing.
Stick a grid on and you have instant atmosphere! I love that thing.

Grids are available in various "strengths," or amounts of collimation. The norm for a 22" grid is about 50 degrees, cutting its projected angle in less than half, but 15- and 30-degree grids are also commonly available.

Combination

Combining the grid and the sock is much like putting a fabric grid on a softbox. Pop the sock over, then clip the grid on. Doing it the other way around will have limited value other than sucking a whole lot of light out of the system.

This will diffuse the dish's specular light rings, and then restrict the light beam to prevent flare and add control, as above.

The grid controls the light very well, allowing you to play with a variety of multi-light setups with ease.
The grid controls the light very well, allowing you to play with a variety of multi-light setups with ease.

Master Your Beauty Dish

So I've looked at the design and function of a beauty dish and how they create its unique look. I also covered how shooting distance plays a part in its functioning, just like other modifiers. Finally I went over the common accessories available, and how they modify the beauty dish light.

Only you can decide whether it's worth the investment, but I've been very happy with my Fotodiox 22" dish, and I've heard good things about the Paul C. Buff dishes. The control and general look of this light is something I had been after for quite some time, and was never quite able to capture it with umbrellas or small softboxes.

I've read in many places that beauty dishes have a very steep learning curve, but I didn't find this to be the case. I do have a strong belief though that before buying any piece of gear, understanding what it does, the mechanics of its functioning, and why those particular mechanics are valuable or attractive and unattainable with current equipment is extremely important.

Its versatility constantly amazes me, and thanks to its relatively small size but wide array of light looks, is one of the modifiers I'm always excited to pull out.

Questions? Comments? Hit up the comments below!

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