Beauty Dish Lighting Made Simple

When I was new to studio portrait photography, for some reason I found the beauty dish to be one of the most intimidating modifiers to master. Maybe it had to do with the unique shape and configuration, but for some reason I avoided trying one for a long time. In reality, using a beauty dish isn’t as difficult as it sounds, and in this article I’ll detail three basic ways to use one as well as provide sample images.

Three in one

In this article, I discuss three basic ways to use a beauty dish. First, it can be used without any diffusion material (other than the internal reflector). This is one of my favorite ways to use a beauty bowl because it provides a harsher light and more contrast than the second way, which is using it with the diffusion sock. The sock is an elastic diffusing material that sits quickly over the front of the dish and dramatically softens the light. The last way to use a beauty dish is my favorite way, namely, with a grid attached to the front. I highly recommend experimenting with each of these variations, as it’s the only way to start discovering the look you like best.

Position your dish

The basic placement of a beauty dish is directly in front of your subject, above their head and angled towards them so that the center of the bowl is pointing towards their face. The dish should also be fairly close to your subject. I usually have my dish about two feet from my subject, but sometimes I move it further back if I want harsher light. As with everything in the studio, the key is to experiment with placement and angles, as small changes in angle and position will cause drastic differences in your footage. For some of the images in this article, I placed the dish slightly off center, although I recommend placing it directly in front of your subject as a starting point.

Configuration 1: flat naked beauty

My second favorite way to use the beauty bowl is without any modifiers (remember the little reflector is still inside the bowl). Using the dish in this way results in deep shadows and lots of contrast. In the example image of Jenique below, you can see that the shadows under her nose and chin are quite dark, as well as on the right side of her face, as I had the dish positioned slightly to the left of the camera. There isn’t much skin tone in the shadow areas, and the shadow cast by the dish spills into her hair as well. I often use a setup like this when working with models or actors for the dramatic results it provides, although I would avoid it with some clients as the light is harsh, although it does bring out the line of the jaw, also amplifies the imperfections of the skin. It’s also not the best choice for corporate clients, so consider using the beauty dish, in general, as best for actors, models, and fashion shoots. In this particular image I added a Westcott Optical Spot by Lindsay Adler to create the simple circle of light in the background. Like I said, this is my second favorite way to use the dish, as the light spreads out a bit and I prefer it to be focused around the face. More on this in the third configuration.

Second configuration: beauty dish with diffusion sock

My least favorite way to use a beauty dish is with the diffusion sock. There is absolutely nothing wrong with using the dish with the sock, as you can see from Jenique’s picture below. It creates pleasing results and is a great option to have in your lighting kit, but I find the images lack the contrast and drama I look for when choosing to use a beauty dish in the first place. For me, the results are a little too flat, and since I have a number of other modifiers that can give similar results, this isn’t my go-to beauty dish setup. Of course, it’s a matter of taste, so as I mentioned above, I recommend experimenting to see which setups speak strongly to your creative eye. In the image of Jenique below, the shadows under her chin are still quite visible, but much more subtle, and there is no loss in skin tones. I also had Jenique rely on a white v-flat for this particular image, which filled in the shadows a bit more, and again used spot optics to add background texture.

Configuration 3: beauty dish with grid

My favorite way to use a beauty dish is with a grid (in all of these pictures I used a 15 degree grid). Attaching a grid to the beauty dish dramatically changes the falloff of the light and focuses it on the subject, with very little spillage. For me, this is the most dramatic way to use a beauty bowl, and since I love rich color tones and moody portraits, it works best for my particular style of portraiture. In this image of Jenique, you can see that the dish creates a well-defined circle of light around her head and arms, isolating her from the background, which receives almost no light. I had leaned it on a white v-flat from V-Flat World, which served as a table. I also graded the photo in post-production, which is something I like to do with my portrait work.

In the image below of musician Jesse, I’ve used a gridded beauty bowl again, but this time with a large octa for the fill (mainly for easier color grading). The fill light was placed directly behind me and set to low power. Again, the light is focused on her face, with little spillage and a dramatic fall. As with the previous image, I do this partly to focus all the attention on my subject’s face, while eliminating any distractions. I also colored this image in post, opting for cold tones. Finally, having the subject’s face turned away from the camera gives a very different look. Remember that something as simple as turning your subject’s head can dramatically change the light and give varying results with the same lighting setup.

Finally, in Ashley’s image below, I also used the beauty bowl with a grid (I told you that was my favorite way to use it). In this image, I placed the dish above her and slightly to the left side of the camera and also had her turn her head away from the dish, which was more or less aimed at her face. In this particular image, it is evident how the grid concentrates the light in a circular pattern around the subject, isolating it from the background. It was also placed very close to the bottom, which intensified the shape of the light.

Practice, practice, practice!

As always, my advice when learning to use a new modifier is to practice as much as possible. Although I now feel comfortable using a beauty dish in many ways, it’s important to remember that the options for lighting and modifiers are nearly endless, so continued practice is key to success! Small moves in a modifier’s distance as well as angle will really make huge differences in your image. Plus, once you find a look you like, you can make it one of your favorite moves in the studio, and you can imagine the results before using the setup.

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