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How to Use a Beauty Dish to Create Beautiful Lighting » Expert Photography

Do you want to understand your camera and take great photos today?

Yes Please

I personally love using beauty dishes; they’re my favourite lighting modifier, and produce some awesome results. They can be picked up with a lighting stand, and a grid, for only £100, and you will notice the difference immediately. One thing you will need though (if you want to use a full sized one) is a way of shooting with your flash off-camera, whether that’s wirelessly, or wired.

There are many different ways to experiment with lighting, so don’t just use my techniques, experiment for yourselves.

There are two main ways to use a beauty dish, and that’s with and without a grid. The effects are quite different, and you’ll likely have a favourite, but they are both very useful. Without a grid the light bounces into the back of the dish, reflects around the sides and then out the front. When you include a grid the same happens, although when the light reaches the edge of the dish, instead of going outwards, the light is channeled forwards. This means that it’s much more focused on one spot, and provides a natural vignette effect, but more on that later.

Beauty dishes are a great tool for any photographer because light produced is harder than a softbox, but softer than an umbrella, and you can add lots of different modifiers to them to change how they work. The light can be made harder when you use a grid, which you’ll see below, which helps to add to the versatility of the modifier. One thing that I thoroughly recommend to anyone looking to use a beauty dish, on a lighting stand, is a sandbag. The sandbag will act as a counter weight for the other side of the stand so that it doesn’t fall over into your model’s face. They don’t tend to like that too much.

Have a look at these two photos below for comparison. The first photo is without a grid and second is with a grid. You’ll notice that without a grid that the light starts to dim about 18inches away from the edge of the grid. This is because of the reflector that is in the center of the grid, which sends the light back and around the edges of the grid. This effect is one of the reasons I don’t particularly like using it like this.

In this second photo where the grid is on very little light makes it around the side of dish, and although more light escapes out of the back, the majority is channeled forwards into a single point.

Lets firstly look at how you might us a beauty dish without a grid. Remember that the light tends to spread further when it leaves the dish, so this can be used on larger subjects.

Without a Grid

Where you position the light is up to you, but I prefer to have it facing down on the subject, because then you get a nice fall-off from the light, and you can play with the shadows more. When the light is facing directly into the face of the model, it’s going to appear harder. The distance that you place the dish from your subject is also going to make a big difference. The further away it it, the more the light will cover, and the softer the light will be.

When a light is large and close to the subject, the light will illuminate them from more angles, which means that there is less shadows. When the light is further away, the angle of this light is decreased and so we see more shadows. But back to the beauty dish…

In the photo below, the dish is roughly three feet above the model’s head, and this is without a grid. For me, the best thing about the lighting here is the shadows that form around the model. Remember – this is still a harder light than a softbox, so you can expect this sort of shadowing. Take a look at her right arm for example, there’s lots of details in the shadows of her wrist and fingers, that would have simply been flattened with a hard direct light. I like using the dish nice and close to the subject as it doesn’t reveal the details of the inner workings of the dish, like you’ll see in the following photo.

When the dish is much further away, and rather importantly, the only light source, you start to see how the modifier is made. This is not an effect that I care for, so if I’m using a dish without a grid, I tend to use it will a fill light (such as daylight), or get much closer, like I did in the photo above (and the final photo of the post). Without a grid, the light isn’t particularly directional, so this makes it great as a fill light, instead of using a reflector or a softbox. The harder light makes for a more interesting effect in my opinion, and good for when you want it to be obvious that a light has been used, rather than trying to hide it.

With a Grid

We can take another look at the photo above, only this time it’s been shot with a grid on the front of the dish. As you can see, it’s a much more direct light, and more consistant throughout as the light dims around the edges to form a vignette. As much as I like this lighting effect, it’s clearly not suitable for the photo that I was taking, because I wanted to include the legs in there too.

You should make the most of this vignette as well, because it’s much more natural looking than anything you can do in photoshop, or other post production software. The photo below demonstrates this. Lots of nice shadows on the face, which provide detail and make the image look more three dimensional. Obviously, this is an extreme and only shown here for demonstration purposes, you would probably want to move the dish further away as it’s just out of the shot, and you may also want to use another light source to make it less dramatic.

Here is one of my favourite techniques, and you can see how it’s done in the two photos below, the first of which is demonstrating the setup, followed by a photo of the result. Using a grid, position the dish 45 degrees off the center of the face. This allows for the light to produce some interesting shadows. I also make sure that the light is just out of frame, because it’s a harder light with the grid on, so I try to soften it with the light a little closer. Then I raise up the stand and point down on the subject for more shadows on the hair, eyes, lips and neck. Finally, I turn the model’s face towards the dish, as this allows me to vary the amount of shadows on the face, depending on where they’re looking.

If you want to make the photo more interesting, then I like to choose a background and sit the model infront of it by about a foot. It will catch all of the excess light that comes off of the dish, and make for a slightly dimmer and vignetting background, which I find much more interesting than a white wall.

As you can probably tell by now, there are no rules as to how you can position the light, it’s entirely up to you. Below is a slightly more dramatic example of how I used my beauty dish. The light is pointing almost directly down on the model, with her face tilted towards it. This has left a strong shadow across her neck, while illuminating the rest of the scene. The circular shape of the light is still very much there, only now it’s an oval and the light goes further away from the dish. Experiment with your lighting, the possibilites are endless.

Fill Light

If you already have lots of light available to you, then this makes for an excellent fill light. The following photo was taken with the dish, without a grid, over my right shoulder. I zoomed in onto the model’s upper body so that you don’t see any of the inner workings of the dish in the photo. It provides just the right amount of shadows on the chest bones, cheek bones, nose and eyes, while providing a soft shadow on the left side of her face. I chose to shoot the photo like this because it was in keeping with the well lit background, but you may choose to light it differently. As I said before, it’s all about experimenting, and coming up with some interesting shadows.

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How to Use a Beauty Dish to Create Beautiful LightingThank you for reading my post, if you have any questions, please leave a comment below.

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I'm a self taught photographer from Brighton, England. I take a lot of photos and enjoy teaching my methods to anyone willing to learn- this is my blog, check out my video training & Google.

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