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 grid for only $90. You will notice the difference immediately.
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One thing you will need (if you want to use a full sized one) is a way of shooting with your flash off-camera. That can be wirelessly, or wired.
There are many different ways to experiment with lighting. Don’t just use my techniques, experiment for yourselves.
There are two main ways of using a beauty dish: with or without a grid.
The effects are quite different. You’re likely to choose a favourite but they are both undeniably 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 a similar thing happens.
With a grid, when the light reaches the edge of the dish, it’s channelled forwards instead of going outwards. This means that it’s much more focused on one spot, providing a natural vignette effect. More on that later.
Beauty dishes are a great tool for any photographer. The light produced is harder than a softbox but softer than an umbrella. You can also add different modifiers to change how they work.
The light can be made harder when you use a grid, which you’ll see below, helping to add to the versatility of the modifier.
One thing that I thoroughly recommend to anyone looking at using a beauty dish on a lighting stand is a sandbag. The sandbag will act as a counterweight for the other side of the stand.
This way, 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 one.
You’ll notice that, without a grid, the light starts to dim about 18in away from the edge of the grid. This is because of the reflector in the centre. This reflector sends the light back 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 with the grid, very little light makes it around the side of dish and, although more light escapes out of the back, the majority is channelled forwards into a single point.
Firstly, let’s look at how you might use a beauty dish without a grid. Remember that the light tends to spread farther when it leaves the dish, beneficial for larger subjects.
Where you position the light is up to you. I prefer to have it facing down on to the subject. This produces a nice fall-off from the light, allowing you to 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 farther away it is, the more the light will cover and the softer the light will be.
When a light is large and close to the subject, it will illuminate them from more angles. This will produce less shadows. When the light is farther away, the angle of this light is decreased and 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, 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. You can expect this sort of shadowing.
Take a look at her right arm for example. There are a lot of details in the shadows of her wrist and fingers that would simply have 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, as you’ll see in the following photo.
When the dish is much further away and, importantly, the only light source, you start to see how the modifier is made.
This is not an effect that I care for. If I’m using a dish without a grid, I tend to use it with a fill light (such as daylight). Alternatively, I 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, making 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 is good when you want it to be obvious that a light has been used, rather than trying to hide it.
With a Grid
Take another look at the photo above. This time, it’s been shot with a grid on the front of the dish.
As you can see, a much more direct light is produced. It’s more consistent throughout. 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 with other post production software.
The photo below demonstrates this. There are lots of nice shadows on the face which provide detail and make the image look more three dimensional. Obviously, this is an extreme example 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.
You can see this process in the two photos below. The first photo demonstrates the setup, followed by a photo of the result.
Using a grid, positioning the dish 45 degrees off the centre of the face allows the light to produce some interesting shadows. I also make sure that the light is just out of frame. You get a harder light with the grid on – I try to soften it by having the light a little closer.
I then 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. 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, I like to choose a background and sit the model in front 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. I find this 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 travels farther away from the dish.
Experiment with your lighting; the possibilities are endless.
If you already have lots of light available to you, this makes for an excellent fill light.
I took the following photo with the dish, without a grid, over my right shoulder.
I zoomed in on the model’s upper body. This way, you don’t see any of the inner workings of the dish in the photo. It provides just the right amount of shadow on the collarbones, cheekbones, nose and eyes. And it provides 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. You may choose to light it differently.
As I said before, it’s all about experimenting and coming up with some interesting shadows.
Read our complete guide to photography lighting here.