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5 Ways to Use a Beauty Dish Light for Portraits

5 Ways to Use a Beauty Dish Light for Portraits

The beauty dish. It’s one of my favorite light modifiers, which is why I’m so excited to share some techniques you can try with your beauty dish. Don’t have one? Not to worry. There are plenty of DIY beauty dish project plans online. I’ve actually made them out of aluminum turkey pans. When you decide to step up to a more professional beauty dish, however, they are usually not as expensive as most light modifiers and you can get them for speedlights or studio strobes.

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Beauty dishes are a niche modifier usually reserved for beauty shots. These tend to be head and shoulder portraits that highlight makeup and hair, and are commonly used in the fashion industry. So why should you try it? Well, it’s fun to see if you can make images like you see in the fashion magazines, it’s also very creative. You really have to plan and construct the entire image. This may include everything from your choice of background, lighting setup, and hair and makeup.

The quality of light produced by a beauty dish is not as soft as a softbox, but it is softer than an umbrella, and not as hard as just using a 7 inch reflector. The light falloff is quite rapid, which helps to sculpt the subject’s face and to show texture in their skin. Beauty dishes often produce nice catch lights in the eyes and shadows under the jaw line. They are versatile modifiers because you can change the quality of light by choosing a dish with a silver, or white, inner surface. The white surface will produce slightly less specular highlights on the subject’s face. You can also control the spill of light by using a grid and even further soften the light by adding a sock over the front.

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When you plan a shoot using a beauty dish, only use it on clients or models with very good skin because the light pattern it produces can show off imperfections like wrinkles and blemishes. It’s also helpful to find a good makeup and hair artist because you will be showing off the subject’s face in detail. If you’re not ready to pay a makeup artist for this service, you can offer them a trade for images so they can expand their portfolios; or, if you’re really lucky sometimes you can find a model that is skilled at doing her own makeup.

When setting up your camera, I recommend a lens in the 85-200mm range. I use studio strobes and an aperture around f/8 or f/11. I would also recommend using a boom arm because it will help you put the beauty dish in just the right spot, without getting in the way of your shot. The beauty dish will give you very nice light on the subject’s face. Keep in mind you often need to spice up the image with a rim (or accent) light, hair light or a background light.

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Let’s get started with five ways to use your beauty dish:

1. One light with a reflector: Clam shell lighting)

This is the typical way you will see a beauty shot set up. The dish is positioned right above the subject’s face, pointed down slightly, so the center of the dish is aimed at the subject’s forehead, right between the eyes. The dish should be close to your subject to produce soft light, usually within two to four feet. When you set this up, make sure you can see catchlights in the top of subject’s eyes. Then add a reflector under the beauty dish to bounce light back up on to their face. This will help minimize the shadows under chin, and add a catch light at the bottom of the eyes. You will have to put your camera between the beauty dish and the reflector. Some photographers also like to add black cards on either side of the subject to help create shadows on the sides of the face.

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2. Two light setup: Clam shell lighting

This is basically the same as number one above, except you use a strobe in place of the reflector. This allows you control of the power output of the fill light. I prefer to use a strip box for this purpose, set one or two stops darker (lower) than the main light.

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3. Add a sock over the beauty dish

The sock is a piece of diffusion material, that looks like a shower cap, which you put over the beauty dish. This softens the light on the subject’s face, and if you are getting shiny spots it will reduce the specularity of the light. Using a sock will produce a creamy look, with less skin texture.

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4. Add a grid to the beauty dish

The grid will focus the light into more of a spotlight type pattern, which can be used to create some interesting effects. Just make sure the grid is pointed directly at the subject or the light pattern will not strike the face correctly. The easiest way to check this is to make sure the subject can see directly through the grid to the light source.

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5. Take it outdoors

The beauty dish is a great light modifier for outdoors because it’s more compact than a softbox, but can be used like one. The light quality will be softer than an umbrella, and won’t catch the wind as much as an umbrella or a softbox. It can be used as the main light source or as a fill light. If you use it as a main or fill light you can set it up at a 45 degree angle like you might use a softbox. When the light conditions are warm in tone such as sunrise or sunset, you may want to add a color temperature orange gel over the beauty dish to help blend the strobe’s light with the sunlight.

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The beauty dish is a bit of a specialist tool that can produce wonderful lighting patterns when used correctly. However, it can also be used in many creative ways to produce interesting shots. I hope you have fun giving the beauty dish a try.

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Gary Detonnancourt
Gary Detonnancourt

loves all types of photography but shoots mostly landscapes, wildlife, and portraiture. His biggest passion is sharing his photographic knowledge through workshops and his online photography classes. You can also follow him on his blog, Facebook, or Twitter.

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