The Beauty Dish, Not Just For Beauty
Beauty lighting is unique in itself because it only addresses lighting the model’s face. That’s not to say that you are not concerned with lighting her hair or other parts of her body. But when you are shooting a beauty ad or a headshot, it is imperative to understand how to specifically light for beauty. For the most part now in my career, I rely on a lighting accessory known as a beauty dish. A beauty dish is a round, flat dish usually 18″ to 36″ in diameter. It is metal and has a smaller opaque reflector that bounces the light back into the large metal dish, then out towards your subject. The light is unforgiving but it is highly controllable in studio lighting situations. You can use a diffusion material over them, also known as a “sock”. Or you can also use a grid over the dish. A grid will direct and contain the spill the light and you’ll have more definitive shadows. The sock will soften the entire face, much like a soft box. While most beauty dishes will have more than enough coverage to light a face, you will usually run into issues using one alone for full body work.
I usually place my beauty dish as close to the model as I can. Why? Because the closer the light is to your subject, the softer the light. My dish is placed high above the face, angled down on it at about a 45 degree angle. It also can be placed directly centered above the model’s face. This is normally referred to as “paramount” lighting. It got its name from Paramount Studios. This lighting was used constantly as a female “glamour” light. Remember the old Hollywood portraits made famous by photographers like George Hurrell? He used this lighting to accent the cheekbones and give a broad look to a narrow face. It is also sometimes referred to as “butterfly lighting” because of the small butterfly shadow under the nose. The shadow should fall half way between under the nose and the upper lip. The problem with having the dish very close to the model, is the light will fall off rapidly if you choose to shoot a looser crop, or if you are shooting an entire fashion story with various types of images. One of my favorite ways to add fill to the body, while maintaining the perfectly composed light on the face, is to use a strip box ( thin softbox, I commonly use a 1’x4’ version) often times with a grid to help control spill. I’ll place this strip directly below (or as close as possible) the beauty dish oriented in the same direction. Since the beauty dish is a somewhat harsh/contrasty modifier, we use the thin softbox with a grid as a way to maintain that contrasty feel, while still getting enough fill coverage for a full body image.
Beauty dishes can be quite expensive, but there are a lot of options including some cheaper ones. As a general rule, you still get what you pay for and a more expensive dish from a reputable brand like Profoto, Elinchrom, Broncolor, or Mola will be somewhat more refined than some of the cheaper options, not to mention they will be built to last. That being said, there are a lot of great modifiers out there so find a reputable brand that fits your budget, then just forget about it and go shoot! The best beauty dish in the world is totally useless if you don’t know how to use it!