I’m asked all of the time how I get that beautiful “glow” in Photoshop, I wish… I haven’t figured that one out yet, I use a special light modifier called the Beauty Dish.
Ten years ago a photographer on ModelMayhem wrote and asked me how I get such wonderful skin effects in Photoshop. I wrote her back and explained; since I specialize in Beauty Photography I am very critical of the models and makeup artists I use when working on my own portfolio. Plus I use a Beauty Dish for everything I shoot, Beauty, Fashion, Glamour, Everything! She promptly wrote me back, calling me a lair. Ten years later, I am still laughing hysterically over that. You just can’t help some people….
The Beauty Dish was developed and intended to be used as a portrait light modifier. It has now been recognized within the Makeup industry and adopted as a staple light source. The modified light from a beauty dish is comparable between that of a parabolic reflector and a softbox. Although it’s much closer to the hard light spectrum. The shadow, highlight transition is sharp and of a higher contrast. Because of this, the beauty dish tends to accentuate every little detail of your subject. You will need to pay careful attention when placing the light and posing your model, to hide flaws. The beauty dish works best when placed between four to eight feet from the subject. Placed at closer distances (4′ to 6′) the beauty dish produces what many call a “liquid wrap” effect. Beyond 8′ the overall effect is more comparable to that of a “hard” umbrella. The beauty dish generates a circular catchlight, which are awesome too. It’s rumored to have a very steep learning curve. We’re here to turn that around and get you up and running with the beauty dish by your first shoot.
The Sweet Spot: Placing the beauty dish at distances between 4′ to 6′ produces a “liquid wrap” effect. The contrast increases, so does the saturation and finer detail in this very crisp light. The sweet spot is easy to master when you balance your light readings with a good flash meter.
The Feathered Light: When the beauty dish is between 6’ to 12’ it has very soothing and tanning effect. You still enjoy a higher contrast and saturation, without the unpleasing hot spots. You’re basically aiming the center of the beauty dish’s beam either just ahead or just behind your subject and using a narrow strip of dishes edge light.
A Closer Look:
Photo A. (left) I positioned the Beauty Dish about 4.5′ away from my beautiful model, Danielle. You really need to pay attention to the highlight areas or you will blow them out. I will sometimes shoot just a little under on high-end beauty and makeup photography. One third of a stop will help preserve highlight details. Overall, the contrast and finer details are sharper. You should also notice the sharp transition into shadows, and the deep color saturation.
Photo B. (center) This was again shot with a single light. Positioned approximately 6′ away. You can clearly see the smoothing effect by positioning the light at 6′ and feathered, rather than the 4′, pointing directly on the subject. You should also note in the lighting diagram, I feathered the Beauty Dish a couple of feet beyond my model, as I typically do in most portrait situations.
Photo C. (right) Is exactly the same photo B. However I benefit greatly with the additional soft fill. I used a 9″ x 34″ stripbox, configured one stops under my main. This would be more typical for conventional portraiture work when the sharp shadows are not flattering, especially with older subjects and family portraits.
I’m ask all the time about using two beauty dish’s. Two dishes works exceptionally well with product advertizing and/or hard subjects. However, I do not like using two beauty dishes on human subjects. Other then my gorgeous beauty models, nobody is that perfect and I feel the soft side is a necessity for producing outstanding portrait’s.
The Effective Range
We need to take several considerations into account in order to make the most of the sweet-spot or the feathered light. The size of the dish itself, the intensity of our strobe are two of the most critical factors. Distance between the subject and the beauty dish is also a major consideration. The finish of your beauty dish will affect your image too.
The Sweet Spot, Effective Range: As a rule of thumb, a 22″ white beauty dish illuminates a 5’6″ subject from head to about the middle of the rib cage. My little 16″ silver beauty dish does a fine job on less power, from head to just below the collar bone. Both assume the dish is about 4′ to 6′ away from your subject. There are methods to double the effective light spread, which I will get into later in this article. To find the Sweet Spot quickly: is pretty easy. Start from about four or five feet away and aim the dish directly at your subject. Meter as you would any other light.
The Feathered Edge Light, Effective Range: The feathered edge light zone is much more difficult to master, but the size and mass of the areas you are attempting to light can be much larger. As an example; My 16” beauty dish will illuminate a 6’1” subject, with he dish approximately 8’ to 10’ away. The 22” white beauty dish works great between 6’ to 14’. To find the Feathered Edge Light quickly: To find the Feathered Edge Light quickly: Aim the beauty dish directly centered on your subject and rotate it forward (or backwards) until you see that soft glow radiating off my subjects skin. Chimping works very well, by utilizing your LCD display’s clipping mask. Do you know the term Chimping? Chimping really helps learn to control the feathered light of a Beauty Dish.
The rich tanned skin tones in the example above are the effects of using the Feathered Light and are further enhanced with the silver finished Dish. The highlights in the water droplets were lighted with a stripbox fill, which was configured 2 stops under my key, the beauty dish. I used my favorite variant of the Loop Lighting pattern, described in depth here.
Proper exposure is just as critical as aiming. The sweet spot or the feathered light, effect is not something that can be obtained through post processing, or at least I have never been able too. Once you have find the zone a few times, it is easy to reproduce time after time.
Beauty Dish Finishes.
Each of the (relatively) untouched examples below were shot with an identical lighting setup. The left with an Alien Bees 22″ white beauty dish, and the ePhoto inc. 16″ silver beauty dish on the right.
I posed Danielle, laying on top of the wings and suspended a stripbox 8’ above her, 2 full stops under that used on the Beauty Dish. The beauty dish, main, was approximately ten feet above her and aligned along the center line of her body. This gave me the true “feathered light” effect I wanted for that magical glow. Danielle’s brunette hair required much more light to obtain the fine detail, so I added two additional accent/hair lights. With the majority of my light directly above Danielle, I added one more stripbox on the floor as fill to soften the harsh shadows along her side. I configured this fill light 2 stops under my key/main/beauty dish. This example represents the Glamour Lighting pattern, with lighting placement highly modified, of course.
This is the perfect example on the effects of the beauty dish finish, White verses Silver. The white dish is a mandatory to get the deep rich, crisp colors a makeup artist requires for her portfolio. The tanning effect of the silver dish is an exceptional choice for full body glamour work.
For my general purposes, I make a slight WB adjustment in Adobe Camera Raw, before using anything shot with the silver beauty dish. Something like -5 to 10 in magenta, + 3 to 7 yellow in the shadows, is usually more than sufficient. Such an adjustment will pop the whites, while leaving the sun tanning effects my models love so much.
The Gridded Beauty Dish
Using my 16 inch Beauty Dish, along with a 40 degree grid, I made this otherwise difficult shot of Cierra, easy. You’re in for a harsher light source once you put on the grid, but that is not to say you cannot achieve a very flattering light with a gridded beauty dish, you can!!
The split lighting effect was crucial to achieve the mystique needed for this shot. Just as the high lights in the moisture droplets on her torso. Naturally my choice was to use a gridded Beauty Dish on Cierra’s face and to light her torso I selected a gridded Stripbox. In order to gain more control over the light from my 9” x 34” Stripbox, I made a nifty set of barndoors out of Black ¼” foam core. It worked remarkably well and has left me determined to build a set for my 16” Beauty Dish as soon as possible. I will update my DIY page shortly.
For the Cierra Split lighting scenario I was following a lighting tutorial written by my good friend Sam Rambo, who developed this unique technique; Using a short – Glamour lighting pattern, gridded and turned way down to achieve this stunning lighting effect.
Both of my studio strobes were positioned about 6 feet from the model. According to my flash meter I was shooting at f-5.6 at 125th of a second, ISO 100. My Key light had the ePhoto 16″ gridded Beauty Dish attached to an Alien Bees 1600. The gridded 9″x34″ stripbox was also attached to an Alien Bees 1600 strobe.
Makeup Photography with the Beauty Dish
22″ white beauty dish pictured left 16″ silver beauty dish pictured right.
Utilizing the Sweet Spot (not the feathered edge lighting) to it’s fullest has several other advantages. If you align the beauty dish, center and level with your subjects pupal, you can really set off exotic eyes.
Makeup photography is one area where using the beauty dish excels. This is also an area where most photographers can really benefit from the magic of the Sweet Spot and the white Beauty Dish finish. Post work requires way too much of every photographer’s time. I’m not sure about you, but I would rather be shooting and not sitting in front of Photoshop with no end in sight. Once you learn to find the Sweet Spot consistently, without blowing out the highlights, you can take full advantage of it’s lighting qualities and reduce your post processing time.
Besides the obvious advantages of the silver finish (less light consumption and better performance under brighter situations, the deep rich, suntan enhancement), the 16″ ePhoto, beauty dish comes ready to couple up to Speedlight’s. Remove the speedlight mount and it couples up perfectly with an Alien Bees type mounting system. Other universal mounting rings are available to fit virtually every strobe manufacture on the market today. Because it is small and portable, I find myself using this beauty dish over the other two when shooting at home. The 16″ beauty dish has a smaller foot print.
When I was first instructed on the proper use of a beauty dish, I was taught to avoid the sweet spot and always go for the feathered light. Now I prefer to blend those two magic qualities together. You still have full advantage of the higher contrast, sharper detail, yet a more of a soothing effect on human skin. It’s a much crisper light than a umbrella and the sweet spot’s huge hot spot issues are nonexistent.
Broadening the Feathered Light
I go into a lot more detail in the book; Utilizing Grids, but worth mentioning here. When all else fails and you just cannot find the Feathered Light, Cheat… Bounce a gridded beauty dish into a reflector and enjoy the effects of a pure feathered light.
I use the 44″x50″ ePhoto reflector pictured above, but anything will work. On occasion I have even use a piece of matte board that just happened to be handy.
Bouncing light has been a long standing practice in photography, but there is a major drawback; Light Loss. The old rule of thumb was; two full f-stops per bounce. Bouncing off modern photographic reflectors seems to be much kinder. I am noticing about 1 f-stop loss, depending on the overall distance. When you take into consideration the 22″ white beauty dish, looses approximately 2 full stops. An additional bounce and 4 stop lose, could make all the difference with lower powered strobes. With my 16″ silver dish bouncing off a silver reflector to light a full body glamour nude, the Bees are set between half and three quarters power. Given the overall light travel of 12′ to 16′ and one bounce, that still leaves power to spare. All of the full body examples here and in my portfolio were shot with this procedure.
The Beauty Dish’s
The two Beauty Dishes, used to shoot this article: Left, the 16″ ePhoto, strobist beauty dish, connected to my Nikon SB-800. Remove the Speedlight mount and the AB Mono light fits perfectly. Notice when I am using the strobist bracket with an iTTL Speedlight attached, I am using an iTTL cable directly connected to my camera’s hotshoe. That is not to say the flash will not function in slave/manual modes, but the sensor is blocked by the beauty dish itself. When you’re attempting to use this configuration, do yourself a favor and have the cable ready. You’ll need it. Mounted to a strobe, you will be in manual mode, firing with pocket wizards in slave mode. Right: the Alien Bees 22″ white Beauty Dish.
Both Beauty Dishes come with a Sock, which adds a softer light, very similar to that of a softbox. Both dishes have optional grids available, usually discounted if purchased as a package.:
Some Useful Links to Beauty Dish Kits:
All of the kits above include the strobist bracket, diffuser sock and grid. The cost was minimal with the bracket, so I purchased it at the same time. All of the dishes above are built with thinner metal then the Alien Bees beauty dish I bought 10 years ago and are priced significantly lower!! A friend of mine owns both; the ePhoto dish and a new Alien Bees dish and feels they are about the same thickness. All beauty dishes, regardless of manufacture are fragile, treat them like flash tubes (eggs) and you should receive many years of quality service. When in the studio I sandbag my beauty dish. When outside I double sandbag my beauty dish. I never use my beauty dish outdoors in high winds, without someone holding it!!
If you decide on the ePhoto 16″ silver Beauty Dish, Get it configured with the Strobist bracket. OMG It Rocks My World to use this with Speedlights!!
I read the reviews while creating these links and the Speedlight, DIY strobist bracket seems to be receiving a lot of criticism. Personally I like it and just bought two more to adapt Speedlights to my small stripboxes. It is lightweight and was designed to hold lighter weight light modifiers.
I modified my bracket before attempting to use it. First, I had to cut the excessively long bolt that attaches the Strobist bracket to the beauty dish. Next, I bought locking star washers for the flash to bracket adapter and the Flash height adjustment. Then I cranked them both, seriously tight! Since I only own SB-800′s, there is no need to make further adjustments until I buy SB-900′s or?
After successfully adapting my speedlights to the small stripboxes, the ball joint, which allows the unit to swivel above the light stand, became an issue. I bought a larger knurled knob, so I could get a better grip and that solved all of my issues when using heaver light modifiers in the field. These days I am always looking to curb inflation and cut costs. If anyone finds a better portable mounting system please feel free to post it here. I would be more than happy to share it with the world
The Alien Bees Beauty Dish:
The Paul Buff/Alien Bees Beauty Dish, is still and exceptional value IMHO. I did notice at the time of writing, the price dropped a lot from when I purchased mine 10 years ago. I am not assuming they are made of lesser quality components, but they look different. I always will be a huge Alien Bees fan. Alien Bees service dept is Out-Frickin-Standing!
NOTE: After making the above statement; a very good friend of mine accidentally destroyed his “old” AB Beauty dish so he bought a new one. He said it was horrible and he returned it immediately. The metal they used was just too thin in his opinion. I knew it looked different, but apparently I assumed to much. The ePhoto dish linked above has the shape, mounts right up without issue, so you might look there. It is not as thick as my old AB dish, but easily twice as thick as my 16″ ePhoto dish. The 28″ Photodiox dish is very nice, but the material is thin, so it’s fragile. Hey, treat a Beauty Dish like you’re handling eggs! They Are Fragile!!
The Good, The Bad and The Beautiful.
I have also received a number of questions regarding my method, why and how-to, so I have added these following examples, but before we get into this let me say. I was formally educated in photography many years ago. I read articles on photography forums and talk to other photographers every day. Some of the options I share came from the fore mentioned venues. I believe it’s very important to know and fully understand the rules, so that when you break them, you can make more of an impact. I also fall back on the basics of the classic lighting patterns; Rembrandt, Loop and Paramount Lighting.
Rembrandt Lighting with a Beauty Dish
In the lighting example above, I am using a single light with a Rembrandt pattern. I am relying on a white wall in order to illustrate in greater depth and detail. This is how I feather the Beauty Dish to my advantage. Normally with my commercial work I would have used a black backdrop and an edge light for even more separation (see above). In the First Photo above. I feather the light in front of my model. The In the center example, you can get a better prospective of the camera’s view. In the far Left shot. I wanted the depth and shadows to produce more dynamic effects, so I broke the golden rule “Never let light from your main spill onto the backdrop.” I had Danielle turn facing the wall, then look back over her shoulder for this shot.
Split Lighting with an Edge
This shot of Dani, (pictured left) would be far more typical of my commercial lighting setup. This pattern is a modified, one light version of the Split Lighting pattern with a rim light added. I love the heavy edge light in this, my signature lighting fave. Quite often I will mix this up with the addition of an accent light on the hair from the right or opposing side and/or and colored back directly behind the model.
I used the two lights at 180 degrees of each other with my model Danielle in the center. I purposely broke the rule regarding over spill on the background. This will assist in the separation of my models right side, which you can just barely see the faint background. Then I used a harsh edge light to separate the shadowed side of my model (see lighting diagram below).
I posed my model Danielle, about 10′ off the backdrop and started with my key light slightly lower than normal. The edge light was approximately 1/2 stop more than my Beauty Dish/Key light. To obtain a sharper edge I used barndoors on a 7′ parabolic reflector.
My prime lenses have a sweet spot of f-8, but I also like the added depth and saturation when I shoot one stop under. Using a Sekonic 550 Flash/Spot meter, I setup my main at f-11 (the Beauty Dish). I usually start with it at about 10 feet away from my model. My shooting style requires the depth, but keeps in mind the key goal here is to obtain that inner glow and deep rich skin tone qualities that my models and I love so much, so I’m shooting at f-11…
The Best of Both Worlds. I hope you have noticed throughout this article I like to shoot on the edge of the sweet spot, dipping into the feathered light zone. By doing this I do obtain the crisp, contrasty detail and softer skin tones overall. It is easiest to think of this as you would Selective Focus. Most of the time you can achieve this with very careful lighting placement and with some degree of compromise. Since this represents 90% of my personal setups (Makeup work excluded), this is the reason I claim the beauty dish is so difficult to learn and master.
Using Grids Socks and covers on a Beauty Dish: Now many manufactures of studio lighting equipment are producing grids of varying degrees. The ideal use of a grid is to eliminate stray light rays and focus the beam directly in front of the strobe or Beauty Dish in this case. This makes it impossible to use the feathered light method I describe throughout my article. I use grids on accent (hair lights) all the time, but never when shooting high-end Beauty. Socks (covers) turn the Beauty Dish into a small round softbox. If you find the shape of a softbox designed this way useful then try it. Perhaps a grid under the sock may be useful in this circumstance. I do have socks for both of my Beauty Dishes, I have used them once, but I like the light from my small ProFlex softbox better and so I haven’t even seen the socks in many, many years.
About Beauty Dishes in General:
I’m asked all the time which I prefer; The 22″ white Alien Bees Dish or the 16″ silver ePhoto Dish. I love them both! For real high-end beauty work in the studio, I’ll go with the Alien Bees, Beauty Dish every time. When shooting outdoors or for mobility convenience, I’ll use the 16″ silver dish. If I could only own one I would have to settle with the white Beauty Dish. I feel the white dish is more soothing and more flattering. It’s MUCH easier to use than the silver dish is!!!
If you are asking which I would advice you buy… The silver dish seams to have a magical light amplifying quality. Alien Bees 1600′s are the least powered strobes I own (I’m usually in the 1/3 to 1/4 power range). If you are intending to use any Beauty Dish with strobes having less power than AB 16oo. I would advise the silver dish, regardless of manufacture.
Lighting Equipment In General: Coming from the old school mentality, I bought as much light as I could afford at the time. When replacing my old Dyna-Light setup I purchased six Alien Bees 1600 and two Alien Bee 800’s. I like to think when I use the mono-lights outdoors I can overpower the sun. I’m delighted with the Bees and have no doubt they will outlive me. The recycle time on the 1600’s on the little slower, but I’m not a Click, Click, Clicker Boy and an 8 second pause between each shot is no issue with me.
The Stripbox: Throughout this article, you have heard me mention my love and enthusiasm for the Strip Box. I really love these narrow softboxes. Several years ago I bought two 9″ X 35″ and two 13″ x 54″ softboxes from e-Bay for $75.00. The company is long gone and so is the killer price, but many companies offers these innovative softboxes. Pictured left from Alien Bees. I fell in love with the concept at first sight. I mean the idea of lighting only the model and not all of the surrounding area makes perfect sense.
My beautiful model Danielle, may be contacted directly from her ModelMayhem account, or for additional pictures of her, please visit her gallery on my website. Danielle appeared in GlamModelz Magazine among many, many others.
The Pink haired Beauty Model Rosa, may be contacted directly from her ModelMayhem account, or for additional pictures of Rose please visit her gallery on my server. Rosa’s makeup was provided by: Victoria Vandel, who may be contacted through ModelMayhem.
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About the Author
I'm a Northern California Professional Photographer, based just outside San Francisco. I specialize in commercial product advertizing and architectural. I have been working with Bay Area modeling agencies for more then 10 years, shooting portfolio development for models and high-end makeup artists. I am highly creative and always unique. I shoot cutting edge projects, both in the studio and on location.
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