Shooting with a Beauty Dish

cierra_4577gmI’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.

Fifteen 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:


cierra-swabd-2Photo 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


cierra-fpotd.4.17.2014We 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 Cierra, 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. Cierra’s 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 Cierra, 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.




Socks on a Beauty Dish

Socks turn the Beauty Dish into a small round hard light, with softer shadow transitions areas for all intensive purposes. The actual light itself is still very hard! If you find the shape of this useful then try it. I am not a huge fan of using socks on a beauty dish even though the contrast is much higher than that of a softbox and the harsh highlights have been slightly subdued, the typical hard light is still prevalent as it falls on your subject.  Personally I love shooting in the studio with a combination of a conventional softbox to be used as fill and a beauty dish as my key light or main.




Makeup Photography with the Beauty Dish

beauty22″ 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.

cierra_1675Makeup 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.

The Good, The Bad and The Beautiful.

eyesI 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.


Lighting Patterns with a Beauty Dish

lighting-patterns-cierraSplit Lighting: is simply lighting half of the subject’s face, while leaving the other half in complete shadow. This form of lighting creates major drama in portraits and really adds a little variety to a portfolio. While this “typical” lighting technique is not one of my favorites, I do use variants of this basic setup all the time. Split is a great place to start when you are going after a more mysterious mood. It is an ideal slimming light. It can be used to narrow a wide face or nose. It can also be used with a weak fill to hide facial irregularities and still retain the drama.

As you can tell by this examples this setup only requires one light to create a high quality, dramatic portrait. Position this key light to one side of your subject so that it is 90 degrees to one side, ideally you will split the light directly down the center of the subjects nose. My lighting diagram to the right illustrates the positioning of my key light. You can use your favorite lighting modifier to add to the drama, I used a softbox in this example. This lighting technique works exceptionally well with hard or soft light sources.

One nice side effect created with split lighting is that reflected light often bounces back into the crease of a smile, enhancing the lips and/or smile. Attempting split lighting on location offers many challenges, but also allows you to present models surrounded by many structures and geodesic shapes. Locations usually increase the difficulty factor with a higher, harder to control ambient light, you less flexibility than shooting portraits in an indoor studio environment. I have seen many photographers build on this with hair light, shot fill and even high key back lighting adds a unique quality to the Split Lighting technique…

Loop Lighting: is an excellent technique to helps broaden the face and works exceptionally well with long or narrow faces. The loop from the nose area should not touch the shadow area on the side of the face. Your Key Light should be lower than that used with Paramount Lighting and moved in closer toward the background. The Fill Light should be even with the camera and up higher while remaining opposite your Key Light.

Loop Lighting gets its name from the loop-shaped shadow that it creates under the nose, and this is one of the most frequently used lighting patterns because it is considered to be one of the more flattering and adaptable pattern. It lights most of the face while imparting a sense of depth.

Loop Lighting is easily achieved by positioning your key light high and to the side of your subject. When using this lighting technique on women I like to start at a 45 degree angle and adjust the light to avoid shadows on the face caused by the hair. The nose shadow should drop in a small loop at an angle to the nose. Technically it should not extend beyond the edge of the mouth, nor should it ever drop as low as the lip. The fill light should remain as close to the center-line of the camera’s axis. Shadows on both side of the nose or conflicting shadows need to be avoided at all costs. They are considered to be very amateurish and very unprofessional.


Paramount Lighting: also known as Glamour Lighting, also known as Butterfly Lighting, is achieved by positioning the main light directly in front of the subjects face and adjusting the height to create a shadow directly under the nose. Position your fill aimed upward several feet below the key. This style is best suited for subjects with a normal oval face and is considered to be glamour style of lighting. It is also best suited for women, but any subject with a lot of hair causing distracting facial shadowing. It is not recommended for use with heavyset people or people with very short hair because it has a tendency to highlight the ears.

Lighting placement tends to very greatly in today’s common adaptations. I generally start with my main directly centered and above the subjects head. My fill was positioned 2’ below the key and slightly to the right. I configured the fill one full stop under that of my main. A lot of photographers like to use one light and a reflector. Just for giggles I once hung a 72” octabox fourteen feet above the floor and used a 3’ silver reflector on the floor to bounce light back up under the chin. The effect was so flattering we used this setup for over a year.

Butterfly Lighting allows you to get by with one light. Put the key light high (slightly above subject’s eye level) and directly in front of the subject. The nose shadow appears directly under the nose and should be about midway between the upper lip and the base of the nose for best appearance. This type of setup can help hide a large nose, a double chin, or thin face. You may wish to use a reflector somewhere under the face (out of the picture) to help fill in shadowed areas like eye sockets. The reflector may also be used to provide a catch light in the eyes to give them sparkle.

Sometime people trip me out with the lighting terms themselves. A fashion model for example may be very resistant to Glamour, so I’ll call this Butterfly lighting. With men I’ll call this Paramount lighting and, of course, Glamour models feel more successful with Glamour Lighting…




Rembrandt lighting is one of the more popular lighting techniques used in the studio photography. It can be achieved using one light, but more typically done with a reflector, or two lights. Today’s popularity is based upon the natural and/or dramatic lighting effects with minimal equipment. This lighting technique takes its name from the famous Dutch painter Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, who used skylights to illuminate his subjects in his studio.

Rembrandt lighting is sometimes called 45-degree lighting it is characterized by a small, triangular highlight on the shadowed cheek of the subject. Old timer lighting geeks will sometimes refer to this as a chiaroscuro, but it’s a triangle to the rest of us.J The triangle should be no longer than the nose and not extend beyond the eye. This technique may be achieved subtly or very dramatically by altering the distance between subject and lights and relative strengths of main and fill lights. This type of lighting is dramatic. It is most often used with male subjects, and is commonly with a weak fill light to slightly accentuate the shadow-side. Back in my college days we were taught to place our main umbrella at a 45 degree angle for the subject, with the center axis approximately 4 inches above the subject’s eyes, when shooting portraiture work.

In the real world, Rembrandt Lighting is often confused with Short Lighting and is commonly used incorrectly with a single light source to light half the face, while leaving the other half of the face in some degree of shadow. This is because you will often see the triangle of light just right on shadow side of the subjects face.

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!!!

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.

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.

foldable stripbox

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.

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!!

Speedlight Bracket

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:

Alien Bees Beauty DishThe 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!!

Are you a Strobist? Checkout these 10 Meter e/i TTL Cables :

iTTL Cable for Nikon

eTTL Cable for Canon