Lighting modifiers: The Beauty Dish

The beauty dish is often a popular lighting modifier among fashion and beauty photographers because of its versatility and unique light. In a past live show I showed you exactly what you can achieve with this particular modifier and demonstrate how you can modify it even further.

Beauty dish example: A portrait shot with a beauty dish.
© Karl Taylor

How to use a beauty dish light

Often used for head and shoulder portraits, the beauty dish offers far more versatility than what one might initially think it’s capable of. Similar to a shallow dish in shape, the beauty dish is a metal reflector that can be attached to a studio light or speedlite. Light fired into the dish hits a reflector directly in front, bounces back and then off the curved metal surface towards the subject.

The effect results in a light that is considered “hard-but-soft” or “semi-hard” and is comparable to a mixture of a softbox and direct flash. The shadows from the beauty dish, while fairly soft, have a rapid transition from light to dark, which can result in quite a dramatic effect.

Often used in a frontal position from above, the beauty dish can be combined with additional modifiers to create effects such as rim lighting or hair lights, or coupled with accessories such as reflectors for additional lighting.

I demonstrate common beauty dish lighting setups in the live show, as well as how to further modify the light using various accessories. You can also see a two-light setup typical of magazine cover images in my “Mastering the Beauty Dish” class in our Fashion section.

Beauty dish lighting example

Beauty Dish Lighting

Now available to watch on replay

In this live workshop Karl demonstrates some of the most effective ways to use the beauty dish.

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Versatile results make beauty dishes very popular.
© Karl Taylor
Beauty dishes offer unique, versatile results.
© Karl Taylor

Advantages of beauty dishes

Usually available in white or silver coatings, the effects of different beauty dishes can differ. Silver coated beauty dishes offer more specular, hard-contrast light while white coated dishes result in somewhat smoother, softer light. However, both coatings offer even, flattering light that is ideal for highlighting the shape of a model's face.

It is this versatility that is one of the main advantages of the beauty dish. Other modifiers such as softboxes or umbrellas offer very little in terms of further modification which means the results are generally limited.

A further advantage is that beauty dishes can be used on both studio lights and speedlites. Available in different sizes, they are also more budget friendly than modifiers such as parabolic reflectors.

Beauty dish example: A portrait shot with a beauty dish.
© Karl Taylor

Disadvantages of beauty dishes

If you’re on a tight budget, beauty dishes probably won’t be your first choice of lighting modifier. Although cheaper than more specialist modifiers, they can’t compete with cheaper modifiers such as softboxes or umbrellas.

Beauty dishes, due to the rapid fall off of light, can also produce quite a harsh lighting, which isn’t always very flattering for all subjects. Although this light can be softened with different accessories, it is something to keep in mind if you’re just starting out and don’t have additional equipment you can use to modify the light.

Beauty dish example: A portrait shot with a beauty dish.
© Karl Taylor

Beauty dish accessories

As I’ve already mentioned, beauty dishes are available with a range of different modifiers (and I show exactly how to modify beauty dish lights in the live show), but I’ve included a brief explanation of the options below:

Colour - The interior colour of the beauty dish, as explained above, plays a major role in the resulting light. By changing the interior colour, you can affect the softness and overall feel of the light.

Grids - Grids that attach to the inside of the beauty dish work similarly to honeycomb grids you would use for standard reflectors. They control the direction and spillage of light but remember — grids also cut out some of the light so you’ll need to adjust your settings.

Socks - A sock is a piece of diffusion material that attaches over the front of the dish. It diffuses the light and results in a softer light, almost like that of an octabox. It can also be useful for reducing shiny spots on the model’s face.

Size - The law of physics states that the bigger the light source, the softer the light and the beauty dish is no exception.

Beauty dish example: A portrait shot with a beauty dish.

Beauty dish lighting comparisons

Beauty dishes, with their punchy, sculpting light, are somewhat comparable to modifiers such as deep focus umbrellas. They offer a far more contrasty look to softboxes and umbrellas but somewhat less of a sparkly light than that achieved using parabolic lighting.

You can see a full comparison of different lighting modifiers in these two classes:

The beauty dish vs umbrellas

One of the most effective alternatives to a beauty dish is a silver umbrella. These are more affordable options, which can be great for those on a budget, but they don’t always offer the same quality of light. In the video below I do a comparison between the beauty dish and a silver umbrella, showing the results of each so you can see just how effective and economical the beauty dish actually is.

Now that you understand the theory and effects of a beauty dish, you can clearly see why it’s a popular choice for many photographers. However, if you’re trying to decide which modifier is best to use, it’s important to consider the effect of different modifiers, the price, accompanying accessories and what you’ll be using it for. I recommend browsing our extensive range of photography classes, where you’ll be able to find a variety of tutorials showing the effects of different modifiers and creative ways to use them.

This article covers only a small portion of information relating to beauty dishes and studio lighting available on our site. To access all of this information, make sure to sign up to Visual Education, where you’ll find thousands of courses that teach you everything you need to know to improve your photography.

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  1. Karl, in your recent beauty dish show you said that you used a 3rd party beauty dish. What brand is it? How do you get it to mount onto a Broncolor light since Broncolor uses their own proprietary mount system and I’ve never seen a beauty dish adapter for Broncolor lights, nor have I ever seen a generic beauty dish advertised anywhere that adapts to Broncolor lights. I do have adapters for my other Profoto modifiers so I can use them on my Broncolor lights. I have a Profoto beauty dish but can only use it with Profoto lights. And although I couldn’t say for sure but your beauty dish looks larger than the one made for Broncolor.


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