Beauty Dish | Studio Lighting Essentials

The mighty silver beauty dish has been one of my go-to modifiers for decades. Let’s take a look at this handy piece of kit, how it works, and why you might want to add one to your collection.

I’ve been using the beauty dish for many years. This simple modifier has helped me get tons of great fashion and beauty results thanks to the beautiful sculpting quality of the light it provides. In my opinion, it outperforms softboxes (such as the Octabox 75), it outperforms silver reflective umbrellas – in fact, it outperforms everything except parabolic reflectors like the para 88.

Even better, it offers excellent value for money. If you're into fashion and beauty photography but you can't afford a parabolic reflector, I highly recommend you get yourself a 70cm silver beauty dish. At around $150 or even less, it’s the best value beauty modifier on the market – and the results you can achieve with it are fantastic.


Mastering the Beauty Dish

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Beauty dish: how it works

Why is the beauty dish such a good light source for the price? The answer lies in the physics of the modifier – the way it actually works. The dish is uniformly bright across the centre, with a slightly brighter ring at its outer edge. Also, because of its shape, the dish gives out light that is slightly collimated.

This collimation is not as accurate as what you get from a para, but it still allows for a kind of focusing of the light. This means that if you position your subject correctly, you can get beautiful light focused on the face and upper body – exactly what you need in fashion and beauty photography.

beauty dish photography
The silver beauty dish gives a lovely sculpting light, with bright catch lights in the eyes.

How to use it

So what is the best position for this modifier? In my experience, you want it to be just above your subject’s head height, arm’s length or slightly further away, pointing downwards at a 45-degree angle. At this angle, your subject should be able to look at the centre of the dish without being dazzled because the central blocking reflector should obscure the light behind, while also reflecting it out.

You may be wondering how to keep the dish out of your shot if it’s positioned that close to your subject. The answer is to use a giraffe boom that keeps the stand out of your way but keeps the dish where it needs to be. You can then stand behind the dish with your camera at your subject’s eye level, or just above, and take your photos without the dish intruding.

Though the beauty dish is a fantastic light source on its own, I often use it in junction with an edge light such as a hair light – a 30 x 120 Stripbox, for instance.

Beauty dish photography
Using the beauty dish in its ideal position.

Beauty dish accessories

There are two accessories for this modifier. The first is a grid that you put over the dish to contain the direction of the light. For me, this is a waste of time. Why? Because when you put a grid on a beauty dish, you lose two of its main benefits – namely, the brighter area at the periphery, and the collimation.

You’re left with a beam that only goes forwards, which defies the point of using a beauty dish in the first place.

The other accessory is a diffusion sock that goes over the front of the dish. (As you can see in the video – which you can also watch on our YouTube channel – getting it on with just one pair of hands isn’t easy.) The sock effectively turns the dish into a round softbox (similar to an Octabox 75), but with less homogenous light due to the brighter outer edge. With soft boxes, if the diffusion isn't good, you actually end up with a brighter part in the middle and a darker area at the edges. This gives you the opposite.

The nice thing about the sock is the fact that it gives you a perfectly round light source, resulting in a nice round catch light in the eyes (albeit one that is slightly brighter around the perimeter). Admittedly, you’ll get a better version of this effect with a broncolor Satellite Staro. But given how hard-to-find and expensive those are, the dish-sock combo is a good alternative.

Model throwing paint beauty dish photography
Watch Model Throws Paint to see how I used a beauty dish in this shoot.

Lighting Comparison Visualiser

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Lighting modifiers compared

In the video, you’ll see me use our Lighting Comparison Visualiser tool to compare the 70cm silver beauty dish with other light sources, including a bare bulb and a silver reflective umbrella.

Compared to the harsh light from the bare bulb, the lovely shaping and contouring light from the beauty dish is vastly superior. Compared to the 70cm silver umbrella, the dish focuses light to the ‘beauty triangle’ area of the face much more effectively. It also offers much more bite and sculpting than the Octabox 75, despite both modifiers being similar in size.

Beauty dish vs bare bulb lighting

Comparing the beauty dish (right) to a bare bulb (left).

As the tool shows, the only modifier that tops the dish for quality of light and sculpting is the parabolic reflector – a para 88 in the soft position, say. And it’s true that ever since I added paras to my collection, I have often favoured them over beauty dishes for fashion and beauty work.

That said, I’m still a big fan of the silver beauty dish. It’s affordable, it gives out beautiful light, and you can use it just as well on location as you can in the studio. For my money, it’s a modifier that every photographer should own.

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