Beauty Dish Photography: The Essential Guide (+ 5 Lighting Setups)

by John Stapel

A Post By: Gary Detonnancourt

Beauty dish photography (+ 5 lighting setups)

The beauty dish is one of my absolute favorite light modifiers – but it can be intimidating for beginners, and can even confuse serious portrait shooters.

That’s why, in this article, I share everything you need to know about beauty dish photography, from the lighting basics all the way to my favorite setups. I also explain when it makes sense to use a beauty dish versus a softbox, so if you’re not sure which way to go, I should be able to help you out.

Let’s get started!

What is a beauty dish?

A beauty dish is a circular lighting modifier with an opaque center, like this:

beauty dish example

Like most lighting modifiers, you can combine a beauty dish with a studio strobe or speedlight. Note that a beauty dish blocks light in the center of the strobe and reflects it around the entire dish; this ensures a relatively hard, focused beam of light, though it’s softer than, say, a scrim, a softbox, or an umbrella. Beauty dishes are generally reserved for portraits, for reasons I explain in the next section.

You can buy beauty dishes for most lights, and they’re usually less expensive than other modifiers – but if you don’t want to spend extra money, consider creating a DIY beauty dish (many plans exist online, and I’ve actually made them out of aluminum turkey pans!).

Why are beauty dishes useful?

Beauty dishes are popular in the fashion industry, generally for head-and-shoulders portraits that highlight makeup and hair. Because beauty dish lighting is relatively hard, you can sculpt the subject’s face and show texture in their skin, but without straying into bare-flash territory. Plus, the light falloff is quite rapid, which allows you to emphasize facial features and deemphasize surroundings.

Also, beauty dishes produce stunning catchlights in the eyes (beautiful, circular highlights that draw the viewer into the portrait), and they produce nice shadows under the jaw line.

Beauty dishes are versatile, too; you can change the quality of the light by selecting a dish with a silver or white inner surface (the white surface will reduce specular highlights on the subject’s face). You can also control the spill of light with a grid and further soften the light by adding a sock over the front, like this:

beauty dish with a sock

Beauty dish vs softbox: which should you use?

If you’re just getting started with studio portrait photography, you might be struggling to decide between a beauty dish and a softbox. While both these lighting modifiers work great, they do come with several significant differences, so it’s worth carefully considering your options.

As I explained above, beauty dishes are primarily used for portrait photography, especially fashion. So if you’re hoping to shoot still life photos, product photos, or even studio pet photos in addition to standard portrait shots, a softbox is the better buy.

Softboxes are also great for achieving a softer, flattering look – so they’re perfect if you’re hoping to get that “diffused window” effect that portrait photographers love.

Plus, you can buy huge softboxes, which are great for group shots (beauty dishes vary in size, but they never go that big).

On the other hand, the beauty dish look is harder and sculpted, so if you want intense portraits, a beauty dish will serve you well.

Beauty dish photography: getting started

So you’ve decided to use a beauty dish – and maybe even purchased one. What now? How should you proceed?

First, I’d suggest you only use a beauty dish setup on clients or models with very good skin, because the harder lighting can show off imperfections like wrinkles and blemishes. It’s also helpful to find a good makeup and hair artist since you’ll likely be showing off the subject’s face in detail.

(Pro tip: If you want to use a makeup artist but aren’t ready to pay for this service, offer them a trade: makeup in return for professional images, which they can use to expand their portfolios.)

beauty dish portrait

As for the technical details: I’d recommend a lens in the 85-200mm range so you can zoom in for tight headshots. In general, it makes sense to use an aperture of around f/8 to f/11 and an ISO of 100, then adjust the lighting power to achieve the right exposure. I would also recommend using a boom arm, which will help you put the beauty dish in just the right spot without getting in the way of your shot (though beginners can certainly get started with a conventional light stand).

The beauty dish will give you very nice light on your subject’s face, so get that set up first. Then go ahead and add additional lights, if you have them: a rim light behind your subject, a hair light above your subject, and/or a background light to separate the subject from the background.

Below, I share five specific beauty dish lighting setups to get you taking gorgeous images in no time at all:

1. One light with a reflector

This setup, also known as clamshell lighting , is the most typical way to do a beauty-dish photo. Start by positioning your beauty dish right above the subject’s face and point it down slightly, so the center of the dish is aimed at the subject’s forehead, right between the eyes.

The dish should be close enough to your subject to produce soft light, generally within two to four feet. When you set this up, make sure you can see catchlights in the top of your subject’s eyes (try taking a test shot or two and zooming in on your LCD).

Next, add a reflector under the chin to bounce light back up into the subject’s face. This will help minimize shadows under the chin and will add a catchlight at the bottom of the eyes. Note that you’ll need to put your camera between the beauty dish and the reflector, which might take a bit of finesse. Also, to adjust the amount of fill light, you’ll need to push the reflector closer or pull it away.

Some photographers like to add black cards on either side of the subject to create shadows on the sides of the face, but this is optional. And for a more sophisticated effect, try adding a background light or a rim light to make your subject stand out.

Beautydish 1 2 Beautydish 2 2

2. Two lights in a clamshell pattern

This lighting setup is similar to the clamshell pattern I shared above, except you use a strobe in place of the reflector. So add your beauty dish above the subject pointing down, then position the strobe below the subject pointing up.

What’s the benefit of this setup versus number one? A strobe lets you control the fill light power, which makes filling in shadows much easier. I prefer to use a strip box as fill (set one or two stops darker than the main light).

Beautydish 7b Beautydish 8

3. Add a sock over the beauty dish

A sock is a piece of diffusion material that looks like a shower cap (see the image in the Why are beauty dishes useful section above), and it goes directly over the beauty dish. This softens the light on the subject’s face, and if you are getting shiny spots, it will reduce the specularity of the light.

While a naked beauty dish produces sculpted light, a sock will produce a creamy look with less skin texture, like this:

black and white portrait taken with a beauty dish

Note that the goal here is to create either of the clamshell setups I shared above, but with the added sock.

4. Add a grid to the beauty dish

Here’s another method of modifying the beauty dish clamshell setups:

Set your beauty dish above the subject, then add a grid, as shown below.

beauty dish with a grid

The grid will focus the beam into more of a spotlight pattern, which can be used to create some interesting effects. Just make sure the grid is pointed directly at the subject, or the light pattern will not strike the face correctly. (The easiest way to check this? Ask the subject if they can see directly through the grid to the light source.)

5. Head outdoors

The beauty dish is a great portable light modifier because it’s more compact than a softbox, and it won’t catch the wind like an umbrella.

Depending on the power of your lights, you can use a beauty dish as a main light or fill light. Feel free to use the straight-down positioning I recommended above, though you can also set it up at a 45-degree angle, like you might use a softbox.

When the light conditions are warm – such as around sunrise or sunset – you may want to add a color temperature orange gel over the beauty dish to help blend the strobe with the sunlight.

woman in the water outdoor beauty dish photography

Beauty dish photography: final words

Hopefully, you can now confidently use a beauty dish. They’re powerful lighting tools, and the effect is amazing.

So if you haven’t already, go out and buy (or make!) a beauty dish. And then do a photoshoot! I guarantee you’ll get some beautiful shots.

Now over to you:

How do you plan to use a beauty dish in your next photoshoot? Which beauty dish do you plan to buy? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

woman with beauty dish lighting
Beauty Dish Photography: The Essential Guide (+ 5 Lighting Setups)

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