Beauty Dish Portrait Lighting Tutorial

A beauty dish creates harsh, directional light. It doesn’t actually produce beautiful light. And yet it’s called a beauty dish! I you haven’t yet mastered how to consistently create good light, a beauty dish will only accentuate your lack of knowledge and your subject’s skin flaws. So when and how should you use a beauty dish? Joe Edelman explains (and shows you how to make your own):

Beauty Dish Facts

  • Beauty dishes don’t soften light by diffusing it. Instead, they reflect light.
  • They don’t produce beautiful light.
  • They produce harsh light.
  • They accentuate skin flaws.
  • They can be unforgiving if you don’t know what you’re doing.
  • Beauty dishes can be used with modifiers.

A beauty dish is essentially a parabolic reflector with a flash mounted in the middle and a plate that covers the flash head. When the flash fires, light is reflected off the plate then off the sides of the reflector and out the front. The light is, thus, extremely directional.

Beauty dishes are best for producing directional, semi-harsh light without a hotspot in the middle. Which is why they are a favorite with portrait photographers. Here is a comparison of the light produced by different modifiers.

Bare Flash

Here is the gradual light fall off of a bare flash unit. The hotspot in the middle of the wall is quite evident, too.

light fall-off from a bare flash


Compared to it here is the same light but with a medium softbox. The center part of the wall is uniformly lit. But the light fall-off is still there, albeit gradual.

light fall off from a medium softbox

Beauty Dish

Finally, here is the result shot with a beauty dish. The light fall off is rapid. Which suggests that the light is more focused (and directional).

light fall off from a beauty dish

Beauty dishes come in different sizes and different finishes. There is one with a silver finish, which is harsher and more difficult to control. If you don’t like it, opt for a white finish. The shot above was taken with a silver interior.

They also come in different qualities and therefore prices. Some companies also make collapsible (umbrella type) beauty dishes, which are easy to set up and move when not in use.

different types of beauty dishes

Beauty Dish Modifiers

There are different modifiers which you can use with your beauty dish. A Sock (pictured below) wraps over the beauty dish and softens the quality of the light.

modifiers for beauty dish

Beauty Dish Sock

If you need the exact opposite—more directional light—use a honeycomb grid.

honeycomb grid for beauty dish

Beauty Dish Grid

Be aware, though, that a grid will cut some light and that means you will need to raise your exposure to compensate.

Watch the rest of the video for more insight on how to place your beauty dish for a great portrait. Edelman also explains how you can create your very own DIY beauty dish with a $6 shoot-through umbrella and a piece of black foam core.

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