Tutorial: Beauty Dish + Grid, the ultimate dramatic lighting

Following on from my tutorials on using strip softboxes and beauty dishes to create hard lighting, let’s move on to what is almost the ultimate hard lighting tool, a beauty dish fitted with a honeycomb grid.

I repeat what I said earlier, a beauty dish can only emphasise beauty, it has the opposite effect unless the model has youth, good bone structure, good complexion and good makeup, and even then you’ll need good retouching skills too. And the reason for that is that it creates emphasis on all the qualities of the model, but it also exaggerates any faults – so it’s a tool like any other, it works well when used with the right materials, and it isn’t right for all materials. Add a honeycomb (or grid as Americans call it) and both qualities and faults are exaggerated.

Our model here was Keira (her Purestorm profile page that we’ve linked to is NSFW) and I would say that she is pretty much ideal, because she has a good complexion and good bone structure. Even so, the photos need some retouching. But this tutorial shows the photos with no retouching at all, so that you can see what I actually got, straight from camera –  so what you’re seeing here is the base material before any retouching.

Beauty dishes are just big reflectors of the right shape, complete with a deflector in the middle, designed to prevent a hotspot in the centre and to deflect the light so that it produces a fairly large, but crisp light. A honeycomb fits to its front, and serves two distinct purposes.

  1. It concentrates the light into a smaller area, this makes the light even more directional and smaller, and so creates harder lighting
  2. It prevents lens flare when the light is pointing more or less towards the camera lens, although that isn’t what we used it for here

Lighting, as most people know, is all about creating the right kind of shadows in the right places, and to do that we need to produce a crisp light. In particular, with an attractive female model, what we’re trying to do is to draw the eye to two distinct areas, the eyes and the lips, and the beauty dish does that very well.

Most lighting tools can be used at all sorts of different angles, to get different effects, but a beauty dish is pretty much limited to being straight in front of where the model’s face is pointing, and fairly high up. I managed to get a fair few shots off, the technique is simple enough – I explain to the model the sort of look I want, and she then runs through her repertoire of poses and looks. Every time she sees the flash, she changes pose. Using the SuperFast, with instant recycling, this meant Keira was wearing herself out and I was wearing out my trigger finger 🙂

The downside of this is that her constant movement meant that she wasn’t always at the best angle, relative to the light, this means that a lot of shots end up being deleted, and in the shots where her face is tilted upwards, the beauty dish wasn’t at the ideal angle and needed to be much higher, but I’ve included some here so that you can see the various different effects that different poses have on the lighting

The power of the light reduces as it travels down

The power of the light reduces as it travels down

Positioning the beauty dish high up doesn’t just create the right shadows in the right places, it also means that we take advantage of  the Inverse Square Law – as the light travels down her body, her body gets less and less light, which again draws attention to her face, as you can see from this shot.

All of these shots were taken with our 70cm silver beauty dish. We also have them in 40cm size, and both sizes are available in white as well as silver. And other sizes are available from other manufacturers, including diddy little ones that fit onto hotshoe flashguns, but which are really too small to behave like a real beauty dish.

The silver beauty dish produces more dramatic results than the white one, but needs a model with even better skin and/or makeup, so it’s best to have a choice of beauty dishes to suit different people.



As you can see, I’ve used a black muslin background. In fact, most of the studio is black, is measures 50′ x 25′ and the ceiling is high, so with this setup there is no unwanted light bouncing around, affecting the control of my lighting. You can of course use a beauty dish (or any other tool) with any colour of background and in a much smaller  studio, but if you do, you will need to work harder than I had to, to control the lighting.


A little off centre to the light

Anyway, here are some shots, all taken in quick succession, with the beauty dish as the only light source.

In the shot above, Keira is a bit off-square to the beauty dish – not that it matters a great deal,


Another shot showing light fall off


The fill light
I added a fill light to some of the shots. What a fill light does is to add light to shadow areas, and a true fill light is known as an on axis fill – it has to be on axis to the camera lens, where it lights every part of the subject seen by the lens. Some camera magazines, and many online tutorials and videos, talk about having a key light on one side of the subject and a fill light on the other side but that’s just nonsense, because the second light ends up as being an unnatural second light, casting its own shadows, it isn’t a fill light.


With a fill light added

There is though one other place that a fill light can work; it can be directly in front of where the model is looking. This can be very effective, but I didn’t do that for these shots.

The purpose of a fill light is to stop the shadow areas from being too dark, in other words it mitigates the effect of the key light. Of course, it also reduces the drama, so sometimes it can be a good thing and sometimes it can be the opposite.

Fill light ratios
People often ask me what the ratio should be with a fill light, and frankly I don’t know because, to me, lighting to a ratio is just about as creative as painting by numbers. I believe that lighting to any ratio should be consigned to the history books, when all pro photographers had to shoot on transparency film that could only cope with a very limited range of contrast. My approach to a fill light when shooting on digital  never ever varies, I start with none at all, then I switch it on at its very lowest power and see whether I like the effect or not. If necessary, I turn it up a bit, test, turn it up a bit more and so on until I’m happy with the result – but I usually end up with very little, if any, fill.

Sometimes, I’m not sure whether I actually want a fill light or not, so I take a shot both with and without one.
The fill light can be literally any kind of flash, it doesn’t make much difference. It’s normally behind me, so it needs to be big enough for it not to matter that I’m blocking some of the light with my own body, which means that I normally use either a large softbox or an umbrella. But, for all the difference it makes, it could be a hotshoe flashgun on top of the camera – the only reason why I don’t do that is that the hotshoe is being used for the remote control/radio trigger.