Tutorial: Lighting a sexy woman using a beauty dish

So, we did a simple shoot at the Lencarta studio, using a beauty dish.
While we were at it, we also did one using the same beauty dish but with a honeycomb grid added and we’re going to publish a tutorial on that shoot too.

Back to the beauty dish…
“Beauty Dish” is a good marketing name, but it can be a bit of a misomer, because although it can work very well on the right model, when used with the wrong model it should really be called an “Ugly Dish” 🙂
And the reason for that is that it creates emphasis on all the qualities of the model, but it also exaggerates any faults, in terms of poor complexion or poor bone structure too – 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.

bd_059Our 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 a bit of retouching because the beauty dish shows every mark.

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.

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. The fact that the beauty dish also emphasises her other important points is of course pure coincidence 🙂

Many women spend a lot of both time and money on eye makeup, to make their eyes look larger, and on their lips, to make them bigger and to draw the eye, so it often makes sense to use a beauty dish to enhance both the eyes and the lips. And many of them “paint in” their cheekbones too.


Uncropped test shot

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.

Having it high puts the catchlights in the top of the eye, making the eyes look larger, and it creates a natural shadow under the cheekbones, which the effect that adds that “wow” factor, and getting it straight means that the shadows are balanced and that the all-important little shadow under the bottom lip is in the right place, and properly balanced. This photo (uncropped test shot) shows the position I used for the Beauty Dish. It may be closer, and higher, than you expected…

bd_004Sometimes though, when arranging the beauty dish to bring out the best qualities of the face, we place it too high for the catchlights to actually show. So what? They’re easy enough to add in PP. I haven’t added any catchlights to these photos, because I like to show the photos as they are.

Another benefit of the height here is that the Inverse Square Law is our friend – as the light travels down her body, her body gets less and less light, which again draws attention to her face.

It’s a simple process to light someone to show the unique qualities of their face – why then do so many “photographers” just shoot without any lighting at all, and then try to correct their poor work in Photoshop, painting in the shadows and emphasis that they could so easily have got right in camera? And don’t they realise that people and light are 3 dimensional but that a computer monitor is 2 dimensional, so it’s actually almost impossible to make a good job of this in post production?

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 better skin, 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.

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 🙂

A few of the shots that didn't go straight to the recycle bin

A few of the shots that didn’t go straight to the recycle bin

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, but it’s still the best way of getting dynamic shots. It’s the method that fashion photographers have used for almost ever and back in the days when I used my Mamiya RZ67, with just 10 shots to a roll of film, I had to have 2 assistants constantly loading film backs – it’s the same technique, it’s just easier and cheaper now that I only need to change a memory card 🙂

bd_059The 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.

There is though one other place that a fill light can work; it can be directly in front of where the model is looking.

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.

The hairlight
I took some shots with Keira almost in profile too, with the beauty dish moved to the side so that she was facing pretty much straight on to it, so that again it would 006_wipproduce those all-important shadows in the right places. And I added a hairlight too, so let’s talk about that…

Now, there’s no such thing as a right or wrong tool for a hairlight, it can be anything from a really tight honeycomb grid (to put a very small area of light exactly where it’s wanted and nowhere else) through to an umbrella, to light the whole area, or an umbrella partially collapsed and held in position by that useful, high-tec bit of gear known as a clothes peg, so that it lights a smaller area and lights it less evenly. For these shots, I used a high intensity reflector fitted with a honeycomb, the honeycomb was essential to control both the spread of light and to prevent lens flare. As you can see, the hairlight has wandered into areas of her face, arm etc that weren’t intended, because of the movement involved. That would be a problem with a portrait but this isn’t a portrait and personally I think it’s OK.

How bright should the hairlight be? Well, you’ll find a lot of misinformation on the web about that, I find it best just to set it to whatever power produces the effect I want.

Again, if this had been a portrait then maybe just a touch of light, to add a slight sheen, would have been enough, but I wanted a bit more drama.

And it depends on the hair too; a natural blond has much finer hair, and about twice as many hairs, as a brunette. Like Penny in “The Big Bang Theory”, this has been Keira’s natural colour for a long time 🙂 but her hair is still thicker than that of a natural blond so needs more light to produce a given effect – you think that brunettes need a lot of light? just try hairlighting someone with afro hair, it needs many times as much 🙂

A hairlight is, in effect, also a backlight, it helps to make the image pop but also shows all the stray hairs. I could have retouched them out but I decided to leave them in, after all this is a tutorial and I want you to see the shots as they really are.

Did you notice that the hair is flowing backwards? That’s caused by the fan that I used, low down and pointing upwards and backwards. This fan does a good job of blowing the hair in a controlled way, due to the fact that, unlike an ordinary fan, the action is a bit like a water pump, and so pushes the air in a straight line, instead of just swirling it around in the way that ordinary fans do. It would be good if Lencarta could sell them, but they fall a long way short of EU safety standards, we had to get ours completely re-wired before we were happy to use it.


Next in the series: Using the beauty dish with a honeycomb