beauty dish

dramatic studio lighting: using the beauty dish as a single light source

I love the forgiving nature of large light modifiers – you don’t have such precision with a huge softbox as you do with a smaller, more contrasty light modifier.  But you also have less opportunity for dramatic light, as you do with smaller light sources. In line with the idea that a smaller light = harder light = dramatic light, I wanted to create a series of portraits that had a darker, moodier feel.

Brian Calabrese, a New York portrait photographer friend of mine, met up with me in my studio, and through various iterations of how to position him, and how to place the light, we got to some stunning portraits of him.

In trying to use the beauty dish as a dual light – lighting up Brian’s features, and as spill light on the background – it took careful positioning of the light, and posing of Brian. The beauty dish was  on a Manfrotto 025BS boom (affiliate) that was on a light stand with casters. I kept the weight-end of the boom close to me so I could just reach out and adjust the light’s placement. (You can see this in the pull-back shot.)

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photographic composition – a few guidelines (but no rules!)

“There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.” – Ansel Adams

For me, if a photograph is intended for an audience, and not just my own records and memories – then its success hinges around impact. Does the photograph make you stop for a few seconds at least to take it in? Then you’re at least in part successful already with the portrait. With portraits so many elements kick in to make a photograph resonate with us: The moment. The expression. Gesture. Movement. Pose and position. Lighting.

In terms of composition, I strongly feel that one should react in an instinctive way. Look at the subject and scene and respond without the mechanical decision-making that all the rules of composition brings into play – the Rule of Thirds, diagonals, mathematical formulae, the Golden Mean, and so on.

Instead, take your time to look at what is actually presented in the viewfinder. Scan the whole frame; look at the sides and corners.

Is everything that you see, everything that you want? Is this the best way that the subject can be represented? Do you need to re-frame or move to another position?

The composition of this photograph of Anelisa can be analyzed in terms of the usual guidelines:
– negative space above her,
– the diagonal line implied by her arms,
– balanced by the S-curve to her pose,
– the vertical line by her body being (approximately) on a line of a third of the frame.

There is also the strong visual dynamic with her face more or less central to the frame, the curve of this industrial chimney structure pulls your eye towards the center.

All these things do appear in analyzing the image after-the-fact. But during the time of taking a sequence of images here, the decison wasn’t step-by-step like that. It was much more that instinctive recognition that, “hey, this looks good!

And, for me, that should be what determines the composition – does it look good, and does it add to the photograph’s impact.

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post-processing workflow: how to deal with color banding / posterization

If you’ve ever noticed banding or  posterization in your photos, where you’d expect solid colors, then there’s a relatively easy fix for it. This posterization effect appears as bands of colors, where the transitions between similar tones aren’t smooth, but have jagged edges instead.

It is caused by the 8-bit JPG not having enough data to give you a smooth gradient when large blocks of color slowly change. You’ll often see it in the blue sky in landscapes, or as in this case, with large areas of color in the background. Actually, the image above doesn’t show this – I fixed it. Here’s how.

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studio photography: low-key lighting – vintage portrait – Randy

Randy has a look reminiscent of Ava Gardner, so I asked her to be a subject for my book on Portrait photography. I wanted to create a portrait of Randy in the Hollywood Glamor style of lighting, similar to the vintage styled boudoir photo session (with Olena). And it looked great! But while I had someone so photogenic and with such dramatic styling, I wanted to take further photos of Randy, and she happily indulged me.

For one of the setups, I wanted to explore again using the Profoto beauty dish (vendor) as a single light source. As mentioned in a previous article – thoughts on using a beauty dish – a beauty dish is best used with a grid to contain the light spill. This does mean a beauty dish has to be used in a specific way – close up to your subject, and with specific posing. Without additional light from other light sources to give fill-light, a beauty dish can be fairly challenging as a single light source.

I wanted a low-key look, so I used a dark grey backdrop, and worked well ahead of it so that the light from the main light (beauty dish) had very little effect. (The Inverse Square Law helps here with the non-linear light fall-off to the background.) But to not have Randy’s dark hair melt away into a black background, it needed a hair-light of some kind. I set up a gridded Profoto RFi 1’×3′ softbox (vendor) behind her light from the back (and above).

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thoughts on using a beauty dish as a single light source

A beauty dish is one of those light modifiers that sound attractive just by name already. And when photographers start exploring other options than direct off-camera flash and umbrellas or a softbox, a beauty dish is usually one of the first alternate light modifiers that catches attention. Mine too. Right after I bought my first Profoto kit, I purchased a beauty dish for it and started exploring using a beauty dish.

A beauty dish is ideally used at a closer distance for portraits, with the light “focused” on the face, creating a gradient where the light rapidly falls off between the lighter and darker areas – yet looks soft where the light is focused. But there’s more to it than that – a beauty dish is best used with a grid to help control the light. Or used with a sock, but then the beauty dish acts very much like a round softbox, and some of its specific qualities are lost.

Quite a few of the softbox options for speedlights offer a way to create a beauty dish-like effect. An example is the Westcott Rapidbox – 26′ Octa Softbox (vendor), as mentioned in the review: Westcott Rapid Box 26″ Octa Softbox. You can take the front diffuser off and add the Westcott 2030-DP Deflector Plate (vendor), turning it into a beauty dish of sorts. But the same limitations appear.

Looking at the portrait of David above, you’ll notice a semi-circular band of light to the left. This is because, even though the light from the beauty-dish-ified softbox focuses light on him, there is light that spills from the edge of the speedlight. The detail photo of the Westcott RapidBox will explain it better …

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My daughter, Janine.  She turned 16 in September, and I have so very few recent images of her.  None of which are of professional quality.  So I cajoled her into this, since we’re snowed in this afternoon ..  and she loved the results. “Facebook profile photo FTW!”

portrait session, using a beauty dish

The image is straight out of camera, aside from healing brush on a few skin blemishes.  This is how I had set up my B&W images to look in my Nikon D3 bodies.  I still shoot RAW though, so could always go back to the color image.  But I like these rich-toned B&W images.

A little more about the lighting:
The main light was  with the Profoto beauty dish (B&H), using the Profoto AcuteB 600R power pack (B&H). I used a diffuser sock (B&H) over the beauty dish.  The light on the grey backdrop is a Quantum flash, with the usual Q-flash diffuser disc over it .. pointed directly at the backdrop.

The sock over the beauty dish really helps me. It brings in more light into the shadow areas in how it disperses the light differently from the open beauty dish.  I’ve read elsewhere that with a sock over the beauty dish you’re essentially no better off than using a softbox of the same size … but I still prefer the look of the ‘socked’ beauty dish over the ‘unsocked’ beauty dish.

1/200 @ f10 @ 200 ISO
Nikon D3;
Nikon 105mm f2.8 AF-S VR (B&H)