Of all the light modifiers in my toolbox, the one I reach for most frequently (by far) is a beauty dish. It wasn't always this way, but through lots of experimentation over the years shooting bands & musicians, I've come to the conclusion that a beauty dish is often the best tool for the job. Why, you ask? Let’s take a closer look…
Reason #1 - It's Essential to My Standard 3-light Setup
If you've had a chance to look through my portfolio, you may have noticed that I frequently use a 3-light setup—especially when shooting for composites. I do this for two main reasons: (1) it sets the stage for me to be able to bring out the maximum amount of texture, detail, and contrast once I get to the post-production phase, and (2) it makes my subjects easier to extract from the original studio background.
Over time, I’ve tried replacing my beauty dish with softboxes, gridded strobes, reflectors, and even bare bulb strobes as the key light in my 3-light setup, but in the end, I keep coming back to the beauty dish. The main reason for this is the unique way its light always seems to fit perfectly into the “pocket” created by the harder edge lights. Once I get into Photoshop, I can further enhance this effect, and I end up with an image that has a punchy, hi-def kind of appearance.
Honestly, it’s really hard to explain in words why it works so well. Instead, I’ll point to a few examples from my portfolio where a beauty dish was used in conjunction with two edge lights to produce the “high-def” sort of effect I’m referring to:
Reason #2 -Its Falloff and Spill Can Be Tightly Controlled
The light you get from a beauty dish has both a softness and dimensionality that you just can’t replicate with other modifiers. Of course, it’s not as soft as an umbrella or softbox, but that’s perfectly okay— oftentimes I’m looking to do something a little more interesting than just bathe my subject(s) in soft light.
Sometimes I want to add a bit more drama, either by increasing the hardness and contrast of the main light, or controlling the falloff (a.k.a. feathering) at its edges. Fortunately, both of these scenarios are quite easy to pull off with a beauty dish. To make the light harder, you can simply increase the distance between your strobe and the subject(s); to control the falloff, you can either tilt the beauty dish at an angle to feather the light, or simply add a grid.
Here are a couple of examples where I amped up the drama by throwing a grid on my beauty dish:
Reason #3 - It's Relatively Inexpensive
This one is pretty much self-explanatory. You can find beauty dishes on eBay or Amazon for as little as $30 (see for yourself). Or if you’re on a really tight budget (or just enjoy working with your hands), there are plenty of DIY tutorials out there to make beauty dishes to fit every kind of strobe imaginable (even speedlites).
Reason #4 - It's Light and Fairly Compact
If you’ve ever ventured outside the studio to shoot on location, then you're already painfully familiar with the hassles of packing up and transporting lighting gear. From stands to battery packs to modifiers, there's lots to carry around and set up. Fortunately, beauty dishes are very light, and they don’t take up a ton of space.
That said, their somewhat awkward shape can make them a bit of challenge to fit inside standard carrying cases. To get around this, you can purchase special beauty dish cases like this one from B&H for around $45. Or better yet, around Christmastime you can pick up wreath cases for under $20 that will work perfectly (as suggested by David Hobby on the Strobist blog).
Reason #5 - Two Words: Wind Resistance
For me, this one is huge. If you've ever experienced the horror of a $2000 ProFoto head being knocked over by a gust of wind, then you know exactly what I'm talking about. In fact, one of the original reasons I began using a beauty dish for outdoor band portraits in the first place was its relative wind resistance vs. softboxes and [especially] umbrellas.
Obviously, there comes a point where you shouldn't be taking any lighting equipment outdoors for fear of things getting knocked over. But in my experience, beauty dishes have performed admirably in slightly windy conditions (with sufficiently weighted light stands, of course).
As I alluded to before, if you detect even the slightest breeze, don't even THINK about pulling an umbrella out of your bag. The fact that they're shaped roughly like parachutes should be enough of a hint, but if not, here's a visual aid:
Image credit: wikipedia.org
So there you have it...my top 5 reasons for choosing a beauty dish for band photography. Hopefully I've made a strong enough case for you to try one out (if you haven't already). Either way, sound off with a comment below and let me know your thoughts!